Some Thoughts on the Mental Aspects of Fencing

//Some Thoughts on the Mental Aspects of Fencing
Some Thoughts on the Mental Aspects of Fencing 2015-06-04T14:05:26+00:00

Fencing in its many forms has often been described as a form of physical chess. It is true that the mental side of fencing – a high level of mental discipline and use of strategy – is crucial to the outcome of any bout. Indeed, in any competitive situation, especially sports, psychological factors play a key role in determining the result.

What I want to examine here is what may be going on in our heads when we fight, and how we might make use of some psychology to give ourselves an advantage over our opponent, or at least avoid our opponent taking advantage of us.

A couple of general comments before I start: western martial artists do not usually deal explicitly with the mental side of their art, and eastern methods of teaching the skills appear to be closely linked to “spiritual” practice. However, the points I am going to talk about do not need to be linked to spiritual ideas, and nor will they require meditation to be successful! I hope they are based on some reasonably sensible sports psychology and my own experiences. Secondly, I recognise that only you know what is going on in your head. The members of our group perform to a high level and have, I think, quite a good knowledge of how they fight. Many of the ideas presented here feature in modern literature on sports psychology. However, for now I am not going to quote directly from a treatise on the psychology of fencing, merely airing some ideas based on discussions that have taken place within the School. Key to all this is the fact that we are looking for practical results within a fight – your precise mental state does not matter, as long as you are achieving your goals and fighting at your best. Do not waste time thinking about your mental state if you do not need to – the whole point is to stay focused on the fight!

So, first question: “What do I want to be going on in my head when I fight?”

The crude answer is: Absolutely nothing.

Actually, what I want my brain to be doing is monitoring my own body, e.g. balance receptors, gathering and processing information about my surroundings, mostly my opponent, so I can spot any attacks or openings and finally responding appropriately to the information received.

My brain is actually quite good at this – if I let it do its job without interrupting. Like any computer or information processing system, the more processes that are running the more slowly each one will occur. Thus, the less I am consciously thinking about, the more efficiently my subconscious can get one with fighting. Indeed there are situations in every day life, such as driving, where we can react to a stimulus without conscious thought. This is how we want to fight.

So, in some sense, my crude answer was correct, although I will expand on it later.

What used to be going on in my head was often quite different…

“I’m off balance…damn, I missed that opening… I shouldn’t have been hit then… something’s wrong with the grip on my sword… did I leave the oven on?… must remember to pay the gas bill…nice shoes…damn, I got hit again – now I’m getting angry… right I will use the volte this time…no this time…or maybe this time…right, dagger, dagger, dagger…no – don’t want to obsess about the dagger… don’t think about the dagger, don’t think about the dagger… tired now – how long have we been fighting?…can’t find an opening… why can I never beat you?…I can’t beat you can I?…call hold… please call hold… damn, I got hit again!”

OK… so I’m exaggerating (slightly), and I may have cleaned it up(!), but I guess most people have caught themselves thinking at least some of these things mid bout at some point.

I came across a useful quote recently about avoiding the “static” mind, where your attention is focused exclusively on one thing. The analogy is “seeing the whole tree without focusing on the leaves”.

Knowing that your sword is not handling correctly is useful, but you need to deal with it and move on quickly rather than letting it distract you. Similarly, focusing on using a specific attack or defence, or focusing too heavily on one aspect of your opponent’s movement will cause you to miss other opportunities that arise.

The ideas above are also in the form of an internal dialogue – conscious thought. Much of this dialogue is wasted effort – you should not be thinking about external events, e.g. the oven at home, while bouting. Other aspects are useful to consider, but they could be acknowledged and dealt with subconsciously.

The less there is to distract you, the better you are able to fight.

The Japanese have two words that I find helpful in describing the mental states of combat. The first is “mushin”, or “no mind”, which can be thought of as that state of undisrupted, non-static focus, where the mind is not stuck on any one idea or stimulus. The other is “zanshin” or “combat awareness”. This covers both metal and physical alertness – a readiness to respond to anything that happens. Thus it includes many physical factors that demonstrate and also increase our ability to react quickly and decisively to any threat.

