How to Manage Distractions in Fencing

 US Fencer gives "thumbs up" gesture

By Dr. Justin Tausig

It’s no secret that focus is an essential ingredient to performing well as a fencer. However, fencing competitions bring a revolving door of distractions that can draw your attention away from what is most important. In this article, we are going to look at one of the most effective mental tools I used in my own career as a national team member to stay focused so that I could perform at my best.

Distractions are the things you don’t control

I define distractions as things you focus attention on that are outside of your direct control. Venues are often big, brightly lit and filled with the noise from the scoring machines, screams from competitors, coaches, and spectators. In a nutshell, it’s chaos.

Examples of things over which you have little to no control:

  • The venue itself – Are the strips slippery? Is the lighting poor? Are you fencing on concrete?
  • The opponent – Humans are capable of anything at anytime.
  • The spectators – Again, humans are capable of anything at anytime, even your own support staff!
  • Point standings, rankings, – I’ll come back to this point later.
  • The referee – Some would argue that they can influence the referee, but at the end of the day the majority of what a ref decides is out of your control
  • The tournament hotel – Is your bed comfortable? Will a fire alarm go off in the middle of the night?
  • Travel to the tournament – Delayed flight? Lost luggage?
  • Climate – Do you prefer fencing in cold climate, a hot one, or one that is more temperate?

Consider for a moment how much time you are focusing on things over which you don’t have any control. Does that help you? Or does it actually take emotional energy away from those elements of your fencing that are in your control?

Focus on what is under your control

There a number of things that are under your control, which are a more constructive place to put your attention, such as your your equipment (did I make sure all my equipment is working before the competition?), your supplies (do I have the snacks and water I need?), and your routines (am I following a routine I know is best to prepare me for the competition?).

However, the most important thing in your control are the discrete skills that make up your fencing. This is something I’ll refer to as your “process.”

What is your process?

Your process, simply put, is “just fencing” -  anything that directly goes into fencing on the strip and winning points. Here are a few examples:

  • Your footwork – Am I moving well up and down the strip? Am I properly controlling the distance?
  • Your bladework – Am I using control and precision to maneuver the weapon?
  • Your timing – Am I executing actions at the optimal moment?
  • Your tactics – Am I making smart decisions on the strip?

One of the worst distractions: Focusing on results

Many fencers begin to experience issues when they focus too much on the outcome they want to achieve. However, as I touched on before, there are many things outside of your control that influence your result. You can fence the match of your life, making very few mistakes, but if you get a number of bad calls from the referee or your opponent simply fences just a little bit better, you will lose. That is a natural reality in fencing.

The key is realizing that when you focus on your process (i.e. things you can control), you are giving yourself the best odds of actually achieving the result you want.

So instead of focusing on thoughts like “I want to win this bout,” or, “I want to make the podium,” you should focus on process-oriented thoughts like, “I want to control the distance in this bout,” or, “I want to keep my back straight when I lunge.”

These are the things that you control, you can repeat and will ultimately help you win.

Focusing on rankings and point standings

Many fencers check the point standings often, especially those that are in contention for a national team. However, I challenge you for a moment to consider whether that is helpful. The first season that I qualified for the U.S. Men’s Epee Team was the toughest for me, for two reasons. First, I did not know that I was actually good enough to be in the top 4 in the rankings. Second, I spent the entire season looking at the point standings, so I knew before any fencing had started at every competition where I was in relation to other people.

I found my focus drawn to bouts on the other side of the venue because they involved athletes who were near me on the ranking list. This made it MUCH tougher to just fence!  Once I qualified, I talked about this with my coach, Maitre Stephane Riboud. He told me I should stop looking at that stuff! Never again did I look at the rankings, point standings or even the tableau during the season. In every subsequent year, I went to competitions to see how good I could be. My process was the only thing on my mind. Not points, not rankings, and not teams. It made it much easier to just fence.

Cultivate self-awareness so you can focus on the process

Even Olympic champions get distracted by things that don’t matter, but the most important skill you can develop for focus is the ability to detect when your focus is drifting. You might notice that you are thinking about how lucky your opponent got on the last touch or how bad that call was from the referee. These are very important cues that can help you identify when you need to make an adjustment. When that happens, you will want to find something more constructive to focus on within your process. Then shift your attention back to that element. So again,

  • Recognize the distraction
  • Identify a better focal point in your process
  • Shift your focus

Try this at your next practice or competition and let us know how it worked for you!

Footnotes

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.

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons