The very nature of Fencing means that we have all experienced losses, frustration, and disappointments. Looking back, throughout my career there are a few such moments that still register strongly, and to this day I can feel the resulting sting of self-doubt and immense disappointment. Whether we are just starting out or multiple time World Champions, we all encounter such events. They can stem from a bad lesson or day at practice, or in two time World Champion and multiple time number one in World ranking Nikolai Novosjolov’s case, two back to back under-performances this season (eliminated in the pool round at European Championships and a first round loss at World Championships). While it is not possible to avoid such losses (trust me, I’ve spend over a decade trying), it is important to learn how to take such experiences as what they are; important motivational and learning lessons. If I could point to any one thing in my past which has greatly contributed to my successes, it would be my ability to take setbacks and losses as reasons to endure even harder. Rather than quit, which was often my first thought, I chose to rise above the setback and use the emotion as a means to dig my heels in and work twice as hard.
Like every other pursuit we have in life, how we handle setbacks and disappointments is vitally important in determining whether we will be successful or not. It is easy to win and continue forward, but the true tests and hurdles we encounter in any pursuit of a dream or goal is learning to move forward after devastating setbacks or season ending losses.
The first experience that cast doubts on my ability to succeed, was when a top coach once said to me that I really needed to consider whether I should continue to fence or not. I was 14 years old and taking one of my first Foil lessons, my primary weapon at the time. I was failing so miserably that the coach felt it appropriate to say those words. I acknowledge that I was not very good. I had fenced only in Vermont, recreationally for about two years, and having shown a passion for the sport decided to participate in a fencing camp in Montreal. Looking back, I realize that the words struck me as true, and that I did not show a particularly strong technical understanding of the sport. Being so far behind my peers at that age group, I realized the I did in fact need to decide whether Fencing was something I should devote my time to or not. Ultimately, I could have easily quit, and moved on to another pursuit. Instead, I chose to work even harder to not only prove to the coach but also to others, (including myself), that I did have what it takes. I chose to devote countless hours of my life working hard to get better, even when my only opponent was often a martial arts dummy in my garage. A year and a half later, I would make my first top 4 finish at U.S. National Championships, albeit in Épée, and by the year’s end qualify for the U.S Cadet World Team.
The second experience that initially cast doubts on my ability to succeed, was my NCAA college fencing career, which was riddled with under-performances. As a top Junior and competitive Senior in national rankings, I went into college with high expectations and the goal of becoming NCAA national champion. Following Sophomore and Junior year close losses in regional qualifiers to my two teammates, I was unable to participate in the Championships. After each season, the losses to qualify, even while maintaining top 8 in collegiate and national team rankings, caused me to seriously doubt myself. It was the high pressure situation in both seasons when I was unable to perform at the level I knew I was capable of. This frustration in back to back seasons caused me to doubt whether I had what it takes to overcome the stress under such critical moments. This having been a problem in previous seasons, I was incredibly disappointed in myself, and with fencing in general. Ultimately, I chose to dedicate myself even more as soon as my college season had ended abruptly. In each of these frustrating losses, I decided to push myself a little bit harder instead of succumbing to the defeat and giving up. The final chance at the NCAA title was in my senior year, but I suffered the bad luck of an ankle injury the week before NCAA championships. Fortunately, I was still able to finish 12th place and earn all American honors. The same season, I graduated college and immediately qualified for the U.S Senior World Team. If I had let my defeats and setbacks get to me and cause me to work any less hard or lose interest in the sport, I would have never overcome these challenges and thus miss out on some of the most incredible experiences of my life. Ultimately, it is important to see losses and setbacks as tests and learning experiences we must overcome in order to achieve our ultimate goals and dreams, and not let them deter us from our bigger objectives.
There are numerous examples of Fencers winning or becoming medalists in World Championships after over a decade of failed attempts. I see the dedication, persistence, and ability to overcome adversity and losses as the critical element in determining the success of top athletes over time. Examples of some of the greatest athletes across a broad range of sports, from Michael Jordan who overcame his early struggles to later become generally viewed as the greatest player of all time, to Tom Brady who throughout college was seen as a mediocre quarterback at best to becoming multiple time Super Bowl champion and earning a place among the all-time greats, and many others, provide vivid illustrations of the importance in overcoming a lack of immediate results and success. The importance of persevering through disappointments and losses, is a factor which has played a vital role in any great athlete’s career. It is something that we can learn the value of early on in Fencing, as its application transcends sports, relationships, business, and all different dimensions of life.
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