Developing the mental game in fencing



There are many talented and skilled fencers, but surprisingly, not all of them make it to the top.  More than 50% of a fencer's success on the strip is attributable to the mental game.  Yet, we spend all of our time and resources developing the fencer's physical skill, and almost nothing on developing the fencer's mental toughness.

Think about this: Getting good as a fencer in practice is 95% physical and 5% mental. Translation: You have to work hard on your conditioning and “physical game” to make it happen. However, once you face off against your opponent, the percentages flip flop. Being successful is 95% mental and 5% physical. You have the conditioning, technique and proper strategy, now you have to make sure that you stay calm under pressure and keep yourself focused on the right things.
— Dr Alan Goldberg,

We've all heard coaches yelling at their fencer to control their emotions on strip, but there is almost no follow-up from that same coach on how the fencer can master emotional control.  Parents are just as guilty of haranguing their fencer for lack of emotional control.  Can those same parents teach the methodology of emotional control to their fencer?

We are led to believe that fencing itself will help our fencer develop mental toughness.  That's not really true.  While a fencer with a better mental game will always do better than a fencer without one, the real question is  how did the fencer with the better mental game get there?  And will the fencer without a good mental game ever figure it out on his/her own?

Research into individual resilience reveals that people who demonstrate innate resilience fall into 2 main groups;

1) they had rough childhoods that set them up to fight back and succeed against the odds, or

2) they have a powerful passion (goal) that drive their decisions, actions and ability to keep going despite setbacks.  Many highly successful entrepreneurs and athletes fall into this group.

For the rest of us, it is still possible to learn resilience.

The personal development world teaches very specific mental processes to develop resilience.  Not surprisingly, these types of courses are very popular at top graduate business schools including Columbia University Business School and London Business School, where there is recognition that success is driven by mindset, and not academic credentials.   If high functioning, self-aware adults need to be taught how to develop resilience, it would seem a huge stretch to expect a young fencer struggling under pressure to figure it out on his/her own. 

Olympic and professional athletes across all sports work with sports psychologists to enhance their mental game. The US Olympic Committee has sports psychologists on staff who are assigned to work with US Fencing training coaches on the mental game. 

See Why are some athletes reluctant to see sports psychologists? by Bill Cole, a leading authority on the mental game.

We need to give our young fencers a great deal more support in developing mental toughness than we currently do.

Unlike team sports, where one player's weakness can be compensated for by another player's strength, in fencing (and other individual sports), the fencer's mental state and mindset during a bout plays a big role in the outcome.

From belief in their own skills  to respecting their opponent to staying calm under pressure, these are elements that enable a fencer to think clearly and anticicipate and respond effectively to their opponents, and as a result, fence to their full potential. 

For example, fencers who start out determined to win one point at a time are far more likely to win, than fencers who go in determined simply to win the bout.  The first fencer takes it one step at a time, this fencer is focused on the process of winning, of getting it right one point at a time.  The fencer who goes in to win the bout is focused on the outcome, and is more likely to thrown off balance when the opponent scores a few points, pushing the desired outcome away.   One of the key tenets of resilience is to invest in the process, not the outcome - while it is important to set the goal (win the bout), all energy should go into the process of winning, not the win itself.

There is much complexity in the mental game, and it's our responsibility to help our fencers get there.

Mental preparation starts long before the bout begins.

Resources for fencers on the mental game

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Donna Meyer