What Is Mental Toughness?

At some point perfecting the physical actions in fencing is not enough to meet your competitive goals. In addition to the skill involved in fencing, there is a mental component to performing at your best. Like your physical game, the mental game of fencing takes practice and work.

All of us have experienced those days in which we found fencing effortless and we scored touches with ease. When we have this feeling, we are experiencing what sports psychologists call a “state of flow”. Some fencers seem to be able to create this “flow state” in the face of psychological pressure. We are told that those fencers are "mentally tough". Mentally tough fencers consistently fence at the highest level of their ability.(1) A mentally tough fencer remains determined, focused, calm, confident, and energized under pressure. They seem to relish challenges rather than avoid them. This not to say that a mentally tough fencer is immune to the psychological pressures that every other fencer experiences, however the mentally tough approach fencing—and competition—in a way that minimizes the impact of those feelings on their performance. In rare cases, a fencer uses those feelings to fence even better.

Being mentally tough will not enable you to execute actions that you have never mastered. If you are a weekend fencer, you are not going to suddenly be fencing like an Olympian. However, increasing your resilience to the stress of competition will mean that you will consistently fence to the top of your game.

Mental Toughness Does Not Happen Over Night

Being mentally tough is not an attribute you are are born with. My own observation is that athletes who are mentally tough at a young age are a product of an environment that encouraged it during their developmental years. Whether the process was deliberate or accidental, it is an illusion that these fencers were born mentally tough.

No matter what level of mental toughness you start with, you can train yourself to be tougher than you are. It simply takes time, discipline, and persistence.

Through most of my early fencing career, I was not mentally tough. I had only a few occurrences when I was able to overcome real or perceived obstacles and I managed to fence at the top of my potential. Those days were invariably the days when I earned a new rating or won a tournament. Those days were also completely accidental. I had no control over when those days happened. The rest of the time, I fell short of my goals. Some days I fenced particularly terribly—far less than I was capable of. At the time, I never made the connection between consistent fencing and being mentally tough.

After my retirement from competition I turned to coaching. As I coached at higher levels of competition, I saw many of my fencers fail to succeed for no other reason that they did not seem to believe that they could succeed. I spent time learning how to coach mental toughness in these fencers, and began to understand the process of becoming a mentally tough fencer. Some of the lessons I learned were obvious. Some of them, much less so. In all the cases, I learned that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and deliberate effort is needed to build up a fencer's ability to be determined, focused, and calm under pressure.

I have recently returned to competition in the Veteran Age group. I have realized that all those years I coached fencers, I was also coaching myself, integrating the things that I have been telling my students with my own thinking and beliefs. I tell my wife that my new, mentally tough attitude surprises me every time it comes up.

But why should it? I have spent the last 15 years practicing it with my students.

Mental Toughness Starts With Small Steps

No one wakes up in the morning suddenly “mentally tough”. If you have fenced for five years, and during all of those five years you've never thought of yourself as a mentally tough fencer, that belief is not going to change in one week of devotion to your mental game. However, if you work towards being a more resilient fencer for one year, at the end of that year you are going to see an improvement.

Mental toughness starts by making small changes in how you think about yourself, how you behave, and your mental approach to difficult fencing situations. As simple as it sounds, standing up straight, looking your competitors in the eye when you speak to them, telling yourself that you find fencing fencers with certain characteristics a “challenge” rather than “your doom”—all of these things work to change your perception of who you are as a fencer. Gradually that belief changes how you fence. Simple steps lead to bigger steps, but all of the steps must be practiced along the way.

I advocate the practice of “believe to achieve”. By taking on the beliefs of a fencer who already is mentally tough and then acting on that belief the way a mentally tough fencer would you begin to mimic the behaivor that you want to see in yourself. By taking on these behaviors and reinforcing them every day, you will increase your ability to enact those behaviors naturally and without effort.

For instance, suppose you have problems with fencers of the opposite hand. Previously, you might find yourself meeting a fencer like this and think: “Ugh. Another (left/right) handed fencer. I HATE fencing these fencers”. The first step in mental toughness is to change that thought to a different one. You might think, instead: “Oh. A (left/right) hander. I'm looking forward to fencing this person at 100 percent!”

