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Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Why Fencers Cry and How to Control Emotion?

Shin Lam - epee fencer cry as she lost semifinal bout in London 2012 OlympicsIn my role as fencer, coach and referee, I’ve observed many fencers cry on the strip during bouts or after a loss.

This got me thinking about whether crying was useful for fencers and the achievement of their goals. Here are some of those reflections.

What is crying?

Let´s think first about the source of crying.

Crying is product of an emotional state dominated not just by muscle tension in the face, but also in the body. From this point of view it is already detrimental to the implementation of fencing actions, since a strike executed with contracted musculature is slower and not precise.

On the other hand, our opponent can take this as a sign of weakness or a state of devolution and lack of control. That can be used in his favor, making it easier for him to develop his fencing game. After crying, the fencer will begin to focus on their own emotions and how he or she can come back to self-control again. They also carry the concern of possible social judgments, what others may think about them. In a combat sport, we must focus on the resolution of technical tactical problems that our opponent will offer us.

Many athletes cry

There are many great athletes who have cried, but these athletes usually manage to postpone the tears until after they finish the competition. A good example is the tennis player Novak Djokovic at the Rio Olympics in 2016. We can assume that the frustration and negative emotions invaded him before the defeat as he was losing 6-2 and he continued fighting. It´s possibly he lost for the same reason, but he showed his emotions and cried only after he lost.

Athletes perceive or read the emotions of their adversaries as “predator and prey”. If your opponent knows how emotion affects you or if you are likely to lose emotional control, then he/she can provoke you and develop an easier tactical combat game. An experienced athlete can “smell” emotions like fear and nerves, but also confidence and positivism.

How to control your emotions while fencing.

So the big question now is how to prevent yourself from reaching this emotional state. Here are some of my tips:

1. Focus on Task

Make a decision not to think of anyone from the public, family, or technical team.The bulk of our attention should be focused on resolving the multiple problems that our adversary will present us. We call this “Task Focus”.

Oftentimes as a help to solve these problems, we receive support from strip coaching. The key is that we must pay attention to these tips during our pauses, and then try to incorporate the coach advice to our own fencing. We must consider that strip coaching, whether it be from your own coach or from a teammate, is only an aid. The main agent of the resolution of problems is the fencer themselves.

If your coach is telling you what actions to do, and in general they give you successful advice based on their experience, then it’s possible to see it from a general and holistic perspective. Then once the fencer knows what actions to do, he or she must solve in their own personal way when, at the which moment, and where, in the strip place. Of course all of this must be in the correct timing.

All these aspects are decisions of the fencer and their responsibility. During development of their action they should be thinking about what they’ll do if something different happens in this bout. It’s only when they realize this fully they start reaching good fencing results.

From my perspective, coaching or strip coaching, is something global. When the coach helps on the strip they consider all previous training. Their collaboration on strip and the motivational support they provide, along with their ability to integrate new learning to help their fencer to improve in future training – all that is important. It’s key to realize that it’s the fencer who has the ultimate responsibility for any decision in a bout. Each fencer must empower themselves to win.

2. Winning and Loosing

Be aware that in sport you are always exposed to both winning and losing. Therefore, these are simply part of the game.

3. Think of Process

Do not focus on the ranking or classification of your adversary. Whenever you fence a good bout you can win, but think about each bout as a chance to win and not as an obligation or a pressure to win, which is overwhelming.

4. Learn How to Relax Your Mind

Listen to some music that generates a state of activation and joy. This helps to make me move away from the states of tension, hopes and anxiety. We call this Music for Elation”

5. Visualize Your Actions

Visualize your future actions. Imagine doing well executed fencing actions, which finally turn into successful hits.

I think it´s normal to feel frustrated after a defeat. Actually if I ever met an athlete who felt NO frustration, then I find it’s for one or two reasons; 1- they never imagined they had a real chance to win, or 2- they might just not feel interested in fencing and compete only as a hobby, which is very respectable as well.

