Just over 2 years ago, I went to my first tournament. It wasn’t anything too stressful or confusing for me – I had trained HEMA for 8 years by that point and I felt confident enough in my fencing. After that, I fenced in probably a dozen more competitions around Europe, with many different weapons and under different rulesets, and I realized that there is much more than fencing that you need if you want to get the most out of your first tournament – and the second, third, etc.
So here I have prepared a bunch of basic advice for anyone who is getting ready or plans to compete in HEMA.
Remember – before all this, and often during, consult your instructor. Whether he has competed or not, if he likes tournaments or not, he will have important things to tell you and it will give you an idea about what you are being taught and how it fits the HEMA tournament scene.
There are a lot of people who enter HEMA with just one thing in mind – competition. Plenty of schools allow new students to spar on day 1, and many do that in the first few weeks.
But if you really want to get the most out of a tournament – unless you have experience in some very similar sport – practice at your school for a few months. That will give you a foundation from which to work. Even if you do have experience from other sports, the key for the first HEMA tournament is to try and do HEMA.
Train because of the tournament, not for the tournament – at least for your first one. If you aim to be a competitive fencer, sooner or later you may need to focus heavily on a small toolset of basic actions which solve basic sets of problems. And you may start working on more focused drills for the context you will be competing in.
But that is not for your first tourney. The main goal is to learn and gather experience. So instead of thinking “okay, I will train these 3 techniques”, just train everything as you are taught and test what you have learned in the everyday practice of your group/club.
Add some physical training – doesn’t matter if it is hitting the gym, having a run in the morning or the afternoon, or playing some other familiar sport a few times a week. Picking a new martial art or sport is not the best option at this time, but any extra physical training is a plus.
Spar with intent, but don’t go crazy, especially as the tournament is soon. In the last week before a tournament I always go back to basics and focus on technical details and general relaxation. That way I am not only refreshing my toolset, but I am also not risking an injury for an event that happens once a year.
Choose (if you can)
For many people in HEMA, there is only one choice for a first tournament – the closest one there is.
However, if you have a choice, do your research. Don’t necessarily go for the biggest, most prestigious competitive event around. Having 10 or 15 top 100 fencers might sound awesome, but for a beginner it is better to have a large group of beginners and intermediates.
Events that also have workshops are always a better option. Realistically, you probably won’t have more than 5-6 matches in the tournament, so travelling for a couple of hours for just 10-15 minutes of fencing is kind of a waste of time and money. An event that has workshops is an opportunity to learn more, from different teachers, and it also typically includes free sparring time and space, where you can fence even more new people – those that you missed in the tournament or some that you want to work with outside of that pressured context.
Check out the ruleset of the tournament in detail, learn it well. Especially the safety rules – they are the most important. If a ruleset gives 1 point for hand and arm cuts, and 3 for head, that does not mean you should always aim to hit the opponent on the head. Fence the way you have been taught. But if the tournament forbids wrestling, follow that rule to the letter – there is probably a very good safety reason for it.
If there is a beginner’s tournament, don’t hesitate to sign up for it. That could be one extra tournament, and one opportunity for more relaxed matches.
Don’t hesitate to choose one tournament over another because of the ruleset. There are plenty of experimental tournaments around that may not be the best choice for your first time. Some tournaments have rules that may conflict heavily with what your school teaches.
Don’t put any serious and heavy expectations on yourself, unless really simple ones – “keep a good posture”, “deliver a good Zornhau-ort”, “do a successful Scambiare di punta”, “land a clean thrust” – or something like that. My approach for my first tournament was to treat every exchange as a separate match.
Another goal might be to keep yourself as safe as you can. Not getting hit is the first rule of fencing, after all. Just be wary of becoming passive, as that can lead to boring matches where little happens and, win or lose, little learning happens as well.
The main goal, as I have already said, is to learn. What you know, what you want to learn, and how, defines your personal goal and aim.
Check your travel options, pick the easiest you can – you won’t be very functional if you spend 20 hours on a bus and you have to fence 2 hours later.
Prepare for routes from your accommodation to the training hall where the event happens.
