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Why I love the HEMA tournament scene

Sport longsword is not a new phenomenon. Meyer, 1570.

I love the HEMA tournament scene. This will come as a surprise to many people, because I am not really involved with it in any direct way. In fact, I have seen people referring to me as “anti-tournament”.* Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I am not personally interested in entering or organising tournaments, does not mean that I don’t understand their value.
My own tournament life extended from 1987, when I entered my first foil tournament, through to 2002, when I entered (and won) a rapier tournament in Italy. The sport-fencing scene is especially tournament-dominated. It is fair to say that tournaments are the only meaningful measure of success in that sport (and most others). I was never a great sport fencer, but I won a local competition or two, and ended up in the last 8 in sabre at the Scottish Universities tournament in 1993. Tournaments were great if you did well, but it was equally possible that you would travel for hours, and wait around for hours, and get a few bouts in, then wait for more hours while your more successful teammates got to fence, and then travel for hours back home again. The ratio of time spent to fights fought always bugged me; you got far more bouts in far less time in less formal environments.
At school I was involved in organising our annual tournament, and so I have a pretty good idea what a huge amount of work it is to set up and run a tournament. That’s why I’ve never organised an open tournament in Finland; it’s way too much work for something I’m only peripherally interested in. But I do encourage my students worldwide to enter tournaments if they are interested, and it’s always nice to see a current or past student doing well in that environment. I do tell them not to expect to do very well though, as our training is not optimised for tournament success. (Perhaps I should write a post about how to train for tournaments sometime?)

The things I like about the tournament scene are:
1) It provides a sense of community for a very widely distributed group of like-minded people. Other events do this too, but the advantage of the tournament scene is that anyone can show up and take part, with any background, and every competitor is (at least in theory) equal and welcome. Your club or style don’t determine your value.
2)It provides external validation for fencers who need it. This can hurt as much as it helps, because poor performance on the day can be hugely discouraging. In the long run, internal validation is much better, but most fencers go through a stage of needing to test themselves, and tournaments provide one easy way to do that.
3) It creates an easy-to-explain model of what we do for the casually curious. One of the most common questions I get asked is “do you have tournaments?” If I don’t want to explain exactly what I really do, then I can just say “yes, there’s a big international circuit now, though it’s not really my focus”. Saves me so much time. Tournaments also attracts media attention, because everyone understands them.
4) It creates a much, much bigger market of fencers with particular equipment needs: the current availability of (for example) longsword free-fencing kit is directly due to the tournament circuit that has developed. This is huge: those of us doing HEMA in the early 1990’s will remember that our equipment was a hodgepodge of sport fencing kit and some dodgy re-enactment or SCA gear. Without sport fencing, there would have been no masks. How much would that have slowed our progress?
5) It provides training opportunities for working under pressure, and developing attributes such as timing, measure, speed, and tactical sense.
6) It demonstrates the effect of rule-sets. One of the hardest things to explain to beginners is how much rule-set affect behaviour. Tournaments have clearly-defined and published rule-sets, and that determines more than any other factor what kind of actions work.
7) As we saw in my last post, tournaments shine a spotlight on diversity. Who, exactly, is really welcome?
8) Most people like the idea of tournaments to give them something to train towards. So the sport-HEMA scene is always going to attract lots and lots of people. Excellent. For me and many others in the early nineties, sport fencing (and the SCA for many of my friends) provided our first entry into the sword world, but in the end proved frustrating. It was not real enough. So we left to create HEMA from scratch. The tournament scene provides a similar easy-entry route into the sword world. I look at the sport-HEMA scene as a massive pool of potential future historical-HEMA students and teachers.

The final in the rapier tournament, 2002. That's me on the right.

As with every training environment, tournaments have their limitations.
1) they serve no useful research purpose, unless you are studying historical tournament rule-sets and applying them. “It works/doesn’t work in tournaments” is just not a relevant statement when considering martial arts that have been developed for other purposes.
2) they privilege the gifted. In any sport, there is an optimum body type. As the tournament scene develops and the stakes get higher, we will start to see the different rule-sets privileging certain body types. Read The Sports Gene for super-detailed information on this phenomenon.
3) they are good for highlighting areas of weakness, but do not provide an ideal environment for fixing those weaknesses. From a training perspective, it’s more useful to be able to stop testing and start fixing immediately.
4) they privilege outcome over process. The people who “succeed” are by definition winning specific bouts. It doesn’t take into account how much they have improved or how hard they have worked. With a long enough head start, somebody could (in theory at least) win many tournaments without improving at all!

So, given how useful I think they are, and with the limitations I listed above taken into account, you might very well ask why I don’t take part? Here are my reasons:

1) I’ve been there and done that. In my current phase of training, formal tournaments are not an efficient learning environment for me. I can get just as much pressure from a demonstration bout, for instance, or from using sharp swords.
2) The stakes are not equal. I became a professional in 2001, and fought my last tournament in 2002. I won it. As a professional in a field of amateurs, I felt that I had robbed the top amateur of his deserved victory. If I win, so what? it’s my job. If I lose, then I have more to lose than the amateurs out there.
3) I don’t do things by halves. If I was to enter tournaments regularly, I’d take them seriously, and train for them seriously. But it’s not the combat environment I’m most interested in, so it’s not the one I want to train for.
4) It’s dangerous. The full-contact environment is one I enter only when necessary, because of the risk of injury. (Readers of The Seven Principles of Mastery will understand my attitude to injuries.) The tournament scene has an ok safety record, but is much more dangerous than most other training environments. All the broken bones I’ve seen since starting my school have come from one tournament or another. I’ll do it if I need to for my own training purposes, but not otherwise.

In conclusion then, I’m very pleased to see the worldwide development of the sport-HEMA scene. It grows the  wider sword community faster than any other factor: what’s not to love?


* I wrote about this in Swordfighting, pages 82-83.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

6 Responses

  1. Interesting to hear your views on this, Guy. I share a lot of them but haven’t really taken the time to rationalize it before. I often caution new members of my club, as well as those trying to understand what we do, that the tournament scene is a valuable tool in the training box for HEMA practitioners… but by no means the sharpest tool. It’s an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned, of course. Yet I think more than a brief moment on the tourney floor, an individual tournament player benefits most from the intense training drive of competition. Whether the drive is hunger for success or fear of failure, meeting a new level of training intensity and focus in those preparatory months will probably stick with you for a long time, even if you don’t choose to enter another tournament.

    Incidentally, I would be extremely interested in the possibility of an article on training for tournaments. I’m motivating most of the training at my club right now and teaching beginners as I was taught, but we’re reaching a point where some are becoming more interested in tournament play, and some insights into designing a more competition-focused than academic training program would be appreciated!

  2. Very clear and concise run-down. I can see that these tournaments have their place but might not be for everyone, and I can definitely understand the lack of appeal in sitting around for hours on the day.

    I wonder whether it might be interesting to read a counterpoint article replying to yours, written by someone who is more into the tournament scene? Just a thought.

  3. Great comments and I have to say I’m in tune with them all. That said, after 4 years of studying Fiore in a very non-tournament environment I recently decided to explore some German style with a HEMA group. In addition to being introduced to a whole new world of historical masters and manuscripts (WOW) and some new and outstanding techniques, I was introduced to the whole tournement scene. Although I’ll never really be a big tournement fighter I have attended several including Longpoint. I have to say the entire experience has put me up over a plateau I was stuck on and has made me a much better swordsman.


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