Of Medals and the Illusion of Mastery

With our tourney coming up—an invitational sabre match—I’m always conscious of how difficult these things are to do. I’ve either fenced in or judged a lot of tournaments, both Olympic and HEMA, and with each new historical tourney I’m struck by a disturbing fact—pound for pound, a tournament in HEMA and one in Olympic circles are not so very different. In both, too many fighters are playing the system, and worse, too many have zero regard for being hit. In both tournament worlds there is also a tendency to take medaling as the litmus test for excellence. Placing well can correlate with skill, but it’s not a sure thing. There are a number of reasons why this is so.

Everyone likes to win. Emerging the victor in a bout, or better still a tournament, is a nice feeling. It’s validating. It is important, however, to put any such victory in context and remember that however well one does, victory on its own does not mean mastery. There are several reasons for this and if you’re serious about your development as a fencer you need to know this. You ignore it at your peril, at the risk of further improvement, and it can easily lead to a false sense of ability with all the ego problems that creates.

There is always someone out there better than you are. This is just true. Theoretically, out there somewhere, there is one fencer who truly is better than everyone else, but see point two 😉  A prime example of this is a close friend of mine—we’ll call him “Dennis.” He’s a beautiful fencer, tactically brilliant, graceful, powerful, the kind of fighter who makes you look even better than you are when you fight him and he’s destroying you. Yes, that good. In the early 00’s, he entered an epee event open only to fencers ranked B or higher; most everyone there was an A-rated fencer. As this was epee, that ranking actually meant something too–epee is the only weapon of the three to have retained much of its martial ethos. No one there knew Dennis, and they expected to clean the floor with him. He beat every single one of them, badly, and they were really ticked when they realized that this was just something he did for fun, that he wasn’t a “normal” tournament guy; he fenced enough to keep his rating, but otherwise he’d just as soon be working on other hobbies. Dennis is a good example of the unknown ego-check, of the truly gifted fencer out there who is, quite literally, better than you or me.

Great fencers have bad days; poor fencers good days. No matter how good someone might be, even the best fencers have an off day. If this day happens to be on a tournament day, chances are good they may not clear the pools. In like guise, the poorest noob may end up taking the day. It just depends. Maybe they just had more fire and the better fencers either underestimated them or misapplied their skill. Maybe the directing was crap. Maybe it was a combination. One can’t take anything for granted.

Tournament victory is only as good as the quality of the pools. Not all gold medals are the same. Medaling in a minor tournament with twenty fencers of basic skill is not the same as medaling in a tournament where half or more of the fifty competitors are truly skilled. Herein is one major problem for WMA—what defines skill? Many people equate tournament victory with it, but that’s a false equivalency, one only embraced by people who don’t know better or who benefit from the fallacy. This is hard to combat because the same egos that benefit from this, who derive their value from it, are quick to say any naysayer is suffering sour grapes. Sort of makes discussing and fixing that, demonstrating the problem, difficult.

Skill vs. Attribute Fencing One of the elephants in the ring is the issue of attribute fencing versus a more comprehensive skill-set well-applied. To be fair, most attribute-fencers have skill, but often this is a specific set of skills that exploit their reach, speed, etc. to the exclusion of a more comprehensive game. The thing is it works. If you’re fast, if you have reach, if you hit harder and intimidate people, it will take you pretty far. People medal and win tournaments all the time armed only with a few tricks that they have optimized. The confidence that comes with that cannot be underestimated. The test though, for those fencers, is what happens when they run into someone whose skill-set is broader, whose experience is deeper, and who knows how to nullify the advantages their opponent’s attributes offer. If attribute fencers are lucky, they’ll meet that opponent; if they’re smart, they’ll learn something from it.

Gaming the Tourney is another major issue. This isn’t new and it’s not confined to WMA, but a major problem for Olympic fencing as well other sports. There are advantages to winning, and so, some people are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. For just a few examples, be wary of anyone hosting a tournament that only enlists directors and/or judges from their school or who stack staffing in their favor.[i]

Related tactics include attempting to intimidate officials and other competitors, arguing for rule changes that favor one’s approach and fencers, and hard-hitting. These kids don’t play with others, and worse, can give a tournament, even a region, a bad rep. You don’t want that.

I’m not saying don’t fence in tourneys—you should if you want, they’re fun, but, you should go into them with your eyes open and for the right reasons. Not to wax too Miyagi, but primarily a tourney is a place to test, in real-time, your skills and tactics; it’s a lesson, a chance to learn, an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. It should also be fun. The illusion of mastery, and especially of tourney gold as evidence of it, is a problem for any fencer who truly wishes to improve. Mastery is less a destination than it is a goal which pushes our training, which keeps us honest, which keeps us striving.[ii]

This doesn’t mean don’t do your best, that you’re not trying to win—you can’t test what you know if you’re going through the motions. The pressure, the chance to think on your feet, to adapt, and all within seconds is a fantastic way to see how well we apply what we’ve learned. If it all works, and you grab that trophy, great! It is healthy, maybe after celebratory beers, to reflect on the nature of the competition, to weight that against the heft of the medal around your neck. That awareness shouldn’t detract from victory, but merely inform it, and, better prepare you for the next one.


[i] This isn’t universally true of course. In small tournaments, especially where there is no one else to staff, one has little choice but to use who is on hand. Whenever possible, SdTS tries to enlist friends from other salas to help direct–our judges are pulled from the competitors.

[ii] A black belt in TKD, for example, has demonstrated that they are now ready to begin to study in earnest; a fencing master, in a slightly different way, isn’t necessary the best fighter, but a teacher, someone who has command of a particular pedagogical approach and is capable of teaching other teachers.

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