, , ,

I’m thinking about fighting in my first Crown Tourney. Since you just fought in your first Crown, can you give a first-timer any advice?

The above isn’t so much a direct quote as an amalgam, because I’ve actually had several people ask me something along the same lines. Generally I’ve been replying “let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”

I did, and I am. Please bear in mind that I’ve done exactly one Crown Tourney, so I can hardly be construed as an expert, although my first-timer experience is still fresh, so presumably there’s some value in that. All opinions and mistakes are my own, quite a lot of this advice is based on stuff I wish I’d done, and if more experienced competitors want to chime in, the comments section is waiting.

That being said, here’s my advice:

1 — Train.
Train now, train hard, and keep training as long as possible. Jog, do pell-work, go out to at least one practice a week, and if at all possible go to many different practices. Fight at events all over your Kingdom and even out of Kingdom if you can afford it: this is worth a road trip or two. Fight strangers whenever possible, and listen to whatever advice you’re offered… then mull it over and pick out the useful bits. Keep doing this: my first Crown was an absolute meat-grinder of a round-robin tournament and the individual fighter’s endurance became a major factor by the end.

I did the training thing pretty hard just after I decided to apply to Crown, then got sidetracked for about two months because of the wedding; then turbo-trained for the last three weeks. This was not the optimum training regimen I could have adopted. Generally speaking, you should develop good training habits before you consider applying for Crown… even if you won’t be applying for the next Crown or the one after that. I suspect that, for a newer fighter in the “moderately skilled” tier of fighters, a good solid year of making fighting a priority is going to be a requirement for even getting past the first round in Crown Tournament. Maybe.

My ideal training regimen, which I would love to have the gumption to actually stick to, would be the following: At least 30 minutes of exercise a day (even if it’s just a brisk walk with the dog) the key is the daily aspect. Thirty minutes of slow-drill and pellwork at least three times a week; work with someone who knows what they’re doing to get a good set of drills together so you’re not training in bad habits. At least one fight practice a week, and if you can spread that out over multiple groups in the course of a month, so much the better; not fighting the same six opponents all the time is helpful. At least one fighting event per month, preferably fighting people who you don’t normally fight; if some of them are potential opponents in Crown Tournament, so much the better.

For the record, I do not keep to that training regimen. Mea maxima culpa.

2 — Get your kit in order.
Your armour should be (and this is a personal preference of mine) as historically accurate as possible while still being safe and comfortable. Do proper preventative maintenance, not just fixing the shit that breaks when it breaks. At Crown, I lost a besague in the middle of a fight; the thong holding it to my spaulder broke. I knew the thong was frayed but I left off replacing it because there was so much else to do; come the day it let go rather spectacularly… and I hadn’t brought the spare thong to give it a quick fix; Fortunately, I could do without.

Do not depend on duct tape to get you through. My opinion is that duct tape is fine for practice but at Crown or another tournament of chivalry it shouldn’t be seen. It certainly shouldn’t be seen for more than one practice or event in a row – if something is sufficiently broken to need taping, repair it before going back on the field: Not only is it safer for you, but it shows respect for your opponent and for the Throne. Nothing harshes my medieval buzz faster than a glaring anachronism like day-glo duct tape. (Also, duct tape absorbs sweat – about 90% of “fighter stank” is manky, sweat-soaked duct tape that’s been allowed to ferment.) Duct tape is an emergency repair, not an integral part of your armour; if it is integral to your armour, you are not ready to go to Crown.

Having your kit in order should also include heraldic display: at this last Crown every single combatant displayed their own heraldry; either on shield or surcoat or both. It was amazing, and it really adds to an event. By entering Crown, you are displaying your prowess in front of the entire Kingdom and even if you don’t win people are going to remember how you fought: You might as well get full credit for it.

3 — Take care of yourself on the day.
If you’re anything like me, when you get to Crown Tournament you’re going to be nervous as hell and you’re not going to fight your best right off the bat (one experienced Crown Tourney fighter commented to me that first-timers, in their first bout, either freeze or go berserk); it’ll take a couple of rounds to get into the routine. Take advantage of any warmup time.

Between bouts, you should be hydrating and eating a little something just to keep your energy up. Eating and drinking is something that you’re not going to want to do: you’re in fighting mode, you’re going to want to stay there with a minimum of distraction, and apparently there’s all sorts of physiological “fight or flight” things going on that suppresses your appetite (or so I’ve been told by very smart people.) Make yourself eat and drink: your pit crew should just be handing you food and water as soon as you get back to your area. More than one fighter at the past Crown commented to me later that they “just ran out of energy around the fifth fight” and their fighting performance dropped off; partly that can be resolved with endurance training but even the most fuel-efficient engine will run dry if you don’t top up the gas tank. The trick, I’ve been told, is to maintain a steady input of calories through the course of the day so you don’t get spikes and crashes with your blood sugar.

A good pit crew is a must. I had two people — my consort and a friend who volunteered to help us out over the course of the day. Having somebody handy to help you get your shield & sword on and off, to untangle lanyards and straps (and to do emergency repairs) is invaluable. Knights have the advantage that they can tap their Squires for the job (at least if those Squires aren’t fighting in the tournament itself) but I think every fighter needs at least one person who can tighten buckles, hand them water, and run over to the List Master to find out what’s next. In fact, I think that I would have preferred about two or three assistants, especially if it allowed my consort the opportunity to enjoy the event and not just worry about me.

