We’ve all had the experience of being nervous before an event that we needed to perform well in, whether in school or in sports. That feeling of butterflies in the stomach, a soup of jitters and self doubt, it can feel overwhelming and stressful, especially for young fencers.
Many fencing parents come to us with these kinds of concerns, and they’re completely normal. They have things to say like this:
- “It seems like my son psyches himself out before he even steps onto the strip! What can I do to help him?”
- “My daughter gets so nervous on competition day that I have to force her to eat something for breakfast. How can I help her calm down so she can stay healthy?”
- “This season my child seems even more nervous than he did last season, isn’t this supposed to get better with experience?”
It’s not just parents though, older fencers come in and speak up for themselves as well. Nerves are a factor for athletes at any age and of any experience level. The good news is that there are ways to combat the issues that fencers have with anxiety before a competition. Though they may manifest in different ways, from a lack of appetite to a sudden spike in anxiety after a couple of years of confident fencing. Every fencer is different, but pre-match jitters are pretty well universal.
Fear – False Evidence Appearing Real
Whatever an athlete is facing in a tournament, it’s never as bad as it seems. Levels of anxiety increase when they go unchecked, and eventually they can lead fencers to want to quit the sport (we’ve seen it happen!). Before it gets that far, we can nip it in the bud and make those feelings work in favor of fencers.
Fencers can use sports psychology methods to not only reduce the amount of fear that they experience during matches, but in fact to transform it into a mental toughness toolkit that will work not only in fencing, but in all areas of their lives. When fencers learn to control their fear and anxiety on the strip, their mental abilities improve and they experience beautiful personal growth.
Fear has a way of ballooning. It might start out as being nervous about an opponent getting a point against you in a tournament, then being scared of stepping up to the strip, then being overwhelmed by putting on the fencing gear, then not wanting to go to the venue, etc. It snowballs from a moment’s hesitation into something more.
While we don’t want to push our fencers too hard to the point of detriment, turning and facing that fear early on prevents the snowball from ever happening. Remember, this is all in our minds. No one is actually going to get hurt on the piste, and nothing unredeemable is going to happen. A lost point or a lost bout is not the end of the world.
As the Japanese Proverb goes, “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
Whatever the fear regarding fencing may be, no matter how small it may seem to be, it has the potential to totally take over the mind and shut down the athlete’s ability.
The first step to taking power back over fear is to acknowledge it. Don’t minimize or gloss over the fear that you’re experiencing. Particularly if it’s a new development, it’s easy to just brush it aside. “Oh I just get nerves” or “I’m anxious on competition days so I skip breakfast” are common to hear, but being common doesn’t mean it’s ok. Oftentimes we can fix the problem simply by acknowledging it! Again, a great lesson for life, not just for fencing.
Worry is learned, and it can be unlearned
This might sound crazy, but worrying is a learned behavior. If a fencer chooses to, they can unlearn the habit of worrying about a match.
Where do these behaviors get learned? Well they are learned from all kinds of places, and most of those places involve putting too much focus on the wrong things. Here are some examples of where worry can stem from for fencers.
- Expectations from others
- Too much focus on the outcome of the fencing
- Hanging onto previous failures
- Hanging onto mistakes
- Lack of trust in their training
- Thinking of pre match jitters as harmful (they aren’t!)
It starts out with being nervous before one match. That rush of fear and anxiety that’s could come from any number of sources – a misunderstood word from a coach, extra pressure from a parent, peer interactions, misplaced nervousness from another source like school, etc. What should be a one off then becomes a learned response when the next match rolls around and the fencer has a memory of that last time. This causes more anxiety.
To unlearn worry, fencers can do try some of the following action steps:
- Write in your fencing journal why you’re worried, then how this worry is not useful or important
- Talk to your fencing coach about your fear
- Connect with another fencer who is also struggling with anxiety
- Read up on sports psychology
- Get out nervous energy before a match with physical activity (jumping jacks are a great choice)
- Listen to a calming guided meditation for worry before a match
- Attend open fencing events to practice for competition
- Go to less official or smaller tournaments before you enroll into big ones
Every great athlete has a strong mental game. Every single one. Developing a strong mental game helps fencers to compete more effectively and to reach those goals.
Excitement vs. anxiety
The biggest positive to take away from this is that what we’re perceiving as anxiety could actually be excitement. Imagine that!
Here are some common symptoms:
- Sweaty palms
- Racing heart
- Butterflies in the stomach
These are physical symptoms that can really go either way. It’s all about mindset! When we step up to do something that we’ve been preparing for and that we want to participate in, there’s a natural adrenaline rush that washes over the brain and the body. That adrenaline causes physical symptoms. What matters most is how we frame these physical symptoms – are they anxiety or are they excitement?
It is very easy for people, especially children but adults as well, to mistake excitement for nervousness. Talking about it, and then reframing it as a normal process that’s part of the experience, that makes the big difference.
This type of anxiety can undermine a strong, confident performance. Anxious fencers are unfocused, they fence tentatively, they’re unassertive during the bout, and they just don’t have fun. Reframing pre-match jitters as normal and nothing more than pregame jitters is the most positive step you can take to get rid of them.
Here are some great self talk methods to change the way you think:
- “I’m going to use these feelings to give me energy to play through the whole match.”
- “I’m concentrating this energy into making the next point.”
- “Time to get these butterflies in my stomach into formation!”
- “Wow, I feel super pumped up for this bout!”
Of course, your self talk should be something that works for you, and probably you will experiment with it until it works.
When fencers start to take advantage of their nerves to feel “pumped up” instead of “anxious”, that’s when the magic happens. If there are deeply entrenched feelings of anxiety or fear surrounding fencing, it can take some time to get over them. However when fencers do master those feelings, they can finally live up to their potential and enjoy the sport.
Again, the best part of this whole thing is that learning to overcome anxiety with regards to fencing is a skill that transfers to all parts of life. After all, the art of fencing is the art of life.