This link between our mental state and our physical actions is also crucial to attaining the right frame of mind to fight.

So, how do we “get in the zone”?

The hardest part of this process is often identifying or defining how we want to be thinking or feeling. However, even if we cannot precisely define our goal, we can still make good progress towards it.

The first step is to deal with anything that can be fixed directly. For example, if your movements are controlled and natural – e.g. balanced footwork, and you are comfortable with your sword, then you will not have to think about these things during the fight. It is crucial to master the basics so that they are completely natural and require no mental effort. Physical distractions such as grips on swords, footwear etc. should be sorted out before the fight.

In the same way, mental distractions need to be addressed before the fight. Some people are lucky, or very well practiced, and can just flick a mental switch and be in the zone. However, most sportsmen/sportswomen have some sort of routine to enable them to focus before they compete. In Eastern martial arts these may include simple (or complex) meditation exercises to focus before training, and sometimes these are performed as a group. For western martial artists, the routine may be something simple like putting on safety equipment. Whatever routine you have, it should include a period where you take time to focus on what you are about to do. If any “stray” thoughts pop into your mind, do not ignore them. Rather, acknowledge them, deal with them if possible, and then put them to one side, knowing that you can back to them when the fight is over. (This is quite a useful exercise to ensure that you do not enter a fight with any aggression or other feelings that may make the bout unsafe.)

The actions of the routine should eventually form a series of anchors – triggers for the mental state you wish to achieve. However, this is not an easy process. The best way to set your anchors is to wait until you actually feel or reach the level of focus you want to have and then carry out the anchoring action. With time and practice, carrying out the trigger actions will allow you to access the desired mental state more quickly.

The techniques above are sometimes referred to as a pre-performance plan, designed to prepare you to fight at your best. A pre-performance plan may also include an on-site plan – a list of potential distractions that you may need to deal with and your solutions. By having these planned beforehand, they cannot distract you from your routine.

Part of identifying and reaching the state of awareness we wish to achieve is identifying the physical actions that reflect that state. Carrying out those actions serves the dual purpose of acting as another set of anchors and also sends the correct signals to your opponent, as discussed later. It can be hard to “know” when we have achieved the correct mental state, but we do not need to – believing we are in the correct state and acting as if we are is often sufficient.

The easiest way to “act out” this alertness is the manner in which you come on guard. When in guard you should be

  • Still
  • Relaxed
  • Balanced
  • At a safe measure
  • Your sword should be in presence, or at least threatening your opponent.
  • You should be looking at your opponent, but not staring – you need your peripheral vision to check for other threats.

In some sense you are “suspicious” of what is going on around you – you do not trust that you are safe, rather you assume that there are threats (known or unknown) and prepare to deal with them. You must, as best you can, control the situation and space around you. Even when facing off against a single opponent, you should be wary of what is going on around you – they may have friends!

In ideal terms you need to make sure that as soon as you are stepping out to work with a partner, whether it is for an exercise or a competitive bout, you are ready to fight. You should keep a safe distance from our opponent and form a guard outside of measure.

Simple points to consider include:

  • You should not be stepping out to do the exercise while we are still getting dressed/ fixing kit etc.
  • Once you are in guard you should be settled – there is no need to keep adjusting or shifting around.
  • Try to avoid spending lots of time checking or adjusting the measure if it is a “static” drill
  • Avoid posing for the camera
  • Remember to fly out to a good guard after every phrase
  • If you are repeating an exercise, move from your guard (from flying out) to your next guard (to begin the exercise) with as few steps/movements as possible.
  • Maintain alertness – don’t relax between every technique.

Focusing on performing the basic physical actions well and consistently forms part of a positive feedback loop, removing distractions and reinforcing your positive mental state.

You also need to practice mental skills in the same way that you would practice cutting. For example, drills to improve visual acuity and judgement include:

  • Judging measure – practice moving to a point just inside or just outside measure, without using blade overlap as a guide
  • When watching your opponent, try looking for specific, subtle movements, such as where is their weight? Where is the strength on their guard? Where are they looking? (Having done this exercise you should find that your general awareness increases. This exercise also forms part of a refocusing plan, see below.)