You might still lose this bout. In fact, at first, I can guarantee you will lose these bouts. However, by approaching the bout in a different way, you are putting yourself into a position to learn to defeat these opponents. By approaching tough situations without an assumption of failure, you will do two things. First, you will actually fence better, since you are now fencing to win rather than “fencing to not lose”. Second, you are now looking for solutions to the problem rather than simply trying to delay losing, and you will see new opportunities to be successful. You will change how you think, and—eventually—you will change how you fence.

Explore Your Fears

Anxiety about competition cans can come from a number of different sources and happens to anyone, even the highly skilled. Johann Harmberg, Olympic medalist in épée admits in "Épée 2.0" that not only did he get nervous in competition, he got nervous in practice. Rather than try to ignore or suppress these feelings, he faced them head on, knew that they were a part of his competitive life, and allowed himself to be nervous without letting his nerves detract from his performance.

Anxiety can come from unrealistic expectations, a concern about results or public perceptions of your skill, or even a particular type of opponent. Some anxiety in competition may be outside the realm of fencing itself, but still impacting your performance on the strip. It is important, as a first step, to make a list of those situations (including general tournament anxiety) which you feel impact your performance the most.

Once those fears are written down, exploring them is important. Some of those fears may strike you as ridiculous once they are written down on paper. However, they are not ridiculous to you. Fears are, by nature, personal, and each one of your concerns needs to be addressed directly. Simply trying to suppress them will not be effective in a time of crises. In some cases your increasing skills will make these problems disappear as you continue to train and gain experiance, while resolving not to let your fears about a fencer or situation hinder you. In other cases, you will—like Hamberg—simply accept that you will be anxious about some situaitons and push through regardless.

I know two things about competitive stress. The first is that past events are not a predictor of future events. This has helped me to put old fears behind me and fencing in the “here and now”. The second things I know is that all fencers, no matter what their level, have anxiety before a competition starts, and they step on the piste anyway.

Talking to Yourself: Your Inner Coach...

Every time I go to a competition, I hear a lot of chatter around me from fencers about how horribly they expect to fence that day. It is as if they are walking along a cliff and daring themselves to step off. Eventually, most find a reason to jump. “Uh-oh, there are three lefty's in my pool!”, or “That girl uses an extended French. I ALWAYS lose to people with extended French!”. This innter dialouge ensures that fencers lose these bouts before they fence them.

I understand that much of this is a self-defense mechanism: those fencers are trying to adjust their expectations, which is understandable. However, how can you hope to fence your best if, with every affirmation, you conclude that the day is going to be a disaster? The start of being mentally tough is to teach your inner voice to tell yourself that you are going to fence at the top of your game, and then making every effort to ensure that you do.

The most mentally tough fencers I know are quietly confident. They know they only have control over how well they fence that day. They also know that most of the time, that is enough to perform well. They start every tournament working hard to make sure that mentally and physically, they fence at the top of their game, what ever that may be.

Steps towards controlling negative self talk:

  1. Think of the voice in your head as your “internal coach”. If you had a very knowledgeable coach inside your head, how would you like that person to talk to you? What would they say?
  2. Internal self talk doesn't ignore or gloss over challenges, fears and obstacles. Your internal voice should acknowledges them and understands that obstacles are a part of the learning process.
  3. Concentrate on reinforcing the behavior you want, not the behavior you are trying to stop. Say “do” instead of “don't”. Your internal voice should be telling you to “take a parry 6” rather than telling you to “stop parrying 4”.
  4. When you find your internal dialogue taking a turn into the negative, speak audibly to yourself: “Stop”. You don't have to say this word very loud, but vocalizing the interruption will help put you back on track.

Remember that fencing is not the only time people engage in negitive self talk. You inner voice may constantly be in your ear outside the fencing venue. That inner voice has to be monitored all of the time. When you do this, I think you'll be surprised how much negative self talk is often in your daily life as well as when you're practicing or competing.

Here's a quote from my friend, Jason Sheridan:

Performance psychology isn't really about changing our sports results, that's just an effect. Performance psychology is about changing the way we understand and interact with the world: whether we're in school, at work, on the street, or on the strip. The skills we need to effectively communicate with other people, effectively communicate with ourselves, and effectively deal with adversity are not limited to our sports activity—and if we wish to master these skills, we can't expect to limit their application to sports. You can't spend your whole week engaging in negative, destructive thinking and behavior (even if those thoughts and activities are not related to sports) and then expect to be mentally prepared for competition during the weekend.

