GUT INSTINCT - SADA JACOBSON ON INTUITION AND FENCING
By Jason Rogers
Why is it that the best decisions we make on the strip are the ones that we can’t explain? Often the precursor to a great touch is just a prickly feeling of what your opponent is going to do next. Some call this feeling their “gut”, but in the language of psychology it’s more often referred to as intuition. Whatever name you use, it plays a major role in how we make decisions in fencing.
To get under the skin of this topic, Better Fencer talked to Sada Jacobson. In addition to being one of the sharpest minds we know (pun intended), she is a three-time Olympic Medalist in Women’s Sabre (Bronze Idv. 2004, Silver Idv. 2008, Bronze Team 2008). Today, Sada spends more time jousting with clients as an attorney than on the fencing strip, but she shares her thoughts with us on this important topic.
EXCERPT FROM INTERVIEW WITH SADA JACOBSON ON INTUITION AND FENCING
“I think about intuition in the context of fencing as the sum of all of your experiences taking the form of a feeling that something is going to happen even if you don’t necessarily have the evidence to support it. I would often go into a match with a strategy for a specific opponent, but also know I needed to have the flexibility to respond to how they were fencing that day. So while I would have an overall strategic framework for the bout, the variations were what required intuition. Also I focused a lot on managing anxiety because I found that negative stress tended to shut down my intuition, and with it, the ability to find the creative solutions that I needed to succeed.”
- Summarized from Interview with Sada Jacobson, three-time Olympic Medalist, Women's Sabre
Sada strikes at the heart of the issue – how do you know when to trust your gut feeling versus go with the calculated, strategic choice? Before we unpack this key issue let’s look at how your brain makes decisions.
HOW YOUR BRAIN MAKES DECISIONS
To grossly simplify the answer to this question, the brain relies on two different approaches for making decisions. The first is a more methodical process where the brain consciously records and processes the incoming information, weighing the pros and cons before arriving at a conclusion. For example, we might observe a pattern in a opponent’s actions (they have attacked twice in a row) and consciously conclude what they will do next, and thus what you should do next (they might try to pull distance, so I will attack deeper). This type of thinking is what we most often use the word “strategy” to describe.
The other decision making process is unconscious, instantaneous and based on reactionary feelings to a scenario. For example, as the referee says “Fence”, you have the feeling the opponent is going to pull distance and therefore extend your attack. The brain relies heavily on these lightning-fast decisions to unload the cognitive strain of processing the complex world around us. This is also your intuition at work.
THE POWER OF INTUITION
However, just because these snap decisions happen quickly does not mean they can’t be incredibly accurate. As expertise in a craft develops and improves, this type of decision making becomes more and more reliable. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book on this topic called “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” in which he tells the story of tennis expert, Vic Braden, who could determine if a player was going to fault on a serve just by observing his movements before the ball was struck. Even Braden was confused by his own abilities because he couldn’t explain exactly how he knew this!
This does not mean, however, that all of our instinctual decisions are right. Our brains rely on this method frequently, whether we have expertise or not. In instances where we don’t have deep pockets of experience, such decisions are more like shortcuts (sometimes right, sometimes wrong) than uncanny moments of wisdom.
MY OWN JOURNEY WITH INTUITION AND STRATEGY
Like many young athletes, in the early stages of my fencing career, I was successful despite relying only on technical proficiency, athleticism and my ‘feeling’ for the sport. Because I had very little experience to draw from (or conscious understanding of fencing tactics), I relied on my instincts to guide my decisions in each match. When I began fencing more Senior (no age limit) level competitions, my approach of relying solely on instantaneous decisions was less effective against older and more experienced fencers. I no longer had a competitive advantage because more experienced fencers seemed to know what I would do before I did it. Their ability to consciously recognize my patterns and to change their plan accordingly (i.e. use strategy) provided the opportunity for them to control the bout and beat me without much effort.
With this observation in the back of my mind, I began working with 6-time Olympic Medalist, Vladimir Nazlymov, at The Ohio State University, who I hoped could teach me a more structured approach to strategy. However, despite learning his system, I never felt entirely comfortable because the logical decisions that I was making on the strip were frequently wrong. In retrospect, I can see that I confused the concept of ‘strategy’ by thinking that it meant that I needed to plan every action ahead of time. This misunderstanding actually had a negative impact on my fencing because it made me distrust my intuitive feelings because they didn’t involve calculated thought. While I progressed significantly during those years and qualified for my first Olympic Games, I continued to struggle to produce consistent results. I could not resolve the friction created between what my brain and my gut told me to do. (By the way, Vladimir’s system was great, however, it was my misinterpretation of the system that made it difficult for me to implement).
It wasn’t until after I finished college and returned home to Los Angeles to work with my first coach, Daniel Costin, that things began to change. Daniel urged me to unburden myself and to stop thinking so much. He reminded me that calculated thoughts and actions can actually get in the way of utilizing the deep experience I had built up over my career. We worked together to try to find a balance between using strategy (something that I was pretty good at) and trusting my intuition on the strip.
My major breakthrough happened in 2007 at a Grand Prix in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. While I was getting mentally prepared for a critical match with two-time Olympic Medalist, Gianpiero Pastore (Italy), an opponent I had fenced (and struggled with) many times over the years. I was watching an inspirational video that I had made of athletes that I greatly admired such as tennis legend, Roger Federer. I suddenly saw that while Federer had a very structured approach to his game, some of his most impressive points and feats of athleticism were complete improvisations.
