Identity, Failure, Humility, and Growth

Although I wrote this for a specific audience of historical fencers, I realize that much of it can be more broadly applied to other martial arts/sports as well. Whatever your background, I hope my experience may be useful to you.

A Crisis of Expectations and Failure

It’s easy to become emotionally derailed, when part of your identity is based on being good at something competitive, such as fencing. Sometimes, doing poorly during casual free play or suffering an early tourney loss is all it takes to start a trend, as the cognitive dissonance between the “good fencer” you think you are and your poor performance are unable to resolve into a coherent image of yourself.

The downward spiral starts in earnest when you start blaming others for your failure, and all the while a deeper sense of frustration at your own shortcomings puts the lie to your justification. Even as you attempt to deny it, the frustration builds, and your self confidence atrophies. Eventually, your diminished self esteem stops being the result of your poor performance and becomes the cause of it instead.

Many Paths into Darkness

There’s no way to put it mildly: the crisis of failing to live up to your self image absolutely sucks, even when the only thing at stake is your pride. Nonetheless, virtually every successful fencer goes through it eventually, often more than once. The important thing isn’t whether or not you go though your own crisis, but how you deal with it. Unfortunately, there are many ways to make a bad situation worse.


Losing Accountability

Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re suffering from a crisis of expectations until you’ve thrown down your gear, stormed off the list, and said something uncharitable about your opponent/training partner. Sometimes they just smolder off list. Either way, it’s never a pretty sight.

The danger with losing your temper isn’t just the harm you may have done to you opponent and your reputation (everyone has a bad day, and we all get it), but rather the harm you’ve done to your psyche. When you don’t hold yourself accountable from the outset, it’s easy to fall into the habit of blaming others for your failures. Not only does this stifle your own growth, before long, no one will want to spar with you anymore.


Ramping Up

Almost as bad as passing the blame is deciding the reason you failed is that you weren’t fast or reckless enough, accepting your responsibility but drawing the entirely wrong conclusion from the experience. Hint, it’s almost never that you weren’t fast enough—timing is way more important than speed. This conclusion leads to the way of the thug or the charging bull, both types of fighter who makes up for poor technique by sheer aggression.

Thugs throw caution to the wind when they attack and go for speed, usually at the cost of control and good mechanics. When they do lang shots, they often bruise their opponents. Charging bulls rush in, resulting in double hits and hard hits, often land blows solely because their opponents are afraid of either getting hurt or hurting them. Both of these related paths will cause you to stagnate quickly and will limit your choice of willing sparring partners.


Seeking Weak Opponents

This is one of the most tempting pitfalls for teachers and fencers who have a history of inconsistent performance, and it can happen entirely by accident. Teachers in particular are susceptible to this, since they often have a perfectly good excuse to spend more time training inexperienced fencers, and less time getting in free play, often getting in what little free play they get with their students. Whether you deliberately seek weaker fencers or fail to seek out fencers as good or better than you, inflate your ego by fencing inferior opponents is extremely destructive.

While the ego boost of trouncing weaker fencers for a while may feel beneficial at first, this form of self aggrandizement presents leads to setting deeply unhealthy expectations for yourself. You get used to winning—a lot! What’s more, even deeply flawed techniques can work well against weak opponents, allowing you to develop awful habits. When you finally decide it’s time to show the rest of the good fencers how awesome you are, you not only fail to live up to your inflated expectations, you’re likely to fall much harder into your next crisis.

Side Note: This same phenomenon can happen to those fencers who simply avoid fencing altogether and talk about their heroic prowess.


Giving Up

Once you decide you’re going to suck, it’s easy to prove yourself right. I think it’s a given that creating a negative internal monolog isn’t a good habit, and deciding you’re going to lose a bout before you start is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The real tragedy here is that it doesn’t just happen to new/inexperienced/bad fencers. After a bad day or two, even a good fencer can slip into this mode, reinforcing an underlying imposture syndrome or diminishing real self confidence. The thing is, the real talent is still there—nothing has changed about this fencer’s mechanical abilities, grasp of fundamentals, timing, etc, but distraction makes it nearly impossible to tap into theses things. It’s almost always best to take a break when this happens, lest giving up lead to burning out.

The Path of Humility

At last we’ve come to the only positive way to emerge from the self-image crisis: facing reality. For a seasoned competitor, saying, “I’m not as good at this as I think I am,” is one of the scariest admissions to make. Not only does it make you feel like you’ve been lying to everyone, it also forces you to assume an entirely new identity within the context of your art. Choosing the path of humility, rather than giving up, is harder still.

Competitive humility can take on a number of guises, from the friendly face of someone who is cheerful even in defeat, to the deeply introspective scholar, and the intensely focused athlete. The demeanor has far less to do with the path than the motivation behind it. By facing reality and accepting criticism (both internal and external), this fencer may find the lesson in each defeat or poorly executed technique and learn from—rather than dwell on—every defeat.


