TAMPA, March 20, 2013 — In a recent article in the New York Times, Trip Advisor CEO Stephen Kaufer briefly glossed over the virtues fencing had instilled in him. “In fencing, you have to think three moves ahead. It turned out to be good training for corporate life,” Kaufer said.
While fencing itself was not the central focus of Kaufer’s article, his truthful words spurred my thinking as to ways in which the principles of fencing do translate to the world of modern business. Thinking of ways in which fencing inspired me in my own and relatively new career, I came up with a list in which the sport has helped inspire work ethic and demeanor.
1. Ability to overcome adversity — Fencing is a sport in which the athlete might find him/herself down a few touches and facing defeat. The best fencer will see his/her misfortune as an opportunity to problem solve and confront the challenges at hand head-on to rise to victory. In the world of business, things aren’t always going to go swimmingly. One may encounter risks, miss important milestones, or perhaps drop the ball on a presentation. This challenge can actually be an opportunity just as it is in fencing.
2. Ability to adapt to and understand cultural norms — Fencing attracts a potpourri of individuals of different races, ethnicities and cultures. For those who have fenced in international competitions, they are frequently encountering a hodgepodge of different backgrounds. In our modern globalizing business world, you’re likely to work on diverse teams with each individual coming to the table with a unique perspective and approach to his/her work. Fencing makes interacting with diverse cultures second nature, an important skill to have in this day and age.
3. Ability to remain calm — Panic is the death knell of a fencer’s bout. To quote Napoleon Hill: “Your own emotions are your greatest handicap in the business of accurate thinking.” Lose your marbles, let your emotions run awry in the working world and you’ll be as popular in the workplace as Justin Bieber is to anyone who knows about music.
4. Ability to think creatively/outside the box — If a fencer enters a bout with plan A, and only plan A, s/he is likely to lose. Fencing frequently challenges athletes to change their plans on the go and adapt to their opponents’ style in a given scenario. Fencing stimulates right brain creative thinking to achieve results. Business is never as simple as a linear path from planning to execution. Again, being nimble on your feet and in your thinking are essential.
5. Ability to socialize/work as a team — Competitive fencing is mostly an individual sport, but in the act of practicing, it fosters a team mentality. Any team is only as strong as its weakest link. Fencing teaches you to learn from the strongest links in your clubs/teams while simultaneously helping the weakest links to improve performance in a respectful, constructive manner. Exhibiting humility is also an integral part of team dynamics, as no one likes a hotshot prima donna Kanye West type fool in their club or on their business’ working teams.
6. Ability to listen/receive feedback — In fencing and in life, when you think things are going well, they can always be going better. The best fencers in our club have constant dialogue with their coaches in lessons, asking how they can tweak their actions to make them close to perfect. One of the best ways to work in sync with one’s manager/boss is to frequently sit down with them to align to their expectations and figure out areas for development.
7. Ability to work hard and prepare — If you think you can sit on your butt, twiddle your thumbs and have playtime with Barney the Dinosaur leading up to competition, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when you plug into the strip and get slapped around like a disobedient puppy. The time you put in before you fence precedes a successful competition. In business, the more familiar you are with materials you might be presenting, the more confidence you exude, displaying a mastery of the subject matter you bring forward. “Winging it” rarely works in fencing or business, and fencing prepares you for that fact with the values of hard work and preparation that it instills.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on ways fencing has inspired you off the strip as well.
Damien is a competitive fencer and volunteer assistant coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. Damien was the coach of a London 2012 Olympic Athlete in Modern Pentathlon. He is an A-rated epeeist and was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team.
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