Thursday, January 27, 2011

Those Moments of Transcendence


Everyone who fences sees it happen at tournaments or at practice: a less capable fencer beating a more experienced one. Certainly, it happens in other sports, too. But I suspect it’s more common in fencing than say tennis for reasons I’ll get to shortly. And it happens because of something hard to quantify or measure or even see. It’s the kind of thing that might make you believe in magic or lucky t-shirts.

In chapter 6 of Understanding Fencing, Zbigniew Czajkowski addresses it: the importance of motivation and arousal. He is careful to discriminate between the two, the former being the reasons we fence and the latter being our state of excitement during a bout. Czajkowski quotes the work of two early 20th century psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, and the two laws they formulated about the effect levels of arousal and motivation have on performance. Their work was published in 1908 based upon empirical evidence.

The first law states that there is an optimal level of arousal and motivation for performing a task and that if you graph levels of arousal and motivation versus performance the result is an upside down U-shaped curve.

The second law states that the more complex a task is, the lower the level of arousal and motivation necessary for optimal performance. In other words, if you’re doing something that is complicated for you, if you’re too excited, you’re less likely to perform it as well as if you were more settled.

Further, and provocatively, Czajkowski suggests that one goal for training fencers is to make very complex tasks trivial to execute so that they may be performed at much higher levels of motivation and arousal. And he discusses strategies for accomplishing that, such as over-training.

By the way, Czajkowski’s book was published in 2005. In 2007, Yerkes and Dodson’s work was corroborated in part by Lupien et al, and their work on stress hormones, particularly glucocorticoids.

The reason I hypothesize that motivation and arousal play a greater role in fencing than tennis is that fencing reaction times are so very short. Both the tip of a fencing weapon and a tennis ball are generally estimated to have a top speed of approximately 120 miles per hour. However, the tennis ball often traverses a much greater distance (42 feet from service line to service line) versus a mere 2 feet in a fencing attack. The corresponding times for response are .23 seconds and .011 seconds respectively. Hence, if motivation and arousal affect reaction time it is probable they could play a much greater role in fencing where even a slight change in reaction time can change who gets the touch.

So motivation and arousal deserve particular attention from the fencer. And Socrates’ maxim, “Know Thyself,” has terrible, practical importance. Nevertheless, although Czajkowski addresses the differences between individuals in this context when he talks about the differences between “warriors” and “technical fencers,” I think the kind of motivation and arousal also deserve particular attention as well. I know I’ve been much less successful at tournaments when I was worried about doing well. Who hasn’t?

On the other side, I’ve also had the opposite experience: once almost a year ago and then again more recently. In both cases, I surpassed my self-expectation in bouts with fencers who were better and more experienced even though they were fencing well. And at both times, I recall a particular lightness of being and a sense of slowed time. My perception seemed heightened and I was able to fence with particular quickness and precision. I sensed I could do no wrong.

Do I think I was actually fencing perfectly? Of course not. But I was fencing as well as I could within the limits of my technical skill and, more importantly, my response times were substantially better than usual.

It happens in other sports as well and to competitors at the highest levels. In Levels of the Game, John Mcphee’s classic essay on a single tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, the same thing happens to Ashe:

   Nothing has happened to Graebner’s game. It continues
   at the level of solid  excellence that has brought him, all
   even, to the present crisis.  The level of Ashe’s game,
   however, appears to have risen. He is playing with loose,
   all out, fluid abandon – prudence be damned.

Thus, among all the other things there are to learn about fencing, an important one is how to find the particular psychological regimen than optimizes your chances of finding such transcendent moments. I suspect it’s a continual battle. What works once may not work a second time, just as an attack against a good fencer may work only once. You have to find another.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Missing Fencing


I have a severe case of the grumps. Today I’m missing a second fencing tournament in as many weeks due to a respiratory infection. I’m now on an antibiotic and am starting to respond but the antibiotic does nothing for the grumps which is particularly dangerous since I’ve suffered from chronic curmudgeonery for some time. I also was unable to ski this week. My sophisticated, wise, witty comment about this? “Grump, grumpity grump, grump, grump.” Feel free to quote me.

So what does one do when one isn’t up to fencing?

One reads. In particular, I’ve returned to Czajkowski’s Understanding Fencing. I first started it six months ago but quickly discovered that my fencing lexicon was not what it needed to be. To my surprise that state of affairs has greatly improved. The language of fencing, a little like Russian, which can be particularly challenging due to the large number of irregular verbs and constructions (thanks to Old Church Slavonic, the Greek Orthodox Church’s attempt to create a rational, literary version of the language in the 9th century), is an amalgam of several traditions each of which both modified existing diction and introduced new words. My lexicon is now sufficiently complete and nuanced that I’m finding the book both interesting and enjoyable. My fencing may even improve as a result.

One of Czajkowski’s several, useful points is that feints are not practiced nor attended to nearly as much as attacks or counter attacks but that they should be.

Of course, they should: a feint is the means for setting up a successfully attack. If your feints are weak and predictable the success of your attacks will be random at best and probably much worse as your opponent will easily guess what you’re up to. Also, as I read that I realized that it both characterized one of the most important strengths of a fencer in the club who’s style I particularly admire and that the paired drills our coach has us practice almost always include feints as a key element.

At the same time I’ve also been re-reading George R. R. Martin’s “Fire and Ice” books, inspired by HBO’s decision to create a series from the first one which will be broadcast in April. The first time through, I found the books overly fragmented. Martin jumped between characters so often that I found it difficult to ignite the necessary imaginary engagement which is essential for enjoying that kind of fiction. This time, no doubt due in part to familiarity, that is much less of a problem and I’m finding the dramatic arcs much more satisfying. They are more successful as individual novels.

So, I’m looking forward to the series and from what I’ve seen on the web it’s received the budget and attention to detail that could make it very good indeed. Having said that, however, it makes me long for someone to undertake a more ambitious project, one of Martin’s obvious inspirations: the century of conflict in English history known as the War of the Roses. The period is rife with the stuff from which good drama is made, from the relentless ambition of the Duke of York to the cruelty of Margaret, Queen of England, the “She-Wolf of France.” And it’s already been scripted into 8 amazing episodes by a reputable writer.

I refer, of course, to Shakespeare’s 8 English history plays. The first four, which are later works, are widely recognized as the masterpieces they are, but the three Henry VI plays, which were among Shakespeare’s first, are better than many people know. As with Martin, the number of characters and complexity of events sometimes obscures the strength of the drama. Nevertheless, a coherent, historically accurate production of all eight, even possibly augmented by dramatization of events in the Pastons’ letters, could be amazing. If only someone had the requisite courage and imagination.