It’s Something You Do, Not Something You Are

Just as all of the paths into darkness are really a succession of habits, so is the path of humility. The good thing about this is, no matter how far you stray, you can always find your way back to the path, so long as you’re aware of the steps and strive to makes them habitual. Here are some of the ones I know:

  • Challenge Yourself

    Seek out fencers you consider at or above your level as often as you can. When you can’t, give yourself victory conditions (e.g., only go for shots on the outside line) or handicaps (e.g., use a shorter sword or fence offhand). Don’t make it easy on yourself unless you’re specifically working on your A game.

  • Give Yourself Permission to Lose

    It’s actually easier to do this when fencing people at or above your level, but even when you spar with newer fencers, they’re going to hit you now and then, and you need to be okay with that. For most of us, there are few fencers we can’t learn from.

  • Acknowledge Your Opponent’s Triumphs

    Never “give” someone that shot. Whether you were bringing your A game, taking it easy, or woodshedding a technique, your opponent has earned every blow they land, and you must respect that. Remember, every time you lose, some one else wins, and you have no right to deny them that victory if you want to feel victory yourself.

  • RELAX!

    Getting tense while your fence is a negative habit that feeds back on itself. The tighter your grip your sword and the stiffer your posture, the harder time you have moving in an effective manner, which leads to failure, which leads to increased tension. The idea of relaxing while doing something as intense as simulating combat is instinctually counterintuitive, so you won’t start doing it unless you work on it. A few things I’ve found effective for this include:

    1. Loosening your grip
    2. Sinking in your stance
    3. Checking your shoulder tension
    4. Taking deep, steady, and full breaths
    5. Smiling (even/especially when you’re losing)
  • Accept Criticism

    When someone offers you criticism, accept it. You may want to argue, but don’t. They may be wrong, but that’s okay. Whatever it is they say, there’s a reason they think what they think, and it’s worth considering, even if you ultimately discard it.

  • Seek Criticism

    Go out of your way to seek criticism from your peers and betters. There’s no shame in asking for it. At best, you’ll get some good advice. At worst, you’ll make someone’s day because you asked their opinion. No one will think less of you.

  • Never Make Excuses

    If something happens, then it happens. You didn’t get hit because you failed to pull off a technique—you got hit because your opponent hit you. You’re not having an off night, that guy isn’t freakishly tall, that 45″ sword isn’t “cheap,” and no, you wouldn’t have won if you’d have “just tried harder.” Any and all of these things may feel true, but they have no bearing on what just happened. Fencing isn’t a space shuttle launch—conditions may never be perfect, and making excuses for your failure dosn’t change a thing.

  • End on a High Note

    Even if you just got your ass handed to you, shake your opponent’s hand and congratulate them on a set of excellent bouts or a victory well earned.

  • Visualize and Reflect

    After each pass, take a second and go over the outcome. A bit of on-the-fly analysis can be extremely useful. Also, take a moment to go over your whole day or practice again, once the gear’s off and you’ve had a minute to process it all. Be honest about your failings (both about fencing and sticking to these habits) and feel proud of your accomplishments.

I’m sure there are plenty others I missed or better ways to phase some of these, but it’s a good start.

Afterward: Obsession and Drive

After reflecting on this article, it occurred to me that I never addressed the notion of other paths to success that aren’t along the path of humility. It’s entirely possible to achieve success without making peace with yourself and learning not to become so invested in your need to achieve them to lose sight of the everyday joy in being who you are. But is the victory as sweet?

By letting go of the anxiety of trying to force your real self to live up to your expectations of your ideal self, you achieve a kind of open-eyed meditative state. Along the way, you learn to acknowledge your goals and even strive for them, but you also learn to cope with failure. Ultimately, the path of humility allows you to appreciate the goal of perfection and the process of reaching it, as you identify with your true self (the one on the journey) and not your fabricated self (the one who’s already arrived).

There’s another common path to success: the path of obsession. The path of obsession is quite different from the path of humility, inasmuch as its the path taken by those who deal with their crises by picking themselves up, rubbing some dirt in their wounds, and staying focused on the prize.

There is a very serious risk those who commit themselves to the path of obsession go though. Even though they learn to be accountable, those on the path of obsession see the learning process as something to get through, not something to celebrate, forming a pathological need to align their self-image with reality. Some even find a kind of happiness in the pain, though every time they take a step back, the go though crisis all over again.

Though an overwhelming majority end up on one of the paths to darkness, those who walk the path of obsession may achieve success eventually. They are the ones we see as consummate athletes and artists. Some achieve humility when they finally achieve their goal, and they’re the ones I find particularly precious.

All to often, however, when the obsessed do finally achieve a level of success that should be satisfactory, the lack of an anticipated revelation is disheartening. After all, in the obsessed mind, all this person has achieved was to live up to (formerly) impossible expectations, and there’s no sense of achievement. Many who walk that path disappear shortly after reaching their goal, making the entire journey culminate in an emotionally pyrrhic victory.




Ultimately, your path is your choice, and it’s a choice no one can make for you. Thanks for reading this, and I look forward to any criticism you may offer.

Written by Philipp

The proprietor of The Edge of the World historical fencing academy.

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