Parrying with mind power: Hong Kong fencer Moonie Chu explores cognitive processes to get an edge
Épée fencer puts her unconventional cognitive training to the test at this weekend’s Women’s Épée World Cup event in Suzhou, China
You have just squandered five gold-medal points and your opponent can smell victory. The referee is ushering you to put on your mask and step back on to the piste. Nervous?
Not any more, says Hong Kong’s brightest women’s épée fencer, Moonie Chu Ka-mong.
The 22-year-old psychology major at the University of Hong Kong is now ready to shake up the Asian fencing scene with her unconventional cognitive training.
“You have to imagine yourself in those critical situations during training so when you actually come face-to-face with them, you are familiarised. It’s like tricking your brain into thinking it has experienced it before.”
That is exactly the scenario Chu was confronted with at the Asian Junior Championships. While many would crumble, Chu had already played out the scenario in her head many times before. She went on to win 15-14.
“Today’s athletes train as much as everyone else, so what do you do to give yourself an advantage? I need that edge and I need to make use of the knowledge and resources I have,” said the former Hong Kong Junior Sports Star winner.
“My coach would sometimes say ‘you weren’t confident enough’ or ‘you seemed scared’ during competitions. All of these focus on the mental stuff, so why do we only train physical?”
Having recently turned professional, Chu decided to revamp her psyche to combat the stresses that come with such a significant life decision.
“It’s really different when you change your hobby into your job,” she said. “I definitely feel more pressure to perform.
“I was already going through a lot of anxiety. I would try to avoid training because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to perform. Imagine how I felt during actual competitions.”
The psychological stress was due to a culmination of back-to-back tournaments, higher volume training schedules and persistent self critiquing. It eventually took its toll and Chu’s performances burned out towards the summer.
“I’m trying to break everything down and understand why we are the way we are; why we are aware of all these things that affect our behaviour, yet we do it anyway.”
Chu – a vegan – was crowned the 2017 CosmoBody Athlete Icon of the Year for her active promotion of healthy eating and lifestyle on social media. The combination of dietary and cognitive adjustments has made a visible difference to her results.
A post shared by Moonie (@hurrythefruitup) on Apr 9, 2017 at 8:10pm PDT
Last month, Chu and her Hong Kong women’s épée teammates won a silver medal at the U23 Asian Championships in Vietnam,narrowly losing out to top-ranked South Korea.
Having already reached the top 16 of the senior Asian Fencing Championships in July, signs point towards a steady ascent for Chu.
Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding … or the fruit bowl.
“I think in a totally different way now, but the spotlight comes with results. I need to get more of those first,” she said.
Her next opportunity is at the Women’s Épée World Cup event starting on Friday in Suzhou, China.
Steady World Cup performances are vital for Chu’s campaign to be at next year’s Asian Games in Indonesia.
To qualify, she must be ranked in the top two in Hong Kong according to the world rankings. The higher she places in the world cups, the more points she collects.
“I want to take my local consistency to the world level. We’ll see what happens after that,” said Chu, who also expressed interest in working as a sports psychologist.
“It’s important to bring [psychology] into Hong Kong sports. It’s very developed in the US and Australia, but there’s a gap here. If we fill it, we’ll push our athletes to the next level.”
So what is the secret? Here are three of Chu’s most effective psychological training techniques.
The practice of talking to oneself may seem self-explanatory, but this technique taps in to the mind at a subconscious level, Chu says.
“Let’s focus on a problem: being scared of the big stage. During big competitions, it’s not always useful to remind yourself of something if your brain’s neuro connections have not been exercised before.
“You have to focus on this during training; tell yourself that you are on the big stage and that it’s a critical time. Think about how you are going to feel and what you are going to do.
“Once you assimilate yourself in the same situation, the self talk will become more efficient. You will have established more connections.”
For Chu, self talk is particularly useful during running – an exercise few are fond of.
“I hate it so much but I need to keep my fitness up. My cue when I’m running is ‘keep your legs moving, Moonie’. The point is not to focus on how fast you’re going; the point is simple: to keep your legs moving.”
In the lead-up to this year’s Asian Championships, Chu suffered a broken finger during a training session with the Chinese national team. The injury halted any training involving arm work, so she had to get creative.
Confined to her single room in China – and desperate not to fall behind – Chu decided to experiment with the power of visualisation.
“I tried to focus on what I wanted to do with my arm. If I wanted to parry or defend, I imagined myself at the championships fencing against my opponent. They come at me with an attack and I visualise every single detail; the sense, the touch, the sound. I do it over and over again in slow motion.
“Even though I hadn’t physically done it, I became more confident and even picked up on spots I would have missed [on the piste].”
Chu very recently implemented meditation into her training regiment in an attempt to quash any fencing-related concerns swirling around her mind. It has worked wonders so far.
“I do 10 minutes a day. I lie down – try not to have any blankets or else I’ll start falling asleep – and it feels like I’m opening up a third dimension in my brain,” she says.
“What hijacks good performances is usually fear, so meditation is just my way of finding a little escape or oasis in my mind.”