By Isaiah Samson
Competition season in HEMA (at least on the East Coast) runs from spring into fall, which means that as of this writing we’re coming toward its end. Specifically, we’re in the long gap between two of the three events that NYHFA/SCNYC attends in force. The first was our “home” event, Fechtschule New York, far north of the city but hosted by our founder and run by NYHFA. Following that was July’s Longpoint, which I believe remains the largest and perhaps most widely-beloved HEMA event in this region. I’m proud to say that my team competed like champions at both, even if I missed Longpoint myself.
As we begin to turn our thoughts to the Iron Gate Exhibition in October, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect on competition itself. I’ll do my best to avoid sports-movie cliches about how competing shows us the best in ourselves yadda yadda yadda, because in point of fact it can be just as likely to bring out the absolute worst in a person. Competition is, by nature, meant to be stressful, intense, and trying. Those circumstances invite us to overcome adversity and rise above our baser natures, but we’re only human, and some people’s baser natures are harder to escape than others.
Smarter folks than I could tell you just what primal, kill-or-be-killed mechanisms are tickled in a bout, but whatever they are they’re deeply-ingrained– a major and natural part of human-ness. Martial arts invite us to acknowledge those parts of ourselves, and as a 21st century desk-jockey I find it pretty darn gratifying to let them out to play every now and then. Study and discipline are great, intrinsically-beneficial things, but training for its own sake would feel to me like all seasoning but no steak. And if an ordinary sparring match is steak, competition is kobe beef plus a Pulp Fiction-style shot of adrenaline to the heart. You’re not just fighting new people, some of whom may be much more experienced, you’re doing so under real pressure to win.
But those “baser nature” issues are wrapped up in those same quirks of the mind that make a fight so much fun. Even in the friendliest of matches, giving one’s animal instincts too much free reign doesn’t just lead to poor fighting, it could easily get somebody hurt. Physical damage aside, any time we let ourselves over-invest emotionally in something as uncertain as the outcome of a fight or tournament, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of being crushed by defeat. Anyone who, like me, is prone to fixating on their mistakes will know this feeling well, and when we’re full of disappointment, self-recrimination, and frustration, it can be a short trip to acting (or fighting) like a jerk.
These instincts are powerful things, but even– or perhaps especially– those of us who really thrive on the dynamism and vigor of a good scrap should keep in mind that what we’re practicing is an art. A fighting art, yes, but still an activity based first and foremost on precision, deliberate action, and control. Those are all things your inner beast fundamentally rejects, which is why we have to work so hard to hammer them into our skulls. Fighting well isn’t just about training, it’s about taming.