My personal fencing experience with emotion

Let´s talk about my experience as fencer. I remember having cried on several occasions throughout my career. Fortunately not during bouts in the middle of the competition. During my fencing I felt many different kinds of emotions – anxiety, nervousness, anger, excitement, joy, etc. But all of that energy produced by physical activity and adrenaline could then be channeled through the practice of fencing when I heard the word “fence!”

After hearing this word, I focused on the situation. My emotions were addressed to beat my opponent and enjoy the process. But after a rough day, arriving to the hotel or home I felt a huge frustration for not having achieved my goals. It was very helpful to me when a person who is important to me (like my coach or my wife) comforted me and said that they know my deep desire to win and have my back. In such situations of deep disappointment and frustration it´s important get back up and keep working.

There are sports psychologists and coaches who can help you to control these emotions with breathing exercises and visualization, but the first step must be to become aware of this difficulty and make a decision to improve it.

Take the time to answer these questions according to your experience, particularly if you’ve decided to improve your emotional control. Then put into practice some of my tips.

  • What happens to you when you cry?
  • What do you think your opponent is thinking when you cry?
  • What do you think happens to your coach when you cry?
  • What do you think happens to your parents and friends when you cry?
  • What you think or feel when your opponent cries?

About Patricio Moreno

Patricio recently joined AFM coaching staff after he moved to California from Chile. In Chile he was an accomplished fencing coach with impressive track record, and his talent as a coach was reflected in the success of his students in national and international competitions, including numerous South American and Pan American Championships, participation in London Olympic Games and more. Before producing many fencing champions as a coach, Patricio achieved sustained national and international recognition as a fencer himself, frequenting many podiums in many international competitions, and climbing high in FIE rankings.

This is a first article by Patricio and we are looking forward to seeing his thoughts on variety of fencing topics.

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4 Comments

  1. R

    When reffing a RJCC Y12MF bout, the losing fencer started crying. He got it together and reduced his deficit but started crying again and lost. If he controlled himself, he would have won. Outcome of protecting self-esteem.

  2. E

    Crying during a bout is one thing. Crying afterward is quite another, especially for young fencers. There is a lot of emotional build up during tournaments as you describe. At some point this emotional pressure needs to be released. Young fencers are not robots and I think it is perfectly natural and healthy for them to cry after a match. I’ve seen that kids releasing those emotions can more quickly regain composure and focus for the next round.

    Coaches and parents that take a “there’s no crying in fencing!” attitude are doing more harm than good and most likely take this stance for their own benefit instead of their athlete’s. In my opinion, crying is an outward expression of the athlete’s strong desire to succeed. We shouldn’t stifle that desire and passion. We should encourage it! Parents and coaches that are uncomfortable around crying athletes need to need to overcome their own internal issues, self-centeredness, and discomfort at the display of emotion. Not pile shame on top of disappointment their athletes are dealing with in a totally natural and healthy way. Help your athlete accept their emotions so that they can learn to focus and channel them into greater positive emotional energy.

    And if that’s too hard, take a look at all the Olympian and world class athletes in this sport and others. They cry. Why? Because they have an overwhelming desire and passion to succeed. It’s what drives them to push themselves so hard day after day to reach such amazing levels of accomplishment. So maybe you should not be asking yourself why your athlete is crying but why your athlete isn’t crying.

    • Patricio Moreno

      I´m sure that the desire of all those who we are part of this team, coaches, parents and fencer, and of course the own fencer it´s improve the fencing level and contribute to their integral formation as a person, learning from sport to life.

      I think that crying is absolutely natural and normal, actually, I cried when I saw Titanic, Braveheart and Frozen, not one time, every time. It is the expression of emotions and triggers for several reasons, not only passion, also fear or frustration. I take time to write this article to contribute, based on my experience, on how we can channel these emotions more effectively. Crying in the middle of the bout could have adverse effects to achievement of their goals. Thank you very much for your comments, this helps us to grow.

      Coach Patricio

  3. That’s too hard, take a look at all the Olympian and world-class athletes in this sport and others. They cry. Why? Because they have an overwhelming desire and passion to succeed. It’s what drives them to push themselves so hard day after day to reach such amazing levels of accomplishment. So maybe you should not be asking yourself why your athlete is crying but why your athlete isn’t crying.

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