Mantras Aren't Just for Yogis

Mantras were originally designed as nonsense syllables to help practitioners of Transcendental Meditation empty their mind of distracting thoughts (later they also provided a good income stream to unscrupulous yogis who sold custom mantras to silly Westerners). Mantras have become a bit of a joke in the last few decades, but the theory behind a mantra is sound, and a similar idea can be used as part of a refocusing drill when things are not going well, or you are becoming distracted and losing sight of your goal or plan..

A better term for a fencing “mantra” might be a "focusing statement": a short statement that serves as way to focus your mind to help steer the you along an optimal performance path. Your focusing statement should very short, positive, easy to remember, and quick to say.

As a fencer, my biggest problem is rushing in my preparation (tactical). So my focusing statement is "stalk the opponent" (to avoid rushing). Your statement will be different, of course. Experiment with what works for you. Write down two or three things that you have difficulty with when you fence, and see if you can come up with a few pithy sentences that your perfect, internal coach would tell you from the side of the strip. Experiment with using one or two of these at practice for several weeks.

Some fencers have claimed that adding another activation trigger (such as squeezing their grip or snapping their fingers) increased their focus, but personally, that's never been necessary for me, since I am very verbal. What works for you?

Confidence Comes From Rehearsing Positive Past Experiences

When I first started to fence, I often found myself in bouts during which I would lose confidence. I decided to speak to one of my teammates—a very confident fencer—about how she kept her confidence on the strip. When I asked her how, she thought about this for a few seconds and then said: “When ever I have doubts about my fencing, I think about the last NAC I won, and I use that to remind myself that I am a very capable fencer.”

Since I had never won a NAC, this was not very helpful! However, after a little thought, I realized that I had scored against—and even won bouts—against tough fencers at my club, which had many strong fencers. I started thinking about the best bouts I had fenced in practice, and my best touches scored in competition. I realized while I could not rehearse something I had never done before, I had many good touches and good bouts I could capture and use to imagine myself fencing well. From there, I could build.

I used this exercise to win bouts, and then tournaments. I am still using this concept today.

All of you have had good touches and good bouts in your careers. Use every success to build the next success.

I use the idea of mental rehersal for situations I know are going to be tough, pointing back to the idea of "believe to achieve". I find it helpful to build internal “scripts” for difficult situations. For example, I very much dislike loud, boisterous opponents. In the past, they have unnerved me quite a bit, but I started thinking about how a top fencer would handle this opponent and built a script in my head for my behavior. I rehearsed this script a lot, visually being relaxed and calm in the face of a difficult opponent. As a result, when I encounter those fencers, I'm much better at handling them emotionally, since I have "seen" them before.

Knowing How You Work is an Important Weapon in Mental Toughness

One of the ideas of modern sports psychology is something called an “arousal level”. This is a measure of how engaged and excited the athlete is in the task they are performing. By plotting the arousal level against performance, psychologists discovered the unsurprising fact that not being interested in the task at hand hurt performance, but they were surprised to find that being too interested—too excited—about an event also hurt performance.

For the mentally tough fencer, this is important. You have to understand at what level of engagement or excitement you perform your best. The reality of arousal levels is very complicated, and dependant on the task (for activities that are very mental, like an algebra test, you don't want a high level of engagement/excitement. For a physical task—such as fencing—you want a fairly high level of involvement). The arousal level for every fencer is slightly different. Part of your education in mental toughness is to know two things: what level of excitement you need to fence your best, and how to get to that level of excitement and stay there.

FInding this "arousal level" for you will be a bit of a mystery at first. I feel it is important to record observations about yourself in your competition workbook (2) (“I really panicked when I got to the venue without enough time to warm up”, for example, may lead you to ensure that you always get to the venue early). These observations should be very honest and not necessarily shared with anyone. Pre- and post- tournament thoughts and routines are important. Record them, review them, and act on them. It may require some experimentation (such as change of warm up music, pre-competition meal, or the amount of socialization you do, for example).

A quick story about levels of arousal in a bout. Once, at a competition, I was down in a bout by a number of touches against a strong fencer. With the bout half over, and trailing badly, I scored a touch to the bottom of my opponent's hand. Indignant that he had been hit, he asked the referee to test our weapons, all the time insisting that there was no way he could have been hit by me. His protests and repeated requests to test weapons made me a little irritated. I thought to myself: “I get what might be the only touch I'm going to score in this bout, and you're going to deny it to me?”

