The score was 3-4, with you down by one in the bout you must win to get in the top half of the direct elimination seed. You just hit and you know it will make the score 4-4. So what should you do? How about spend at least 5 seconds screaming and pumping your arms while bouncing up and down. That will achieve the three things you need for victory: (1) it will show the referee that your action was good and that he must rule it a touch (a vital requirement in epee where the only thing the referee cares about is one light or two on the box), (2) will intimidate your opponent, and (3) will give you the momentum you need to steamroller over the opponent for the next touch. So scream away …
Well, not so fast. First, you have not won the bout yet. Second, any competent referee is not going to be influenced by your posturing and bleating, regardless of the coaches who say you have to use your voice, not the weapon, to win. Third, research about the effects of screaming shows that it raises stress, blood pressure, and pulse rates for everyone involved. That means it may reduce your fine motor control at a time when you need it most, may excite the opponent if they are below an optimal level of excitement increasing the effectiveness of their physical reactions, and may increase the potential for referee errors. None of these are good outcomes.
So lets look at the bright side. Between the commands “halt” and “fence” at a North American Cup you typically have approximately 5 to 8 seconds before the referee calls “on guard, ready, fence.” Try the following experiment:
Start screaming at the top of your lungs, and continue to scream as you read and work the following simple math problem: (1) divide 4 by 2, (2) square the result, (3) multiply by 13, and (4) add 26.
Tough to do? Jeff Bukantz (international referee, US national team captain, Maccabiah Games gold medalist, author of an outstanding article on gaming the rules, and a thoughtful observer and commentator on our sport) in an article in American Fencing said simply that the vast majority of athletes cannot scream and think at the same time. So is it a good idea to raise your stress level and waste the thinking time between “halt” and “fence” screaming? In a word, “no.”
What should you do? It seems obvious that your actions should contribute to success in the next phrase. That suggests that you should (1) analyze the current tactical situation and your opponent’s actions, (2) plan your next action, and (3) control your psychological state by eliminating thoughts that may negatively impact performance and implanting a positive command and image. We teach a 5 Second Drill:
(1) What just happened? What do you think happened and does the referee agree?
(2) How does this change my bout plan? Was it a failure you have to fix, or does it create an unexpected opportunity? Do you change tactics, and if so in what way, or do you stay on your plan?
(3) What am I going to do next? What tactic am I going to use to score (or run out the time, provoke non-combativity, etc.) in the next phrase?
(4) Clear the mind of all negative thoughts, worries about what has happened, distractions, etc.
(5) Sit down on guard saying “I am going to score the next touch” … or an equivalent positive affirmation.
This is not easy. For example, you have to know what you can do. You have to have a plan for how you are going to fence the bout. You have to understand all the elements of a tactic (technique, preparation, distance, timing, psychological elements, etc.). If you have used the OODA Loop in your fencing, you will note that there is a commonality between OODA in the fight and 5 Second Drill before the fight. Step 1 is an OODA Observe, 2 the Orient step, 3 the Decide, and 4 and 5 a preparation to Act. If we use common approaches we simplify management of our tactical problems in the bout.
And then you have to train. Done as a step by step process, this drill can take a minute. But by practicing doing it on every touch in every practice bout you fence, you will internalize the process so that it becomes a fast, automatic one.