Other Peoples’ Ideas: Alejandro’s advice to his fencers

Baron Alejandro’s advice to his strip fencing students et al.

Many of you have heard me espouse the maxim, “No dead weight on the strip.” What I mean by this is that there is no reason at all to carry anything onto the strip that you don’t need. The majority of the time that I say this, I’m talking about the failure to use your non-sword arm. An incautious fencer will simply allow their off-hand to hang by their side, much akin to having a large dead mackerel strapped to your torso. Most times, I am trying to get the student to get their back arm into the game, to use all tools available to them to win the bout.

However, ‘No dead weight on the strip’ is a philosophy that I carry over to some of the thoughts and feelings that go on inside our heads when we go into a match as well. The mental aspect of what we do is just as important as how accurate your lunge is. I have watched any number of fencers sabotage themselves, losing the bout just as easily as if they had forfeited.

Mastering yourself on the strip can be as much a challenge as mastering your opponent. Fortunately, this is something that humanity has had long practice with, and there are several techniques to aid in this.

The first thing that you should be doing is warming up. In some people, the adrenal response which drives high-speed decisionmaking can take as much as ten minutes to actually kick in. You could take the strip with no preliminaries and spend that ten minutes getting the p-mortal stuffings knocked out of you. A better solution could be; **get warmed up**. Doing laps or jogging is a good start, but not nearly enough. You should run at a moderate or light pace for at least two minutes, and then go through the static stretching routine that we do twice a week; it should be familiar enough to you by now that you can at least approximate it. Even if you have your own routine that you prefer, it is vital that you warm up your muscles and get the fluids in your body and brain circulating and percolating. Especially if you’ve just taken a long car trip to get to the tournament; you will be especially cold and stiff.

Regarding the practice of the mind, there are several techniques which may be employed.

A mental warmup is just as important as the physical one. You must seek to find a way to transition from things that occur outside the salle to the things that occur inside it. The goal is to generate a state in which you can think mindfully on the task at hand. There many ways to do this; prayer, knitting, music, meditation, a brief talk with someone who positively reinforces you, or a moment’s reflection are several good ways to begin this process. In truth, there are as many ways to initiate this mental state as there are people to walk the earth; i knew one guy who used to eat a cold basket of spicy chicken wings while listening to ‘The Humpty Dance’.

I encourage you to find your own way to calm your mind and induce a state readiness within yourself so that you can perform on the strip to the fullest of your ability. However, be cautious that you don’t make any pre-tournament practices a crutch; ideally, try to internalize this process as much as possible so that it can’t be affected by pressures of time or external stimuli. If you have a problem with this, please contact me and we will work on this together.

When you step onto the strip it behooves you to banish all thoughts save scoring the next touch. It’s vital that you put out of your mind the last touch, or the touch after the one you’re about to score. Don’t think of the last bout, or where you’ll be seeded in this tournament, if I’ll make you do bunny jumps, or if there’s a Steak & Shake nearby. A far, far more pressing concern is scoring the next touch. If you focus your entire attention on making the hit, everything else will sort itself out, I promise.The best fencers I knew were barely aware of what the score was, or what round it was. Worrying about anything else burdens your thought processes and distracts from thinking tactically; furthermore
the majority of these concerns are going to be negatively affected by inattention on the strip anyway.
A good test of whether or not you are succeeding in this practice will be given to you, repeatedly, by your opponent.

This is part of the beauty of swordplay; the truth about yourself will be immediately, objectively told to you by your
opponent.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done, but it isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. There are tools which can aid in this. One such tool is an element of cognitive behavioral therapy. Pay heed to when your mind wanders; when you catch yourself doing this, mindfully refocus your attention to the task at hand, preferably before your opponent does this task for you. Over time, you will become habitually formed to the idea of focusing the entirety of your effort to the hit. If this proves troublesome for you, or if you find yourself falling into a rhythm of un-useful thought or effort, find a way to break this cycle. Even a brief pause to check your tip or ask to match time can provide the moments needed to regain your attention and refocus your effort.

Just as you strive to allow unrelated thoughts to flow through you like a stone dropped through water, you should strive to shed unimportant external stimuli in the same way. Too many fencers become enraged and frustrated over things that have nothing to do with the bout at hand, or they become overly fixated with things that detract from thinking tactically. Over the course of a match, these things can build up to a fever pitch; the fencer winds up fighting the box, the judge, their equipment, even
the floor rather than the thing that is most important – and that is the other person who has a sword in their hand.

As I said above, the beauty of swordplay is objectiveness – the realization of this means proper acceptance or assignation of responsibility.

You may lose the match over factors that are not in control (including facing off against a better fencer), but this is a simple fact of life. Things happen. Bemoaning them or becoming enraged over things you cannot control handicaps your performance in further bouts, and rest assured that there are opponents who will seek to use this psychological weapon which you have placed squarely in their hands. Fix
what you can, and move on. The last hit is in the past, and more importantly the next hit is close at hand.

Likewise, frustration with yourself is a needless, handicapping behavior. Beating yourself up for a point you gave up is a useless exercise that also builds to a counterproductive peak. This is called distress, and it is energy that is counter to the goal of getting the next hit. Instead of becoming distressed, seek to coolly harness that energy and use it to better your performance. This is called eustress. Seek to become more and more focused the more disheartening a bout becomes. Shed all negative self-talk.
Nothing good comes of it.

Finally, realize that stepping onto a strip to face the unchoreographed aggression of another person is a
tremendously courageous activity. I have a huge amount of respect for those who choose to face off against another person, even in practice. The effort that you have put forth in the salle and on the strip is something to be proud of; many people say, “fencing? COOL!” but fewer still will come forward and actually pick up a sword. I encourage you to use this as a touchstone of courage in all your other endeavors. An examination in school may be tough, and a lot may hinge on it; but the self-knowledge and self-respect that you gain by pitting yourself in fierce but friendly competition can carry you through a lot, and I know that you will gain from it. Fight hard, strive to win, but with honor and integrity.

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