The Mental Game   5 comments

Almost all the fencing instruction I have received (and certainly all I have given) has been either technical or tactical in nature. Technique addresses the physics of fencing—the footwork, the blade angles, the body mechanics, etc, while tactics concern the broader considerations of the fight—forming a counterguard, gaining the blade, setting up an attack, adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, and such. Broadly, tactics answers “why?” while technique answers “how?” Together, these encompass over ninety-nine percent of what I hear about at practices and events.

Then there’s the remainder, a sort of nebulous, arcane cluster of concepts termed “the mental game” or sometimes “headspace”. Whatever the name, it eludes succinct definition. It’s ethereal enough that a novice fencer might consider its existence with Dawkinsesque skepticism.

Give me a moment to make the Sign of the Cross and sing a few hallelujahs. The mental game has hit me like a flat snap to the back of the head.

Ruby Joust

After an unremarkable Never-Won-a-Tourney Tourney, there was food. And then there was Ruby Joust. For the first time in memory, I wasn’t placed in the same pool as Letia, and got to fight a buncha people I don’t fight every week.

I picked up where I’d left off at Ymir. My fight would start clean and safe in decent Fabris, go through a couple experimental attacks to feel out the opponent, and then try a few more committed attacks. Sometimes that was enough, but if the fight went on any longer, I’d let myself mentally slide, and my discipline would steadily evaporate. Fighting single sword kept me from succumbing to the desire to close to corps-a-corps, but my form and shots became sloppy, my thoughts unstructured, and I began to leave openings. I attacked without finding the blade, or threw poor feints. Any fencers who could deal with the increased aggression readily took me down. I lost a few that I shouldn’t have, and got flustered enough that my fuse became progressively shorter as the afternoon wore on. I finished around fifty-fifty.

Connor, avatar of serenity, and Giacomo, patron saint of hardasses, both took note of this independently and pulled me aside for pep talks, which either speaks highly of their observational capacities or underscores the enormity of my disintegration. Giacomo’s boiled down to “you’re not doing anything bad, but I’ve seen you fight; you can fight better than that”, which is true. Connor suggested nasal-inhale oral-exhale breathing under the heading of “in with the Gandhi, out with the Hitler,” and proceeded to ask a few laser-guided questions. Then he took me apart in our bout, in that inimitable, grandfatherly way of his—exploiting the very weaknesses we had just discussed. It was brilliant.


The Sunday schedule included Their Excellencies’ Five-man Capture-the-Flag Melee, and being the sort who is volunteered for running, I was enthusiastic. The KBerg Scholars were gathered under the name of St. Arnulf’s Tavern Brawlers and headed to the ravine, pleased that we’d have our fight in the shade. But as the ravine was suffering from a severe dearth of both flags and Excellencies, the tournament metamorphosed into a straight kill-em-all. This made Ruairc cranky.

Chris, the MIC, then noted that the ravine was carpeted with leaves, and as leaves are not the most stable of surfaces, running was forbidden. This made Ruairc crankier.

You see, the KBerg Scholars are all lusty young lads who train melee regularly and possess respectable field awareness, so we prefer highly dynamic fights with a fair amount of maneuvering, pressing the advantage when the enemy falls a step behind. It tends to produce better results than the drawn-out hand-snipe contest, particularly against Provosts and Free Scholars. We were faced with a field that essentially forced the fruitless hand-snipe cripple fight upon us, with no room to maneuver and no permission to move quickly or DFB. In hindsight, we could have tried a few things differently (such as pushing a couple flankers past the trees or lining up on the other side, which had better ground to dictate the fight). Anticipating flag-running, I had brought only a single sword, and wasn’t able to do anything useful in a line.  By the third loss I was frustrated with my performance and pretty pissed at the world in general. That emotional stew simmered through the fourth round’s bye.

Fifth round, we lined up against the ‘Bruders. Wistric was opposite me, and the moment he opened his guard for a cross shot all that negativity exploded into something between a passing lunge and a fleche that landed entirely too hard. I died in the same tempo, and Percy the Marshal immediately had some sharp words with me which I fully deserved.

Violating the Beer Rule (and denting the Rules of the List, for that matter) sobered me up quick, and I spent the next couple hours feeling pretty shitty. Hard shots resulting from idiosyncrasies of momentum, awareness, or poor form are undesirable; hard shots resulting from a lack of control are unacceptable. Wistric may have waved it off, but I consider it the most shameful thing I have ever done on the rapier field.

There was some melee later, pitting the Scholars against the gold and white. I stuck to command, wanting to stay out of the line until I was sure I wouldn’t repeat my previous indiscretion. After trying for their flanks for the first few passes, we got some advice from Rhonwen and punched through the center with a countercharge, managing to win a couple. Much learning was had by all. About then, my ride was leaving for home, so I ended it a little early.


I have always thought of myself as an individual of some emotional stability and mental fortitude. I’ve had my share of personal tragedy, and I’ve occupied positions of centrality in other sports and activities with success. I’ve been the emotional rock for others going through tough times. There’s not a lot that gets to me.

Which is why this has me a little worried. The above is an example of catastrophic failure and certainly atypical, but the whole event illustrated some of the major deficiencies I have in my fight. The mental game, in its final form, includes the opponent, but (as with everything else in fencing) I need to start with some solo work. There are mental spaces I need to learn to move out of, no matter how the fight or the tournament progresses, and gaining this improved self-control is crucial to my advancement, both as a fencer and as a SCAdian.

Part of this is due to personal anxiety and frustration—being in that zone where I know I’m performing the Fabris wrong, but not quite sure how (or not quite technically able) to fix it. Part is due to the discrepancy between tournament play, where it “counts” and I feel the pressure to perform, vis-a-vis practices, where I’ll experiment, drill, and fight aggressively because it’s more fun and there’s no real consequence to losing practice bouts. (The later melees, when nobody was keeping score, were void of frustration, even though I was in a command position against a much better team.) These are things I can work to correct.

But there are issues underlying those—a persistent too-short focus and a default aggression that need to be reined in or redirected. And on those, I’m not really sure where to start. This esoteric mental game isn’t something that’s structured and taught in a regular, accessible way, and the Italian masters (being all sciencey Renaissance men) barely touch on it.

Posted May 30, 2012 by Ruairc in Musings

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