When I talk about fencing with many people, I understand the fact that its not that a well known sport in India. Then I explain the sport in common-man tongue- sword fighting. When I mention wheelchair fencing people say sword fight on wheelchairs? Yes, amazing isnt it? It indeed is.
Fencing as such is a very traditional sport. In India, even if it wasn't named Fencing, all of the maharajas practiced sword fighting as a ritual, daily. Wheelchair fencing is relatively a new sport in India. Even if you wikipedia Wheelchair Fencing you can see for yourself there is hardly any information about the sport. But a key highlight is that it is a major part of a Paralympic games. Technically, it is a combat sport but with weapons: a sword. The two players sit on their respective wheelchairs (which is attached to the ground). For a detailed understanding of the sport, watch this video:
I think you may have got a gist of how gruelling a 'bout' can be right?
I have been working with a very self-motivated wheelchair fencer for sometime. Due to this I have also been reading a lot of wheelchair fencing and the mental side of the sport. I have divided the write up into two parts- mental side of the game overall and mental side of the game in India.
Wheelchair fencing- What mind skills are important
1. Maintaining logs while practicing
The most essential part of practice reflection is
- what exactly have you done
- how have you done it
- how many have you done today
- how many will you want to do tomorrow and
- what have you not done today
To just keep all these in mind until your competition is not an easy task. This is the reason a performer should maintain a daily diary, reflect thoughts and actions done for the day in the diary. A very important point while maintaining the diary is to measure the performance. Example: If you practice a type of hit/ certain drills which comprise of certain hits, try to measure how many were accurate out of the how many hit. This will help you achieve your accuracy goals. In addition it will also help with the speed training.
2. Relax your muscles and your mind
In the 3 minute bout of a wheelchair fencing match the arms and most of the upper body muscles are in greater use. Due to this as well as the pressure the mind takes throughout those 3 minutes, there is a lot of tension which gets developed in these muscles. It is very essential to relax those muscles as well as the mind. Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR) as well as Rhythmic breathing should be a part of the routine pre and post practice and competition.
3. Developing a concentration routine for practice and competition
As seen in the bout, the three minutes can raise many thoughts in the player's mind. In order to avoid distracting thoughts, the player needs to develop a certain routine right before his/her bout. This can involve a 5 minute breathing exercise right before the warm up; talking to self and motivating self by recalling ones strengths and strategies etc. Every player would have a different way of getting into his/her Zone, one has to recognise it or build it through practice. Hence, this routine needs to be imbibed even into the daily practice.
4. Plan your 5 points- verbalise and visualise
After developing a pre-game routine, the player should also focus on developing the game strategy, according to self-strengths, opponent's profile and the game situation. Way before the match/competition, the player can develop strategies by closing his/her eyes and seeing him/her compete in that space with the opponent. At the same time, the player can also talk himself through the bout strategy as he/she sees oneself do the same, like: "Now I need to raise my shoulder and elbow high enough to get the hit right into the top of the opponent's helmet" Even the minute details can be verbalised. This ensures right strategy and concentration building. To an extent it also increases your confidence to achieve each of the 5 points.
5. Develop a prep-routine for your 1 minute break
The last and the most important period of a wheelchair fencer's match bout is the 1 minute break in between two bouts. What can a player do in this time- especially if the opponent has won the previous bout and you need maximum points in the next one to win the match. Are you going to think 'What if my opponent comes back strongly again' 'What if I wont be able to handle the whole pressure in those 3 minutes' 'I am gone now, I cant win this' Done 1 minute is over.
Or you are going to have a planned 1 minute- stop, drink water, wipe face with towel, plan the next level of attack according to the opponent's defence and attack strategy, put your best hit forward, I am an underdog, I will combat back- its my strength, drink a sip of water again, wipe face, wear mask again and become a fighter again- win like an underdog.
This can be the way you plan your one minute. Develop your own strategy to remain in the zone that you developed earlier for the match. You cant let that go away just like that.
Wheelchair fencing in India
Technically and rules wise, the sport is nothing different. But there are certain things which can lead to stress in a player. This is what performance psychologists call- Organisational Stress. There is a lot of additional responsibility. Since the sport isn't recognised to a great extent in India, it is very difficult to find academies, pre-competition camps, coaches etc. Though there are national level competitions, there is less support from the government which means the athlete has to bear many things on his own- prepare for international tournaments, gather sponsorship for the same etc. Sometimes due to lack of infrastructure, the athlete may not be getting the required practice. It also means more responsibility, which in turn means a little more stress. For a sport psychologist in India, it is essential to look into these areas and help the athlete keep the motivation always on a high.
Even though there maybe 1000 things in the system which are happening against you, but true grit and persistence does help you reach your goal. To reassure a wheelchair fencer or as a matter of fact any Paralympian or an Olympian of this confidence is a primary responsibility of a sport psychologist.