Cowboy Wisdom

In the 1992 Western Unforgiven, Gene Hackman–no doubt channeling his inner cowboy sports psychologist–details what he believes to be the most important element for success in a gunfight, explaining: “Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya.” Unsurprisingly, this advice is applicable beyond a group of guys trying to shoot each other in the face.

A fascinating phenomenon can be regularly observed at fencing competitions of any level–from children’s events to Olympic Games–in which a bout that had been quite even, suddenly becomes very one-sided in its last moments. These are the sorts of bouts in which the fencers are trading off touches, neither gaining more than a one or two touch lead at any point (and that lead may even alternate between them) until, at say 10-10 or perhaps in the last moments of the final period, one fencer gets a run of uninterrupted touches, winning with a notable lead. In these bouts, the difference between the winner and loser is well defined by Hackman’s words.

Though the two fencers may initially be fencing the bout equally well, as the bout progresses one of the two starts to get “rattled under fire”. He becomes affected by fact that neither fencer is definitively winning the bout. Perhaps he had thought that the bout would not be as challenging or perhaps the high level of sustained intensity has begun to wear on him, but after fencing a significant portion of the bout at the same level as his opponent, he suddenly falls apart. He loses control of his emotional state.

There are two important lessons fencers must take with them from this scenario. The first, of course, is to be prepared–and even comfortable–fencing close bouts. It can even sometimes be beneficial for the fencer to anticipate the score staying close. Expecting an effortless win and, instead, finding a challenging opponent can be a lot more disconcerting (and certainly more stressful) than fencing a bout that turns out to be easier than you planned for.

Secondly, fencers should learn to identify the opponents who have more difficulty maintaining their emotional control. These are often the competitors who get particularly frustrated as the bout wears on or when a referee’s calls don’t go their way; they get more temperamental and excitable in high-intensity situations. The important quality to look for is not simply whether a fencer is high-energy and excited, but whether his emotional state clearly changes in difficult situations.

When facing more emotionally erratic opponents, fencers should be sure to maintain their own composure while, at the same time, keeping the pressure on. There are various ways to exert that pressure (yelling after touches, creating brief delays in the bout, fencing more aggressively, employing certain kinds of body language, etc.) and choosing the right tactic will depend on identifying what is most likely to create a reaction from the opponent. Most importantly, fencers need to be patient. In the beginning of the bout, the opponent may fence very well and show no sign that he may lose control. However, it is important to stay focused and continue to manage one’s own emotions while waiting for the opponent to fail to do the same. Very often–especially in close bouts–it is not the fencer with the best weapon control, but the one with the best emotional control who wins. This advice can be particularly valuable when fencing an opponent who is expecting to win, or one who has better technique or more experience.

Once the opponent starts to become more emotional, the signs will become obvious. It can be easy to lose control of one’s own emotions while watching the opponent become more upset, so self-regulation is critical. Emotional instability is what will take the opponent out of the psychological state he needs to be in to fence well. To take advantage of that failing, fencers must be sure to “keep their heads”.

Good technique is a valuable part of success in fencing, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed.