Some Thoughts on the Mental Aspects of Fencing

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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.


(c) The School of the Sword 2009 : The School of the Sword is a Western Martial Arts school providing lessons in sword fighting and Historical European martial arts in Berkshire/Surrey UK