In the center of the parking lot at our fencing club in Sunnyvale, there’s a cement sidewalk that’s about two and a half feet wide, separating the neatly parked rows of cars, a sort of thin line in the middle of the wide asphalt area.
If I were to take one of our fencing classes out into the parking lot and ask them to run up and down that strip of concrete, they’d jump up and go do it easily. In fact, during the height of the pandemic when we were doing a lot of outside practice, fencers were constantly up and down that path. It’s a no-brainer for them to run down this path.
Now, imagine that I took them up onto the roof of a building, just three stories up, not super high, but well off the ground at twenty-five feet or so. At the edge of the building, I show them a path that’s exactly the same width as the one they’ve just been running up and down. It’s sturdy and not wobbling, but there are no railings and they can see straight down to the ground. Will they charge across it, stomping their feet and laughing like they do at the club? Three stories is pretty high, and if they fell they’d certainly get injured. Many of them might walk across, but they’ll be slow and steady. Their parents would surely have something to say about it.
What if we went much higher? Say we went ten times as high, 300 feet and twenty-five stories into the sky. How many would walk across the path at all? Who would even get close to the edge to start? The stakes are suddenly much higher, and it’s almost guaranteed that no one is going out there.
The kid’s running skills are the same – those didn’t change at all. They haven’t suddenly “forgotten” how to move their legs. The length is the same, the path is the same. What changed in the environment and circumstances, as well as the price of error. Now, there is a steep penalty for a mistake. Every misstep is now severely punishable.
Suddenly, their minds play out different scenarios and their imagination calculates everything that could possibly go wrong. Each step is frozen in place.
Competition is like crossing over the thin line twenty-five stories up
Fencing competition is exactly the same way. It’s like being twenty-five stories up and looking down to the ground below.
These fencers have been on the same style strip, working the same movements, often against higher-level opponents from the club who are going to win against them every time. They’ve won and lost in so many situations in the club, just the same as they’ll win and lose in the competition. What’s different?
The stakes are different! It’s like they are suddenly twenty-five feet or twenty-five stories up on the sidewalk. Of course, the price of a mistake is not sudden death (even though we do have that term in fencing!). The price is the elimination, which for some fencers can feel like the end of the world.
For some fencers, the adrenaline is a positive support for their performance. They feel a rush of the thrill when they are in competition from the very beginning. Others don’t even recognize the difference and feel that crossing up high is the same as crossing on the ground. For some though, the height causes them to freeze completely and forget their training.
Competition is patently different than class or private lessons. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing in the long run, but often is starts out that way.
Underperforming is about mindset
Not long ago, a parent came to me to talk about his son. The young man was a very good fencer, who had worked hard to develop a great set of skills. He consistently displayed those skills in the club, but he often underperformed in competition.
This was the case even in “his” bouts, where he was much more experienced and adept than his opponent. He should have won handily, but something held him back every time.
“What set of skills is he missing? Is his lunge long enough? Is his fleche fast enough?” the father asked me.
I told him that the only thing his son needed was more competitive experience. He needed to train to be able to perform under the stress of the competition when the stakes were higher than they are in class or open bouting. It’s not just a matter of honing the physical skills of fencing, it’s a matter of retraining the mindset.
Particularly in a healthy, supportive club, there are very few stakes in a bout during class or open bouting. There’s just not a lot riding on the outcome. If you lose, everyone will tell you that you did this thing well or that thing well. You got a point! You improved over the last time! This frees the mind to focus on the skills and to enjoy the fencing.
In competition, the opponents are cordial, but the environment is unforgiving. Though we always look for positive things, even in loss in competitive situations, the reality is that there are real ramifications for losing. Going out in the DE means you’re done with the competition. Not getting the point can be the difference between the podium and the audience. Depending on the nature of the competition, young people can start to feel like this match is the thing that will get them into that high-level school, get them that scholarship, or get them closer to their Olympic dream. So much is riding on their performance, definitely in their own minds!
How do they learn to cross the path at twenty-five stories up? The only way to do it is by trying, with an open mind and a focused heart. This doesn’t happen all at once. They start out by crawling across, knees bent and body close to the path. Maybe some guard rails go up or a net goes beneath them. They are then able to walk the path with a feeling of safety.
Step by step, they practice going across the path. From crawling to semi-crawling, to walking, to running. Over time, they’ll be able to run the path with the same amount of confidence when it’s very high up as they do when it’s in the parking lot.
This is what happens in competition. The fencer has to just go and go, with the support of people around them to help them deal with the nerves until they feel stronger. They’ll lose and they’ll win, they’ll encounter lots of different situations along the way. With practice, they’ll become accustomed to the feeling and realize that they won’t fall down when they go as hard as they thought they’ll do.
It’s about becoming increasingly comfortable in competition. Learn to walk on the thin line like a pro, with lots of comfort and without fear.