Fencing in the Present – Ignore the Pink Elephant

by Jason Rogers

I think everyone can relate to the following scenario from personal experience as a competitor or spectator. You build a lead in a match, and you win seems assured. But suddenly it seems like a switch flips. Your actions don’t seem to work anymore, and your opponent starts to mount a comeback. Touch by touch, they crawl back into the bout until finally, they eke out the win. You are left stunned, pissed at yourself and unable to explain what happened. The best example from recent Olympic history is Alex Massialas' epic comeback from being down 7-14 against Italy's Giorgio Avola.

 

WHY DOES THIS SCENARIO OCCUR?

Sometimes this happens because your opponent steps up their game. There are many fencers who are slow starters and don’t switch on until it really matters. However, usually, it’s due to a change in your mindset. This change is the realization that victory is within reach. In other words, when your focus shifts away from what is happening in the present moment (the bout you are fencing) to what might happen in the future (the victory). 

Once this happens, you stop taking in all of the subtle cues that help you react in the right way. You might lose the feeling for the opponent’s tempo or miss that slight hesitation which could lead to an opportunity. Instead, you are thinking about your next bout or how good you will feel when you win. 

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WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BRAIN?

First of all, none of this is happening consciously. You aren’t making a choice to shift your focus, it just happens. Why? Sports psychology offers us some clues. 

“When our brains get caught up in thoughts from the past…or thoughts of the future…it creates a stress response, and we can’t use the part of the brain that keeps us engaged in the moment.” Dr Kristen Race, PhD

You might be familiar with the 'pink elephant' effect. If someone says "don't think about a pink elephant," it becomes the exact thing you mind focuses. on. Similarly, once your mindset shifts to what's next, it’s like that pink elephant that you can’t ignore. You become distracted from what is important: fencing your game.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS SCENARIO

Ultimately this is about training your brain to stay focused on the moment. We will talk about meditation and mindfulness, which are excellent methods for doing just that, in future articles. 

However, I’ll give you a practical example of how I dealt with this, which may not work for everyone but was extremely helpful for me. 

The shift in focus would often happen to me at specific scores in the bout. For example when I had scored 8 touches (and we were given a one minute break) or when I reached 13 (and the win really felt close).

For a period of time, I experimented with ignoring the score completely. I would avoid looking at the scoreboard unless absolutely necessary. I did this because I felt it was very rare that the score should ever affect what I needed to do in that individual touch. It could only distract me, and shift my mindset to think about something in the future. Doing this helped me stayed mentally in the moment to the point where sometimes I would win the bout and not even realize it!

One important safety mechanism I also put in place was ensuring that there was someone at the strip to check that score was correct. This was usually my coach or a teammate who could tell the referee if an error was made with the score. 

The bottom line is you can’t enjoy the future until you finish with the present. 

How do you stay present?

 

FOOTNOTES

Image from Nzingha film by Anderson Wright

**Header Image Photo courtesy of Serge Timacheff / FIE