What to do after a fencing tournament - learning from your mistakes
By Will Spear
We’ve all been there – suffered a close 15-14 loss against one of your biggest rivals, had a director make (what you believed) was a questionable call on a pivotal touch, or made a bad decision that resulted in your defeat. This can lead to a lot of frustration.
Any way you cut it, the majority of people end a fencing tournament with a loss. You need to find a way to cope with that and more importantly, learn from your mistakes so you can rebound stronger. If you’re that one person who won the tournament, congratulations – bask in your success (but really, follow the advice below so you can continue your streak).
The aftermath of a tournament has several psychological stages to go through. Your goal should be to learn as much from a tournament as possible. If approached correctly, tournaments are great educational tools, and you can learn as much from a single tournament as from months of practicing. This article aims to look at the most constructive way to think about and analyze tournaments after they are over. It will not cover anything physical (although you should destress your body after a tournament as well through stretching and cool-downs). The sections are divided into the different mental processes you should go through after tournaments.
Dealing with your emotions at a fencing competition
As mentioned above, if you went to a tournament, probability suggests that you suffered a tough loss. An all-too-common problem is that people only think about their bouts immediately afterwards. However, the feeling of failure is often so overpowering that it can prevent you from being analytical about what went wrong in the tournament. Typically this will result in very subjective thoughts about your performance and the competition. The most important thing to do immediately after a tournament is find a way to flush out your negative emotions so that you can move on and find something constructive that will help you improve.
Timing will vary for everyone
How long it takes you to deal with your emotions will vary depending on who you are. My brother, men’s sabre Olympian Jeff Spear, is able to process his emotions quickly. He prefers to talk to a number of people about the actions and the decisions he made during his bout immediately afterwards.
In contrast, I personally don’t like to think or talk about my bout immediately afterwards. I find when I return to thinking about the tournament the next day, I am able to see much more clearly where I went wrong. However, if I wait too long to go over the bout, I forget important details, even if I’ve taken video, such as how I felt and what I was thinking during various touches.
Your preference may vary, but I find spending around a day in this state is the sweet spot. If you start the next stage (post-bout analysis) too early, you’ll be too upset to rationally think about why you lost. The most important thing is that you understand what works best for you.
Be conscious of your language
Unfortunately, it’s hard to know exactly when you’re ready to think about a bout objectively. However, one concrete sign you can look for is whether you’re using any concrete emotional terms when you think or talk about events. Some examples of this might be: “I sucked in that bout,” “my referee was a jerk,” “my opponent was a %&$#!!” If this is occurring, it’s unlikely you have fully processed the loss, and it’s unlikely you will get any real benefit out of analyzing tournament bouts.
I think about this as the expletive-throwing stage, and it’s important to note that doing this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s not affecting the people around you. It can be very cathartic to purge yourself of some of these emotions by using strong language. But to be clear, screaming expletives into your pillow into your hotel room by yourself is ok. Hurling expletives towards other people around you is not.
Once you have gotten yourself into a state where you’ve accepted your loss, you can begin to search for the insights that can help you use this event to your advantage.
Once your emotions have evened out a bit you can learn from the tournament. The first step is to figure out the root of why you lost. This ‘why’ has to conform to two core criteria in order for the insight you take away to be helpful. The reason has to be internal as well as specific. Let’s take a look at what this means.
Internal: your reason has to be something to do with you. “The referee made poor calls,” or “my opponent was better than I was,” are not helpful reasons to focus on (even if they are true). The reason should always start with “I did ____” or “I did not ______.”
Specific: your reason has to be specific. In other words, you must be able to describe something that happened in detail. “I became upset because my opponent yelled in my face and it rattled me” is a specific reason. “I was sluggish in the bout” is a general reason that could have many root causes.
The reason it’s important to be strict with the reasons you can choose is that you have to be able to change something specific in your approach to practice or competition.
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas that fit into this category, try to complete this phrase: “I did x, which caused y to happen. I should have done z.” It’s generic but will be enough to get you in the right direction. You should be able to start coming up with your own words after some practice.