Prior to this tournament I had also developed the habit of saying “Trust Yourself” over and over in my head before a match to build my confidence. A light bulb went off when I realised (finally!) that this confidence could only come from having faith in my ability to design a good game plan as well as trusting my intuition during a match. Having a well thought out strategy for the bout would improve my chances of winning by giving me better choices during critical moments. But, by accessing my intuition in the heat of the moment, I could respond immediately to whatever was happening, make quicker and better decisions and perhaps even surprise my opponent. And, as an added bonus, I also found that trusting my intuition kept my body more relaxed and my mind clear of the doubt that is often a by-product of relying heavily on precalculated thought.
The clarity I felt in those moments unlocked something for me, and I went on to beat Pastore, and several other top opponents, reaching the top-4. Then, I nearly defeated Russian fencing legend, Stanislav Podzniakov, whom I had looked up to for my entire career. I finished with a bronze medal and a new confidence which changed my fencing forever. I was able to rely on that confidence when I met Podzniakov again in the team event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I won that encounter (and we would go on to close out the match and win a Silver Medal).
FINDING THE BALANCE BETWEEN STRATEGY AND INTUITION
I can now clearly see how intuition and strategy support each other. Calculated thought is necessary to set up the framework for an upcoming match. That includes predetermined responses to scenarios that you expect to happen. This calculated strategy also helps identify which actions and responses will best leverage your strengths and exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. During the match, however, intuition then serves as the guiding force to respond to and/or create unforeseen opportunities during touch-by-touch decision making.
TRAINING INTUITION - LESS IS MORE
The prevailing attitude in sports is that more is better. More training. More footwork. More competitions, etc.
While, doing more may help you acquire a base of technical skills, it is easily misinterpreted and misapplied when it comes to improving intuition. Intuition can only become more accurate and useful through consistent exposure to high-quality learning moments and the reflection that comes afterward. So in that sense, developing your intuition is actually about doing less.
Fencers spend a lot of time bouting with each other in practice. However, only some portion of those matches will be intense enough and/or have sufficient quality to build your intuition. Consistent low intensity matches can actually impede building your intuition because they reinforce a different set of responses than those acquired in a competitive match (at full intensity). Slow matches also waste training time that a fencer could use to collect feedback from coaches and peers or to reflect on a match and visualize the key moments that reinforce positive intuitive responses under pressure. This is one of many reasons why focused, deliberate practice is essential to a comprehensive training plan.
The clarity and accuracy of your intuition comes from internalizing and understanding what went right (and what went wrong) in your matches, not from the exposure to the greatest number of scenarios.
Vladimir Nazlymov often told me about Pavel Kolobkov, Olympic Gold medal-winning epeeist from Russia, whose training regimen was managed to the exact number of touches he would fence every day (as a side note, Kolobkov was just named the new Russian Minister of Sport). In this extreme example, the athlete’s energy was meticulously maximized to ensure that he was exposed to the greatest number of high-quality training moments.
WHEN INTUITION BREAKS DOWN
There are, however, moments in a match when you must bring calculated decision making back into the game. Intuition is a sensitive mechanism which can break down when you are under stress. According to Gladwell, when our heart rate rises above 145 beats per minute, our ability to make complex decisions erodes significantly. This is the reason why high-intensity, high-quality training moments are exceptionally important. He tells the story of Gavin deBecker, who runs one of the country’s premier personal security agencies, who subjects his recruits to exercises with pit bulls and live bullets during training. Now don’t go and take off any of your equipment to up the ante, but I really want to drive home the point that simulating the stress of competition in training environments is essential to building intuition that you can rely on in future critical moments.
Only to complicate things, I must also point out that some circumstances actually require consciously overriding your intuition and pre-committing to an action. Whenever I suspected that my intuition might succumb to intense stress – for example, a match which concluded in a 14-14, ’sudden death,’ moment – I would deliberately choose my action based on my knowledge of my opponent and his fencing during the match. I recall one match-winning point during which I actually closed my eyes during an attack, so that I would not be tempted to change my mind once I initiated the plan.
Daryl Homer gave us a beautiful example of this type of strategic calculation in the Men’s Sabre semi-finals at the 2016 Olympics. At 14-14 with Mojtaba Abedini, his opponent from Iran, he went for a 5 parry, after having done so successfully several times earlier in the match. It was a bold gamble when the stakes were so high, but a far superior choice to having no plan when your intuition is likely to fail.
IMPROVE WHAT INTUITION PAYS ATTENTION TO
We mentioned before that in contrast to calculated thought, intuition relies on only a few key pieces of information to make quick decisions. You are rarely aware of what these specific inputs are, but you can try to make this process more conscious to improve it for the next time around. For example, when tracking an opponent on the en garde line, we often select a spot on their body that we spend more time looking at than others. Changes in the way this spot moves helps us anticipate what might happen next. For example, the nearly imperceptible lean forward that unconsciously suggests that your opponent is planning to attack fast off the line.
You can experiment and find what works best for you. For example, I found that when I watched my opponent’s midline (the spot right above their waist) I was much better at understanding changes to the distance between us. Compare this to the upper body or an opponent’s arm/weapon which can move much more without the actual distance between you and your opponent changing. Tim Morehouse and I used to talk about this frequently and for some time even experimented with watching our opponents’ feet! Although this never worked for me, you can see how an increased awareness of your opponent’s body can be very helpful to your fencing intuition.
The art of becoming truly great at something comes from the ability to balance. In this case, it’s balancing the incredible capacity of the mind to imagine possible scenarios before they occur (calculated thought) with the deep reservoir of experiences which support reactionary decision making (intuition).
How do you think about and use intuition on your matches?
*Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE