There is a time to worry, and there’s a time to let go and go with it.
The competition is too late. All of the touches that you lost along the way to get to this bout, all of the phrases your opponent wins, it’s not the time to think about them now. Part of being a great athlete is trusting yourself and your coaches when the moment comes because that’s the only way that you can really be in the moment against your opponent.
The weight of all that came before
Right now, I want you to stop and take a moment to think about all of the mistakes that you made in the last week. Maybe you forgot to close the back door and the dog got out, so you had to run through the neighborhood and go catch her. Maybe you forgot to pack your lunch and realized it in the middle of the day, so you had to scramble to find something to eat.
Take a moment and think back through yours. If you’re like everyone else, you’ve made a ton of little mistakes in the last seven days, and maybe even a few big ones as well. You’ll probably notice that it makes you feel heavier and less sure of yourself when you think back about the time you wasted and the people who had to accommodate you when you made all of those mistakes.
Now, imagine that those mistakes were something that you didn’t let go of. You just kept going over them in your mind, again and again. If you went around and around about the things that you didn’t do right, could you ever do anything else? How would that affect your ability to do other things?
Obsessing about what we did or didn’t prepare puts a weight on our minds. It steals away our focus and keeps us from enjoying where we are. Those feelings of inadequacy tend to grow, becoming heavier and heavier. It’s something that we don’t need to carry with us in everyday life.
It’s not normal for us to carry the constant weight of every little thing we’ve done wrong with us in our daily life. We tell people to stand up, dust off, and move on. Yet, somehow, we see fencers so often carrying the weight of their mistakes in training with them into competition and think that it’s ok. It’s not! Just as it’s so counterproductive to go to school or work with all of the worry about past mistakes, so too is it counterproductive to do that in a fencing competition. Fencing competition is definitely not the right time to worry about all your previous mistakes.
When is the time to worry that there’s something wrong?
The time to worry it the training. There’s good reason for this – when you worry in training, you have the opportunity to actually do something about it. You can change the course of your learning through different practice methods, or you can choose to put more hours into the process to get more out of it for yourself.
In training is when you should think about all of your mistakes and your inconsistencies. Unlike when you feel the weight of all of your mistakes in competition, where you can’t do anything about it and so carry that heavy burden, in training you can take the giant bundle apart and make sense of it. You’re not so much being crushed by this load of misgivings as you are picking it apart and figuring out why it’s so heavy to begin with.
It all feels so fundamentally different in training than it does on tournament day because those feelings of inadequacy are actually productive when we pull them out during training. By the time you get to competition, it can feel like you’re suffocating under the weight of all of those things you see going wrong in your fencing. When you’re in training, you’re learning to swim so that you can breathe again.
A nurturing training environment matters
This is where the personal relationships that you build with your coach and your teammates come into play. Your training environment has to feel like a safe place in order for you to be comfortable enough to share your emotional reality. Talk to your coach about your concerns. Ask them why you’re not succeeding, not when you get to the direct elimination, but when you’re at the club doing practice bouts.
By the time you get to a tournament, you’re already facing a level of anxiety and stress. The training environment should be a place to open up that pressure valve so that it’s not so overwhelming on the big day.
Your fencing club and your coach should be a safe place for you to talk about these things. This is part of building a strong mental attitude that will carry you through the mental and emotional rigors of competition, especially as you go further in competition.
Though the emotions of anxiety and fear surrounding your performance in competition are ethereal, the preparation that you make to combat those emotions is very concrete. Action is what will give you peace of mind. That action has to come with a plan, and it has to come within and environment that encourages you to make a plan.
Long before you step into the competition venue, you’ll know that your footwork is not where it should be or that your blade speed isn’t as accurate as it needs to be. These aren’t surprises that show up when you step onto the strip against your opponent. The real question then becomes, what was holding you back from addressing those issues? It might have been other activities that kept you from extra training, or that you were focused on other skills, or it could be that you had plenty of time to train, but that you were distracted and didn’t get everything you needed.
If you’re experiencing any and or all of these things, talk to your coach. Let them help you. Let them guide you. This is what they’re there for.
Letting go and going with the flow
Fencing competition is the time to let go and flow with what’s happening. Whatever preparation you’ve done is done, so there is no point in worrying about what you should or shouldn’t have done to prepare for this moment.
In fact, when you worry about whether you trained well or ate well or did enough cross-training in the weeks and months leading up to a competition, you’re actually handicapping yourself. The worrying is something to worry about!
The trick is that you can actually control the worry when you’re at a competition. Where you can’t control how much you prepared, whether you took enough private lessons or watched enough videos, you can absolutely have control over the amount of worry that you bring with you into the competition.
This is something that we talk about all of the time in sports. It’s called getting in the zone, finding the flow, turning on, being in the moment, etc., but it all means the same thing. When you’re a fencer in competition on the strip, that moment is the only thing that can matter. To perform at your best, you have to be in the moment.
You can’t be in the moment if you’re worried about the preparation you did or didn’t do. Competition is not the right time to worry. That piece of your brain needs to be focused on your physicality and meeting your opponent. If you’re eating up a chunk of your mental capacity with worry, that’s something you should worry about.
Worrying and throwing little tantrums at yourself at a tournament is fundamentally counterproductive. Worrying during training? That can be an effective way to get you to your fencing goals.