Focus: Getting it and Keeping it.

This weekend was the Simply Synthetic event run by the ISHC, right here in sunny County Clare. I wasn’t able to attend the whole event (non-HEMA life gets in the way) but I was asked to give a talk on the first morning. The event was aimed primarily aimed at beginners and those with less experience of tournament fencing. Practitioners with a bit more exposure were asked to talk for twenty minutes or so on a psychological aspect of taking part in tournaments.

I decided to talk about a weakness I have when entering competitions; I get nervous/excited, my mind wanders, I start chatting with other competitors and my performance tends to suffer. During the bouts themselves, I find myself getting distracted by thoughts outside the game at hand, the intricacies of the scoring system intrude, my performance in the last exchange loom large in my mind and again my performance suffers. What I need to work on is my focus, to keep the central activity I want to engage in, quality fencing, prioritised in my mind and in my actions. I have a few strategies and I shared them with the novices.

When I first arrive at an event venue I have a lot of things on my mind: the drive in, whether I have all the kit I need, did I feed the dogs before I set off, ‘oh.. there’s Watzizname, we were chatting about Roleplaying games at the last event…’ and on and on it can go. These distractions will definitely affect the outcome of my first bout. In an Irish sized event the pools might total only four or five bouts, one early loss due to distraction can have serious implications for your progression not to mention your confidence. After that first fight, I’m usually well swapped over into “Longsword Mode” but it helps if you can begin the process of switching before the fight starts.

I have a four part technique:

  1. Relax, breathe deep and calm down. Nerves and excitement make the heart race and in my case my mind races as well. Lowering the heart rate and getting a bit more air lets me take better hold on my errant thoughts.
  2. Start some mental preparation before the competition begins. Ease gently into Longsword Mode rather than jumping straight into it when the ref calls “Fence!”. At events that feature classes, I always like to take a Longsword class before a competition. If this isn’t possible watch a relevant video on YouTube (WiFi permitting of course). Anything that moves you closer to that mindset before it becomes critical will help.
  3. Mix mental and physical preparation. Whilst warming up use this as an opportunity to focus on what you are about to do. When you are stretching your legs think about the steps you are going to use, as you warm your core think about why you need to do that and so on. Another great thing to do is a Flourish; a sequence of cuts, guards, and thrusts that warm the body but also focus the mind on what it is you are about to do. They look pretty cool as well in my humble opinion.
  4. Take more conscious control of your conversation. Stick to subjects relevant to the event; don’t go all Pokemon right before you enter the ring, it simply won’t help.

Being focused doesn’t mean that we turn into a barely social, blinkered robot. We can still engage with the friends we meet and remain aware of all that goes on around us. However, focus allows us to filter those other stimuli in relation to the task at hand.

When we are focused we will see what occurs in each exchange/bout more clearly. Our responses will come more naturally and time won’t be lost as we attempt to select from a range of irrelevant thoughts. It is complicated enough to select a suitable response without being distracted by non-fencing thoughts

The need for focus continues once the fight has begun, of course, we have to stop thoughts about other peoples scores, how your team-mates feel about the judge’s decisions or even how your last exchange went, from distracting us. If we can take each exchange as a stand-alone opportunity to deliver technically excellent fencing we would be better fencers.

I find minor rituals serve very well to help with this. I don’t mean light a black candle and start chanting in your corner but do something small that marks the difference between “in-between rounds” and “entering combat”. Rituals serve to distinguish between one state of being and another, they allow us to act appropriately to that new state even if it is in stark contrast to our ‘normal’ behaviour (oops, letting my ‘Anthropologist’ show there a little bit). It can be something as small as always making the same salute immediately before every exchange, tapping the flat of your blade against your mask or taking a particular stance/guard (you obviously don’t have to maintain it right into Krieg, it’s just for you).¬†Something physical and memorable, an event in space and time that says “Now I’m sword-fighting, I can come back to all those things in a minute. But, for now, I will focus on what I have to do to land my blow, stay safe from theirs and win this exchange.”

We all train hard, we learn principles and specific techniques so that when we come to the crunch we will know what to do. Where I fall down, and maybe others do too, is that we allow extraneous thoughts to distract us from what our bodies ‘know’ what to do. If we can put aside distraction,¬†then the skills we have developed in drilling will show themselves more clearly and our fencing will improve dramatically.

It has all got a bit philosophical around here but I suppose that is what happens when you stay up till the unseemly hour of half-past-the-Eleven! No matter, I hope you like what you’ve been reading. I would love to hear any techniques you have for building focus before tournaments or any comments you might have. You can reach me most easily via the Wrathful Peasants Facebook page or on the comments section of this post.

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