Today you are scheduled to fence in a tournament. You recognize that it will be a strong tournament, and that you will need every touch. If you win the first bout in your pool it will give you a large boost to your morale. At the same time the other fencers in the pool will see that you have started to build momentum, and that you are a threat. And if you win the first bout, you are ahead of every other member of the pool who does not win their first bout. That includes not only the fencer you beat in your first bout, but a total of half the fencers in the pool. For them to pull even with you, they have to win their next bout – if you win your second bout you are still ahead of them, and of anyone who loses their second bout. See where this is going? Yes, you have an advantage.
Okay, that is all well and good, but how do you win the first bout? The answer is that you have to have a disciplined approach to victory. There are four stages to the start of a tournament and to your first victory:
(1) Preparation. Preparing for a tournament is a process that includes your regular training in the Salle. Increase the intensity of your work, in number of training sessions, the level of effort in each session, and the number of practice bouts fenced in the weeks leading up to the tournament. Peak your training 3 to 4 days before the tournament, than relax your level of effort, until the day before the tournament you do no fencing. At the same time, manage your nutritional intake to build up your reserves of glycogen, the key fuel element you will need for anaerobic work (fencing is an anaerobic sport). Simultaneously, open up your fencing bag, dump out the contents, and using a checklist, check each piece of equipment to make sure that there is no chance your gear will fail, and that if a weapon or cord does fail, that you have enough equipment to be able to report to the strip with two working pieces of everything even after the failure. Get rid of the junk that every fencing bag accumulates so that you will not have the added pressure of trying to find things on the day. Repack. You should have absolute confidence that your equipment will not let you down.
And start mental preparation, something every bit as important as physical preparation. Consider all of your potential opponents, review your scouting data on them. Start developing a plan for each of them. Then mentally fight visioning bouts with them to test the validity of your plan. As you do, rehearse your drill for the period between halt and fence, and your 10 second drill for the end of the bout. Banish all negative self-talk and focus on positive affirmations.
Finally, get adequate rest and sleep – not just the night before, but during the week before. Fatigue erodes your physical strength and leads to poor decision making.
(2) Warm-up. Warm-up starts the night before. Lay out your clothes for the next day, make sure your bag is packed and where you cannot forget it, and shift your food intake to the night before to day of nutritional plan. The night before or the morning of do a planned mental warm-up. Allow plenty of time to reach the venue, so that you do not have the pressure of trying to make sign-in. When you arrive check-in, have your gear organized so that you can present it for the fastest and smoothest walk through the armorers, do the equipment check if there is a armory check, find your team members, stow you bag with them, and start the warm-up process.
First, spend time watching fencing if you are not the first event of the day. It does not matter which weapon, just engage mentally in the bout, and figure out your solutions to the tactical situations that present themselves. Make up a plan for at least one bout, and use your drill for between halt and fence to modify it throughout the fight. The details are immaterial, but warming up your decision making skills is every bit as important as any physical warm-up.
Second, mentally rehearse your key techniques and bout drills. Find somewhere where you can concentrate, and spend time visualizing multiple repetitions of each.
Third, do a physical warm-up. Modern sports science studies show that warm-up longer than about 10-15 minutes erodes your energy supplies and does not materially contribute to success, so limit the length. Increase the level of effort until you break a sweat, and then call it a day. Make it fencing specific so that you are activating the movement patterns you are going to use. Focus on correct execution. Two favorite activities to avoid – running around the venue and stretching. Running depletes your energy reserves, uses movement patterns that you will not use in the bout, and is not sports specific. While a case can be made for running sprints and for longer aerobic running as part of general conditioning, you are not doing conditioning at a tournament. Stretching has been shown to make minimal or no contribution to success as a warm-up, and there is evidence that that some forms of it actually reduce your performance and flexibility in the event.
Fourth, if you feel you must take a lesson or fence a bout to warm-up, do so. First choice is to fence a preprogrammed warm-up bout with a sallemate or to take a warm-up lesson. The intent here is to work your go-to techniques to a level that satisfies you that they are ready for use and to practice physical actions integrated with your standard mental drills. If you end up fencing a warm-up bout with a stranger, remember that what you show that fencer may end up being used against you in the pools or direct elimination. In this case, you can’t do your go-to techniques – just work through common building blocks, and do not give away anything about how you would fence the opponent in an actual bout. If you take a lesson, do not try to learn new techniques or new applications. It is too late for that. Instead, concentrate on making sure your core techniques are ready.
(3) The bout. Go through the preliminary checks, avoiding anything that will disrupt the concentration you established in the warm-up. Show up with your working weapons and two of all your cords, remember your number, start your opponent assessment, and determine when your first bout will be in the bout order. Watch each bout before your first bout carefully, and start to build a picture of your opponents capabilities and tactics. You will see everyone except your first opponent (and in some bout orders, everyone) before you fence them. Do not waste this opportunity to gather information to refine your bout plan and to improve your odds of success.
When the bout before you ends, be ready. Have your bout plan in mind, your spare equipment ready, and step up immediately and plug-in. Test. If something does not work, replace it, and do not allow it to break your concentration – equipment failures are a routine occurrence, and even if they result in a card, they are just part of a normal day at the office, not something to worry about.
Fence your first touch using your bout plan. Concentrate on getting the first touch. At the first halt use every second productively – go through your mental drill for between halt and fence; adjust your tactics as necessary. And continue that process – if the plan is working, stick with the plan. If it is not, modify the plan based on the feedback the opponent’s reactions provide you. Fight one touch at a time – the last touch is gone, the touch after next is a long way ahead – live and fence in the moment. Ideally, your bout plan should take you through the first three touches. After that replan for the last two. Be ready to execute your unanswered-touch-against-you and last-10-seconds drills if needed.
(4) Transition. Win or lose, after the first bout do a quick check to make sure all the parts of your weapon are still there, the blade is bent within tolerances, etc. Take care of the physical needs – water, towel, and snack as needed. Victory or defeat, review the bout mentally, identify corrections you need to make, and shift your focus to the next bout. Victory or defeat, resist the impulse to exalt that you own the tournament or the impulse to descend into the dark well of despair. Keep a steady mental state – fence cold, not hot. Continue to watch each intervening bout carefully, and continue to plan.
This process is a process that you have to learn and practice in order for it to work for you in a tournament. Treat every practice bout as the first bout of the tournament. Develop confidence that your process works. Fencing is at least 30 to 40% mental in its execution, and the fencer who outplans and outthinks the opponent has a distinct advantage.