Develop a strategy
Now that you have identified a specific problem, you need a plan to tackle this issue so that you can improve. This is where your coach can help significantly. The key is to be open and proactive in sharing your observations from the tournament so your coach can provide feedback on your rationale and help to craft a strategy for improvement.
Involving your coach here is really beneficial. It always helps to have an extra set of eyes. Together, you should be able to lay the foundation for drills and exercises to help you improve.
Understand your coaches’ limitations
However, don’t expect your coach to solve all of your problems. It’s also upon you to think creatively about how you can raise your game. Fencing is a mental sport. Being able to come up with your own solutions is imperative in your journey to becoming a better fencer. Be prepared to come up with your own drills and practice them by yourself or with clubmates.
With that said, the most obvious solution often isn’t the only solution.
Fencing is unique in that there are always several ways to accomplish the same thing. Take the above example, “there were three similar incidences when I let my opponent attack, even though they are very strong in that area.” To counter this, you could work on applying more pressure on your opponent, so they can attack less frequently, or you can work on a defensive action so you aren’t on the ropes when they do attack.
Another example is “I didn’t change when the referee stopped calling my attack in preparation.” You can work around this problem by training different actions, so you can fence without using attack in preparation, or you can work to make your attack in preparation action cleaner, so calling it is a no-brainer.
Keeping this flexibility in mind when you’re training will help you improve at a much faster rate. As an added bonus, it will also help you problem-solve during bouts, as you’ve been working on your flexibility and proactively thinking about how to improve yourself.
Also, if your issues have more to do with your mental game (e.g. dealing with tournament stress), coaches are not always the best people to consult. Instead, you could also consult with a sports psychologist or ask more experienced fencers for tactics or books they recommend for dealing with the same issue.
Get into the nitty gritty
Once you have an idea of what you need to improve, you must develop a concrete plan of how you implement it into practice. Just like the reason why you lost, your strategy has to be internal and specific. It’s better not to just say "I'll work on XYZ." Say instead "every practice I'll work on this technique for 15 minutes before I start practice" or "I'll fence two bouts a night working only from this disadvantaged position." Having this concrete plan will make it easier to follow through on your training goals.
Continue the plan over the months and monitor your improvement in that area. The goal is to practice smarter and to not have the same reason cause you grief at a tournament more than once. You should see improvement in the area you’ve chosen if you continue to work on it consistently.
Write it down and show it to someone else
Once you have a good idea of what happened, you should record your thoughts in some way because putting something down on paper makes it real. Keeping a fencing journal in a notebook is great for this, but some people prefer to keep their thoughts digitally in programs like Evernote. Find a way that works for you where you can access the information easily in the future.
Also, you need to find a way to make yourself accountable so that you follow through on the plan that you have made. You might consider showing your list to your teammates or coach, or even posting a sheet of paper on your locker so that others around can help you avoid dropping or compromising that commitment you have made to improve.
Don’t overthink it
If you’re fencing with a mindset to improve, chances are you’ll be at another tournament soon after you’ve implemented your changes. The best advice I can give here is stop overthinking it. You’ve done your training, and you’ve done as much as possible to make sure that what cost you the last tournament won’t cost you during this one. I’ve seen too many bouts lost because a fencer was fixated on a certain mistake or avoiding a certain action. Just do everything you’d normally do in a tournament and trust in your training.
Rinse and repeat, sort of
When the tournament is over, you will want to go through all the same steps as above. However, because fencers are often their own worst critics, you might fall into the trap of focusing on fixing only mistakes that you noticed at the most recent tournament. When you discover new insights, it’s important that you reference them against your already existing training plan so that you can prioritize what to spend your time on. Fixing mistakes takes a long time, and if you are constantly moving from one thing to the next, you are much less likely to see the progress you want to achieve. My rule of thumb is to never be working on more things than I can count on one hand.
The most important aspect of post-tournament analysis is staying objective and learning from your mistakes. Tournaments can be incredibly important learning tools because you are able to look at your fencing with all of the trappings of a competition involved. Stress and high stakes will change how you fence - and it’ll influence your opponents as well. It sounds obvious, but make sure not to overlook the fact that a tournament is the best place to learn how to compete in a tournament, so don’t waste your opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete.
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