The Secret Wisdom of Fencing (and competitive sports in general)

People always ask me such interesting questions when I tell them I fence.

“Do you use a real sword?”

“Are you allowed to run at your opponent?”

“Could you accidentally kill someone?”

“Could I do a front flip over my opponent, land on the strip behind them, and then stab them in the back? Is that legal?”

I can understand why they have these bizarre impressions of the sport–to the average person, fencing is a token of the medieval ages, when knights would challenge each other to a gentlemanly duel to the death, involving swords, unnecessarily pretentious flourishing of such swords, and a series of slow strikes that ends in someone’s tragic but honorable death. An actual spectator of the sport knows that modern-day fencing looks nothing like that, and may even pick up some rules and strategy, but will most often take notice of the bloodcurdling screams that fill tournament spaces when fencers get a touch (and for good reason).

Why? Because fencing is an incredibly psychological sport. It’s just you and your opponent on the strip (piste), facing each other in en garde position, covered in protective armor from head to toe and wired to machines that register the hits you score on each other. The first person to five hits (touches) wins the bout, unless the clock runs down after three minutes, in which case the fencer with the higher score wins. There are three different weapons (foil, sabre, and epee), but I’ll just talk about epee (pronounced EH-pay) because that’s the weapon I fenced. It’s also the weapon that requires the most mental fortitude since the entire body is valid target area, so any mistake you make by getting too close to your opponent or attacking when they’re expecting you to attack is lethal–you’re basically asking to get hit in the face. Oh, and don’t worry–the tips of the weapons are blunt metal buttons that depress when they make contact with something, so rarely does anyone get seriously hurt by a hit.

Because of the individual nature and fighting spirit of the sport, I’ve been through coaches that have advised me to look at bouts as a matter of life and death, where if I didn’t eviscerate my opponent, they would eviscerate me. I’ve been told to be ruthless and unflinching about my attacks and that I needed to be self-assured to the point of arrogance if I wanted to rise to the top. I’ve been through make-or-break bouts where I could win the meet for the team and be celebrated as a hero, or lose and walk shamefully away from the strip through silent and disappointed teammates. I’ve been through nationals and junior olympics and state championships where coaches are loud and parents are louder, all of them screaming commands and curses from the sidelines. As a result, I spent most of my fencing career believing that only the fiercest and toughest competitors could beat their way to the top, and those of us who bit the dust were too weak-willed or modest to join them.

Now, a year out of college and a ton of spiritual reflection later, I’ve realized that fencing has taught me three invaluable life lessons that go completely against the cutthroat (and often toxic) competitive culture that permeates it. These teachings apply to other competitive sports as well, although I think you’ll find that it resonates with individual sports more because of the inner journey we make through each competition.

Teaching #1) Relinquish the Ego

I mentioned before that fencing tournament venues are usually echoing with screams of triumph and frustration alike, and that I’ve been told I need to feel entitled and superior if I wanted to be a champion. All of these thoughts of entitlement, superiority, and condescension through psychological tricks like screaming at your opponent are all manifestations of the ego. Our egos, in a nutshell, are the self-image we have learned to identify with–it’s what makes us self-conscious about how we appear in uncomfortable situations, what shames us when we make mistakes, and what swells and grows with false pride when we attain the carrots dangling in front of us, like social status, wealth, and material goods (Disclaimer: please understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with material wealth or social esteem, but that when we chase after these things to prove our worth to the world, we’re only strengthening our egos and our existing culture of competition).

Unfortunately, it’s true that my most egotistical opponents have been some of my most difficult ones, because their mind games actually get to my ego. Screaming in my ear when the director’s back is turned, calling time outs to pretend to tie their shoes, and hitting more forcefully than they need to when they’re within distance are just a few tricks I’ve seen. It’s true that there are arrogant and terribly unsportsmanlike fencers who are some of the best in the country, and sometimes it makes me wonder why those egotistical thoughts don’t work for me. Why, when I try to think of my opponent as lesser than me, or when I yell in triumph after winning a touch, or when I slap my leg in frustration because I want to show my teammates that I really do care about winning (as they expect me to), do I fall apart mentally? Why have I never been able to sell myself on my egoic thoughts as the answer to becoming a better fencer?

I think somewhere deep down, I’ve always known that true power does not come from the ego. My best fencing moments have arisen in a state of flow, where I’m not thinking about anything at all–not how I appear to spectators when I get hit, not how my opponent is trying to get under my skin, not how angry I am at myself when I make a mistake. There are absolutely no thoughts at all, in fact, and just an intense focus on the present moment. I feel no need to scream, fist pump, or belittle my opponent when I win a touch, no matter how beautiful it was. I am totally removed from the expectation of proving anything to anyone, including myself, and completely grounded in my self.

