Thanks to pandemic lockdowns, we have been forced to think differently about the way that we approach our training. Though fencing is an individual sport, it’s long been one that we practice in group settings, with coaches, classmates, training partners, and mentors on the strip to give us active feedback while we are learning to fence. Rarely was a fencer off training alone in their sport.
That is no longer an option, with pandemic lockdowns pushing our fencing at best to socially distanced lessons with masks and small groups, at worst to virtual classes over zoom. We are still part of a community, but that community is physically disconnected.
We get lost in the rush of classes and competition. There is a busy-ness to being a competitive fencer. As the fencing season rose and fell, we were always following the hectic schedule of competition and training. There were so many things to do, and we chased them with gusto. When everything stopped, it challenged us deeply. We could no longer just think about where we were going next, we had to think about why we were going anywhere at all.
One of the hardest parts of training throughout this whole time of lockdown has been that we are training alone.
Connection to our opponent
It’s a unique thing in fencing, the way that we are connected to our opponents. It’s like a thread that runs from them to us, pulling us together and binding us.
We always talk about the way that our opponent is more than just an automaton, more than just a series of movements that could be replicated by a computer. It’s not the same as that. In fencing, that human opponent is somewhat of a companion in our journey of self-growth. The opponent is a human in the truest sense, someone who offers us different facets to our training and our growth but who is also worthy in their own right of that same kind of self-growth. We challenge each other, working together to climb higher and become more.
This is a major part of who we are as fencers. This notion of connection to the opponent. The sound and feel of metal swords clashing against each other, of four feet padding back and forth across the strip, the rustle of fabric jackets, and the scream of the buzzer when a point is scored. These sounds are never just of one fencer, they are always of two. The weaving of two of us together is an essential feature of fencing, and it was nothing short of painful for fencers on a core level to have that ripped away when the pandemic lockdown began.
It’s not only one opponent though. Part of what creates the fascination and vigor of our sport is that we are always rotating out those opponents. We gain insight into ourselves through going against new fencers that we haven’t met before. We gain insight into ourselves through going against fencers we have fenced before but who have now pushed themselves so that they bring new things to our matches. When we think about why competitive fencers are driven to travel all over the country and all over the world, we realize that this need to push oneself by finding these opponents is a major reason. That compulsion to become more of our perfect fencing selves is fed with our opponent’s talent and their own drive to do the same.
This is a difficult to describe but essential part of fencing. We need our opponents.
How could we continue to be fencers without them? This is the question that is most pressing during the pandemic lockdown, when oftentimes we are forced to train alone, though it is that intangible thing that we cannot easily wrap our minds around.
It’s philosophical and it can feel a little self-indulgent to sit here ruminating over our ability to fence against someone else in a time when the world is in the place that it’s in. It’s not a selfish question to ask, and I’ll tell you why. Each individual matters. Each fencer matters. Your drive for this sport is important because you are important, and thus exploring the heart of fencing is exactly what we can and should be doing during this moment in time. Amidst all of the changes that have happened in the last year, we now have a responsibility to ourselves to understand why these changes feel the way they do.
Your fencing goals have not changed
With all of this that has changed, the fundamental ways that our lives are different and will always be different, do you know what has not changed? Your fencing goals.
These goals are the same because fencing does not have anything to do with anyone but ourselves. Though the relationship with the opponent is at the heart of the fencing experience, in truth the person you are competing against most is yourself. You are still right there, and you’ve still got the tools you need to improve your fencing and keep those goals ahead of you.
Your fencing goals never had anything to do with beating this opponent or that opponent. The opponents naturally change, they are naturally unpredictable. Instead of measuring against those people out there, we should measure against this person in here. Even in the most strict moments of lockdown, when you thought you are completely alone, you were never far from yourself.
Think about what makes a great fencer. It’s their mindset and their adaptability yes, it’s their ability to read their opponent, but it’s also their confidence and their physical skill. Those two things can be built effectively through training alone.
There was never a moment when you were barred from being the fencer you wanted to be, because it is about you. Other people are supports and challenges, they can help us to grow and they can be the muse that guides us, but it is only ourselves who are ultimately essential. Pushing our physicality through regular training, honing our focus and filling our minds with the techniques that we need, refining our movements and learning to stand tall and with confidence – we don’t need training partners, coaches, or even opponents to master these. Those other people can help certainly, and they can make it easier, but they cannot do it for you.
This point we cannot say enough – you were always training alone. You were always training for yourself.