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Friday, December 14, 2018

Competition Headspace for Fencing and A&S

Hello again, I know it is kind of crazy that this will be my 3rd month in a row of posting something.  I need to thank my teacher and Laurel in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), Mistress Elysabeth “Lissa” Underhill, for the motivation and the kicking in the butt to get back to doing this on a regular basis.


As you can tell by the title, this post won’t be strictly about Destreza, but more about competition in fencing and in Arts and Science (A&S).  Specifically I wanted to talk briefly about my experiences with getting into tournament headspace for different types of competitions, as well as what I have seen others do.   If you have competed in fencing or just about any sporting event, you are most likely intimately aware of this state of mind.  There is an entire field of sports psychology built around this topic and I hope to do more reading in the coming year to get better informed and prepared.

Tournament headspace can be generally defined as the way that the mind influences the performance of the participant.  Think about when you were in school and you had to take a test.  You were done with the studying and preparing and it all came down to how you performed that day and how well you did on the test.  I know some people that were awesome at taking tests and others that would just freeze up and do horrible.  Tournament headspace is very similar with how an athlete or artist spends countless hours perfecting their actions and art before they get to the competition.  All of that physical prep will play a role in how they do that day, but how they prepare their mind for the test/fight/tourney will also influence the outcome and how they feel about their performance afterwards.


I can not cover all of the different ways to prepare your mind for a tourney as there are entire books and classes taught on this subject.  Instead, I will mention a few different categories or techniques that I have witnessed and how various people use them.  As you read, try and think about how these methods relate to different types of competitions, be it a fencing round robin tourney or perhaps and Arts and Science entry where there is a need for more social interaction:

  1. Personal Space: Some prefer to not have contact with anyone when they are getting ready to compete as it will distract them from their performance, while others like to talk and use casual conversation as a way to relax.  
  2. The Adversary:  This is how you see the competition.  Some prefer to see the world as an enemy that must be beaten and some of the best fighters out there use it.  I personally like to get into a “FUN” headspace by bouncing and thinking about how much enjoyment I am going to get out of the tourney regardless of my wins or losses.  I discovered this works for me by reflecting on a quote by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, where he wrote about practicing in a Joyful manner.  I have personally found that counting my wins and losses will really mess with me BIG TIME and this is something I fight with all the time in my head.
  3. Visualization:  This is a classic technique that many professional and Olympic athletes use.  A VERY simple description of this is that you visualize or meditate on their techniques being applied.  You see them working in your mind and perhaps see yourself in the winner’s circle getting the award.
  4. Patterns:  This one can be summed up as, what you do at practice is what you should do at the tourney.  Do you wear the same shoes or gear at practice as you will wear in a competition.  I personally have a footwork drill that I do before every practice.  In order to get into my headspace at a tourney I step away from folks and do this same drill to get into a good mind. 
  5. Rituals and superstition:  You hear it made fun of sometimes, but it is 100% valid.  Maybe it is a lucky pair of socks you always wear.  Personally, I have this goofy ritual with my lady, where she shoots all the bad thoughts around me in a funny “pew pew” fashion.  Yeah, it is goofy and crazy, but it also helps me stay in my fun headspace.  These behaviors and habits are similar to the previously mentioned patterns and in the end they give the competitor a sense of comfort and familiarity.  


As well as thinking about these techniques and categories I mentioned, you should also reflect on what the format of the competition will be and how that might influence your mind.  I find the bear pit format that involves 3 hours of non-stop fighting many different people requires a much different headspace than say a round robin tournament where the competition is smaller and the time more focused.  Even more different than those is a “one and done” tourney such as Pennsic Rapier Champs.  There is A LOT riding on a single fight and that can really mess with you.  There are also small group battles and melee fights that require a different headspace and level of cooperation or social interaction that might be more similar to a basketball team.

To add a different layer of complexity to the format idea, take all of that and reflect on how this could relate to an Arts and Science competition.  It might not be a one on one fight, but there are similarities. You did all of your work (substitute for practice) before the competition and you must take time to be social with folks and explain your art and answer their questions.  It is more like a job interview in ways, where you must show your work as well as yourself and your knowledge of the topic.  Similar to a fencing tourney, there is a lot riding on it and you want to score well and win. 


While there are many things lacking in the training methods of SCA competitors, one of our biggest advantages is the fact that we have so many opportunities to enter competitions.  In my section of the SCA world (East Kingdom), if you are willing to drive, you can find a fencing tournament almost every single weekend or every other.  In Sept. alone I participated in 3 different tournaments and actually could have done a 4th at an event I was attending.  I realize how lucky we are in the SCA as other sword sports like HEMA do not have quite as many opportunities to compete.  You can practice as much as you want, but if you have very little chance to experience the stress and pressure of a competition you will most probably not be prepared and not have a chance to figure out what works for you and your mind. 


To summarize all of this information I will say simply that it is a personal journey that takes time and experimentation.  What works one time to get you in your headspace, might not work the next.   You must come to grips with the fact you will not win every tournament you enter and understanding your reactions to loss is essential to your growth and the development of your mind game.  Also, remember that no matter how good your headspace is you need to still Practice, Practice, Practice and perfect your art or you are simply wasting time.  Visualizations without practice are delusions.  

Here is a good blog post Lissa sent me about fencing tournament headspace that folks might be interested in.


My personal goals for the coming year include:
  • Practice more and get my skills to a higher level.  
  • Get a pair of shoes that I will use at both practice and in competition to create a better pattern for myself.  
  • Attend and enter more A&S tourneys to  reflect on the similarities and differences between my two passions (research and fighting).  
  • Lastly and perhaps most important, I want to look at headspace a bit deeper to educate myself on this topic to improve my game.

Next month I will try and update the Destreza Resource list.  It is been almost 6 months and I have a few extra things to add to that.  Until then...

Thanks for reading!


  1. Interesting. I always have trouble with "tournament head". But, I would offer one more factor, which also may explain some of the difference between a fencing tournament and A&S competition. It's part of what you were getting at in the format section.
    A fencing tournament involves direct competition against an adversary. A&S is a solo competition, like high jump or shootings. Your result is unaffected by the other competitors. You score what you score. Fencing, like tennis or team sports, has a direct adversary. So, how you do is not just up to you - your result is a result of how your skill interacts with the adversary's. That difference is what makes "tournament head" more difficult for me, I think.

  2. Matt, Thank you so much. I love your analysis and agree. I hope to do a follow up post in a month or so with more of a focus on A&S headspace. In A&S I have quoted a saying from Mixed Martial Arts where they tell fighters to never let the decision go to the judges because you never know how things will go. Well, the hard part is that almost all A&S competitions rest in the judges hands and as a result there is a different type of stress before and after competitions.
    It was also interesting to read a response by another friend of mine who competes with thrown weapons where his enemy is the target, how that differs from having someone across from you, and how getting into his headspace is also different.
    Thank you for the insight and feedback.