The “S” Word

One of the most poisonous words that can appear in a fencer’s mind is “should”. “I should win this bout”–often followed by “I should have won that bout”–is extremely destructive thinking and must not be confused with “I can win this bout”.

There is no “should” on a fencing strip. There is no one who should win (nor anyone who should lose).

When a fencer thinks, “I should win,” he is creating several difficulties for himself. One is the classic problem of sports psychology: he is thinking about the outcome, not the means to get there. Another is that he is putting himself in a mental trap in regards to the result of the bout: if he wins, it means nothing (after all, he should have done it anyway); if he loses, it’s a tremendous disaster.

“Should” thinking often occurs when a fencer has recently made a noticeable jump in his skill-level. He may then go to a competition thinking how well he should do, only to leave distressed at suddenly performing worse than usual–often losing to weaker opponents. The real trouble then occurs: he cannot understand what happened.

His “should” thinking has distracted him, causing him to underperform, and then left him confused and frustrated with his performance. Very likely, even before the bout was over, he started to get frustrated with himself as a lesser opponent began scoring touches on him. This, then, creates the destructive cycle of the opponent’s touches leading to frustration, leading, in turn, to more touches by the opponent, leading to more frustration, and so on.

In order to become a superior fencer, a competitor must not trap his own mind. He must allow for the objective possibility of loss (though, obviously, he should not expect it nor dwell on it). He must accept that even the lowest of competitors may get touches against him. When a competitor understands this, he will be able to fence freely. He will not be distracted by his expectations and, if he loses, he will be able to analyze the situation more objectively.

It is only through objective analysis that a competitor can turn a defeat into a learning experience–which is something every fencer should want.