“Am I Getting Any Better at This?"*

This is a question my coach and fellow fencers have heard a lot from me over the years. Frequently it is punctuated by its obverse: "I'm not getting any better at this, am I? Maybe I should just quit!" Remember, as a fencing bear, I am only a 5-year-old, but even 5-year-olds should get over such childish responses to the challenge of learning, yes?

The irony here is that, the longer I fenced, the stronger this response seemed to get. In the beginning, I was simply happy to be on the strip at all, amazed and delighted to be learning a new skill. I watched the more experienced fencers with awe and not a little bit of envy, but at least I was practicing. This was the period during which I lost so much weight, in large part out of sheer excitement, I suspect. For months, I told only my very closest friends what I was doing; I had a great secret that I did not yet want to share.

And then the anxiety set in. I practiced a lot, right? I was there in the salle two or three times a week, for two or three hours at a time. I did the footwork for 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning of each practice, even when the coaches did not lead us. I was bouting against fencers much, much stronger than I and getting touches on them.* I was reading books about how to fence and working on learning how to hold my foil, still using a French grip at the time because that was the proper, classical style. I watched my coach (a different one then from the one who is coaching me now) and tried to imitate his style. Surely, I told myself, looking in the mirror as I practiced my lunge or my extension, I was getting better at this.

Or so it felt until I started going to tournaments. The first was a fluke: only six unrated fencers showed up and I managed to place second, winning my first and thus far only trophy (appropriately enough with a turkey on top--it was a Thanksgiving season event). Thereafter, there was nothing I could do right. My coach would try to build up my confidence by telling me, "You can do this. Just win two or three of your pool bouts and you'll be fine." But, of course, I couldn't and this made me angry. I did my parries right; I had a good, clean extension (or so I thought); my footwork was balanced and strong.** Why couldn't I get any touches? Even worse, how were fencers whom I could see weren't as clean in their fencing as I was placing so much higher in the event?

And so it went. I would lose most if not all of my pool bouts, lose my first D-E*** no matter how hard I tried to believe in myself as my coach suggested, and then spend the next few hours sometimes quite literally beating myself up.**** Nor did it help (much) when I saw other fencers equally distraught after losing a bout. They were just having a bad day; I, however, was never going to learn how to do this, or so I told those who tried to comfort me.

The worst were the stories the older***** fencers would tell me about how when they were learning to fence, there came a day when suddenly everything opened up for them and they understood what to do. Sometimes this day came early in their fencing career, after only a year or two; more typically, they admitted that it took five or six years.

Somewhat comforted, nevertheless, I would go back to the salle and practice more, telling myself just to be patient, it was going to work. And then would come the next tournament, no change in my results, other fencers who had starting fencing after I did placing higher in the event, and I would plummet back down, convinced that what my father had always said had been right: some people just have the talent to do sports, and I didn't.

You must be wondering by this point why I kept going. Interestingly, I'm not entirely sure. In part, for the first four years, it was because my son (now age 12) was also learning to fence at the same time with me. He, of course, has the patience and talent my father always described, and was soon placing regularly in the top 3 of the local youth events--and typically higher than I did in the Open tournaments (i.e. against fencers of both sexes and all ages and skill levels). While he was fencing, this was something that I could do with him as his mother. I was proud to be a fencing mom who also fenced. When we went to the national tournaments in the summers, we had a whole week together just to hang out, a rare gift and something I thought was extremely important for both of us to have as he was growing up. In this context, if I lost or didn't seem to be getting any better, at least he was and so it was worth it spending all of this time getting both of us to practice.

Also, of course, as it turned out, I wasn't really losing all the time. After a year and a half, I managed to tie for 3rd in a bigger unrated tournament and earn my E. The next summer, in my first D-E for the Women's Foil Division III, I suddenly found my counter-parry riposte and managed to beat one of my fellow veterans who has been fencing for much, much longer than I (she is now ranked 2nd overall in Vet 40-49).****** And the following spring, I finished in the top 16 out of 86 in Women's Foil Division II and earned my D.

The bouts that I fenced that day were incredible: I had no expectations about how well I might do against such experienced fencers, so for once I was able simply to be in the moment and fence. Every touch was for itself, not because I thought I might get any more after it. And, gradually, touch by touch, I found I had won. Miraculously, this concentration lasted through three D-Es, until I suddenly started thinking that I might actually make it to the top 8. At which point, the bubble burst, and I was back where I usually was, walking into touches when I thought I had made the attack. The door had opened momentarily--and then slammed shut again.

And stayed shut. Despite earning my D, I did not qualify for Div II/III at Nationals that year. And at Nationals, I fenced so badly in my Veteran event that I did not even make the cut to advance to the D-Es. Here I was, a 4-year-old fencing bear, still--or so it felt that day--clueless, still incapable of getting any better, and having no idea what I needed to do in order to change.

But I wouldn't be writing this now if I didn't think something had changed for me over the past year, now would I?

