Though you’ll have a wide variety of experiences with a wide variety of opponents, it’s possible to gain a deeper understanding of those opponents with just a little bit of extra thought and analysis. No matter what level a fencer is, they can always learn something from whatever opponent they meet.
Three kinds of fencing opponents
When we look deeper into what our opponents in fencing really are all about, we find that there are three very distinct kinds of fencers that you’ll meet. Every single fencer that you come across will fall into one of these three categories without fail. These are:
- Fencers who are as good as you are.
- Fencers who are better than you.
- Fencers who are worse than you.
This does not mean that you will win against every fencer who is worse than you, that you will lose against every fencer who is better than you, or that you will have a close score with every fencer who is on the same level as you. A great fencer can have a tough day and lose to a novice who is having a great day.
1. Weaker fencing opponents
When you fence against someone who is not as skilled as you are, it gives you the opportunity to take risks that you would not normally take if you were up against a much better opponent. For instance, you might try a new kind of footwork that you’ve been working on with your coach in private lessons. Maybe you saw a fencer working at a different angle in a fencing video on YouTube and want to see if it works for you. Whatever that thing is that you haven’t been doing, here’s the place to test it out.
In fact, you might even think of fencing a weaker opponent as being a sandbox that you can build any kind of technique in. It’s hard not to think of a cat who is playing with a mouse, but that analogy is perhaps sometimes apropos for this situation. The cat learns to be a better hunter because they are seeing how their prey is reacting to various means of attack.
The other dimension to fencing a weaker opponent is the boost that it can give your self-esteem. Yes, you’ll be keenly aware that those touches are easier for you to get with this opponent than with a more seasoned competitor, but there is always a thrill when the score lights up in your favor. It’s something visceral that registers deep in your brain, no matter the context. That little pick-me-up is especially important if you’ve been experiencing a slump lately. Confidence is a game-changer for performance, and we all need to take it where we can get it.
Without the strict focus on keeping your head down and trying desperately to win, a fencer can let loose against a weaker opponent. We talk about looking for the “flow” or the “zone” in fencing and in all sports. It’s that magical place where your brain and body click together and you are at your peak of performance. Finding that place is sometimes easier against a weaker opponent who doesn’t put the pressure on you in such a rigorous way.
2. Stronger fencing opponents
On the opposite side of the spectrum are stronger opponents. Though they seem to be totally different, there is actually a similarity here because you feel like the outcome is predetermined.
To make the most of this situation, you have to let go of the notion that it’s not worth your effort. You may feel ahead of time that you won’t win the match, and do you know what that means? It means you have no reason to fear losing. There should be freedom in this kind of match when you get over the feeling of being intimidated. Fence with vigor and aggression! Go for it in a big way, because the outcome is only determined by your ability to be in the flow. The worst case scenario is that you will lose, which also might be expected. The best case scenario is that you will win big! We have seen so many upsets in fencing, where it’s assumed that one fencer has the total advantage, only to get to the end of the match and have the supposed weaker fencer get the higher score.
There can be a palpable excitement that comes with fencing against someone who you know is better than you are. Every single touch becomes a whole victory. If you manage to beat back one of their attempts, it feels wonderful! Blow-outs are rare in fencing, so the odds are that you will get at least a point or two, even if your opponent gets you by a high margin.
The most important point here is that a stronger fencer will bring out your best fencing. You have to challenge yourself in order to meet the skill that they come to the strip with. After the fencing match is over, you now have lots of motivation to go and train harder so that you can do better next time against them.
3. Equally skilled fencing opponents
In the case of fencing against an equally skilled opponent, the fencer who wins will be the fencer who is mentally tougher and more focused.
This is truly the best way to fence if you are to learn and grow because it’s got a little bit of both the advantages of fencing a weaker opponent and of fencing a stronger opponent. You’ll have moments when you can blast through and get lots of points, then other moments when you’ll have your opponent come at you headlong and you can’t return their efforts.
What is most challenging with an equally skilled opponent is the stalemate aspect. You’re matching each other’s points and each other’s parries, and it can be frustrating not to be able to push the match one way or the other. No one likes a tie! That back and forth aspect should drive you to think holistically about the match. It doesn’t matter who is leading in the middle, it matters who is leading at the end. There is this chance to level yourself up right there so that you can be the one with the most points at the end.
In that case the fencers push the other so that each of them can grow. There can become a one-upsmanship with this kind of match, particularly if it’s something that happens repeatedly. That’s a wonderful thing for everyone involved because it gives extra incentive to improve. You are not fencing for some faceless medal or some unknown potential college that is far down the road, you are fencing to beat an opponent who you know you can win against if you only try hard enough.
We see fencers who start out as evenly matched opponents in Y10 at a local tournament follow all the way through tournaments together until they are Cadets or Juniors meeting at Fencing Summer Nationals. Those evenly matched opponents can become closely bonded to you over time, and this is one of the unsung connections in sport! We tend to think of fencing as a sport that’s all about the opponents, but in truth there isn’t that much animosity there. In fact, foes in fencing can often become our allies in growing through the sport.
There is value in facing each of these kinds of opponents because they offer you unique challenges and opportunities for developing your skill. Every match, every touch, every piece of footwork, is a way forward that helps you to become the best version of your fencing self.