Character Study

It's 4 in the morning and I'm awake. Thankfully from that second (or third, or was it fourth?) glass of wine, not this time from crying. Not that I fenced all that brilliantly yesterday, but at least I fenced my D-Es well for once, even if I did lose all (yes, all) of my pool bouts. (This was Veteran Women's Epee, not Foil, but it still hurt.)

So there I was yesterday morning, sitting by the strip and thinking about something that (I think) Aldo Nadi once wrote, about how we reveal ourselves on the fencing strip, and I started making a list of things that might affect how I behave on strip. At the time, I had hopes that just sitting there writing might help prepare me for the pools. Who knows? I might have gotten even fewer touches than I did if I hadn't made the list. Here it is, for what it's worth.

1. I like to make lists. Making lists makes me feel secure, as if I have quite literally circumscribed a problem. Lists are more or less by nature finite, if at times apparently infinitely extensible. If you can make a list of something, you know what it is.

2. I value elegance and precision in actions, and yet I am willing to be sloppy (e.g. with my handwriting) if I am in a hurry. Although, even with my handwriting, it distresses me not to be able to execute the action beautifully, it is just that I get impatient as well.

3. I tend to think things out by writing about them and making notes. I used to take notes at every lecture I heard, for something like 25 years (i.e. beginning in college). I don't so much anymore, which is interesting. Taking notes helps me listen and remember what I have heard. And yet, I have a hard time taking notes about fencing, go figure.

4. I envy those who can perform better than I can and I want to be in their place, but, oddly, when I am in their place (e.g. receiving an award or making a good touch), I don't perceive myself as having achieved the same degree of excellence as others have.

5. I believe in reading books from beginning to end, but I don't like reading instruction manuals (much to my husband's distress whenever I get a new computer). I like how-to books and workbooks, but I find it hard to practice things that I read about in fencing. Again, I seem on the one hand to value working through a problem systematically, and yet on the other to want to skip to the end.

6. I like thinking in patterns and diagrams (note to self: must get to work on that coloring book!). I like symmetry and regularity, but I also like asymmetry. Thus, I suppose, the appeal of fencing: an almost uniquely asymmetrical sport which relies on the fact that no matter how hard we try not to, we all have predictable actions.

7. I am well-organized in the sense of doing things on time (except, alas, book reviews), but I don't like writing to outlines because I am afraid that it makes my writing too stilted.

8. I get angry when I don't know what to do, probably because I am scared. I like having a map to follow, but I am also good at guessing the correct route when I get lost.

I had a few more entries, but I seem to have lost them when I tore up the page on which I was keeping notes about my opponents in the pool. So what did I learn from this latter exercise? It was at first interesting watching my opponents and attending to what actions they were doing, but after the first three bouts when it was clear that I was just going to keep losing (because, of course, I had been watching my opponents and could tell how strong they were), I just started getting frustrated again. See, I am used to being able to control (sort of) a situation by writing about it. But no matter how much I write, it does not change the way that I behave on the strip. Nor, alas, the way that I feel after I get off the strip when I have not been able to figure out what to do.

What I really want is some way to practice fencing in tournaments the way that I am able to fence at practice, because, you see, I actually can do this maddeningly difficult sport fairly well. Except, of course, in tournaments, where it counts. It is almost as if there is a switch in my head. So long as I am practicing simply to get the next touch, I can do it. But as soon as I am in a situation where my opponent and I start keeping score, it's as if I forget everything that I was doing before. The only times in tournaments that I have been able to fence as well as I do at practice have been when I have been utterly convinced that there was nothing I could do to win. As, for example, in my first D-E yesterday, when I had come out of the pools at 47th (out of 48) and was up against the number 18 seed. Or, famously, in the first Div II Foil I ever fenced, when I came in 16th out of 86.

I should be able to think my way out of this, but I simply can't. Thinking on strip is deadly for me. If I start thinking about what my opponent is going to do, I'm sunk. If, on the other hand, I simply watch her and keep distance, then (at least, sometimes) I seem to be able to know what to do. And yet, everyone else talks about needing to have a plan. Maybe if I had a plan, then I wouldn't lose so much. But it is exactly when I go on strip having been watching my opponents and therefore thinking I know what to do that I lose.

I wonder what all of this says about my character.


  1. Re: the disparity between one's performance in training vs one's performence in competition, I struggle with this as well. As you've pointed out, it really underscores how heavily one's psychological state influences one's performance. Certainly it's not even fair to oneself to fully expect to be in the same mental state when standing on strip at a NAC as when hooking up at one's club on a normal evening!

    The only thing I've been able to figure out for myself is that I have to compete as training for competing. That is, if I want good performance at high pressure events, I have to do as many little local events as I can, perceiving their greatest importance to me as being training for the NACs and Nationals. Do you compete frequently in your local area / have you found that to be helpful with the mental game?

    I've also had similar experiences to yours where I seem to achieve better final results from a bad 2nd round seed than from a good one, despite the fact that a poor seed gives one a more perilous route through the DE table. I can only figure that, again as you pointed out, it relieves some of that emotional pressure and liberates one to fence normally again.

    But I think it's also worth remembering that so much of this is also just dumb luck of the draw. Often enough, the stars just don't align right and I wind up facing someone in DE's with a much lower seed than myself but who just hadn't quite woken up yet while in pools. I got my clock cleaned on Friday by a kid with junior points who seeded about ten places lower than me after a bad pool. :-P It just happens. I've simply got to come back next time and hope for better luck to compliment my (hopefully at least incrementally improved by then) skills.

  2. I do compete in our local area, but as there aren't very many women's tournaments, it is usually in Opens with lots of young men. All of us women tend to train with lots of young men, but we still fence differently than they do and I find that that's one of the things that I really only get to practice by going to the NACs. Plus, the Veteran women all have their own particular games, and, again, the only way to practice against them is at the NACs. I had been doing very well in our local tournaments, particularly with staying focused in my pool bouts. I had some excellent bouts just a few weeks ago in one of our local tournaments when I was even sick. But somehow I was not able to fence that way this past weekend, which hurt.

    I think you are absolutely right about the mental pressure: I fenced exactly as I wanted and needed to in my DEs yesterday, but only after having completely bombed in the pools.

  3. Here is an exercise I do with V., if your coach would be open to it. We do a mock bout where he "plays" a given style of opponent. My assignment, after 30 or 45 seconds of elapsed time, is to tell him what that style is. If I get it wrong, we start again and observe some more. If I get it right, I devise my response and try it out, then we discuss whether or not it worked, and if not, why not (bad strategic choice, good strategy but poor execution, etc.) It is exhausting, but very useful.

    And, for the record, it was four. All well-deserved.

  4. Very thought provoking post :)

    I'd like to echo what Fencerchica said above re: viewing local competitions as practice for larger ones. Even before I started competing, I noticed that I (and others) fenced differently once we started keeping score. I think some people thrive on that pressure but many others REALLY don't.

    I've also done V.'s "observe and diagnose" exercise and it's very useful though difficult because I find that analysis and execution are two very different mindsets for me and it's hard to switch back and forth. Again, more practice...

    Maybe it might be useful to make notes on your mental state pre-practice, pre-competition, pre-national competition and look for patterns? Do something to relax yourself when you're feeling tense?

  5. This article just out in our university magazine says it all:


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