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Winning is 90% Mental
The ringing of swords echoed off the stadium walls. Blades crashed, singing with the impact of sword on sword. Time must have been ticking by, but I couldn’t tell. Time stood still because I was focused on my opponent, my eyes burning from the sweat dripping into them. Sweat poured down like waterfalls on both sides of my face and I could feel a cold, wet trickle run down my spine. I was close, so close.
It was July in St. Louis, Missouri, and the largest and most important event of the season, the 2018 US Fencing Summer Nationals, was underway.
I narrowed my eyes, staring down my opponent with determination. The sheer intensity of my gaze should have melted him on the spot. I looked for a weakness in his mental game as well as his paries. It’s this level of concentration, focus, and courage in the sport of fencing that elevates you to champion status.
It took me a lot of sweat, pain, and practice to get here.
I’d fought my way into the gold medal match of the Youth-10 Men’s Foil Event, taking a commanding 9-7 lead. I was just one touch short of being crowned the 2018 National Champion. Would I, could I pull it off this time?
“Are you ready?” the judge asked. I was. The numerous setbacks I’d overcome this year to get here were in the past. My muscles were rock solid from the rigorous hours of training, running, lifting weights and doing foot drills. I blinked once as my mind and thoughts became crystal clear. It’s not just muscles and lightning quick reflexes that take the best fencers to the top. Concentration, focus, and confidence are even more important. And my focus was hard as tempered steel from the numerous setbacks leading up to this one moment. Each failure prior to this had only served to sharpen my focus.
The nerves were real. “On guard…” The crowd was silent, and my body went into full lockdown mode. “Are you ready? Fence!” This was the moment. This one touch would seal my fate and make me forget about all the hardships and painful training sessions. The only thing standing between me and my trophy was time.
In 2017 I was the number seven seed heading into the national tournament. I was extremely nervous about my first national competition. The butterflies in my stomach flew non-stop, hammering against my lungs and heart until I thought my chest would explode. My entire body felt extremely stiff, as though it wanted nothing to do with this competition, the crowds, or me. We were two parts, not one body and mind as we were this year.
I had warmed up with anxiety then, but it quickly melted. I reminded myself that I had endured hundreds of rigorous training sessions just for this moment. I was only minutes away from my destiny — be it failure or a win.
In the first round of competition, I came out strong, defeating every opponent to finish at a solid tenth place. In the next, direct elimination round, I defeated close rivals of mine. I was amazed at how smoothly things went after I’d felt so nervous at the first match. Touch after touch, I executed my actions perfectly. I finished in second place, completely exceeding my expectations. I smiled from ear to ear at the end of the tournament, and as I headed into the next season as the number one ranked fencer. I was thrilled to be ranked number one, but anxious to prove I deserved that ranking. I knew how much I needed to work to take my skills one step further than a silver medal, and win gold.
How naive I was. After two months of intense training, I expected to easily win the opening tournament of the new season. After all, I’d won silver at the national tournament in 2016, and I trained even harder for this. But someone else wanted that coveted spot more than I did, and after advancing all the way to the finals, I met him. His name was Roy. I was thinking I’d easily secure my first gold medal but Roy had the same thought. My confidence was soon shattered as he took control of the match to defeat me 10-6.
My parents’ faces revealed their shock at my loss. I understood they were unsettled, but I did not feel the same way. I didn’t like it, but I was comfortable with the loss. I knew each and every mistake I made after fencing Roy for the first time. I knew what I’d done wrong, and I was ready to correct my errors.
Blades clashed, shoes squeaked, and metal on metal sang a song I could not forget. It’s victory tune was not for me this time. Unlike my first silver medal, the silver medal I’d won that day left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and I was certainly ready to get rid of it.
In the following tournament in November, I encountered Roy again, also in the finals. I was determined to prove to myself that I could defeat him. More importantly, I needed everyone to see how much I had improved. My game plan had been finalized and I was ready to go...or so I thought. I lost 8-0. I failed to score a single point. My parents weren’t even watching the bout midway. Had they given up on me?
I had endured so much pain and growth with each practice, yet for some reason, the puzzle pieces weren’t fitting together. I remember thinking I’d never defeat Roy. I may have been the number one ranked fencer, but it seemed that I had to simply accept that I was the second best fencer. My confidence was shaken, but not my determination.
There was no time to waste focusing on my disappointment. The most important competition, the 2018 US Fencing Summer Nationals, was coming up in two months. All I could think of was how was I going to beat Roy?
After the school year finished, I trained at the club five days a week. Every practice I trained until I hit the point of pure exhaustion and could do no more. After an hour of footwork drills, my legs felt as if they were on fire. My arms felt like noodles after hitting the target at least one thousand times. Sometimes, I cried because of how much pain I was forcing myself to endure.
If my body was weaker after the workout, my mind was growing stronger. Mentally, I never tired. All I could think about was how I finished second at the competition last year. It was like a burning splinter in my brain, taunting and irritating me. Throughout the season it only made me extremely angry. Because of that memory, and the image of coming in second, I fully locked down on winning the title.
Two months became one month, then three weeks, two weeks, and then the day arrived. The competition started on July 6th in St. Louis. There were 160 competitors fighting for the championship, but none were fighting as fiercely as I believed I was. I desperately wanted to hoist that number one trophy high in the end. But there was just one problem: I was meeting Roy in the Top 16!
If I lost that match, I’d not only show the entire auditorium I wasn’t worthy of being the number one fencer, I’d show them maybe that ranking was wrong all along and I was just a lucky starter before.
With that nightmare in mind, I gritted my teeth and focused on the number one spot. I stuck to my game plan — exploiting his major weaknesses. It worked.
There I was, with the score at 9-7 in the finals. With less than a minute to go on the clock I began to attack my opponent. My opponent blocked me. Then I saw an opening on his torso, and I pushed the tip of my blade into him...BEEP! I was the national champion! My hard work had paid off.
My emotions were too overwhelming for me. I screamed, jumped, and hugged everyone within reach, friends, brother, parents, and my coaches. I cried tears of pure happiness. I have never experienced that kind of overwhelming feeling before.
My parents told me how proud they were of me even when I finished in second place. I knew they were putting on brave faces then, so it felt so good to show them they weren’t wrong in believing in me.
Looking back at the season, at my practices, at the pain I endured, and the mental toughness and doubts I’d had, I learned something more important than what it takes to be a number one fencer. I learned what it takes to be a winner. I learned that no matter how many times you fall down, no matter how many times you feel like you just cannot get better, you get back up and fight. Failure is a good teacher, not the opponent. You look at all the marks around you, and learn from them to erase their traces.
You take the extra step to work hard and to believe in yourself no matter what the challenge. Ultimately, it’s your mind that takes you from being great to being the best. I worked my body hard, but without my mental strengthening and encouragement, I’d have been one of dozens of other fantastically fit fencers. When we work our minds we learn that we can do so much more than our bodies could ever imagine. Believe in yourself, and your dreams. They are worth every second, minute, or hour you invest in them.