The Mental Game

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.

5 comments to The Mental Game

  • Dante di Pietro

    In practices, you have no expectation of success.
    In the later melees, against a better team, you have no expectation of success.
    You expect to win tournament fights. You become frustrated when your performance does not match your expectations.

    Hate losing, but recognize the victories you do have.

    • Ruairc

      What is the proper attitude regarding expectations, then? Not to have them? Or, rather, is it foolish to expect success in a tournament if I never expect success anywhere else?

      Recognizing victories is important, but how much does it help to say “I’m much improved over where I was a year ago” if I’m still nowhere close to what I want (or not getting there as quickly as I would like)? A win doesn’t teach me much, but a loss, properly analyzed, can offer a great deal of insight.

      • Wistric

        You’ve got it right: You can’t say “I didn’t beat [PROVOST X], I suck balls.” You have to measure yourself against yourself. Are you executing better, are you closer to your ideal?
        Once you get to the top echelon, this is the only measure you can consistently apply. Other white scarves will have on days and off days, you have to have a constant standard to measure your improvement by.

        And, yes, a loss has more potential for learning than a win. This is why I still want to go find Rebecca Ward at Duke and get my ass thoroughly whupped.

        Yes, it’s frustrating how long it takes. If you don’t want to burn your scarf and break your blades at least once before becoming a white scarf, you’re very, very lucky.

        • Ruairc

          Fighting provosts is actually extremely beneficial: it focuses me. Tourney or not, I go in with no expectations of success and understand that my opponent is dangerous, so I don’t get impatient or frustrated. The tricks that work on scholars are ineffectual at best, so I’m forced to play a tighter game. When I lose, it’s not because I made a headspace mistake; it’s because I was tactically or technically outplayed. My reaction, then, is not the self-critical “that was a dumb, emotional mistake and a bad loss” (aka “I suck balls”), but rather “okay, I screwed up there, and he took advantage of it; how can I fix that?” And as a bonus, more often than not, he’s willing to tell me.

          Where the mental game is concerned, it’s the fencers on my level, or a little above or below, who present the most difficulty.

          (It’s also where the mental game has the greatest relevance to the outcome of the bout; against people vastly superior or inferior, it doesn’t make much difference. I wonder if this isn’t a part of the problem—it’s only fairly recently that I’ve been able to claim to be consistently better than some segment of fencing SCAdians, only recently that I’ve graduated from “Novice” to “Novice, First Class”. For most of my fencing career, everyone challenged me, nobody was a pushover, so I was always forced to focus and be patient and attentive—and if I wavered, well, I could always fall back on that handy defense mechanism, “I wasn’t supposed to win that fight”.

          (Damn. That whole power/responsibility thing? That sucks.)

          So, ironically, I fight my best when I have the slightest chance of winning. It might do me good to imagine a white scarf dangling from the arm of everybody I fight.

  • Dante di Pietro

    Of course it helps to recognize improvement. I’m nowhere close to where I want to be, either.

    I don’t know if there’s a “proper” attitude for expectations. Most of my expectations in fencing are something like: “I will be undefeated, having never lost complete control of a single fight.” It often doesn’t happen. It’s kind of an unfair thing to do to myself, but it works for me because I’ve always assumed that the victory is mine for the taking, and I have to do the work to get it. If I lose, I screwed up (some of my favorite fights are ones I’ve lost, but made no mistakes in; I don’t mind being out fought).

    Right now, a big part of it for me is that I have enough renown built up that an off day doesn’t affect me that much. I usually make at least the semifinals of big tournaments, and usually lose to the winner if I don’t win it myself. I had a bit of an odd situation (along with some other people you know) of having hit my early stride in 2004-2007, where there were almost no WS made, or even attending events. As a consequence, I got to win a lot of stuff then (gas was also pretty cheap), and I probably racked up 50 or 60 tournament wins in that time frame, maybe more. I used to keep track, and I think I was winning about 2-3 a month during 2005 alone. That situation does not exist any more, and is one of the reasons I started the Never Won a Tourney Tournaments. We had, at one point, some Sapphire Jousts where there were zero WS in the semifinals. This year, none of the non-WS made it out of the quarters. It is harder to win big things than ever, and harder to win small local things as well, as the overall talent pool has increased, and there are very few areas where there are no threats to an intermediate fighter.

    In those days, though, I thought about things as a ladder to success. I climbed it, one rung at a time. I never looked at the top and thought about how far away it was. People below me in skill were there to execute techniques on, to make sure I could do stuff right. People at my level were there to gauge myself against, to see where I was. People much better than me would beat me up, but I’d watch how they did it and learn their games. The most important people for me to fight were the people who were a little bit better than me. I went after scarves like there was no tomorrow. I fought free scholars until I could beat them, and then I picked the next best one and chased them down. I kept climbing up the ladder, one rung at a time. I’m not unbeatable or anything, and I’m not at the top of the ladder, but at this point no one is excited to draw me in a single elim.

    So, if I had to describe a “proper” expectation, it’s this: Expect to win 90% of your passes with people you should beat all the time. Expect to go 70-30 or 60-40 with the people who you’re better than, but not by too much. Expect to go 50-50 with your equals. Expect to lose 40-60 or 30-70 against people who have more experience and skill. And expect to lose 90%+ of the time against the people who genuinely out class you. The key is to keep shifting who your 50-50 marker is, so that more and more people fall into your 90-10 range, 70-30, and so on.

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