For Hong Kong fencing phenom Moonie Chu Ka-mong, the mental aspect of the sport is more challenging – and important – than its physical demands.
Chu is “very short” for a fencer, which puts her at a significant disadvantage compared to her opponents. “I have to work twice as hard to close the distance, and leap twice as hard to hit someone,” she said. Still, the 22-year-old is the No 2-ranked fencer in Hong Kong and No 85 in the world. And somehow, she just keeps getting better. The reason, she says, is the mental edge she has over her opponents. But it hasn’t always been that way; in fact, she used to struggle with the mental side of the sport.
“It was difficult when I first switched from part-time to full-time professional athlete,” explained Chu, who is a psychology student at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s really different when something changes from your hobby to your job; there’s a lot more pressure to do well and represent Hong Kong.”
An incident that particularly stood out happened at the 2016 U23 Asian Championships, where she blew a five-point lead to lose the match. The defeat prevented Hong Kong from winning a medal.
“It was the darkest moment of my career,” said the former Sha Tin College student. “I think I was really nervous; I was doing fine during the first two bouts and I was actually doing the best [out of the team] but then in the last bout I was like
‘oh no, everyone’s looking at me, what do I do?’
“My opponent wasn’t better than me skill-wise, but she was more focused than me. I just kept thinking ‘I have to win, I have to win’, but I didn’t know how. I kept doing stupid stuff for no reason, stuff I wouldn’t do normally. Mentally, I was focused on ending it instead of winning. I just wanted the stress to end.”
So, how did she go from there, to having one of her best performances in the very same tournament in 2017, helping to lead Hong Kong to a silver medal?
Simple: she decided to put her psychology studies to good use.
“I have three methods to help me stay calm and focused during competition – meditation, visualisation and self-talk,” said Chu, who hopes to become a sports psychologist when her fencing career is over.
“I meditate 10 minutes a day and right before competitions just to clear my head,” said Chu. “I put myself in that moment where I only focus on performing – it’s all about taming the fear in my mind. What obstructs us from performing well is always fear – and meditating actually helps you tame that region in your brain.”
Now whenever Chu is faced with a stressful situation, she talks to herself the same way she would talk to a friend to calm herself down. “For example, if I’m one point behind, I’ll have a cue saying: ‘just focus on the next point, don’t do anything stupid’.”
She said a lot of people practise this technique, but it isn’t always effective because they don’t believe what they are saying.
“The most important thing is learning how to trust that inner voice. You have to be honest with yourself and build up that self-trust over time.”
When Chu broke her finger while training with the Chinese national team before this year’s Asian Games, she was stuck on the mainland for several weeks and couldn’t even pick up her épée. At that point, footwork and visualisation became her only method of training.
“I visualised different movements and drills I would do, and applied those movements to my competitions. It made me more familiar with the situation and actions, so I was able to perform them faster and quicker.”
Chu has several competitions coming up – including the Hong Kong Open next week – and it is very important that she performs well so that she can qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Fortunately, she seems well-equipped to deal with that pressure. Watch this space.