What does it take to become an elite fencer? This is a question that just about every fencer wants to know, and it’s one that we are always on the hunt for an answer to. There is actually not a simple answer, not in the slightest. There are things that we know work, but one that cuts through them all is this simple mantra – trust the sweat.
I am not a real fan of the idea of “the grind” because it sounds far too negative. Work is a daily grind. School can be a daily grind. These are things that we do not have much of a choice in doing, though we do them anyway because of the other good things that we know are on the other side of them. Fencing should not be a grind, because in the end it is something that we are freely choosing to pursue. Even kid fencers who are being shaped by their parents are hopefully choosing to pursue this sport rather than being forced into it.
When we think of grinding, we think of two things coming together and pushing on each other until one or both sides wear away or the thing that is between them is crushed. The notion in sport is that you have to grind away at your sport in order to slough off all of the things that are holding you back and to polish your athletic ability into the shiny thing that is underneath.
Polishing is a great idea, in part because that metaphor hints at the wonderful things that are underneath. There are wonderful fencing skills under there for every fencer who is willing to pursue that dream! However, this idea that we have to grind away at ourselves to get better is not appealing.
Fencing practice should not feel like punishment. Not ever. When we engage with elite fencing athletes, they all talk about motivation in positive terms. They feel an obligation to get up and practice even on those hard days, but it is an obligation that rises from inside of them, not one that is pushed onto them. It is important to take apart the difference between motivation that comes from inside and motivation that comes from the outside. Only one of those things is sustainable. No one can grind their way to success, and especially parents and coaches cannot grind fencers towards success.
All that being said, it does not mean that becoming great is a walk in the park.
Sweat is the path to success
Most fencers keep a towel with them when they are practicing. Why? Because they sweat so much that they have to wipe it up or else their hands will become slippery and make it harder to hold onto their weapon or the sweat will go into their eyes and disturb their vision.
That sweat, well it is the path to success.
We are talking about putting in the hard work every single day. Sweat rolling down the shoulders during cross training. Sweat meandering down the forehead underneath the fencing mask during a training bout. It’s physical and it’s good for us. That sweat is the thing that pushes a fencer over the top towards their goal, and every ounce of it is precious and also expendable. One drop of sweat should lend to another and another, they are a means to an end.
It feels good to sweat. It feels good to get the body engaged and moving, following our commands and growing stronger. Fencers have to learn to trust that this feeling, this good feeling that we get when we work out, it is also a good feeling in the context of their goals. Every drop of sweat is a step on the path towards whatever it is that they want out of the sport.
Trusting the sweat is about believing that you are doing the right things to get you to those big goals. Want the Olympics? You have to want the freedom of embracing physical exertion to get there. You have to find ways to love cardio and footwork repetitions so much that they become an end instead of a means to something else. Every practice, every private lesson, every bout is both worthwhile in and of itself as well as being worthwhile as having a place in the string of goals that a fencer is pursuing.
Ultra commitment to fencing is in many ways an ultra commitment to ourselves. Without a solid foundation of dedication to what we are doing, day in and day out, we cannot succeed. We have to find that dedication in the sweat of everyday training. If you think that the focus and the push forward will come on competition day if you haven’t practiced them, then it is certain not to come at all. If you do put the sweat in every single day, then even on competition days when you don’t feel it deeply that focus and push will come. You’ve trained it into yourself.
Talent cannot make up for hard work
There is no replacement for hard work. You can have the best coaches in the world, the best gear, the best training partners, and read the information, but if you don’t get up every day and do the work, the success will not happen.
Fencing has tangible rewards. You can experience a point, you can see the lights go on. In competition, there are wins and podium finishes. While we do not emphasize those things as the be-all-end-all goal of fencing, we do recognize that they are important parts of the process. When a fencer is pushing themselves to get up and go to practice after a long week, they need a carrot in front of them to draw them forward to do so.
Athletes who succeed in fencing get there by their hard work. It is as simple as that. They embrace the grind that is their daily life if they want to achieve.
The mental attributes of high level competitors are things like passion, the ability to visualize their goal, and super focus. They leverage all of those for one thing though – diligent practice.
Your focus and determination have to be in the right place, or else all the talent in the world won’t get an athlete anywhere. We are talking about the kind of focus that pushes out other things, when a person becomes so enthralled with what they are doing that they are willing to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives to let them get where they want to be. These sacrifices are hard, but they aren’t so hard because the person loves what they are doing.
Joy in diligence
Though we cannot teach our kids how to be committed to fencing, we can help them enjoy the daily work of fencing that will lead to their success.
Moving forward is fun. It’s rewarding. Somehow kids seem to be able to find joy in spending hours mining for precious rocks in Minecraft and then building huge virtual structures, but then stepping into the real world turns out to be less enthralling. They aren’t so different though! The hours spent engrossed in fencing training offer a more tangible reward, but then performing those repetitive tasks to train are a rewarding experience in and of themselves.
It’s the same as so many things in life. If you can learn to enjoy the process of solving an equation, then the love of math will naturally grow from it and you will be encouraged by the mastery that you gain along the way. The breakthrough moment of watching someone have that lightbulb click on and the passion ignite, that’s what teachers and coaches live for. Those lightbulb moments require keeping at it. It’s a cycle. A fencer commits to regular training, which they find joy in but which is still challenging to maintain over time, then they see results which boost them further and get them back into that regular training, which they find joy in but is still challenging to maintain over time, etc.
This experience goes around in many things, but in fencing as well. We learn to find happiness in doing the work. Trust the sweat!