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How to Be a Magician: A lesson from my coach about being a better athlete

I’ve always had a high level of respect for my fencing coach. Instead of training all of his students the same way, he focuses on each person’s individual strengths and develops unique lesson plans and exercises for them. At the end of the day, at a national competition in Virginia Beach, he said something that inspired me to double my efforts and work even harder.

As we paced the hard, concrete floors of the convention center hall, I waited for Aleksei to deliver his feedback on my performance. For a while, he didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there resolutely, watching two other fencers in the distance with quiet determination.

“I know what we can work on back at practice,” he said finally. “There are two types of fencers: blacksmiths and magicians.”

He pointed to the first fencer and described her as a blacksmith: she showed genuine dedication, worked hard, and strove to perfect her technique. Blacksmiths refused to waste practice time because they understood the value of drilling and conditioning. On the other hand, there were people like the second fencer. Aleksei called her a magician: her technique was crafty and complex. She showed convincing motives, hid her real intentions, and experimented with an abundance of actions, fencing as if playing an elaborate game.

“Right now, I’d say you’re a blacksmith,” Aleksei decided. “You never miss a day of practice. I see you trying to improve actions that we work on in lessons, and you take footwork very seriously. What I want to do is turn you into both a magician and a blacksmith. If you have the qualities and dedication of both, you’ll be unstoppable. You’ll always be one step ahead of everyone else.”

In fencing, you have your own keys, or actions that you execute perfectly against any fencer at any time. Your opponents also have keys, and how it works is that you keep trying different keys until you find the one that unlocks the door and allows you to figure out their plans. Aleksei wanted to make sure I had better tools by the end of the season, so that I could adapt faster with more keys.

Aleksei’s ideas were both profound and inspiring, and his ability to observe so keenly showed that he was extremely committed to helping me improve. I was quite impressed by his ability to recognize the subtle, lurking variables that made the difference between a good fencer and an exceptional fencer. It was this talk that made me realize that sometimes, a game isn’t only about having perfect form, technique, and precision. Sometimes, you have to stop and think. Maybe that final, transcending A-HA moment doesn’t always come from ceaseless persistence. Perhaps it is when you learn to play the game with an equal amount of spirit and creativity. And the same can be said about perfecting almost any other skill.

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