Coming back to win
It wasn’t looking good. I was fencing better than I ever had that day, but I let myself slip, and got down 14-9. If I won, I would get my first top 8 at a senior national tournament, and an important result toward making the national team – but that didn’t seem likely. If he got even a double I would lose. Still, though, I fought on. I got one touch. Then another. The one-minute break came, and then the last period. I moved, I worked, I got more touches, slowly I was getting there, until – 14-14! I tied the score! I hadn’t won yet, though, and I needed every bit of focus now. I was moving, working hard, and getting more and more anxious – I felt the pressure, and gave in to it. As soon as I lunged I knew it wasn’t the moment. I collapsed, and fell to the ground. But – to my amazement, when I looked up, my light was on, and the referee’s hand was up, awarding the touch to me. I still don’t know where I hit, but it was an amazing victory for me, and one of the best moments in my fencing career. I went on to win my next bout, and got 3rd place in a Division I NAC. It’s bittersweet to think about though, because when I remember that amazing comeback, I can’t help but think about another comeback, and what happened that time.
Losing at Fourteen-all
It was 14-14. I had to focus, but my head was spinning. I couldn’t believe it had come to this, there was no way I could possibly win now. I was helpless, I couldn’t get this touch no matter what. I felt locked up, my body was betraying me. I was the opposite of the fluid, relaxed fencer I had worked so hard for all these years to become. After being up 14-8, I had let my opponent catch up and tie the score. My head was empty, my body tense, a deep fear looming over me, but I had to fight.
“En guard. Ready. Fence!”
I stepped forward . . . And lost the bout.
That has remained with me as the worst moment in my fencing career, hands down. It feels awful to have a lead and then lose it, to have that feeling of helplessness creep in and not be able to get back to the relaxed ease I felt just moments before.
We’ve all been there
We’ve all been there. That moment when the pressure is on, and it’s getting to you. You don’t know what to do next, or how to get your head straight – whether it’s at 14-14 or at 1-1, when that feeling hits you, it feels impossible to get even one more touch. Many of us have had moments when we came back, rallied, and won the bout. All of us have had times when we couldn’t – and found ourselves losing the bout without quite knowing what happened.
What’s the difference?
So what makes the difference between handling the pressure and collapsing? Between coming back to win and letting your opponent take, or keep, the lead? And what can we actually DO when we start to feel that sense of helplessness? For most of us, it comes down to our mindset; whether we feel confident, think encouraging thoughts, and believe that we will be okay whether we win or lose – or feel doubtful, have negative thoughts, and feel over-invested in the outcome. It can be difficult to define a winning state of mind, and the qualities or skills that set apart the best athletes. It may even feel like your mental state is something you have no control over, and you just hope your head is in the right place when you show up to fence. In actuality, it is absolutely possible to get better at handling high-pressure situations, and some of the qualities that make a difference are summed up in one word: Resilience.
Resilience is a skill you can learn
Resilience, or the ability to handle a challenge and bounce back, is a crucial skill for fencers, and one you (yes, YOU) can learn. I’m going to break down some key elements of handling high pressure situations and how to get started with your own mental skills training.
Our bodies under pressure
When we feel stress or pressure, our body has a normal response that generally helps us. It accomplishes this by sending more blood to the muscles and energy into the bloodstream, and releasing neurotransmitters (such as epinephrine, a.k.a. adrenaline) that helps us be more alert. On the other hand, our natural response can go overboard and be counterproductive if we feel too much stress. This feeling of fear or helplessness prevents us from feeling energized and focused. That’s when resiliency is so important; when you’re in a scattered mental state, choose the best action, and get that winning touch. It’s crucial to be able to re-focus and get your head back in the game.
Defining mental skills
What is mental training? Simply put, it is anything we do to get ourselves to a state of mind that helps us perform well. Fortunately, psychology researchers have found that certain mental states help athletes perform well, including the two I will talk about here – mindfulness and confidence. Confidence both helps directly with performance and helps us get ‘in the zone’ (what researchers call a ‘flow state’). Mindfulness helps us focus, avoid distractions, and feel less stressed out in high-pressure situations. Like other skills, these take consistent training, and will get better the more we practice them – and like other skills, expect to be bad to start with. In the next section I’m going to walk you through two of my favorite mental training exercises for building focus and confidence. If you like these and want more, sign up for my next online course or go to my website to see more information and resources for mental skills training, watch interviews, or inquire about 1-on-1 coaching.
Mindfulness for focus
Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our experience in the moment. This is not as easy as it sounds, but we can get better with training. While completing this mindfulness exercise, you may notice things that surprise you, such as tension in your body or thoughts passing through your mind. This is all part of the process. If this occurs, simply notice these elements and refocus your attention.
