How Others See Us

My lesson at fencing last night was probably one I should--or "should"--have learned earlier, but there you go, we learn them when we can. My friend Ed (also a coach at Northwestern) was trying to get me to back up enough to be able to parry his attacks, but all I would ever do was take two steps forward, two steps back, stop at my on guard line--and get hit. "You have to be able to move out of your comfort zone," he told me. "Back up! Don't just stand there waiting to get hit."

Now, as far as I was concerned, this was not what I was doing ("waiting to get hit"). What I thought I was doing was stopping in distance to be able to take the parry and still be close enough to hit him on the riposte, but what he saw--and my clubmate Alan confirmed--was that I was stopping before he did and that there was no way for me to avoid his attack if I didn't move further back. "But, but, but," I protested. They both shook their heads: "You need to keep your distance, keep moving, or you're just going to get hit."

Part of me is still not convinced, although even as I write this, I can sense what it was they were trying to tell me. The thing is, they can see it and I can't. What if I were able to watch myself (yes, I know I could video my bouts) and see what it is that they see? Would I believe them then? I wonder. So much of who we are depends on what we tell ourselves about who we are; seeing myself from the outside like that might or might not convince the internal me that I needed to change. But there is one thing I have learned since last night or, at least, stated to myself more clearly: the reason that I'm getting hit has more to do with the way I fence than it does with the way my opponents do.

Duh? Think about it. How often do we tell ourselves things like: "She's impossible. I just can't get along with her"? Or: "I've tried and tried but he always picks a fight"? Coincidence? Or maybe it is we who are picking the fights and being impossible, and yet somehow we perceive it as the other person's problem. Translated onto the strip: "He always takes my blade; there's nothing I can do to get priority back." "She does the same attack every time; it's so annoying." "He rushes me and I don't have time to parry." Sound familiar? And guess what? It's your fault.

Okay, it's my fault, since I'm the one having the difficulty learning the lesson here. Think about how I'm rationalizing my actions (transcript from last night, as far as I can remember): "I'm afraid to step in and try to take the attack; you might parry me." (Read: I don't even try to take priority because of what I imagine my opponent will do.) "If I move back too far, I won't be able to do anything even if I do get the parry because you'll be too far away." (Read: I don't retreat far enough to get out of distance and so--viola!--I get hit.) "I'm trying to do that [move back, take priority] but it doesn't work." (Read: I think I'm doing these things, but I'm actually not.)

Likewise with the other scenarios mentioned above: why, exactly, is he able to beat my blade all the time unless I'm holding it there for him to beat? Why, exactly, does she do the same attack all the time unless I'm not doing anything to disrupt her? Why, exactly, does he rush me unless--yes, you guessed it--I'm not moving out of distance so as to foil (ha!) his attack? It's isn't (necessarily) that all of my opponents are so much more skilled, abstractly speaking, than I am, as it is that I am so good at giving them the opportunities to use their skills. I'm setting myself up! How's that for a conundrum?

I'm not sure even now having come to this realization that it's going to make much (immediate) difference to my fencing. Perhaps it's just one of those lessons we have to learn by banging our heads against them until we see the light. Or I could accept that there's actually something positive I can do--and do it. If only I could see myself the way others see me.


  1. This is why the best coaches are, I think, mirrors. Fun house mirrors perhaps, exaggerating our flaws, but accurate, none-the-less. They help us see ourselves from the outside, as well as modeling what we COULD look like. Hmm, I think there is a poem lurking here. Let me see if I can go help it surface.

  2. Done. Poetic commentary at Badgerosity

  3. Do you currently have anyone taping your bouts, whether at practice or at tournaments? It's amazing how one can have problems in one's fencing that are undetectable "from the inside" but just pop right out the instant one sees onself on film! Definitely an invaluable aid.

  4. Serendipitously enough, I just had one of my clubmates video a bout for me last night. My main reactions are both how boring the bout looks from the outside and how fast the actions are in which I actually make a touch. But I am awaiting the discussion with my coach on Thursday to learn what all I was doing wrong.


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