The Russia-Mexico Border

At the 2013 Junior World Fencing Championships in Porec, Croatia, perennial favorite Russia found itself with an unusually low seed at the start of the Team Women’s Sabre event, due to surprisingly poor performances in the individual competition several days earlier by two of its members. This meant that Russia would have to first fence the extremely young and fairly unaccomplished Mexican team before they could challenge the higher seeded nations. It was assumed that the Russia-Mexico match would be so uninteresting–that Russia would so easily and quickly blow Mexico out–that it was almost entirely ignored by everyone in the venue. The broadcast cameras wouldn’t ever be turned toward it, preferring to instead capture the anticipated excitement of Ukraine vs China or Italy vs Poland. What the cameras missed, however, was amazing.

Mexico’s Junior Women’s Sabre team was composed of a group of young girls, most of whom were still Cadets. Mexico has no history of fencing results. It has no tradition of training top coaches. Unlike Russia, which has been one of the most successful fencing countries in the world for decades, Mexico is not, in any sense, a fencing power. The Mexican team would have, of course, known that they were an extreme underdog in that match and that, in spite of its low seed, the Russian team was considered one of the strongest in the competition. They knew the match would be difficult and that they weren’t expected to win.

The most amazing part of this story, then, is what happened when the two teams actually met.

The first thing that anyone who happened to look at the match would have noticed about the Mexican team is that they were excited. Really excited. They were hopping with energy. This was not a group of girls that appeared anxious orpessimistic. They seemed thrilled. This was a team with two athletes that had made the top-8 in the Cadet event several days earlier–a completely unprecedented result for Mexico–and, even more amazing, one of those same girls finish 11th in the individual Junior event. For the Mexicans, the week had been filled with breakthroughs. They had gotten results that were, for them, unheard of–and they were jubilant.

The Russians looked anything but excited. They seemed low-energy and unengaged. The Russian team, of course, had also had success that week–one of its members had won bronze in the individual Junior event–but after a very strong season, the individual performances of the rest of the team (all of whom were ranked in the top-10 in the world in Juniors) had been below expectations, with one of the girls going out in the 32 and the other in the 64.

The team competition could have been an opportunity for redemption for Team Russia; a chance to prove their excellence in spite of some earlier setbacks. However, the match, as it progressed, quickly turned into a massacre–one of the biggest upsets at Worlds. The Mexican team, so obviously delighted at the chance to test themselves against one of the world’s dominant fencing powers, fenced with such intensity and excitement, that the Russian team–who seemed to lack any enthusiasm at all–was quickly trailing in points, as Mexico’s lead steadily grew.

The Mexican girls fenced every touch with passion and commitment. The Russians, conversely, even seemed unhappy when they were winning touches. A pairing that was expected to be so uneven, ended up being lopsided in the other direction. At the end, the score was Mexico 45:29, a spectacular defeat for the Russians.

So how does a team of such young and inexperienced fencers so completely dominate a group of far more seasoned and notable competitors? In this case, a likely factor–possibly the most important factor–was in the differing ways the two teams responded to the stresses and challenges of competition.

It is regularly noted in sports psychology how similar excitement and anxiety are; how the physiological response (increased heart-rate, butterflies in the stomach, the change in breathing, etc.) is the same for both*. Our bodies are readying for action. However, the distinction is in how we respond emotionally to the situation and those changes. Whether we respond positively or negatively to the feelings of stress that accompany competition will have a significant impact on our performance. Top performers can recognize those feelings as signs of their excitement and readiness rather than retract in fear.

The Mexican Women’s Sabre team went into their match against Russia with nothing to lose. No matter how they fared, they could feel proud of the results they’d already achieved that week. And, as they’d already found reward in fencing fearlessly against higher ranked opponents in the individual events, they would have reason to feel emboldened and even eager to face a strong opponent.

The Russian team, on the other hand, was surely feeling a lot of disappointment over their individual performances. It would not be surprising if their coaches were also unhappy, and adding onto the pressure the team already felt to perform well in the team event (while simultaneously leaving them feeling inadequate to achieve that performance)**.

So, in effect, the Mexicans were primed to react well to the competitive stress, and the Russians were primed to respond terribly.

What’s the lesson to take away from this? Everybody feels stress at competition. The top fencers in the world experience many of the same things before a competition that beginners do. However, athletes that are able to really excel, react positively to that stress. Rather than balk at the tension in your belly that comes when you realize you’ll have to go against a tough opponent–one that you can’t be sure you’ll beat or are even expected to lose against–you have to make an effort to embrace the challenge. You have to adjust your thinking and self-talk to reflect the fact that difficult competition is an opportunity to push yourself to go beyond what you’ve achieved before and become more than you were. It is only by understanding–by practicing the habit of understanding–that it is actually fun to attempt those things which you’re expected to fail at, that you’ll be able to redefine what you’re capable of and drastically reset those expectation.

Go to competitions with the intent to flip your mental switch from anxiety to excitement. Make developing that skill a priority. Make being excited a priority. Teach yourself to enjoy trying, especially in those situations where you’ll probably fail. You’ll still fail a lot. But you’ll enjoy the experience more and, in time, you’ll fail far less.

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*Here’s some related research: Psychophysiological responses in the pre-competition period in elite soccer players [pdf]

**The effects of pressure to succeed from coaches versus pressure from oneself is relevant here, and perhaps interesting enough to benefit from its own detailed discussion. This paper [pdf] covers many of the applicable ideas.