I can’t figure out why my mind makes the decisions it does. I know my problems, and they are many. My body is not only broken, but misshapen. Scoliosis, a curved back, is only one thing that prevents me from doing what others find are simple actions. Even so, I have a lot of experience. I know how to overcome my flaws. I know the technical steps needed to get better. I know the drills it will take to reprogram myself. I’ve done those and more, but I’m still faced with the question of why I don’t get better.

Everyone goes through plateaus. We learn something new, we get better, and then we stop getting better and just get stuck for a while. Then some sort of eye-opening breakthrough happens and we get better again. For a fencer, it’s often a literal eye-opening experience. About the two or three year mark, our eye suddenly reaches a point of development that lets us see more in the middle of an engagement than we ever saw before. For other athletes, the breakthrough is often in fitness. Weightlifters are often the lucky ones, they can see concrete numbers of improvement without the need for coaches or science. Nothing quite like the first time you easily lift a weight that had been your nemesis for months…

We tend to see our development as athletes as a series of breakthroughs. You look back over your career and see those bright shining times when everything seemed so easy. You were unbeatable, nothing required effort. You just got better and better without trying. We remember those times fondly. We tend to forget that the majority of our career is spent in the grind. The painful slog of repetition when nothing seems to get better. The frustrations, the anger, the desire to quit altogether…or worse, the real surrender of just saying “This is it. This is as good as I will ever get and I just have to accept that.”

The real secret of training is that improvement actually happens in the plateau. That flat spot in the chart of improvement where we think we are doing nothing is actually where we do the work that triggers the breakthrough. It’s the testing ground, the laboratory of self-realization. Our subconscious brain goes to work and starts to pay attention to what we are doing. Every small thing gets analyzed and recorded. Small changes take place, and more analysis is done. Eventually the pieces all fit together…perception, biomechanics, biochemistry, and neural pathways all finish their work. Click. Things get easy.

I spent a few years collecting data on how rapier fencers performed in tournaments. I had a good pool of data. At the time there were over four hundred active fencers, and some tournaments attracted nearly a hundred competitors. I was able to record numbers of new, experienced, and champion fighters, and track how their number changed over time. I found a few things out. They may or may not apply to other activities:

New fighters win less than a quarter of their fights. After about a year, the average fighter wins about a third of their fights. Between three and five years of experience, the average fighter breaks into the fifty percent win range. After five years, a small group advance to win sixty percent of their fights. A very small fraction of fighters break into seventy percent wins. A fighter on a tear will hit eighty percent for a while. Those at the limit of ability hit ninety percent. Most very good fighters will settle at seventy percent, and occasionally rise to the higher brackets before settling back down. One percent of all fighters overall will hit and maintain ninety percent. At all the lesser levels, some people will just never progress. About thirty percent of all fighters never surpass the first hurdle of twenty-five percent wins.

Skill is a logarithmic progression. As you get better, you spend more and more time in plateaus. It takes more and more effort to hit the breakthroughs. More time, more frustration, more drills, more exercise, more everything. Everyone has an internal capacity for punishment, and that capacity measures how much they are willing to pay for improvement. The end value of skill only has so much worth compared to the price you must pay to attain it. That worth is different for everyone. For elite athletes, any price is worth any improvement. For a casual athlete, the initial investment needed to gain entry to the playing field is sufficient. Simply playing the game is enough reward for most people.

As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, the effort required to improve becomes not just harder, but more complex. It used to be easy to improve. Learn new techniques. Drill lunges. Drill more lunges. Lunge some more. Then it got a little more complex…do slow work to develop a tactical eye. Mirror and video work to eliminate openings. Drill combinations. Spar endlessly. Lunges… Things got really complex as I started to get into the finals of tournaments. I had to learn all my weaknesses, and develop strategies to overcome them. I leaned before throwing shots: learn to sidestep before attack, to remove the tell. I was to aggressive: learn to intimidate my opponents so they naturally keep extra measure, giving me more time for tactical corrections. There was a lot of work to do. Then I started to teach full-time, and learned to help others get past their own plateaus by teaching them to embrace the experience for what it was.

Now I’m at the final step of improvement, the last big plateau. The only way for me to get better is to systematically eliminate every flaw I can. Some flaws I cannot overcome. I can’t straighten my back, I can’t regrow tendons. Those aren’t the big flaws anyway. The real errors now are in the way I think, the tactical decisions in the midst of combat. Improvement now requires me to deeply examine why I think the way I do. I need to fully understand the origin of my thoughts, and what varied life experiences have caused me to expect certain responses. Once I’ve got that information figured out, it’s the long process of cleaning the old reflexes and neural pathways out, one at a time. It’s a hell of a plateau, but I still think it’s worth the effort. I haven’t hit my limit yet.

Then and Now: First days of fencing, and a few weeks ago. I’m on the left, Devon Boorman is my “Then” opponent, Jordan Both my “Now” Opponent.