How to manage frustration when you are fencing
By Dr. Justin Tausig
One of the unfortunate realities of fencing is that you can do everything right and STILL get hit. That is, you can select a good action and execute it with the right distance and timing, but if your opponent guesses correctly, you can still lose the touch!
It is natural to feel frustration in these moments, but when we let it get the best of us, our fencing suffers. In this article, we will talk about some of the negative effects frustration has on our fencing and how we can improve our tolerance for this emotion when it arises.
First, take a few deep breaths
When we feel frustration, our instinct in those moments is often to speed up and “get it right the next time.” Then, when the next touch doesn’t go well, we get increasingly frustrated and the cycle continues as our thoughts and feelings spiral out of control.
To move forward you must break that cycle, and one of the best places to start is to turn your attention to your breath. Take a few long, deep breaths, drawing air into your stomach and exhaling slowly.
There is no “should” in fencing
Frustration is often exacerbated by our expectations. If you find yourself losing 0-3 to someone who you, or your coach, feels is inferior, it’s natural to become frustrated. But when you find yourself thinking something like, “This person sucks! I shouldn’t be losing to them!” you only intensify this frustration.
Try to remove the word “should” from your fencing vocabulary. The touches, the victories and the results are earned, not given. Sport is made for upsets, otherwise, tournament organizers could just hand the trophy to the number 1 seed and save everyone the trouble.
Every fencer holding a weapon is someone who must be considered dangerous!
Focus back on the present
Sports only happen in the present. If someone lunges at you, that is happening RIGHT NOW! Not 5 minutes ago; not 5 minutes from now. The better you can become at focusing on the present, the better you will be able to handle what happens in that moment.
When we become frustrated, our attention moves away from right now because, instead, we focus on our emotions. We get stuck thinking about that blown call the referee made and how angry we are. Or how annoying it was that the opponent got that lucky touch. These events are part of our sport, and you cannot avoid them. However, instead of focusing on what has already happened, you can choose to let it go and focus on the now.
When frustration occurs, we must remind ourselves over and over that we always have the choice to refocus our energy towards something productive, rather than on feelings that may cause us to give the bout away.
Curiosity can quell frustration
When are we upset we often ask “why am I frustrated?” which can lead us to focus on our emotions, something that is unhelpful in the heat of the moment. A better question to ask is “What am I going to do about this, right now?”
Invoking curiosity about what is happening in the match is a great way to navigate back towards a helpful response. Were you too close or too far away to execute your action? Did you start too soon or too late? Was your game plan appropriate for this opponent and situation? Was there something missing technically in your execution of the action? Did your opponent change their strategy, causing the action to fail?
These are just some of the possibilities that can explain why something did not work. Also, being analytical can prevent you from changing a strategy that is working simply because it didn’t work in one scenario.
So don’t get frustrated; get interested.
Dealing with frustration in the long-term
It is easy to feel good about ourselves, as athletes, when things are going well. During these times, we can comfortably find the energy to show up early to practice, train hard, and deepen our understanding of fencing as a sport. When things are not going as well and we consistently experience frustration, it can be difficult to find the motivation to continue to push ourselves as fencers.
However, we cannot rely solely on positive emotions to fuel our development. Becoming a great fencer is about working hard consistently and getting through those difficult periods.
But when they do arrive (and they will!), it is helpful to remind yourself of the commitment you have made to the sport, because it is honoring that commitment that can keep our momentum moving forward.
So, write down in a few words why you love the sport and why you have committed yourself to it. Then post it on your bathroom mirror, or in your locker, or anywhere to help remind you that smoother seas are ahead if you just keep going!
Training your tolerance for frustration at fencing practice
Have you ever had a lesson where you did everything perfectly? Then I suggest one of two things: find a new coach who will push you more, or retire because you are the best fencer in the world! All joking aside, frustration will occur at practice and, as part of your training, you must work on better preparing yourself to deal with it.
Situational bouting is a great way to work on frustration management. For example, if you get frustrated when the score is mounting against you, spend a few practices creating ONLY those types of scenarios. This will help desensitize you to the perceived newness of the situation and you will get a better handle on soothing frustration and focusing back on your fencing.
Or try making bouting more difficult. Do you have a favorite action? Force yourself to find another way to score touches, especially when the pressure mounts. Refuse to use your habitual action or action sets, and find other ways to be effective.
It is important to remember that getting frustrated does not make you weak; it makes you human. Every person feels frustration, but it’s how we deal with it that makes the difference in our lives and our fencing. The more that we can train ourselves to shift our attention back to productive areas to focus on, the better equipped we are to fence our best when it really matters.
Dr. Justin Tausig is a World Cup Medalist, former 6-time member of the U.S. National Fencing Team and has a Doctorate in Sport & Performance Psychology. He trained in Paris at the Racing Club de France for 11 years and currently, he helps facilitate the development of competitive athletes.
Header Image by Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0,