Every now and then I get the question why I don't take part in tournaments. The answer to that question is both very personal and complex and I always feel that it is difficult to properly explain the reasons eye-to-eye, especially to people who do take part in and enjoy them. Futhermore the public debate between those who take part in tournaments and those who don't oftentimes gets very simplistic and heated with lots of misunderstandings on both sides.
For that reason, and since I know others also feel a certain pressure that they have to and are expected to prove themselves in such a context, I decided to write this short and open-hearted letter, sharing my personal fears. It is certainly not a criticism towards anything and shouldn't be taken as such, nor is it a defense speech or an attempt at elevating myself. It is just a sharing of how I feel about things and what drives me, hoping to, at least to some degree, broaden the image of things a bit.
Personal development vs comparing to others
First of all, saying that I don't take part in tournaments is not quite true. I have competed in another sport that is hard on the psyche quite extensively and I have also done a little bit of tournament fighting in HEMA, although quite rarely. I can see the benefit it can have and I know the sweetness of placing well and even of winning medals.
I consider myself a decent fighter, which I think at least some of the people I have fought with agree with, but I am far from the top level of the young longsword fighters at the bigger tournaments. That I am perfectly fine with, since I am more interested in my own personal development and studying the sources, than comparing myself to other fighters and seeing where I rank in the larger community (not suggesting that the two are in opposition for others, just for me, and for reasons of priority).
That said, I can see why for some that means testing their understanding and their stress tolerance in the context of a tournament. I have chosen a somewhat different route. Not a generally better one, but better for me.
Self-image and psyche.
Everything we do and experience affects our self-image, a self-image that can grow strong or turn fragile for different people and in different contexts, especially as we learn something new. So, what happens to our self-image if we are repeatedly ending up with bad or so-so results in a tournament setting, due to us not being able to cope well with the specific stress caused by fears of losing face or other personal issues from other experiences? Quite naturally such experiences can affect ones self-image negatively, creating a certain identity which can be damaging and detrimental to the whole learning process.
On the other hand it can of course also be strengthening and rewarding, teaching us how we can handle the specific stress of the situation. At best, it can inspire us to do even better in the future, but doing so requires some specific resources that I just don't have access to myself, with the primary one being time. Consequently, for myself I choose a different path for similar stress.
When done for the wrong reasons it will take the fun out of things.
I competed in another quite stressful sport for 13-14 years in total, with several hundred competitions under my belt, and I grew to hate it mostly, despite some good results and being quite skilled at it. Consequently, I am at a deep and profound level quite scared that engaging in tournament fighting will kill my love of this art, or at least change it in a way that makes it less all-consuming than it is today. I fear that it will break things for me, that it will no longer be as fun, that I will start looking to achieve other things and lose focus on the things that originally attracted me to HEMA, the things that still keep me with it today, spending all my free time on HEMA (and some work time as well).
I was also very passionate about a completely different subject for many years, dedicating all my time and money on it but ended up dropping it completely, so there is also a personality trait I have about falling in love, spending everything on it and then ending up feeling empty and disillusioned with no interest left.
Right or wrong, this is one of the strongest fears I have and it makes me shy away from the whole thing, not wanting to disturb a delicate balance.
Age, time and health
Other issues that concern me are age, time and risk of injury. I have already had a serious knee injury with torn cruciate ligament and surgical transplant that put me out of proper training for almost 18 months. For that reason I avoid grappling. Fear of injury doesn't stop me from competing though. That choice more relates to other issues.
Age is a different matter. While there are some rare exceptions, the absolute majority of the top fighters are at least ten, often 15-20 years younger than I. Of course I can still fight and defeat many younger men, and I have done so, but that is more a matter of different levels of understanding and experience. I started at rather old age, at the age of 39 and out of the 6,5 years I have studied HEMA I was away for much of my 1.5 years with the knee injury mentioned above. I feel satisfied with some things that I have achieved thus far, but it will always be very difficult to catch up with those that are younger and still more experienced with a longsword. That is just the reality of things.
During the last few years I have also had some health issues which mean I shouldn't stand up for too long, sweat too much or drink alcohol. I can do it, but I also have to suffer the consequences for it, and it can get pretty bad, without going into it any deeper. Suffice to say, it affects things. It is not something I like speaking about publicly, but all events are killers for me and I often feel like shit afterwards, sometimes even during. Luckily, it is slowly improving.
Focus of study
The sources I focus on in my own training also affect my fighting capabilities quite a bit. I study Joachim Meyer, and I consider myself to be a capable fencer with a longsword, dusack and quarterstaff/spear. I also study his dagger, halberd and his rappier to varying degrees. This of course splits my attention and while the principles largely overlap for all weapons they are also individually different enough to require specific, and time-consuming study and training in them. I also have no one to teach me these things in person as there are few Meyerists around, and consequently have to study myself, with some reflection and exchange with the international community.
