Fencing is a sport often called “physical chess” due to the cerebral nature of the game and the need to constantly be thinking one step ahead of your opponent. Of equal importance is the ability to overcome adversity when down a few touches. In teenage fencers in particular, who are prone to the ebbs and flows of their testosterone and hormones, getting them to settle down and relax on the strip can be as difficult as telling Sneakers O’Toole to take his sneakers off.
Elimination matches in which a fencer begins with a five touch deficit can often daunting; yet, the fencer who is able to shrug his misfortune and bring back the score is an elite athlete in the sport. In the 2003 Division 1 National Championship, attendees were able to witness a classic case of “the old and cunning” vs. “the young and talented.” John Moreau, a 50+ year old fencer at the time was fencing against Chris O’Loughlin, a former NCAA champion in his prime. O’Loughlin had a 14-8 lead, needing one more touch to enter the final. The bout had to be over, right? Wrong. In one of the most fascinating shows of precision and gall, Moreau orchestrated a seven touch comeback to win 15-14 over O’Loughlin. He would go on to defeat Soren Thompson, a 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympian in the final— with ease.
Those who have had the misfortune (or fortune) of receiving my strip coaching will often hear me yell out “The score is 0-0,” regardless of the actual score. This is to remind the fencer that they must reset after every touch and focus on the next one, which is easiest to do when they have mentally convinced themselves that it’s the start of the bout. This is of course, consistent with the “one touch at a time” philosophy in the game of physical chess.
Understanding the 0-0 philosophy goes a long way outside of the piste as well. I work in what would be considered a high-stress job with a lot of deadlines, rapidly changing conditions, and an always ambiguous environment. Colleagues have commented on my unwaveringly calm demeanor, even during times of considerable anxiety. Fencing has taught me to relax, assess the problem at hand, and conquer with a steady hand and halcyon disposition. The fencer who understands the idea of the 0-0 philosophy will undoubtedly be able to do the same. As I’ve said many times, he who masters fencing masters life.