Finding Success at NCAA Championships: a Guest Post by NCAA First Team All-American Graham Wicas

Fencing Championship
Wicas was an NCAA Silver Medalist. He lost to Slava Zingerman, a three-time NCAA champion in the final bout. Photo credit: NCAA Photos

Graham Wicas was the 2007 World Champion in Cadet Men’s Epee. He was a first team All-American NCAA Athlete, and has had two top four finishes in Division I NACs this USFA season. He is very good at fencing. 

Doing well at the NCAA Championships is correlated with three factors; mental composure, consistent fencing, and traveling partners. While the first two may strike people as platitudes because they are applicable to fencing in general, there are aspects of these qualities specific to NCAA success.


Mental Composure:

Once a fencer has a sound foundation in technical and tactical ability, mental composure is the essential element for success in the NCAA tournament. Personally, I have experience both extremes; my freshman year, (3rd place), and sophomore years (2nd place), I won the pool rounds of the tournament by using the elements discussed below. Yet in my junior year I finished 22nd, after mentally imploding in my worst two days of fencing to date, so I have experienced both the elation and devastation of the NCAA Championships.

Many fencers approach the tournament thinking about which opponents they “should beat” and who they will have “tough bouts” against. These fencers often end up trying to steal victories from “tough opponents” while ensuring they win against the opponents they should beat on paper. I believe this strategy is misguided because it distract the fencer from being fully present for each bout and gives them false expectations about their opponents that are not true given the structure of the competition.

Achieving successful mental composure requires looking at the tournament as fencing 22 individual matches, instead of trying to win as many bouts as possible.  The latter strategy, for the reason discussed previously, imposes expectation on the fencer’s performance that distracts them from executing in each bout.

When I successfully competed I fenced each of these matches as its own world, detached from the greater result of the competition. Who I was fencing was unimportant because I was going to give them the same physical, mental, and psychological focus as all the rest.

One might object saying, that this strategy leads fencers to mismanage their abilities by using too much focus and energy on each opponent, but I found that it had the opposite effect. I saved energy by quickly defeating opponents who did not have sound technical abilities or were mentally distracted, or I tactically elevated my game against opponents who projected confidence–For those who have not fenced this tournament, opponents who know they aren’t fencing well in the tournament, especially during the second day, often unconsciously telegraph their internal psychological state through their body language. If you are being fully present in the bout you will notice and adapt to fence them effectively. Yet if you are thinking about how a “good” the opponent typically fences, you may miss an easy victory expecting more of a fight.

I have three pieces of advice for fencers who wish to achieve this mindful state for the tournament. Focusing on your breath brings your attention to the present moment. Visualize yourself fencing each opponent before you fence. Maintain the same routine when hooking up from the first bout until the last. Finally, NEVER LOOK AT THE RESULT BOARD, until the end of the day.


Consistent Fencing:

Naturally everyone wants to fence consistently, and well, at every fencing tournament. Yet the five touch bout system of college fencing lends itself well to fencing in a highly scripted manner. By scripted, I mean engineering a bout by starting with at least three premeditated initial touches which the fencer feels confident in executing. This strategy works well for a number of reasons. First, if you hit with one or two of these touches it puts your opponent in a bad position because they will be tempted to over-commit on their attacks. If the scripted actions failed, the fencer gains valuable information about how their opponent reacts to specific preparations and the distance at which the opponent prefers to fence.

Personally, I always advise college fencers to make their first attacks in second intention, because most NCAA opponents are anxious to score because want to take the pressure off themselves. Peregrine Badger used this strategy to great success in the tournament last year by alternative between counter time and change of tempo attacks, eventually coming in 3rd.


Traveling Partners:

At the NCAA Championships fencers travel in pods of three or four fencers. They fence the other pods one at a time till all the pods of have fence each another. The influence of this aspect of the tournament is often rarely commented upon. In my opinion is has a big impact. It benefits school with two fencers and disadvantages schools with one fencer in the competition.

Pods with two fencers from the same school have a number of advantages, beside the initial bout where the fencer fences their teammate, they will be able to support and coach each other for the rest of the tournament. This is invaluable because the fencers can give each other reconnaissance on opponents before the other fences them. This advantage works against fencers traveling alone because I believe pods with two fencers from the same school tend to do better for this reason.

People might argue that pods of people from the same school do better because to even qualify two fencers for the tournament implies they each individually must be pretty good. This is true but the cooperation factor can augment the abilities of these already good fencers. The fencer who does not travel with a teammate tends to fall prey a phenomena caused by the pod structure.

It is often the case that two of the fencers in the pod are pretty good, and potentially made even better by working together. This leaves the third traveling partner at a disadvantage because opponents, especially those who lose to one or both of the “tougher” opponents will use extra energy to beat the third person. Even if the third fencer is pretty good, they often face desperate fencers who kill themselves to leave the round with at least one win. The situation often puts more pressure on the fencer traveling alone than would be expected. It results in good fencers who are traveling alone underperforming. My advice to fencers in this position would be to fence defensively, to capitalize on the opponent’s psychological vulnerability. There are notable exceptions to this phenomena; Slava Zingerman, representing Wayne State, won the NCAA Championship three times in a row and only once had a traveling partner.

All in all, these principles boil down to three pieces of advice. First, keep your head and treat each bout the same, regardless of the opponent. Second, make a plan. Creating a scripted game plan that plays to your strength saves energy and provides valuable information. Third, take advantage of your teammate or podmates. Good luck to all the competitors and have fun.


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