Unlearning Helplessness

One of the most challenging types of students for a coach to work with is the “learned helpless” fencer.

“Learned helplessness” is a problematic series of beliefs in which the student sees his successes and failures exclusively as the result of external factors. He has learned–due to earlier experiences, parental influence, as the result of relative age effect, overly early exposure to competition, etc.–that no matter how hard he tries, he has no power over his own success. He views his successes and failures as the result of luck or his opponent’s superior abilities. Such fencers generally expect to lose and, should they win, even find excuses for their success (“I got lucky,” “My opponent wasn’t at his best today,” “The referee made a lot of mistakes in my favor.”). These fencers have learned to believe that they are powerless–that, in fact, they are helpless.

Some learned helpless fencers don’t work as hard as their peers–appearing to be “lazy” or “unambitious”–while others may create the pretense of working hard–coming often to practice and professing a desire to improve–without committing much mental effort or concentration to their development. Most importantly, learned helpless athletes do not independently apply themselves to their training. The very nature of learned helplessness is at odds with independence in training.

The important thing to understand about these fencers is that their behaviors are based on the belief that there is nothing they can do to really be successful. They see themselves–even if they won’t acknowledge it (and they often won’t, even to themselves)–as untalented and incapable. They believe that they suck.

The coach should recognize that the key word in “learned helplessness” is not “helplessness”, but “learned”. Learned helplessness is neither an absolute truth nor a permanent condition, and just as it was learned, it can be unlearned–replaced with a more positive belief system.

Here are some things a coach can do to help a student turn learned helplessness into what sports psychologist Robert Rotella calls “learned effectiveness”:

  1. Redefine Success. The fencer should stop comparing himself to others and start assessing his improvement in terms of his own performance. A learned helpless student will certainly–due to his beliefs–be a weak fencer. Comparing himself to others will always be a negative exercise that only reinforces his limiting beliefs. In order to move forward, the student needs to start seeing his improvement entirely from the point of view of his own fencing. The coach, too, needs to look at his student’s fencing in this way. A coach who is constantly comparing his students to each other and to other fencers is creating an extremely detrimental environment for a learned helpless student.Part of redefining success involves setting goals and tracking progress. These goals do not need to be–and very often should not be–competition based. It may be simply scoring with certain actions in practice bouts or using certain types of tactics. It’s extremely important that the fencer keeps a record of his progress, giving him tangible proof of his improvement.
  2. Foster Independence. The coach should give the fencer specific exercises that he can practice on his own time. They should be exercises related to the goals the fencer has set and that are not miserable and boring. It’s important, though, that the coach does not try to “force” the student to do the exercises.Additionally, the coach should help the student feel responsible for his training. This includes involving the student in error correction and the assessment of the quality of his actions during lessons.A very important part of developing independence–and one which so many coaches are blind to–is allowing the fencer to fence the bout himself. Shouting actions at students during competitions (“Now do parry-riposte!” “Now attack with disengage!”) is not only useless tactically, but undermines the development of an independent and effective fencer.
  3. Be honest. A learned helpless fencer should not be coddled. The desire some coaches have to “just make them feel good about themselves” and tell them that everything they do is good or correct, or in giving them praise for “trying”, only reinforces the idea that the fencer is weak and inferior. The coach needs to objectively assess the fencer’s movements and actions. Only through honest assessment from the coach will the fencer learn to honestly assess his own performance. Further, honest assessment is a crucial element to developing a high-level of trust between the coach and student. The student should not have to wonder if his coach is telling him an action was correct because it truly was or because the coach just wanted to make him feel better.

It should be noted that all of the suggestions above can–and should–be applied even with students who do not demonstrate traits of learned helplessness. The difference is that a learned helpless student will require more guidance from the coach.

The process of unlearning helplessness can be a slow one but it is necessary and valuable for a student’s fencing as well as everything else in his life.

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Having mentioned Bob Rotella, I’ll suggest his book, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect. As with any book written for another sport, some of the information isn’t entirely applicable to fencing but, as it is a sports psychology text, a lot of it is very relevant.