That is true power. Relinquishing of the ego. It’s a state of clarity, where time slows down and my peripheries are blurred, and I can perceive openings and anticipate timing on a higher level, without the interference of my emotions or paralyzing thoughts. I can find that kind of power within myself, whenever I want, as long as I detach myself from any approval my teammates or coach will give me or any self-inflicted shame I would give myself. I’ve been lucky enough to experience the flow state, or the power of my self without ego, because I can now attest to the possibility and advantage of dis-identifying with the ego in everyday life.

Teaching #2) Fence to win, not not to lose

One of the first articles about fencing tips and tricks I ever read was titled, “Fence to win, not not to lose”, and I have to admit, I didn’t understand it for a long time. The nuance between “fencing to win” and “fencing not to lose” is so minuscule that I often confused the former with ego-based thinking (I’m going to win, I’m better than you, you only hit me because you got lucky etc.) Again, it wasn’t until I experienced the flow state that I understood the subtle difference between the two, and before I realized I could apply this lesson to anything in life.

Fencing not to lose is unsettling. Your mind is not at peace because you’re being influenced by fear, because you’re externally focused. You’re worrying about how losing will look to your teammates, to your opponent, to the director, or even to yourself (how will I treat myself after losing a touch, a bout, or the meet?) The fear of failure is suffocating, and it prevents you from making risky moves or even recognizing and capitalizing on openings. Thinking about the times when I’ve fenced not to lose, I can’t help but remember my first fencing coach, a stern, infamous Italian master who would observe me from the sidelines and holler in his thick Italian accent, “DON’T BE AFRAID!!!”

I guess my hesitancy was that obvious.

In life, too, we tend to focus on the things we can lose. We know that there are people who have less, but we choose to ignore them; they’re not our problem after all, right? But they (the homeless, the poor, the refugees) absolutely are our problem, because we’re afraid of becoming them. We’re afraid that pursuing a meaningful career that earns less money means we’ll end up living in the slums, we’re afraid that not having the luxuries of a car or a smartphone will significantly inconvenience us, we’re afraid that taking time off of work to travel will leave us unemployed forever. This is not an attempt to guilt you into solving all the problems of underserved people, just an illustration of how we let our fears simultaneously drive us and prevent us from taking risks, because we’re afraid of what we’ll lose. And we usually lose anyway.

Fencing to win, on the other hand, is simply focusing on your goal. It’s not so much that you’re attached to the outcome of winning, because that’s just fencing not to lose in another form. Instead, fencing to win means focusing on the actions you need to take at every moment of the bout. When I fence to win, I’m completely internally focused–what am I noticing about my opponent’s patterns? How close within distance am I? What kind of footwork can I use to replicate the touch I just earned? There’s a deep feeling of present-moment awareness when you fence to win, and the game becomes about play. My favorite fencing moments are not necessarily those bouts that I won; many of them are moments when I just looked at my opponent as a puzzle that I wanted to solve (of which winning was sometimes a byproduct).

Teaching #3) It’s ALL about play

My college fencing coach was wiser than he let on. Once, while fencing at a tournament at Brandeis University, he called a time out to tell me the following joke:

There’s this patient who’s complaining to his doctor about a recurring dream. He says, “Doc, I keep dreaming that I’m a teepee, and then a wigwam, and then a teepee, and then a wigwam. It’s driving me crazy! What’s wrong with me?” The Doc said, “You need to relax. You’re two tents!”

That was it. He used the one time out you get per bout to tell me a joke! I remember listening to this with intense anticipation, breathing heavily through my mask as I desperately tried to keep my composure through the humiliation I felt while losing to my opponent. Not only did this make me laugh and forget about all of that, but it made me realize that, just as he was playing with me, I needed to play with my opponent. “Play with it” is something I’d always heard from my coaches on the sidelines, but it always felt too risky, too carefree–I needed to be focused on winning because my worthiness as a fencer depended on it.

Too often in life we get caught up in our achievements and contributions as markers of our worthiness and value. I know so many people (myself included) who struggle with self-worth when they feel like they’re not contributing something meaningful to a group conversation or when they stumble at work or when they fail to meet a personal goal. Unless we’re kicking ass everywhere, all the time, we’re no good, which fuels the culture of stress and workaholism that’s so prevalent in American society today.

But what if we approached life with a more playful mentality? What if we’re just here to enjoy our human experiences and the range of possibilities to make use of our human bodies through, for example, competitive sports? Lately, I’ve been meditating on the idea that the purpose of life is life itself. It’s a crazy thought when you think about how much we’ve been conditioned to achieve and compare and come out on top, but I believe that idea is the foundation of our inner peace, power, and creativity.

If we didn’t attach our worthiness to our wins or losses, achievements or failures, I think we’d find that the things we most desire manifest in our lives anyway. Who knew that my fencing adventures would someday teach me that?