I then did one of the first mentally tough things I had ever done in a National competition. I used the situation to get “just a little” mad. I decided while this fencer was better than me, I was not going to roll over for an opponent who had shown himself to be so ungracious. To spite him, I decided that I was going to score on him again.

I scored the next four touches to win the bout, one of my first come from behind wins at a NAC.

Later, I realized I had been fencing “flat” in the bout. I had let the relative ease my opponent had shown in scoring early in the bout defeat me before the bout was over. Writing in my journal later, I understood that I used the focus of an obnoxious opponent to adjust my arousal level to fence my best.

Since my return to competition, I have come from being behind several times. I have not always had to make myself “a little mad” but I have used music, friends, focusing statements, and other things to adjust my arousal level. Knowing what you need (to be calmed down or pumped up) and knowing what moves your arousal level in the direction you need to go is a valuable tool.

Put Yourself in Difficulty

Learn to—if not embrace, to at least seek out—those opponents or situations that make you uncomfortable, that cause you to make mistakes, that you have difficulty fencing. If you cannot find those fencers having your coach (or a teammate) simulate those situations in lesson can help. While a coach may not always be able to accurately simulate every fencer, they should be able to give an approximation of someone who is opposite handed, or fences with an absence of blade, or makes random, wild blade actions—what ever situation you find unnerving. These lessons allow you to replicate your difficult situations in a controlled environment so that you can experiment with solutions.

When you take the opportunity to put yourself into a situation numerous times in practice, you have some freedom to experiment with problem solving and try new solutions, without thinking of winning or losing. Does being defensive work better than being offensive? Blade high or low? Different parries? Fencing closer or further away? Active or passive?

Competition Must be Put Into a Framework That Makes You Work at Your Best

I do not think of myself as competitive (I should note that my wife disagrees with this assessment). I do not really like the idea of winning and losing. I do, however, like the idea of solving a problem. When I frame opponents as “problems” to solve, it helps me relax and fence my best. Is it a trick I play on myself? Perhaps. But it is a trick that works for me. Something like this also works for you, so find it, and use it.

I only have one caveat with this method, and that is that your motivation will work best when it's a positive one. Some fencers see their opponent's as "the enemy" as a way to raise their arosal level and motivate themselves to fence their best. In the short term, this can be very effective, but there is a long term danger of putting the opponent in a place of such importance that losing a bout—as every does—has a bigger impact on your fencing than it should.

Everyone Has a Bad Tournament

One of the things I noticed when I sit with skilled fencers is that they only talk about their positive experiences fencing. I know all of them have had bad tournaments—in some cases I have been there when they occurred (and in rare cases I have been the cause)—but they do not let those tournaments define their fencing careers. Mentally tough fencers do not ignore bad tournaments, they learn the lessons they need to learn from the tournament, and then they move on.

Anyone can have a poor tournament or a bad season. Mental toughness says that a mistake is not a reflection on who you are, but a reflection on the performance at that particular moment. The distinction between you and your performance is an important one. Your performance may have suffered, but you—as a fencer—are moving forward and continually improving your game. You identify the problems in your game and work to eliminate them. By understanding that even good athletes have slumps, and keeping your eye on your own progress and results (and not others) you will work through plateaus faster and easier. You are not your individual mistakes, but part of a longer process of improving your game.

Watch any baby learning to walk. They fall down a lot. A baby never says: “Forget this walking stuff. I'm no good at it. I'm sticking to crawling!” Babies keep trying and experimenting until they are walking. A lesson, practice, or tournament in which you've made no mistakes was probably a waste of your time.

Focusing on mistakes—rather than on the process of being a better fencer—leads you down a rabbit hole of blame and disbelief. Saying to yourself: “Damn, I can NEVER do that parry correctly!”, retards your ability to eventually do that parry correctly, which is the ultimate goal.

The Inner Game of Tennis has an excellent approach on how to look at your mistakes. The famous tennis teacher Tim Gallway has his students serve many tennis balls and simply observe where the ball lands, without trying to put a "value" on the ball being in any particular place. By looking at mistakes as something that happens “outside” of the judging process, it becomes easier to correct them. It is difficult to do this in a bout, but it is necessary to learn. Practice doing it in lesson first, and you'll get better at it.