In the same way that you need a plan to reach your desired level of focus before a fight, you should have a strategy to regain your focus if you become distracted in the fight. This is called a refocusing plan. Your refocusing plan can include pre-rehearsed on-site actions and anchors as necessary. In a competitive situation it is worth being prepared for judging decisions going against you – this is a hazard of any sport and you must be prepared to deal with it!

If you use imagery or simulation (too detailed to cover here) as part of your training, your pre/on-site/re-focus plans should form part of this process.

Everything we have looked at so far is about improving your own game – avoiding mental distraction so that you are better able to observe your opponent, defend yourself effectively and take advantage of any opportunities that your opponent presents to you.

The final pat of this discussion is the psychological interplay between yourself and your opponent, particularly the state of obedience.

If you are in obedience, then you are acting through need and not through choice. The most common “obedient” action is the parry – moving to defend yourself because you fear being hit, rather than to take control of the situation and hit your opponent. If you are put into obedience, then your opponent can control the fight and deceive you with feints. Fabris goes as far as to counsel against parrying so as to avoid going into obedience. However, he also notes that parrying does not have to be obedient, as long as you are choosing what to do and keeping the pressure on your opponent by counter attacking as well (or at least threatening the counter attack).

Obedience and fear of your opponent’s sword have the biggest effect on your techniques. If you do not commit to your feints or attacks you can be hit easily in contra tempo. If you never attack, then your opponent can attack when they choose with no fear. Therefore you must learn to avoid obedience and, where possible, put your opponent into obedience, encouraging them to lose the fight in their head. As an example, watch a student fight a student of a lower grade and then fight an instructor; the difference in their actions is often quite startling.

Obedience can be one of the hardest things to simulate in training, because, ultimately, there should be no real threat in the bout. It is, however, useful to train with obedience. Ways to simulate it include:

  • Penalties, e.g. press-ups, for being hit
  • One hit and off style bouts
  • Fencers’ pride!
  • Use of imagery/simulation

Avoiding obedience can be challenging, although forming a strong counter posture as described above is a good start. However, if you believe you are going to lose the fight, or fear for your life, then you will communicate this to your opponent and strengthen his position over you, thus making it more likely that he will hit you.

This is because the psychological interplay between yourself and your opponent is often based on very subtle physical clues and non-verbal cues. Many of these are behaviours and postures that can still be seen in the animal kingdom where one animal tries to exert dominance over another.

As before, whatever our actual mental state may be, all we have to do is send the right physical signals to our opponent to achieve the desired reaction. The more you can genuinely achieve the better – those you cannot, you need to simulate as best you can. Imagining that you are strong and acting as if you are stronger than your opponent will help to send the right signals to your opponent to put them into obedience (avoiding the reverse) and make your techniques more successful. This will then encourage a positive feedback loop and reinforce your dominance over your opponent in their head. This is why top fighters often appear quite arrogant!

In an effort to avoid obedience, both Italian and Japanese cultures include sayings about not fearing death, or considering oneself already dead before the fight. Ironically, one must be prepared to die in order to avoid the reactions that will create the greatest threat to your life!

The psychological interplay between you and your opponent is similar to a bind with the sword. If your opponent is “weak”, you need to be strong and put them into obedience. If your opponent is strong, then you can appear weak and then strike your opponent as they try to attack.

As an aside, some treatises discuss distracting an opponent, but I believe that distracting a good fighter is difficult to do. I am wary of movements that are designed purely to distract an opponent, simply because they may also distract me, and can be a waste of energy for no return. An example of this is the use of the cloak: flicking the cloak at your opponent may distract them, but if you are thinking too much about flicking the cloak, you are not thinking about defending yourself or hitting your opponent.

In summary, like the physical actions of swordplay, the mental side is first based on your own defence – avoiding external distractions and not allowing your opponent to control the fight. If you can achieve this, then you have a good base from which to “persuade” your opponent that you are in control of the fight and helping them to lose the fight in their head. Like swordplay, first form a good mental counter posture and then proceed with resolution.