Success, like many things, starts in the mind. Similarly, anticipating or expecting defeat gives a fencer a “head start” on losing. So it is certainly appropriate that athletes spend time developing their psychological skills along with their sports skills.
While many people understand, at least to some degree, that their bodies can be transformed through exercise, far fewerbelieve that their minds and even personalities are similarly plastic. The readiness of an athlete’s mind is arguably the single most influential factor in athletic success. There are ample examples of athletes who, in spite of high-level technique and physical preparedness, fail due to “nerves” or “choking”. Similarly, there are many examples of athletes who considerably outperform their technical and physical level due to “wanting it”, “having a fire in their belly”, “being fearless”–all descriptions of their mental state. There is even research to suggest that full-blown self-deception can be a real benefit in competition.
A “catch-22” of sports psychology development is that believing in the process makes it more effective, but it is often those who don’t believe that they can actively improve their mental strength that need the improvement the most. So how does an athlete who believes that their mental habits, their outlook, and their mindset are all permanent states learn to make the psychological changes they need to improve? They fake it.
Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy recounts in her moving TED talk her own history and how it led her to her research* which gives credence to the expression “fake it till you make it”. Cuddy and her team discovered that adoptingbody language demonstrating power and dominance–even for only a couple of minutes–causes measurable changes in testosterone and cortisol levels, and results in greater levels of confidence, improved mood, resistance to stress, and an increased willingness to take risks. Performing “power poses” for two minutes even led subjects to perform better in job interviews. In other words, just changing the way you’re standing for a few moments can affect your mental state and improve your performance psychology. Conversely, using passive and submissive body language results in negative hormonal changes and psychology.
A fencer with problematic mental habits can start making progress in their sports psychology even if they don’t believe it’s possible, simply by “faking it”. By behaving like a star, by acting like–“pretending” to be–a successful, confident athlete, a fencer will automatically start experiencing some of the changes that will lead him to actually be a successful, confident athlete. Mimicking the way top fencers carry themselves, the way they talk to others, the way the behave, helps you develop those very traits in a real way, even if at first it feels “unnatural”.**
Tim Gallwey gives similar advice in his seminal The Inner Game of Tennis when he suggests players create a role to play–like acting on stage–when they compete. This competition “character” should have the attributes common to top athletes and the player should act out that role as convincingly as possible, regardless of what might actually be going on in their minds, and regardless of what the score is.
Gallwey’s recommendation speaks directly to a fundamental rule of strong psychology: your behavior is your own choice and needn’t be determined by outside forces.
So, if you’re a fencer (or coach) who wants to be more successful but can’t yet quite get behind ideas about meditation, self-talk, visualization, etc., you can still take steps to improve your psychology. Choose a top fencer–or create an amalgam of several–and imitate them. Approach it like an acting exercise, but commit to it. No matter how awkward it feels, or how badly you might be losing a bout, take on the characteristics of a champion while practicing and competing. This doesn’t necessarily mean trying to fence like they do (though that too can have merit), but stand, move, and interact with others as they do. Commit to faking it.
And remember: no matter how unnatural it may feel at first, just about everyone faked it before they made it.
*Harvard Magazine had a story about Cuddy and an overview of her research that is also insightful.
**As the well-known warrior princess, Xena, once said, “We all eventually become the thing we pretend to be.”