Why and How Competing in Fencing is like Driving a Car

Relating the unfamiliar to something that is familiar is a powerful way to change the way you see it.

Sometimes it’s really helpful for us to stop what we’re doing and think about things in a totally different way. Looking at fencing from a different angle, one that’s outside of our usual box, can make training better and success closer. This is especially true when we’re talking about something that’s new to us, like the way that fencing competition is new for novice fencers and their parents. 

It’s important that fencers compete because it helps the fencing to improve dramatically. There is no amount of training you can do in your fencing club with your classmates and your coach that will give you the kind of boost in your skill and your confidence that competing in fencing will give you. That’s all well and good to say, but showing is better than telling. 

I’ve had more than a few discussions with parents about this, trying to explain why their children will become better fencers through competition. It’s very difficult to explain to someone why competition is so essential! Recently I found a great analogy of how to explain to parents how their child becomes more experienced and even why they become more experienced.

Get behind the wheel

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of driving a car. 

Competition is basically confidence. The more they compete the more they learn. They learn a lot of things that are really intangible and they don’t know how on earth they learn to do them, but somehow they manage to learn to do them. This whole process is on the border of being magical because it does happen so far under the radar. 

I have this discussion with a lot of parents. A lot of parents. Everyone wants to know why fencing competition is so important, because it is something that we focus on in our club. This is a central tenant of our method of teaching fencing, and it’s one of the central ways that lots of clubs teach. For many reasons I think that competition is almost essential for forward motion in fencing. 

One day I was talking to a parent and I decided to try a new way of tackling the issue. I asked her how things went for her when she learned to drive. She said, “You know what, I started to learn how to drive very late. I was in my early thirties.”

This was a perfect answer, in part because she was old enough when she learned to drive that she could now remember it very clearly. I asked this mom. “Do you remember yourself from then? The first time you passed the driver test and you were so super excited?”

She replied to me “I was  extremely excited when I passed my driving test,  but I was also more than a little scared. I was so new to driving that I lacked confidence.” 

Next I asked her “How did you feel the first time you drove by yourself after that? Were you nervous?” 

“Of course I was nervous. In fact, I was outright scared those first few times behind the wheel. I didn’t know if I could do it safely. I was always overly vigilant, worried that I’d make a mistake and get into an accident. “ 

“Ok, well then how did you make sense of that? Did you take the highway or local roads?” 

She said “No no, for the first few months I used only local roads. I refused to go on the highway. I was too afraid to change lanes and to get on the exit and then to get off of the ramp and onto the highway. It was far too stressful for me. “

“Are you still like this when you drive?” I asked.

“Not at all. Now I don’t even think about driving anymore. I just get into the car and go.”

“What changed between when you started driving and your driving today?”

“I guess a lot of practice on the roads.”

See! This is exactly what I was getting at the entire time. What changed from being a very scared driver and now for her was that she got practice out in the real world. She got on the road and drove places, many many times over many years. It’s real world experience that makes all the difference. 

In fencing, our version of real world experience is competition. Classes and lessons are like driving school or having a learner’s permit and driving with your parents. Competition is like getting on the road. 

If you ask a fencer who has been competitive for many years, they will say the same thing as a person who has been driving for many years. They’ll tell you that they don’t really know how they got to be so comfortable with fencing but that it just happened. 

Understanding the flow of competition

You learn so many of those intangibles when you are fencing in competition. It’s difficult to overestimate what you learn by fencing in competition! There is just so much and it’s so hard to describe. The flow of competition, like the flow of traffic on a highway, is just one of the big things that you learn by competing in fencing. 

For example they learn when to start preparing for the next bout. Oftentimes kids just sit on a chair until the referee calls them onto the strip and then they go to the bout and they have gotten cold. Especially when there is a long time between bouts. An experienced fencer they know that at least several minutes before the bout they need to warm up, even if they fenced like fifteen minutes ago. They know that they still need to warm up or at least stretch.

Let’s say it’s in the pools and they go back, they will stand up and they will do some short jumps, maybe some shaking of the legs, maybe they’ll do some running in place or some straight jumps or lunges. So that they will be prepared. More experienced fencers will check their weapon. They’ll know that weapons do fail so they’ll check their weapon before the bout. They’ll hold the weights or for epee they’ll pass the shim. They know that things break even if in the previous bout it was ok. They’ll check screws for epee etc. They will know just from the first sight whether the opponent against them is experienced or not. They will learn that they need to watch every bout in the pool and gain as much experience as they can about the opponent. 

They will learn that they know how to talk to the referee. How to respectfully ask for the explanation about the phrase or why the point was awarded or not awarded and why. They will learn how to ask for the referee to pay attention for any faulty thing that the opponent does and how to do it in a way that does not annoy the referee but actually brings the referee the issue in a very respectful way. They will learn how to basically learn any situation where the behavior of the opponent or the opponent’s coach or the parent or teammates or cheerleaders gets on their nerves. They will learn to just ignore the deficit in the score and just work one touch at a time. They will learn from their mistakes from many competitions that they need to check the scoresheet in case they need to change the scoresheet. 

Learn by doing

So many things that you can only learn with experience. From the process to logistics to procedure to rules to behavior to mental preparation to physical preparation. There are so many things that they need to learn and that they will learn. You cannot teach this. It doesn’t matter how often I write blogs or how deep these blogs will go. If you give them all of these blogs to read then they will still not get it until they really have an experience. 

This is the way of everything in the world. A violin player doesn’t know how to play at their highest possible level until they play with an orchestra. A teacher doesn’t know how to teach in with real confidence until they get in front of a class. An actor doesn’t know what it’s like to feel confident in performing until they get in front of an audience. This analogy can go on and on, it’s applicable for a myriad of situations, not just fencing. The best way to get onto the horse and learn to ride is to get onto the horse!

The only way to internalize this is to learn by doing. You have to just get out and go do it in order to get the feel for it! Going to fencing competitions allows fencers to normalize their feel for competition and their feel for fencing. Just like you had to jump on the highway and drive in order to feel confident about driving, fencers have to jump into competition to feel true confidence in their fencing. There is simply no substitute.