Mind Games

So, here's the thing, although I'm not sure I can explain it in a way that will make sense to anybody who isn't a fencer. Because that, of course, is the problem: fencing doesn't make sense. Here's a sport, mind you, in which anybody on any given day can defeat even the most experienced fencer; in which thinking to oneself, "Oh, I'm getting pretty good at this," is a sure guarantee that the next time you get on the strip you will lose; in which years of practice count for everything--and absolutely nothing. I don't know about you, but I can't think of any other activity for which this is the case.

Imagine someone sitting down at the piano without ever having touched a keyboard and playing a sonata better than Beethoven. Or imagine swimming for years, getting stronger and stronger, and diving into the pool one day and not being able to float. Anything else, you practice, you develop a skill, some days you feel better than others, to be sure, but you don't learn to type and then, years later, suddenly forget where all the keys are; or get on a bike one day and fall over. You've heard me say this before, but I'll say it again: sure, practice makes perfect, but in fencing, I have no idea how to practice.

I'd been having a really good time earlier this month. Suddenly, mysteriously, as with all things in fencing, I was doing better. I had found my focus, I had stopped stepping into my opponent's attacks, my timing was good, I could feel the distance and know exactly when to make my attack, I was even winning a few bouts against fencers whom I have never been able to make even 10 touches on in a 15 touch bout. And then came the deadly thought: "Maybe I've finally learned how to do this."


I'm telling myself exactly the same things I'd been saying to myself week before last--"Keep your point on target; arm first; one touch at a time"--and...NOTHING WORKS! Okay, so I've known these mantras for years, but earlier this month, they were actually working. I could get on the strip, feel confident that I would know what to do and allow myself to relax into the action, and actually, for really the first time ever in SIX YEARS of practicing, enjoy myself. Oh, the hubris. There is confidence and there is confidence. Confidence A means, magically, you have confidence that you can deal with whatever your opponent throws at you and you don't lose heart even when you're behind. Confidence B means you think you're better than your opponent and should beat him--which is a sure guarantee that you won't. You've heard me talk about the deadly fencing sin of pride. Here it is: "Think that you know what to do."

Looking back over my blog posts, I realize that I've written about this before. But knowing the answer (if there is an answer) doesn't make it any less painful this time around. Am I stupid or what? Will I never learn? My husband says fencing is so hard for me because it's against my nature, by which, I think he means, I find it hard to take the initiative being the introvert that I am. So I'm fighting myself? Well, yes, of course, I'm fighting myself. But how is it that enjoying the sensation of being able to do something (as a few weeks ago) translates into such misery now? It's as if I'm being punished for having hoped that maybe I was actually, finally, somewhat okay at this.

It's been a hard week, getting started on my book, so maybe I'm just more distracted than I realize. But I really don't know how I'm going to have the courage to get back on the strip having had it brought home to me, once again, that no matter how hard I practice, there's nothing I can do to make it work, other than expect that it won't.

Update: Okay, so I've done my Morning Pages and thought a bit more. There is something that is analogous with fencing. Fencing is like writing or, indeed, making any kind or art. It's waiting for the Muse, humbly, not expecting anything in particular but ready for what it brings. It won't come if you don't work--there is no incarnation without passion--but neither can you force it to be there. The best comparison I can think of at the moment is with trying to write while reading over somebody else's argument: if you get caught up in what he or she is saying, you lose the thread of what you were trying to say, but, as an academic at least, you still have to take their argument into account. So there you are on the strip, a.k.a. the page, watching your opponent's actions but not getting sucked into them. You have to say what you want to say and not get sidetracked trying to answer another problem. In writing, this means falling into summary; in fencing, letting the other fencer seize the initiative. The cry "I don't know what to say!" is very like the cry "I don't know what to do on the strip!" You can see others doing it and want to do what they do, but you have to find your own voice and say what only you can say.