You will spend three 1 minute intervals (for a total of 3 minutes) sitting or lying down with your eyes closed, so find a comfortable position and a timer. The first minute, bring your attention to your thoughts. Simply notice whatever comes to your mind, observe it without judgement. Don’t try to change your thoughts in any way, just notice them as they come and as they go. The second minute, turn your attention to your breathing. Notice your breath coming in and going out. Notice any details; are you breathing deeply, shallowly, quickly, slowly? Again, don’t make any effort to change anything, simply observe without judgement. You will often find that your attention will wander many times in just one minute; that is fine – simply bring your mind back to your breath each time it shifts. The third minute, turn your attention now to your physical sensations and continue to observe without judgement. If you notice you have tension somewhere – wonderful! Good that you noticed. If you notice pain or discomfort somewhere – again, very good that you have noticed. Simply observe your physical sensations in that moment without judgement.
Once you have completed all three minutes, take a moment to reflect on what that experience was like – did any part of it surprise you? Did you learn anything new?
Visualization for confidence
Visualization is a fantastic and versatile training method, and I am bringing it up here because research has shown that visualization training increases confidence. There are many ways to use visualization training (and I would love to teach you more), but for the moment we will focus only on one particular way of using this technique. We are going to practice visualizing a very successful bout. If you wonder why this is helpful, I will offer you a quick demonstration. Before reading any further, take a few minutes and create an image of a bout against a very difficult opponent – someone you would have great difficulty winning against. Imagine a 5-touch bout with this person, and what the score is at the end. Once you have done that, answer this question:
What was the score?
For some people, they will give an answer that it was a close bout, that maybe they won 5-4 or 5-3. Some people may even say they lost the bout. What this shows us is that even when we have created a situation entirely in our head, that we have complete control over, it is difficult to imagine ourselves beating a difficult opponent 5-0. I would say if you cannot even imagine it, it will be very difficult to do it – and if you get close to doing it, little doubts may creep up and interfere with your fencing. So, here we will practice imagining this success, and get comfortable with the idea of winning a bout that maybe right now is difficult for us to believe we could ever win.
What you will do is this: Create in your mind an image of a successful 5 touch bout. First, fill in every detail of the environment in your mind. What kind of strip are you fencing on? What kind of uniform are you wearing? What does it smell like there? What does the referee look like? Then move on to the bout. What actions do you do? What does your opponent do? Are you aggressive, defensive, on your end of the strip, on your opponent’s end of the strip? Are touches happening quickly or slowly? Are you using your favorite action, or trying something new that you are just learning? Whatever it is, keep firmly in mind that you are finding a way to be successful in spite of any difficulty or challenge your opponent might present. You always find a solution, choose the right action, and get the touch. In this case, you will win 5-0. This is the best possible bout you can imagine fencing – make it good!
You may find it difficult to stay focused on the visualization all the way through — from creating the image of the environment, to imagining every touch. That is fine, it is normal. Visualization is a skill, and it will get better over time. I recommend setting a timer for 5-10 minutes and going through as much of the bout as possible in that time. That way you can start to create this image, and it is a short enough exercise that you can find time for it consistently to continue to build your confidence.
Practicing these techniques
The most important part about each of these ways of addressing a stressful bout or touch is that they are skills. All of them are things we can practice and get better at over time, and all of them will help us more in a high-stakes competitive bouting situation if we practice them at other times – at the club, at home, and at training competitions.
As you are practicing these skills, keep in mind that you are just beginning. Try to practice them in a quiet room if possible, where you can sit comfortably without being interrupted. If that is not possible, that’s fine; do them when and where you can. Understand that you will not be ‘good’ at these skills at first.You will benefit from them immediately, but it will take time for them to feel easy. You wouldn’t try to learn how to juggle by starting with 5 balls, standing on one foot in the rain with someone yelling at you to go faster. Instead, you start with 2 or 3 balls, in a comfortable environment with the fewest distractions – and you still expect to fail many times before you manage to keep all the balls in the air. In the same way it will often take practice before you can keep your attention on your thoughts or your breath or your body for a full minute, and before you can visualize a full bout in detail without losing concentration.
If you liked this post and want to continue to train your mental skills, sign up for my online course at sharpermindtraining.com/live-online – starting April 28th, but you can register up to six days late and still receive all 6 sessions – or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, for more insight into handling high-pressure bouting situations, check out my website where I’ll be posting more resources, videos, and interviews with top fencers about their experiences with mental training and winning at 14-14.