In my Big Orange Book, I wrote a chapter on Being an Underdog and how that mindset is so beneficial in fencing. Here’s my general stance.
I believe one of the strongest positions a fencer can be in is as an underdog. It may seem counter-intuitive, but being an underdog can be incredibly advantageous because it reminds you that you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.THE BIG ORANGE BOOK
The belief that there is nothing to lose, but everything to gain can help you shake the nervous thoughts and self-doubt that so often go racing through your mind.
Being an underdog can free you from the nerve-wracking pressure of expectations that might impede you from doing your best or keep your passion from shining through.
You can rise to the challenge, take risks, and know that it is okay if you don’t succeed as long as you tried your best.
It is better to make an attempt at something great than to regret passing up an opportunity. That’s being an underdog.
This has been on my mind a lot because, if you don’t already know, I started playing ice hockey again.
Putting on my skates again
This wasn’t something I was planning on doing. My sister and brother’s team was looking for some more players and asked if I’d come to play. It has been over 10 years since I was playing regularly and over 6 years since I have even played a game. I really thought that that chapter of my life had closed and that I’d just support my siblings from the stands, while I focused on fencing.
But here I am! Three games played and weekly games throughout the rest of the summer. It’s actually been a lot of fun, but it has generated some thoughts. Specifically, thoughts about being the “worst” player on the team.
Being the “Worst”
First of all, when I say “worst”, what I’m trying to say is “rustiest and most distantly removed” from playing hockey. I have experience and I’m still knowledgable in the game, but it’s been 10 years. Compared to the rest of the team who have been playing regularly week after week, or just more recently than I have, I’m the low man on the totem pole. I’m the greenhorn! My endurance is shot. My legs are wobbly. I’m still remembering how to stickhandle, let alone shoot. Those 10 years have put me right back at the beginning and I consider myself a newcomer.
But this is where having an underdog mindset is so important.
As I debated about joining the team again, I was nervous. I doubted I could live up to what skill I had back in high school and feared I’d just make a fool of myself. But that quickly faded away when I remembered why I would go back to play.
I would be going back to play with my family. Actively participate in a sport they love and have the experience of seeing my wife and daughter and mom cheering for us in the stands, all while skating beside my brother and sister.
I’d get to be on a team again. I love the feeling of being part of a team and the dynamic nature of that team sport.
I’d get to have fun and reminisce on a part of my life that I’ve been away from.
I had nothing to lose, but I had everything to gain and my pride wasn’t on the line. So I didn’t debate about it for long before agreeing to play. Even then, as the games approached and as I started playing, I have felt the self-doubt and negative self-talk creep in. The fear of doing poorly or falling down was always right around the corner. What was I going to do?
What has helped the most
Well, I won’t bore you with the specifics, but let me zero in on the three things that have helped me overcome those negative and disheartening feelings that I know we have all experienced at some point in fencing or in other aspects of our lives.
Changing the Win Condition
This technique really does hold up. Change the win condition and so much pressure just falls away. In my first game, the only thing I cared about was contributing to the team effort and not falling down. If I helped out, even a little, and kept my feet I’d walk away happy. And guess what? I did it! I was exhausted and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the team, but I met my goals. From there, I was able to then see other cool things beyond my initial victories and notice that I was passing well too. I even got an assist!
Fear feeds on expectations and expectations often come from taking something too seriously. That doesn’t mean we should be cavalier or apathetic to what we’re participating in, but rather I find being lighthearted really helps. One of my go-to techniques when playing hockey is to throw compliments and funny comments whenever I can. It’s unsettling for teams who have built up good defenses against F-bombs and it lets me respond to difficulty with positivity. Example. The referee called “No Ice!” at one point and my response is “No ice? There’s plenty of ice!” which got a chuckle from a player on the other team. Dad jokes. Classic!
Maintaining a lighthearted seriousness helps me focus on what I need to do but not so much that I lose the sense of fun. When I get off the ice, I have more things to be happy about than to be frustrated with.
A Good Team
And finally, what has really helped has been having a good team. Not only do I get to play with my siblings, but the other players on the team share that lighthearted nature, at least most of the time. The team laughs and jokes on the bench even when things don’t go our way. Plus, there is a sense that we’re all equals together and we’re just here to play. That team camaraderie really helps ease the pressure and just makes for a good time.
So. After all my ramblings, you’re probably wondering how this applies to fencing, right? Well, just think about it. Regardless of how long you’ve been fencing or what experience you have, are you an underdog? Can changing the win condition, your attitude, or how you engage with the group help make your fencing experience easier or more fun?
This experience of being a “newcomer” again with hockey has reminded me of how powerful these principles are. I hope they can help you too, wherever you find yourself on your fencing journey.