I was talking with a student of mine the other night, encouraging them to start pushing themselves toward their next rank at my school. They commented to me that they felt like they were getting worse in their skills, not better. They felt that they were flailing, imprecise, and out of control. I personally had the opposite experience with their fencing. I saw them becoming more refined, more strategic, and more able. What was increasing along with their ability, however, was their awareness and with that their criticality.
I shared with him the sad news that those feelings will never go away. The more knowledge you gain, the more aware you are of what you do not know. The more ability and awareness of that ability you have, the more you can become aware of your flaws.
The important thing, however, is to use this awareness as a tool, not a prison. You can’t spend all your time in your head while you’re fencing, for the following reasons:
- It will put your focus in the wrong place — you don’t want to be thinking mechanics while you’re fighting for your life, and
- It will suck the enjoyment and thus the energy out of your practice.
I advised him that there are three core types of practice he should employ:
There is a time to be critical and precise. It’s important to emphasize your motor skills, to make your movements finer, to work constantly to bring things to their highest level. Make time in drills and free fencing where this is your focus. Your focus isn’t winning, it’s improving within a very specific sphere. Take ego off the table and just be curious and honest about your flaws while embracing the challenge of improving them.
When you’re fighting you have to apply the fencer you are to the problem at hand. You will not defeat an opponent in an area where they are stronger than you by making a rapid improvement within the fight. You will, if you acknowledge but don’t dwell in your weaknesses, identify your opponent’s vulnerabilities and then manoeuvre the fight to play where you are strong and they are weak. Make time within your fencing practice to turn off criticality and fence to strategic objectives. Assess your opponent and experiment with strategies to overcome them; set yourself challenges to strike particular targets, strike in particular tempos, or succeed in specific ways. The mechanical improvements you need play no role in this type of practice beyond acknowledging them within your overall strategic game plan. In encounters against competent opponents you will rarely be universally better than them in all areas. Successful fighters are always forcing others to play their game.
It’s important to remember that we do this for fun. Not necessarily giggly fun but the enjoyment of indulging in a passion, engaging in the spirit of competition, enjoying the feeling of our bodies, and creating the poetry of a physical art. Give yourself time to shut your brain down and just fence. Enjoyment focus allows us to recharge our passion-batteries and simply indulge in the feeling of fencing instead of the ego and criticality that can often come when our judgmental minds are always in the driver seat. If my mind won’t shut up I use a few kinds of exercises to break through to a more holistic feeling in fighting:
- “Immortal” is an exercise where you and your opponent fight on a timer and ignore all hits.
- Objective games like those mentioned in the strategic focus section above can help you move away from mechanical criticality and instead enjoy meeting challenges.
- In the “Unboxing Game” you specifically try to fight without “technique”. Meaning you purposefully try to move away from the rote actions you have been training in class and allow yourself to just move and fight however you feel. Sometimes you specifically put yourself in unfamiliar postures and make unusual actions just to give yourself a mental palette cleanser of sorts, to bring you from your brain into your body.
Vary your practice style!
Make time for each of these three practice attitudes outlined above. When you’re stuck in one, move to another. No one of them is more important than another and by bringing them all into your fencing you’re sure to have greater results and a more rewarding experience in the long-term.