All this clashes with my personal relationship to tournaments, where specializing on one master and one weapon likely would improve results, both in tournament and outside of it.
Desire for accomplishment and priorities
So with not enough time at hand, and a personal desire for accomplishment, to achieve something, I have a choice. I can either try to be the very best fighter I can be and focus just on myself and my own development. To accomplish that I would have to work very hard to reach the level of the younger top level fighters and inevitably I would have to sacrifice my dedication to research, teaching and the community services associated with HROARR to do so. But this just isn't a sacrifice I am willing to do. For others who live with different circumstances there might not be any need for sacrifice or prioritizing, but for me there most certainly is.
Of course I could try to approach the tournaments as just another sparring opportunity, not caring about winning or losing, but I find that very difficult given my earlier experiences in competing. I am shaped by my past and can't easily let go of it.
So, I turn to other things that I aim to achieve; to teaching, to do good research, to take part in elevating our understanding of these arts and to help advance HEMA and its community to come as close to recreating these arts as possible. I want to keep my research up and continue to teach at least once a week, in fact even adding a second class every week shortly. There is little time for anything else.
The larger perspective
Adding to this there is also of course the fear of where the tournaments will lead to in a larger perspective. It is not a fear of "sportification", but rather a fear that the community risks losing its focus on the sources, turning to the course and workshop instructors and the good tournament fighters for learning how to fight, thus leading to fossilization and dogmaticism at a far too early stage in HEMA where we still have decades of research to do and need everyone to help in researching, interpreting and testing things.
Luckily most instructors and event organizers are aware of this issue, but the problem does not lie with them but with the whole community and it will likely grow more and more serious as HEMA becomes more publicly known and popular, thus transforming the makeup of the community. It remains to be seen how well we can counter this, but I do believe the tournaments will inevitably be one of the driving forces that can lead us all astray, no matter if those of us who are a bit more serious about our studies of HEMA dedicate most of our time to both studying and training.
What I do instead
So what do I prefer to do instead? Well, I always love sparring and free fencing. What sparring means everyone already knows, but free fencing in this case means fencing with gear that actually puts you at physical risk of quite serious injury. This can mean wearing little protective gear, or sparring with actually dangerous weapons. This puts a strong stress and requires strict focus. Sparring e.g. with an oak quarterstaff always causes a distinct sense of fear as there is such a serious risk of injury. This improves much of the fencing, although it surely has its disadvantages too, not least since I prefer to do it with opponent's I know well and trust.
We all know from experience how sparring with some people just leads to boring or bad fencing, while with others it just clicks and you get a wonderful experience with great fencing, almost like dancing. Coming out of such sessions always feels rewarding and you feel that you have learned something and even improved. It is not about feeling good about oneself or collaborative fencing, but about exploring things together in a confrontational manner, thus learning what is possible. It is no less fighting, or trying to hit each other properly and with suitable aggression, but it is good fighting, and proper opportunity to explore the art.
Relief and pressure
So, finally relaxing with my decision to stay away from the tournament fighting has largely been a relief. I don't have to care about tournament rules, associated politics about what they actually measure and reflect etc. I only take part in a tournament if I feel like it, if there is something in particular with it that interests me. However there is always a constant nagging conscience that bugs me, saying that I have to take part in the bigger tournaments too or people will suspect there is something fishy going on and I suspect my credibility suffers from it too, at least with some people. Sometimes it gets so bad that I think they are right too. But this also pisses me off, probably in part due to some unresolved authority issues, thus making me want to do it even less. That however, I recognize is a personal and completely unrelated issue that I need to fight in myself, as it could potentially hinder me in my development.
I do worry some about the potential future of HEMA related to tournaments (as well as about issues with teachers acting as role models), but I also enjoy watching some of the fights. Seeing guys like Axel Pettersson, Francesco Lodà and Nathan Grepares, to just mention a few, fight is always a great pleasure and gives good hopes for the future.
Everyone's story and reasons are different. These are some of mine. Things are never completely static or set in stone, and I may change my mind in the future. And I will compete every now and then if I feel like it, most likely smaller more personal tournaments like those of the Meyer Frei Fechter Guild and their fechtschule tournaments. I have issues that I struggle with, but it is not just about personal issues. It is also about seeing other things that I find equally or even more rewarding and important to my own development in these arts. And slowly I am more and more identifying myself as a decent teacher in HEMA rather than a HEMA practitioner, and as such other things are more important.
None of this, however, should be taken as any criticism against tournaments nor the people who work on them or participate. Quite the contrary, I think they do a brilliant job. I have spoken mostly about my own fears and issues and when I haven't it is about larger process that also concern teaching courses or workshops.
Thank you for reading!