If At First You Don't Succeed...

I'm thinking, quit. None of this try, try again nonsense. Try, try again, and again, and again...and then what? Keep trying indefinitely until you're dead. Certainly, if you quit, you'll never know. But neither is there any guarantee that by trying you will succeed.

I was, yes, in tears again yesterday morning before my next event, talking with my husband on the phone. You know the conversation, I've had it so many times before: me, in tears, trying to figure out why I keep coming to these events when it is 99% certain that I am going to lose, he trying to figure out something to say that will help me stop crying, all the while (as he has told me before) not really understanding why it is that I feel this need to compete because, well, of course I'm going to lose. I'm not really an athlete.

It is all too easy to think of the ways in which I don't really practice as much as I should. I don't do drills; I don't do enough footwork; I don't go to tournaments every weekend; I don't keep a notebook of everyone whom I have fenced. Maybe if I did all of these things, I might actually improve. And yet...I don't see my clubmates doing any of these things, and nearly all of them have improved their ratings in the last several months. One earned his C at the tournament just yesterday. I know, I know, they're practicing behind my back, going to camps and more tournaments, practicing at other clubs. Maybe they're doing all of these things and I just don't know about it. But then why don't I ever see them doing it, even at the tournaments that I do attend?

It is all too easy at the moment to blame my coach (goodness, I hope he never reads this!). How can I do drills when I don't actually know any? He's never made us do drills except with him in our lessons. And I've been to several of his camps. We did a few drills then, but mainly spent our time doing conditioning in the morning and bouting and lessons in the afternoons, much as we do at practice anyway. I used to do quite a lot of footwork, back in the day when our practice floor was wood and didn't kill our knees and shoes like the concrete that we practice on now. I'm not entirely convinced that going to more tournaments would necessarily help: one of our fencers who is devoutly Jewish almost never comes to tournaments because they're usually on Saturdays. We've moved our club Opens to Sundays in the past few months and almost immediately, he went from an E to a B. Actually, he did that in one day--after not having fenced in a tournament in months, maybe even over a year.

So that leaves me with keeping notes. Hmmm.... I keep notes on everything else in my life, why not on the fencers whom I fence? In great part, because I have no idea what to look for. Sure, I watch them as they fence and I get on strip with a general idea of the kinds of things that they are likely to do. But: a) simply knowing what they are likely to do does not tell me how best to respond, and b) even when I think I know how to respond, I flub it, because, well, I'm making it so blindingly obvious that that is what I am trying to do. But it's more complicated than this. What, exactly, is it that I am supposed to be looking for? How they make their attacks. Okay, I see that. But, of course, how they make their attacks is not just how they make their attacks; it's the whole set up, how they move, what distance they're keeping, what they're looking for their opponent to have done right before they make their attack. I suppose I could try taking notes on all of this, but it still doesn't tell me what I need to do in response because, well, that's not the kind of thing my coach drills me on. I really haven't a clue.

I'm thinking now of the way I watch other people lead discussions in class. We talk about fencing as a conversation of blades, so, okay, what is a conversation like? A class discussion is a better analogy than an informal conversation because the movements are clearer: I start by asking a question just to see how the students will respond. Analogy: you make a few feints to see what parry your opponent is likely to take. In class, I try to make the opening questions fairly easy so as to encourage the students to respond; I can't throw the more complicated ones at them until I can tell how much help they are going to need in order to appreciate the complexity. So I get an answer. Is it the answer I was expecting? If yes, then I can move on to my next question. If no, then what do I do? Ask another question, try to nudge them a little more. Listen for what they say and see if there is something in the answer that I can use. Ask another question; nudge a little more. And so forth.

Not everybody can do this as well as I can, even when they've been teaching for years. I've seen colleagues offered amazing openings with the answers that the students give and have no idea how to move the conversation along, while all the while, I'm sitting there bouncing (metaphorically) in my seat, wanting to show them how they can use what has just been said. I know that this is the way the women who are beating me watch bouts. They see openings that are simply invisible to me, while I, like my colleagues, am blind to the opportunities to respond. But nobody taught me how to lead discussions like this. Sure, when I first started teaching, I read lots of books on teaching technique and attended numerous seminars on how to teach. But the subtleties of how to take a student's answer and mold it into the argument towards which you are trying to lead a whole class, not to mention how to plan this conversation out in your notes beforehand: that I figured out all on my own over years of practice. So why can't I figure it out now in my fencing?

I don't have the gift, that's got to be it. Because if I do, it is certainly doing a great job of hiding. Maybe there really are "natural athletes" in the same way that there are "natural teachers." Not everybody (or so it seems) can learn to teach as well as I do (sorry, there isn't much point in false modesty here); maybe it really isn't possible for me to learn how to fence any better than I do now. There's a reason, after all, that it is the same eight or so people up there on the podium tournament after tournament. They have the gift. Most of them have been up there on the podium after much less time fencing than I have been--and having achieved it, they just stay there, like professors with tenure, never going away. So what if they've been fencing for decades? They've spent those decades winning, not losing. While I, I guess I'm just a perpetual graduate student who is never going to get a job. Well, there's a comforting thought.

Comments

  1. For the record - if I could go be a perpetual graduate student, I absolutely would be. I don't think I have the commitment or talents to go from grad student to good professor somewhere, but if I could spend my life taking classes from interesting professors & surrounded by people engaged by the intellectual questions that interest me, I absolutely would. When I was a student, there were a number of people (professors & fellow students) who were clearly smarter than I was, and that was really exciting for me.

    Of course, I may be pushing the analogy a bit too far here.

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  2. Thanks, Jonah. Actually, I think the analogy works fairly well. Some of the women I am competing against were world champions in their younger days. It is, indeed, a privilege to get to compete against them now, and no wonder I lose. I don't really expect ever to be in the top 4 at one of our Veteran tournaments, but I have seen women who started fencing at about the same time in life as I did up there with the top 8, so perversely, I still hope, even when I probably shouldn't any more. It would be much better for me if I could think about things in the way you suggest and just enjoy being the perpetual grad!

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