The first thing that changed was my coach, who now gave me some rather different advice. When I asked him one day whether he thought I was getting any better, he told me, "Even on the day when you win the whole tournament, you should be back at practice the next day. You should never be satisfied with getting better; there is always something to work on." What he seemed to be saying was that although it was appropriate to aim for success in the tournaments, that in itself should not be the point of my training. I should train not to win but to train more. The point was to use every bout as an opportunity to learn something about myself as a fencer so as to be able to use it the next time I fenced. From this perspective, it was impossible to lose except insofar as I did not learn from the bout.

The next thing that changed was that my son told me he no longer wanted to fence. I had dreaded this happening, as I could tell he was not really enjoying our practices at our new club (another story, maybe another post), but I had hoped that eventually he would adjust to the new surroundings and settle in. Alas, it was not to be. I was distraught; it was not that I wanted to force him to continue to do something he no longer enjoyed, but it meant that I was losing my fencing partner, the one on whom I had depended to get me to practice and warm up with me all those years. Also, how could I now justify all the time I would be spending away from him going to practice by myself? I felt selfish wanting to continue without him but also afraid that if he were not there I would no longer have a reason to fence. This was the thing we had done together; how dare I--or so it felt--presume to continue when he was the one who was actually any good?

The third thing was that gradually, little by little and by no means with any sense of revelation, just looking back on how my bouts used to feel, I realized something was different: I did seem to know what to do when faced with certain opponents. Not everyone, but certainly the ones who I could now tell had less experience than I did. To be sure, they might get one, two or even three touches against me in a 5-touch pool bout, but by then I would have watched them carefully enough to know how they were likely to move and, lo and behold, I would be making an attack that I needed to land just there--and it would! I might find myself behind in the bout, even as badly as 1-4 and still know that if I could fence this next touch correctly, that would be enough. Do it again, and again, and again--one touch at a time--and I would have won. Moreover--and even more importantly--I now recognized what had happened to me in all those bouts that I lost in my first years as a fencing bear, when I would be the one getting the first few touches and then she (my opponent) would suddenly become impossible to hit, just when I thought that for once I might win.

The fourth change in my awareness came at the next big national-level tournament, where I fenced three events over the course of the same number of days. Many of the same fencers competed in all three of the events, and as luck would have it, I ended up fencing against some of the same opponents on more than one day. One fencer who beat me handily in a D-E the first day, I was able to beat in a pool two days later; another fencer who beat me in a pool on the second day (and who took 9th that day out of 110 fencers), I beat in a D-E on the third day. And so it went. I finished up about the same in terms of overall rank all three of the days (17/37; 59/110; 51/110), but even more valuable was what I now realized about what I had achieved: I was now strong enough that it did make a very real difference what I believed about whether I could win. There was something I could do about it.

The interesting thing at the moment is that it does not seem to matter (quite so much) whether I am getting better, because clearly I have. The question is whether I could have come to this realization sooner, without all of the frustration and angst. Of this, I am less sure. In order to have the confidence that when I got on the strip, it was possible for me to win, I had to have won. In order to know how to deal with less experienced fencers than myself, I had to have fenced--for years. I also now realize that I was using my son's fencing as something of an excuse not to allow myself to fence; rather, until I was forced to accept my fencing as something that I was doing for myself and myself alone, I could not accept the time that I spent fencing as something worth doing simply for itself.

But the most important lesson in all of this is one I am, of course, still struggling with: "getting better" is not a matter of external success (although such success may come as a by-product), but of being willing to be there on the strip, fully in the moment, thinking of nothing but how to make this touch. I had a glimpse of this understanding a year and a half ago, on the day that I earned my D. My mistake (I now realize) at that point was to assume that because I fenced so well that day, I now "knew" how to fence--thus my disappointment when, the next time I got on the strip, the "door" was no longer open. There is, I am now convinced, no "door" that will one day magically open and all touches after that make sense. What there is is the moment in which it is possible to make this touch and this touch alone. If I can see how to make this touch, well and good. If I can't, then I need to pay closer attention so that next time, maybe I will.

*I now understand why. Inexperienced fencers are difficult to fence. They can get touches out of sheer randomness, simply because the other fencer has made a mistake, not because they plan the action. I now realize that most of the touches I got for my first year or three were like that.
**And, of course, I was thin. See "On Beauty and Being Thin."
***For non-fencers: tournaments are divided into two parts. The first part is a round-robin or "pool" of 5-7 fencers in which each fencer fences all of the other fencers in the pool. The results of all of the pools from this round are used to seed the elimination table. In the next round, the loser of each bout is eliminated from the competition while the winner advances to the next level in the table. Think decreasing powers of two, until the top two fencers end up in the final.
****The most memorable is the time that I kicked a wall, not realizing it was concrete. I limped for a week.
*****In fencing bear terms. Most of these people were younger than I in "real life".
******See footnote * on inexperienced fencers.


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