So we just got back from Ealdormere Crown Tourney, the first I ever fought in. I fought ten matches, and lost every single one of them. I didn’t win a match all day, and most of those best-two-out-of-three-bouts were over in two. If you look at pictures of The Big Board, I’m the only person who went out and lost every time, all afternoon.
I had — and I’m saying this without sarcasm — a fantastic day.
There’s two ways to look at it: the 21st Century way, and the 14th Century way. By 21st Century standards, I busted my ass to upgrade my kit, busted my ass to get ready for Crown, spent many hours (and about a hundred bucks in gas) getting there and back, and did nothing but lose. Sure, I can say “I had fun” and “it was a learning experience” and by 21st Century standards I’m being a good loser… but as the football coach snarled, the modern western attitude is “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
By 14th Century standards, I took the field against superior opposition and did nothing to shame or dishonour myself or my lady. I walked onto that list in a blaze of heraldic pageantry, went into every fight and gave it my all, and I took my lumps cheerfully and with good grace. By the lights of high medieval chivalry, I conducted myself honourably in the company of my betters… and I did so in full view of my sovereigns and the assembled nobility of three Kingdoms. From that perspective I had a very good tournament.
And in case you’re wondering, if I preferred the 21st Century view I very much doubt I’d be strapping on a suit of armour on my weekends.
A lot of people — including several of my opponents and most of the marshals on the field — went out of their way to tell me how well I was doing. I suppose that they were worried I was getting disheartened as the “defeated” markers began piling up next to my name on the scoreboard, and yes, I’ll admit it was a touch discouraging. But, as several people pointed out, I wasn’t just a speedbump (SCA slang); I made my opponents work for their wins… at least most of them, anyway. And I appreciated being told that… and especially by people who know how the fighting works.
The other thing I’m proud of is that I kept up with the pace. The preliminary stage of the tournament was a round-robin tournament with two lists, in order to whittle down the field of eleven combatants as quickly as possible; This was in a closed cattle-barn with a concrete floor rather than outside because of the bad weather. The end result was a close-quarters, high speed tournament on a hard, slippery surface with very little time for the fighters to rest between bouts — it was extremely physically demanding. Most of the fighters began throwing out the phrase “meat grinder” — you barely had time to remove your helmet before being called to arm for the next bout. I was swilling down coconut water (I can’t have Gatorade: too much sugar) as fast as I could, but between giving out small tokens to my opponents and re-arming I barely got a moment off my feet for the entire three hours of the round robin — and this in 45lbs of plate steel! Thankfully, my lady and a friend of ours who volunteered to keep me “sheveled” (the opposite of “disheveled”, as he put it) were handy to keep me hydrated, armed and on track. By the end of the round robin I was pretty much spent, but I saw it through.
Most of the round-robin bouts were fought matched sword-and-board (I tried longsword versus sword-and-board a couple of times after it became clear I wasn’t going to advance, but nobody seemed inclined to meet with matched longswords, rather to my disappointment) so I didn’t really get to stretch myself in terms of my newer weapons forms (ironically, all the time I’ve been spending on 6′ spear and polearm didn’t get used at all) but I have concluded that I should be working harder on my sword-and-board skills, particularly pellwork for speed and precision; I need both without trading off one for the other. I was always just a half-beat slow on my strikes and parries, and that half-beat became a full-beat in the later bouts as fatigue set in. I knew what I wanted to do, but I just couldn’t get my body moving fast enough… and when I did, I wasn’t accurate enough: a couple of should-haves happened, as in “I should have been able to hit that opening” instead of glancing off a shield or sword.
The other place I fell down was in keeping focus, and that’s a much more difficult thing to explain to non-fighters — or even fighters who haven’t fought in a high-stakes tournament. Between bouts the fighting hall was noisy, crowded and full of chatter, and I wasn’t just fighting, I was giving out small tokens to my opponents (which required tracking most of them down); there were conversations and people coming up to check in with me (and on me, too, I suspect) and all in all it was very difficult to remain in that mental space where one can fight their best. I’ve come to completely understand those contenders who limit their interactions to a single squire during the tournament and assign the rest of their household to keeping people away; once you’ve shifted out of game-face mode to be polite to somebody offering helpful advice, it’s immensely difficult to get your head back into the right place in order to get back on the list-field. Keeping the general populace away from the fighters and their “pit crews” would be a definite plus at Crown Tourney, but of course that depends a great deal on the venue; due to the close quarters and cold rain outside it wasn’t even remotely an option for this tournament.
Afterwards, around Court and the feast, I had a lot more people approach me and congratulate me on my performance, and I got a lot of complements about my appearance. One gentleman asked about my armour and was shocked to hear I fight in 45lbs of mild steel plate — “I thought it was aluminum,” he said, “but it didn’t sound like aluminum! How can you fight in that?” I was, I suspect, carrying the heaviest weight of metal on the field yesterday (although my kit is put together pretty well and therefore the weight is distributed quite evenly) but I doubt very much the suggestion that the extra mass is what “caused” me to lose, especially since I’ve lost the same weight of fat through of my diet over the past six months.
For the record, I lost because I need a lot of practice to improve my skills.
But let me be clear: I’m not at all unhappy with my performance at Crown… especially since I learned a lot. And I mean a lot: in the past month or so I’ve gotten advice from experienced fighters and Knights from across the Known Worlde once they learned I was going to my first Crown. Some of that advice was practical, like the careful tutoring I got on spear- and polearm-fighting at the Caldrithig fight practice in Ottawa; some of it was more on the mental aspects, like the conversation at Border Spat I was part of, where a Knight from the West Kingdom gave a few of us pointers about perception and awareness in a fight. I got advice on giving out tokens to other fighters, how to take care of myself between bouts, and how to best present myself in Court and on the list-field, and a dozen other little things. I picked up practical sword-handling techniques, tips on stance and posture, and a lot of things to muse over regarding the metaphysics of fighting.
So here’s my official verdict: I recommend Crown Tourney for any fighter in the SCA who can afford the time and effort. You’re not likely to win Crown, although you have to plan as though you will (see my earlier post “Practical Applications” for the reasons why) but you will learn an incredible amount… and some of what you learn is going to be about yourself. Being in Crown — and preparing for it — has forced me to up my game in some very fundamental ways, and some of those ways are hard to put into words.
Primarily, though, it’s a case of attitude: when you’re going out to weekly practices and events and having fun, you’re having fun, and that’s a good thing. But when you’re training for Crown, you’re going to be pushing yourself: You’re working towards a goal; you’re going to be putting in that extra effort. Hell, even in you’re a fighter who’s not training for this Crown, train for the next one, or the one after that. Keep it in the back of your mind that someday you’ll be fighting for the Thrones, and use it as a goad to keep improving your fighting.
That’s what I’m planning on doing, anyway. And I’m confident that, while it may be a few (or more than a few) Crown Tourneys down the road, I’m going to go out there and win it someday.