Note: This blog post draws heavily from Ziemowit Wojciechowski’s THIS IS FENCING, John O’Sullivan’s EVERY MOMENT MATTERS, two decades of watching Sumo Basho (especially the performance of Yokozuna (Grand Champions) and Kinboshi winners (lower ranked wrestlers who defeat a Yokozuna), and a wide variety of other writings about psychology in fencing and other sports.
Confidence is a force multiplier. Take your skills and knowledge and physical conditioning and add confidence and you will as a minimum perform on a bad day at the level skills, knowledge, and conditioning suggest. On a good day you will perform significantly better than these factors suggest. On the other hand if you have skills, knowledge, and conditioning, but lack confidence in your ability to apply them, you are doomed to a suboptimal outcome.
So what goes into confidence?
(1) The quality of your trainer, his or her experience in coaching, breadth of knowledge, professional training and certification, and the quality of the lessons you have received. Ask yourself “when my coach tells me I am ready, do I believe him?” If you don’t, either she is trying to hype you up when there is no substance (and you need to find a new coach), or you have a confidence problem.
(2) Discipline. Have you trained as hard as you can, really, actually, no kidding? If you expect to win a major tournament practicing once or twice a week, you are deluded. But if you have worked every day, fenced, trained, read about fencing, watched videos, and lived the sport in a disciplined way, you should be confident that you are ready to compete.
(3) Preparation. If you plan your preparation for an event and include the key elements of being physically ready, having your technique refined, being tactically prepared to fence, and having an optimal mental state, you will be ready. But looking back at what you did to prepare, and realizing how complete it was, is a confidence builder. Remember – no negative thoughts of “I could have done more” or “I didn’t get a chance to do that.” Concentrate on what you have done and how thorough it has been.
(4) Mastery. No matter how good you are, continuing to train and refine your technique, timing, distance, tempo, etc. will build confidence.
(5) Fighting spirit (a term I have borrowed from Sumo because it so aptly describes a key quality in any fencer). This is the compulsion to do your best, to have courage, to never give up (even when the score is 14-1 against you). It is the depth of belief in yourself that lets you face a much better opponent and say to yourself not “oh, I am going to lose this one,” but rather “be ready, for I am coming for you to give you the fight of your life.” It is the strength and resiliency of character to lose one and go out and win the next one.
(6) Vision success. This can be as simple as visioning yourself standing on the podium as the gold medal is placed around your neck. Visioning past successes is also a powerful confidence builder.
(7) Joy. One of the great Fencing Masters of the Middle Ages said “go joyfully into the fight.” If you go afraid into the fight, or uncommitted into the fight, or don’t really want to fence, you really cannot experience the joy of crossing blades. Knowing that you are doing something that you love is a confidence builder.
(5) Willingness to accept risk. Fencing is all about risk (the probability of success time the impact of that success – yes, this is a simplification of a very complex problem). Are you willing to take a risky action because your experience tells you that you can score? Are you willing to commit to a high risk action when you absolutely have to turn the progress of the bout around?
(6) Moral character. If you have a strong base in ethical conduct, you do not have to cheat, demean opponents, engage in insulting behavior. On one level these are a weakness – time is spent in bad conduct or figuring out how to engage in bad conduct is time away from the business of fencing. If you have to engage in bad conduct to win or hurt your opponent, you are admitting to yourself that you have no confidence in your ability to actually win (as well as that you are a disgusting troll).
(7) No negative vibes. If you believe that you are going to lose, you will. If you believe that your opponent is better than you are, she will be. Be positive; be optimistic. Believe in your success.
(8) Positive reinforcement. You are your own best cheerleader. Tell yourself when you do something well. Use positive messages to reinforce your actions, such as “wait for it,” “accelerate,” “control the strip,” etc.
(9) Your teammates. The success of your teammates in a competition should inspire you to do well. Teammates who come to an event solely to cheer you on and be your support system are worth their weight in gold. Teammates are your training partners who push you to be better. You are surrounded by people who have confidence in your success.
(10) Willingness to learn. Every fencing competition is a learning opportunity, technically, tactical, and mentally. Find the problems and fix them. Find the successes and reinforce them. This process feeds into preparation and mastery, and the positive attitude about it boosts your confidence.
(11) Practicing confidence. Confidence does not spring fully formed from the head of Jupiter as did Minerva. It’s application must be developed. That means in every practice bout you should practice one element of confidence. It is hard to go out confidently to win a North American Cup if you have never been confident of anything in your life.
A note: We talked above about the importance of teammates. Never, ever, even if they are your twin, wife, or husband, go to a tournament and cheer for a fencer from another club if your club has participants. Cheering for another team’s fencer in a pool in which a teammate is fencing is indefensible. Cheering to help another team’s fencer to advance in the complicated dance of pools and direct elimination seeding may well increase the confidence of a fencer who will do his best to beat your teammate. And cheering for a fencer at a tournament in an event in which your team does not have an entry, may end up encouraging an opposing fencer in the event in which a teammate is fencing. This is stupidity beyond the understanding of a clump of tree moss.