Back in 2009, 2010, when tournaments were just beginning to enter the consciousness of the US HEMA community in a big way, I too had tournament angst. I shared all of the common concerns (oh no, sport fencing!) and I felt like an outsider, like all the reputation and respect I had built up by posting in forums was going to be eclipsed by these upstarts and their tournaments(this is both funny/sarcastic and serious at the same time). I remember reading something about a European longsword champion and I thought, "What? What's a longsword 'champion'? This is not a sport! This is a hard core combat martial art! Why are these people hopping around and sniping at each other like a pair of bunnies on crack?" Then I watched some tournament fights on youtube and thought, "Ha! These people suck! I can take them out easy!" (hahahaha yeah right!)
Back then I had recently started training in JSA, again, but this time under a serious, real deal teacher whose training had a tremendous focus on the martial aspects of swordsmanship. The symbol of the dojo is three dragonflies in a circle, which represents the “holy trinity” of technique (kata), cutting and gekken (sparring/free fencing). It is where I got my own ideas on the balance of those things in a weapon art. I learned small details that you could never think of on your own (well maybe one or two, but definitely not all), such as centering, structure, pressure, little things like ingraining the motion required to pull the sword out after a thrust into your muscle memory, etc. This was the most martial sword training I'd ever had, and I loved it. That was why I was surprised to find out that my teacher competed in gekken tournaments.
"Tournaments?" I said. "But...that's a sport!"
"Yes," he agreed (paraphrased). "Tournaments are a sport, but they are a great way to test yourself and your technique, and if, in your mind, you approach them in a martial way, they can be an excellent training tool. Just don't get focused on competition, remember why you train."
That was when I decided to enter my first ever HEMA tournament, Longpoint 2011. I thought I was going to go there and just win the whole thing. I thought this because I never lost a fencing match (I fenced with people at events and gatherings and such) except under special circumstances (injury, exhaustion, etc.) and thought I was a real badass. So imagine my surprise when I got my backside handed to me and didn't even make it out of the pools. I was crushed. So much so that I almost quit HEMA. I might have actually done so if not for Jake Norwood and Scott Brown, who agreed to fence with me the next day (my attitude at the time was, "why should they agree, I am a loser, I bombed out, I suck, I am not worthy). So I fenced with them, and I did well, and was very happy with the results. So, I still had it. But then...why had I bombed out of the tournament? Like most, I blamed everything but myself. Tournaments suck. Judging sucks. The type of fighting in tournaments is unrealistic. Some people just flail and score points. And you know what? All of that is true. And yet, some people had no problems consistently dominating and doing well: going far in the brackets, placing, and even winning. So why not me?
After much soul searching, and after speaking to my battodo teacher, I realized that despite the fact that tournaments suck (and always will), the failure was mine. My weakness, my problems. I was too easily unhinged, mentally. I couldn't focus under stress. I was weak. I was a bad fencer, despite being able to kick ass outside of a stressful situation. Little things began to add up. I had never played competitive sports as a kid, I wasn't used to high stakes high stress situations, I got nervous every time I had to fence someone, even in my own school, and so on. In short, I had issues, serious issues.
There was only one thing to do. Get better. Face my fears, conquer my issues. Keep entering tournaments, do better. Shifting the focus of NYHFA’s training or even my own training towards competition was out of the question (my focus remains, and always will, on the no holds barred fight to the death with swords...e.g. “stab him in the face!!”). But I now had an incredible opportunity to test and improve myself in the highest stress situation I would ever face with a sword in hand (hopefully!), and over the next couple of years I learned to appreciate the opportunities these tournaments gave me to improve myself, my character, my skills and my state of mind. Whatever ego I had was destroyed and replaced with confidence and respect for others. I made some lifelong friends whom I truly love, and I got to experience fighting so intense, and so amazing, that it became one of the highlights of my life (an example is my fight with Jake Norwood in the PNWHG finals in 2012...oh my god, that was an amazing experience).
In short, tournaments have made me a better fighter, a better person and a better teacher. And, surprisingly, a better martial artist. So, if you have tournament angst, and/or if you feel left behind by the direction the HEMA community is going, get over it. Seriously. Quit your complaining and come and compete. Win or lose, you will be better for it.