Mistaken Identity

The process of learning can–should–involve numerous mistakes. We learn the most about our activity and ourselves by making mistakes. Although many students may feel like they are wasting time until they perform some action or technique perfectly, it is when they make mistakes that they, in terms of their education, can be most productive.

There are, however, striking exceptions to this model.

Some students become “prisoners” of their mistakes. They fixate on errors, believing them to be nearly inescapable: “I can’t ever lunge right!” “My parries are always too big!” “I can never do feint-attack!”

For these students, progress can be very slow. Each error reinforces the idea that they will fail. These students identify with their mistakes. They believe that when, for example, they do not correctly execute a lunge that they have discovered a truthabout themselves (“I can’t ever lunge right!”). This thinking is, of course, self-fulfilling.

When a student believes he will fail, he will. That failure is then seen as “proof” of his belief, rather than the result of it. (“See! I told you I can’t ever lunge right!”) Instead of learning from his mistakes, the student becomes stunted by them.

In order to progress freely through his fencing education, a student must learn to take the lesson from his mistake and then “forget” that it ever happened. He must stop thinking about it completely. He should, however, remember that every action can be learned by anyone.

That’s important enough to be repeated: Every action can be learned by anyone.

Some people may have a more powerful lunge or quicker parries, but there is no one who is incapable of learning to lunge or parry competently*. Any student wishing to excel must approach his education from this premise. The importance of this idea to a coach should be obvious.

Mistakes must only be allowed to exist in the moment that they happen. Using language like “I always do this,” or “I can’t ever do that,” is tremendously limiting. Instead of “I can’t ever lunge right,” the fencer should use language that doesn’t affix the mistake to his own identity–“I did not lunge right.” Instead of reliving mistakes over in his head, the student should visualize his goal–what he wants his performance to look and feel like.

It’s especially important for coaches to understand the way their students relate to mistakes. Notice if the fencer identifies with the mistakes or simply uses them to improve. (The language the student uses to talk about his mistakes will reveal his thinking.) The coach should reinforce, in discussions with the student as well as through his own language, the idea that mistakes are not permanent conditions.

It is only when a student allows himself to believe that the mistake is a part of him that he is unable to learn. And that is the real mistake.

*I am omitting the mentally or physically handicapped in this argument.