This is not coming out as well as I'd hoped. I'm clearly much more tired than I realized. Or want to admit. The mystery here is action while surrendering, allowing oneself to be in the moment and yet still having a plan. And wanting to be in the moment, in this bout, writing this page, not wishing the bout were already over or the book already in print.

Time to go work on my page for the day.


  1. Fencing is not about accomplishments, it's a process. It is an ongoing series of events, transitions, and progress that never ends. The "Love/Hate" relationship you are experiencing is part of the process. We have to go through the "lows" to get to the "HIGHS" and believe it or not, it's worth it. You also have to keep changing. Sometimes it involves a few steps back to get a lot of steps forward. I've been working on my speed all my life, now I realize I need to slow down before I can get to the part where my speed is needed. Focus on your strengths. Look for and create times to use your strengths. The future is where your progress lies, not the past, but I know you're a historian and historians can't help looking back. For me, looking back is something I'll do when I'm done...but I'm never done.

  2. "Love/Hate" is exactly what this is. It wouldn't hurt so much if it weren't so much a part of me, but when the moment isn't there, it's like being abandoned by a loved one. Pure desolation.

    Thanks for the encouragement, as always. It really does help, more than I can say.

  3. hey - found you through Badgerosity's blog. Been reading awhile, this is the first time I'm commenting:

    I think you've really hit on something here with fencing = art! Practice is absolutely essential, but so is creativity, and quick creativity at that!

    And yeah, I totally hear you re: pride. I find that either pride or despair tends to tank my game. I have to keep this balance of just go and do with no expectations.

  4. Welcome, Allison! I'm happy to hear that my ramblings here make sense. Fencing so often doesn't, but, oh, when it does, isn't it beautiful? :)

  5. I think you have fallen into the trap that many others have fallen into. It is never about winning. If your goal is to beat the other person you have missed the point (so to speak). Your next breakthrough won't be when you beat Ed or Aida or another competitor in the region. Your next break through will be when you understand the reason behind the mantras. You say arm first, but do you understand why? Point on target, yes, but I have seen Peter Habala hit people when his point is well behind him. Is it because he is faster? stronger? I think it is because he understands what point first is supposed to do for him.

    I remember my first major breakthrough. It was when my coach asked me to be part of a interview for the local FOX network in Philly. The camera was pointed at my feet and I decided to do the footwork with my heels raised. It wasn't until that moment, when my calves started burning, that I understood why my coached had emphasized that point in my education.

    I have read many of your blog posts and you are a very thoughtful person, going deep into the meaning of words. Go deeping into the meaning of what your coaches are teaching you. Do the action correctly, yes, but also understand what advantage doing it correctly should give you. Fencing is a game of decisions. In a bout of two perfect fencers neither one should ever be able to hit the other. Understand the decisions and you will kick the crap out of anyone who comes across you.

  6. Perhaps I didn't make this clear in the body of the post, but one of the best things about the past few weeks was that I was fencing JUST TO FENCE, not to win, even though I found I could. That sensation--of confidence A--is what I was mourning on Thursday: I had been there, for a moment, even for more than one or two bouts, simply enjoying myself. And then I was back in the trap, as you say, worrying about why I wasn't getting the touches.

    "Arm first" seems to work well for me because it means that I prepare my attacks correctly. On Saturday at practice, I was paying attention to what it felt like for me to try to keep my arm up: scary, because my opponent might beat my blade, thus my tendency to drop my arm when I advance. It takes a great deal of effort for me at the moment --indeed, all of my concentration--to keep my arm up, which is also a good way of concentrating on something other than whether I'm winning or even whether I'm getting the next touch. That's what I meant by the mantras. Again, you can be saying these things to yourself and not actually doing them; or you can be inhabiting the mantra and therefore free of thinking about anything other than the moment. I think this is what you are trying to describe, too.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

SJWs Converge on Medieval Studies—in Real Time!

The Shame Game

How to Spot a Fascist

Why Jordan Peterson Lost That Bout to Cathy Newman

Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me