Fear is the companion of every martial artist, whether admit it or not. I put my fencing mask on, working with a new fighter, and the fear kicks in.

I don’t know anything about this person. They could really hurt me. Today it’s rapiers, but I’m aware of the damage they can do. I’ve had two solid concussions, and a shot to the throat so hard I was on liquids for a week. I’ve demonstrated the importance of safety equipment by punching an untipped rapier through a failed mask. Ten inches through the mesh, no resistance felt at all. I know that even in a playful bout, there is no room for lack of care.

Accidents happen, even with the best trained and most thoughtful fencers. I’ve never understood how some people can intentionally throw shots as hard and fast as they can. Some people don’t think they do, but they are so concerned with getting a touch in that they forget any safety training at all…they just throw everything they have into any opening, as if it was the last chance they would ever get. No concern for what kinda of return shot they might be getting, either. Just the mad desire to say they touched. I can’t even begin to fathom the people who think that kind of fighting should be a standard.

So I don’t know what kind of person I’m facing today. Are they going punch out hard shots with desperation? Are they going to be the kind of methodical, annoying fighter that frustrates and bores me? Are they going to be a flinchy panic fighter?

Am I going to suck? Is this one of the fighters that’s going to shut down every single thing I’ve got, and leave me feeling like a useless, worn out wreck of a human being?

It’s a lot to go through your mind, and for me it all takes place in the time it takes me to put my mask on and pick up my sword. At a certain point you have to put the fear aside. It never stops…you just put it aside. It’s not a thing to deal with anymore, not a voice that can be heard.

Not everyone can do that. You can see the slight shake that happens in the footwork, or in the twitch of the wrist. The new fighter shakes usually go away with time, but not always. I’m always impressed with a person who has those signs, but fights anyway. I know what it feels like. Sometimes even us experienced guys get a surprise dose of it.

It can happen in the middle of a bout. You get a hard hit, or maybe even just miss being cranked. Whatever the cause, your brain suddenly remembers the risk, and kicks you in the belly. That’s a bitch of a place to be in. Everyone wants to fight through that feeling, but almost every time you try, the next thing that happens is you try so hard to prove your courage to yourself that you walk into a massive pez shot. A smart fighter would just take a break and go for a walk, and let the hormones bleed out before it gets to that point.

I’ve never met a smart fighter. Just us dumb ones. Us experienced dumb ones deal with the sudden fear by ramping up our fight to crazy levels…a barrage of cuts and snipes from maximum distance, rapid changes of measure…we move. Hard and fast, but always staying just out of contact range. You don’t want the other guy to catch on to what you are feeling. If you can pump your adrenaline up, the fear will burn out with it.

Sometimes the fear creeps up over time. You fight a little less each practice, start working more on drills. The dancing floor seems a little more unwelcoming each session. You start feeling sick before class, maybe skipping one or two. It’s not an unnatural feeling. For years, I used to get hit with sudden and painful cramps about a block away from my karate class.

The feeling is natural. Fear is part of our emotional make up, part of what makes us human. The emotion arrives despite anything we do, but we still have a choice about what we do with that emotion when it arrives. No one forces you to dwell on the fear. No one forces you to pay attention to it, or let it build. With practice, you can’t ignore it but you can let it just pass by.

With a lot more practice, you can use it to your advantage. Fear can be a sign that something is going on that you aren’t consciously aware of. It can teach you to take a moment and check your perceptions, see if you are really seeing what you think you are seeing. Fear can also be a great source of energy if you need to bring things up a notch or two, or need a little extra motivation.

With the right attitude, every fencing bout can be a training session in being a better human. All our flaws show up in our fencing, and our opponent is a convenient mirror for us to see ourselves.