And there’s a thought: if you can’t be in Crown itself, volunteer for a friend’s pit crew. I had the good fortune of helping out with a friend and his household during two different Crowns, and they were very, very focused. That experience was highly formative for me, and it’s definitely effected how I look at the role of supporters during a tournament. The Knight I assisted basically went the whole event talking to nobody but his most Senior squire; the junior Squires (and myself) took orders at one remove and generally did out best not to distract the combatant… and keeping anybody else from doing so. Now that I’ve fought at Crown, I can see the definite advantages of that system in terms of maintaining focus.

That being said, don’t take your pit crew for granted. Crown is high-stress, and yeah, you’re going to snap and be short with people; there’s a lot of adrenalin involved and that doesn’t make a fighter the best company to be around when things are tense… especially with people you’re close to and don’t have to keep up appearances with. Try not to be rude and try not to take it personally if someone (especially the combatant) is. And if you’re the combatant, it’s a very, very good idea to show your gratitude to your assistants in a concrete way; I made a silk banner for my friend, for example; maybe a bottle of good booze or an IOU might be appreciated. Don’t be afraid to personalize; these folks have taken time out from their hobby to back you up: make sure you deserve it.

4. — Get your head straight about what winning means.
You need to ask yourself why you’re fighting… and “We just want to be King and Queen” isn’t the best answer. “We think we can do a good job” is an acceptable answer; so is “I think this would be a good experience for us.”

But whatever your intentions don’t just go in there thinking that being King and Queen is all parties and roses – from the outside looking in I’ve seen the completely insane amount of travel and work that SCA royalty are required to do, and it’s intimidating. Sure, you get to sit in a fancy chair up front, but you’re also on display from the moment you enter an event, and you can kiss most of your quiet evenings at home goodbye, too… and gods help you if there’s an actual crisis during your reign. If you’re unsure of how big a burden it is, or whether you’ll be able to handle it, ask a Duke or Duchess and they’ll set you straight… but don’t bug the current King and Queen. Trust me: they’re busy.

Once you’ve got a handle on the level of commitment required, you might not be interested in fighting at Crown just in case you accidentally win. Fair enough: the good news is that, depending on the tournament format, there might be the need for “bye fighters” to even out tournament numbers. You won’t be able to advance through the tournament, but you will get a few serious fights in with contenders who’re bringing their “A game” for the day. It might be a good taste of how a Crown Tourney works.

5 — Be prepared to lose.
I’m not saying that in a macho, welcome-to-the-Thunderdome kind of way, I’m saying that you need to be able to cope with losing a match… or the whole tournament, especially if you come close to winning it all. The entire Kingdom is watching, and some of those people are recording video. You have to be committed to taking every single good shot, regardless of how much you want to win… and the further you go in the tourney, the more that’s true. You do not want the rep as a good guy who’ll blow off shots when the chips are down. Crown Tourney is for one day; a reign is for half a year; your reputation is forever.

At Crown, I had a couple of people come up to me afterwards and tell me I was taking shots “I shouldn’t have taken” because it’s Crown and “everybody’s calibration is up.” My belief is that the set calibration is the set calibration – if it was a good shot last Wednesday in practice and it’ll be a good shot next Wednesday in practice, then it’s a good shot at Crown Tourney on Saturday. During one bout I took a sharp snap to the helm and I called it good because it was good: my opponent told me he thought it was light and that he wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t take it; I insisted it was a good shot because it felt (and sounded) good and that was that. I lost the match, not because I accepted a bad blow but because I accepted a good one… which is how the game should be played, and nowhere is that more important than at Crown Tourney.

I touched on it a bit during my last blog post, but the whole win-versus-lose mentality is a very 21st Century one. The 14th Century mentality is that, win or lose, you should be honoured for honourable behaviour; losing honourably wasn’t seen as a failure the way winning dishonourably was (if you don’t believe me, read up on King John of Bohemia, who charged the field at Crécy despite being blind.) Magnanimity in victory was considered a sign of chivalrous intent; the ability to lose gracefully was likewise a considered an essential trait in the chivalric class. Or to put it in more modern terms: whether you win or lose, whether it’s a single bout or even the whole tournament, don’t be a dick about it because people can tell. You could have the your Best Day Ever as a fighter but if you’re a jerk about it then that’s what people are going to take away; If you go down to defeat with your head held high and not a blot on your record, that’s all they’ll remember.

I did my best at Crown to keep that in mind… and of course, I had the advantage of being clear early on that I wouldn’t be advancing past the initial Round Robin tournament. After four losses out of ten, I knew I wasn’t going to be in the final four, so I was able to focus on fighting my best without the strain of worrying about my standing. I took each fight as it came and enjoyed them… and I’ve been told by many people that my attitude showed.

And when each fight was over, it was over. I saluted, I left the field, I had a big swig of coconut water (I don’t drink Gatorade) and then I left it behind me. I was getting ready for the next fight.

Of course, it was nice that every fight I fought in was a clean one; none of my opponents blew off a shot and nobody behaved unchivalrously. I didn’t have to deal with anything that might have effected my calm or good mood; I knew that I got beat, fair and square. I’m sure if there had been any doubt about the outcome of a particular fight then I might have been inclined to brood on it… and I don’t think that’s a good thing to do, especially mid-Tournament.

6 — Enjoy the day.
Make plans to sit at feast after the tournament. Take a few minutes to visit friends and hang out. Grok the heraldry. Have an ice-cold beer after you get out of kit. Watch the fights you’re not a part of, not just to get a handle on your future opponents, but because it’s amazing to watch that level of unfettered skill. Take a bit time to pause and reflect that, win or lose, this is pretty much the heart and soul of the game we play.

And I hope that your first Crown Tourney is as good as mine was, win or lose.