Trusting your abilities is not about fencing without mistakes, it's about your belief that you can fence well even if you make errors. What do you call someone who wins every bout 15-14? Well, “champion” of course!

Do the Work

From a past member of the US National Team, about his fencing:

Once you can work that hard, demand that much from yourself, it ought to be easy to review your fencing back at practice, identify your weaknesses and strengths, be honest with yourself about what you can do and can't do right now, and what you can learn to do in the next year. Being able to say "I suck at this" and keep coming back every day for as many hours as my body would allow is how I got better as a fencer.

Being mentally tough is aided by being physically tough and and learning your sport. Building physical skill in fencing, and in general, aids in building self confidence. Also, you tend to be more susceptible to your inner doubts and fears when you are tired. Having the physical skill to warm up thoroughly before your competition (rather than "saving energy for the pools") and put yourself in "the middle of your game" at the start of an event gives you a high chance of fencing your best, rather than using your first two or three opponents to "warm up", with associated disastrous results.

Do the work you need to do. Do more than the work you need to do. Being mentally tough won't help you if you are also not trying to maximize the skill set that you are bringing to the piste. While you are learning to act confident in your skills, improve those skills at the same time. This is an obvious fact about mentally tough fencers: they concentrate on being good fencers first, and ignore the things they can't control. Knowing you are prepared to practice and compete is a big step in achieving mental toughness.

At a certain point, a goal such as “I will win the Division Championships” is an appropriate goal. But for the most part your job is not to be better than any given opponent, but to be better than you were yesterday. Fencing is not a gum ball machine in which you put in a quarter and get a prize. Sometimes you keep putting in quarters, and nothing comes out. Then suddenly, you put in a quarter and the machine empties into your lap. The important part of setting a goal is not getting the gum ball, but recognizing that you are feeding the machine with hard work. The work is the goal.

Preparation extends not only to the lessons you've taken and the workouts you've done, but your equipment, your diet, and your sleep. Starting a competition with all of your equipment passing inspection is something you can control, and one less thing you have to worry about at the event.

Take a Breath

One of the things that is very important when you start to lose control of a situation (or yourself) is the ability to step away for a small moment and put the problem back in perspective. Fencing is very hard. It is phyiscally intense and emotiaonlly exhusting. Points are scored against you by your opponent physically striking you with a weapon, which only adds t othe stress.

Its obviously impossible to step off the strip and find a quiet place to gain perspective and composure when a bout isn't going well. At the same time, it's possible to create a quiet place while on the strip, and it usually takes no more than a few seconds.

As you walk back to your on guard line after a touch remember that there is no rule that says how fast you have to walk. Find a way to stall for a little bit of time. Readjust your mask, rearrange your hair, tie your shoe: as long as you don't do this on every touch, the referee will often simply ask you to get on guard (again) without penalty. Use that time to breath in slowly and deeply (for at least a count of 4-5 seconds), hold your breath for a second, and then slowly let it out. Take another deep breath as you get on guard. Consider your focusing statement, and fence the next touch.

Mental Toughness, the End Game

In the end, it does not really matter what rating you hold or what tournaments you win. When you are fencing the mental toughness game of fencing—the inner game—the opponent does not matter so much as the experience you are having. You may fence deep into your mental game and still lose. But you will also know that in that bout, you fenced your best. Being mentally tough often means that winning becomes easier (and you will win more) but the true benefit of understanding of fencing the mental game is that it enables you to enjoy the sport no matter what the venue or the result. In the end, you do not fence because you are forced, or because there is a prize you strive for. You fence because that is who you are, and being a fencer is an expression of yourself. When this happens, you have won every tournament you need to.

(1) While it may seem that I am equating being "mentally tough" with being in a "flow state" the two terms should not be considered equivalent, though I feel that a mentally tough competitor is more likely to be able to either spontaneously or consciously enter a flow state during competition. Certainly an inability to let go of anxiety or apprehension about the competitive situation a fencer might find themselves in would compromise their ability to enter a state of flow.

(2) As part of your efforts to become a better fencer, you competition workbook/notebook should be a complete record of your progress both physically and emotionally on your path to being a better fencer. Finding your emotional triggers and developing plans to either use them or avoid them is important.

© by Allen Evans, September 2017. This article may be used unmodified, with credit to the author.