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Fencing Through the Pain: When Toughness Leads Us Astray

05/09/2018, 9:30am CDT
By Jason Rogers

The term “toughness” is one that’s thrown around a lot in the sports world, and top athletes are praised by the media for their capacity to push through any challenge that is thrown their way. Part of this narrative also focuses on their ability to tolerate pain, and they are often captured in photos and video with their faces contorted in agony during their training exercises or competitions. While these stories can be inspiring, they also skip over an important lesson that fencers must learn when it comes to listening to their own bodies. It’s part of the coach’s job to help teach them how to best determine when they should push through pain and when to pull back.

“Good” Pain vs. “Bad” Pain

Everyone is naturally averse to pain. However not all pain is created equal, and how a fencer should respond to that pain is a matter of interpretation. The reason for this is that there are two types of pain, both of which merit different courses of action. “Good” pain is the kind that comes from challenging the body to do something it’s not accustomed to, such the pain felt during a difficult set of squats. Without this kind of pain, muscles cannot become stronger. “Bad” pain, on the hand, is felt when the body has been compromised, and serves an important signal to an fencer that they’ve been injured or that an old injury has been irritated.

Language Provides a Clue

If your students are complaining about pain, it’s your job as a coach to help them parse out what they are actually feeling, so they can make an intelligent decision about whether to stop the activity or to continue. Young fencers, especially, aren’t equipped to understand if they are actually hurt or if they are just feeling resistance towards something that is going to hurt in the short term (like running wind sprints).

When you ask questions like “what does the pain feel like?” and “where are you feeling the pain?” the type of language your students use to respond can provide helpful clues. Good pain tends to be in the muscles targeted by whatever activity is being performing. That body part is also often referred to in more general terms such as the “leg” or “shoulder.” Good pain is usually described using keywords like “burn” or “sore.” So a fencer saying “my legs burn” is usually referring to good pain. Bad pain tends to occur within or near a joint. Or, if a fencer is complaining about a muscle, they will usually point to a specific spot on the muscle such as the “top of the hamstring” or “this spot on the lower back.” Bad pain also is associated with key words like “sharp” or “pinch.” So a fencer saying something like “I feel a pinching pain on this spot in my back” would likely be referring to bad pain.  

Scenario from my own career

During the later stages of my career, I constantly struggled with pain in my left (front) knee. The season after my first Olympics in 2004, I noticed that the knee would feel stiff before activity and lunging created a sharp pain behind the knee near the tendon. However, I ignored the pain because it would often go away once I had finished a vigorous warm up. The problem came and went over the next few years, but by the time I arrived at the qualifying season for the 2008 Olympics, the pain had gradually gotten worse and no longer went away after my warm-up. Because I was so focused on pushing myself and being “tough,” I completely overlooked the important signs that my body needed rest. The problem was ultimately diagnosed as bursitis (inflammation of a small fluid-filled pad that acts as a cushion at the joint), a condition that could have only been improved through significant rest. Because I didn’t not listen to my body when the “bad” pain first appeared, I ultimately arrived at the most important season of my career with an injury that would not go away. By that point I had no choice but to go on, and the compounding effect of competing with that injury has led to an issue that I still struggle with today. Had someone helped me see the mistake I was making or had I the capacity to make a better decision early on, I could have avoided making a temporarily condition a chronic one.  

Teaching Your Students What Toughness Actually Means:

Too often, athletes are praised for being tough and performing well despite an injury. Yes, it may be possible for your students to cope with an injury at extremely important events, but you should remind them that this should never be the default decision.Teach them that toughness is not always pushing through obstacles indiscriminately. Instead, it is having the self-confidence and fortitude to make the right choice under pressure.

About the author

Jason Rogers is an Olympic Silver Medalist, two-time Olympian in men’s saber and founder of Better Fencer, a website offering advice and insights from the best in the sport of fencing. Click here to get the free Better Fencer eBook “10 Mistakes All Fencers Should Avoid."

Tag(s): Blog