How to Stay Calm in a Fencing Bout

1. Breathe. This is one of the first things I learned in preparing for a bout. It helps if you know how to do yogic breathing or ujjaya breath: slightly constrict the throat and then breathe through your nose, very slowly while you're waiting off strip, making a sound a little like Darth Vader in his helmet. This will help calm you down for when you get up. It's harder to maintain this method of breathing while you're actually fencing, but you can help yourself by returning to it between touches. When you go back on guard, breathe and refocus as you wait for the referee to say, "Fence!"

2. Keep your point on target. I know, it seems simple, but one of the things that beginning fencers in particular often fail to do is keep their blade between themselves and their opponent. Your blade is your shield as well as your weapon, but you cannot parry efficiently if your point is off target. Also, if your point stays on target, this means that you only ever need to extend to get the touch (provided you are in distance); if you allow your point to stray, then it will only take that much longer to get back on target when the opportunity to hit presents itself.

3. Have been there before. It is very hard to stay calm when you do not have the experience of having been on strip--a lot. Almost everyone gets nervous in tournaments, but you can always tell the fencers who have more experience because they simply know what to do when they get on strip: how to hook up, where the on guard line is, how long the strip is, not to mention what to do against different kinds of opponent. There is no substitute for experience, but neither should you feel anxious if you don't have it yet. If you're there on strip, you're getting it.

4. Take it one touch at a time. You are not on the strip to win a bout; you are on the strip to fence. A subtle, but very important difference. You have to want to fence *this* bout against *this* opponent and be willing to give everything you have to being here now. This, of course, is one of the most difficult things to learn: we all get on the strip wanting to win, but if you are focused on the outcome rather than the moment, you will not be able to make the touch. All that matters as you are fencing, whether the score is 0-0 or 14-1, is *this* touch and this touch alone.

5. Open your eyes wide. This one I learned just this past weekend. It's like breathing, something to do when you feel your focus slipping. As we get anxious, our field of vision tends to constrict, but with fencing, you need to keep your focus open, so that you can watch your opponent's distance as well as her blade. Opening your eyes wide helps reset this open focus so that you can attend to the movement of the bout more clearly.

6. Respect your opponent. The usual reason that fencers get anxious or lose their cool in a fencing bout is because they are losing to someone they have told themselves that they "should" beat. There are no "shoulds" in fencing; any fencer at any time can beat or be beaten by any other fencer, no matter what their relative levels of experience. Whatever your rating, there are no guarantees once you get on the strip what is going to happen; everything depends on how you and your opponent are fencing that day. To be sure, higher rated fencers tend to beat lower rated fencers, but this is because they have more experience in knowing how to fence, not because they get on the strip thinking they are supposed to win (which is subtly different from having confidence in their ability to win).

7. Stay flexible. If one action isn't working, try something else. This is more difficult when one is relatively inexperienced; you simply don't have that many other things to try. Recognize this if you are up against a more experienced opponent and try to learn from what she is doing. Conversely, if your opponent keeps doing the same thing over and over again, try something to make her change: feint to a different line or change the tempo of your attack. Above all, keep moving in and out of distance to test what she is likely to do.

8. Don't worry about staying calm. This one is from my son. It's like not thinking about pink elephants: if you are worried about staying calm, then your focus is on staying calm, rather than the bout. Focus on the bout, not on your reactions to it.


  1. All good. Though my coach disagrees with the point on target--he often wants us to keep point up, or down--absence of blade. But the gaze, that should always remain on the opponents chest, right where you want to hit her.

    Couple more:
    dance a little on the strip. (Take it from Dancing Badger, it helps.)
    In between touches (on the way back to en guard position) chant a little mantra to yourself, if you have one.
    If your opponent is rolling over you--before you try anything to hit her, just try to shut down whatever she is doing. Disrupt distance, do unexpected things, charge her. Anything to take back the rhythm of the bout.
    Keep a plush mascot at the side of the strip. Honestly, it is hard to take this too seriously with a stuffed animal watching you. Preferably a silly looking one.

  2. I can't believe I forgot about the mascot! Of course: Fencing Bear fences much, much better when, um, Fencing Bear is there watching. Well, you know what I mean.

  3. I like these. Especially the breathing - just getting enough oxygen is so crucial to endurance!

    I would also offer - when in doubt, just keep moving.


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