Be sure to pack everything you need – everything. Some places ask for a medical certificate (pretty much a basic check-up and a note from the doctor that you can compete in a contact sport). Others require an unusual piece of gear. While most places have water and snacks prepared, be ready with a water bottle or an isotonic drink. And some protein bars, or some chocolate – anything that can deliver fast energy when you need it most.
Sleep well. A HEMA event can easily suck you in and you may spend your night before the tourney drinking until late with new friends. But better have a pint to celebrate meeting them, plenty of water, and go to bed early. You can party hard after the tourney.
If you can, bring friends – it is always better to have some clubmates with you. You can and should help each other – a tournament can be chaotic. If you are alone, which happens to me quite a lot, make some friends. I’ll tell you a secret – that is what HEMA travel is all about.
Having a friendly face in your corner, even if they are just going to say “good cut”, “go forward”, “don’t hesitate”, and help you when a protector slips, is much better than being alone. And having your instructor as a coach is another level on top of that.
Clean your gear thoroughly – you don’t want to be the smelly guy at a big competition event. Check if you need something extra in time, and if you can’t get it quick, borrow from a clubmate. Check your gear for damage – most tournaments do careful inspections, at least on masks. Get a simple sewing kit – I had to fix a jacket sleeve the morning before my first tourney and I was lucky I brought a needle and some thread. A good fencer should be able to fix his training gear, at least so it is usable in one tourney.
Clean your swords – leave them rust-free and shiny. Fix the grip if it needs fixing. Put nice and secure tips on, if that is allowed or typical in your region. And either way – put some red tape on the tip or just below it – this makes it much easier for judges.
If you can, get yourself a tripod and be prepared to film yourself. A lot of tournaments don’t film the pools, and even when they do, sometimes footage is lost. Modern smartphones make great video, and cheap tripods are easily available, Having footage of your fencing is priceless – it is one of those things our ancestors never had, being able to watch themselves fence.
Stretch, warm-up well, put on your gear and walk in it for a bit. You want to be comfortable… Because you won’t be. Try to control whatever you can, so you have less to deal with.
And finally, the competition is on. Your first opponent is grabbing his sword, moving towards his corner, and you are wondering – “What do I do?”
The advice I give to any first time I see before a tourney (they are easy to recognize) is very simple. For longsword it is usually “Go in Vom Tag, enter measure carefully, and when you are there, deliver the best Oberhau you can… and go from there”. For another weapon it would be just as straightforward and basic attack. What you need most is a simple plan, based around a simple action. If you are well-prepared, everything else will come out naturally.
Calibrate yourself. Even if you are a newbie, there might be people on a lower level than you. Don’t smash through them; on the contrary, use the fact that you can relax more to fence more technically and try stuff. Remember – it is always better to lose than to injure someone, or get injured yourself.
If you are facing an elite fencer, don’t go crazy either – you will learn less, as a good fencer will be forced to dial down to the simplest responses if he faces someone who is not good technically, but is brutal physically. Keep yourself calm and approach the match with enthusiasm, but not excessive aggressiveness.
Don’t get frustrated with judges. You will, but try to ignore the calls as much as possible. You can easily check their calls later on video. While you fence, just fence. Judging will probably always be a problem in HEMA, and the best approach is to fence for yourself, not for the judges. If you are truly better than your opponent, and you fence cleanly, most of the time you will make it through.
Enjoy the event
Even in a tournament-only event, the tournament is not the only thing. Meet people, talk to people, make connections and friends. Ask questions if you see teachers you have heard of, or good fencers you’ve watched. And most of all, if there is an opportunity for it, spar.
Sometimes people you’ve managed to beat can be better than you – they might have lost for a variety of reasons, from testing new techniques, just a bad day in terms of conditioning, or an injury. It doesn’t mean they are not really good – or at least people you can learn something from. Don’t write someone off just because you beat them.
As for the people who you have lost to – go and talk to them, they might have some specific advice for you. Most are very approachable and many will spar with you at a more relaxed pace if there is time and space for that at the event.
Socialize with people, see what drives them, learn about their process, steal ideas from their training.
The event is over – you go home. What now? Check yourself – did you achieve your goal? Did you enjoy trying? What did you learn?
If you have video, watch it when you get back home. Send some to your instructor. If you have older sparring videos, compare them to your tournament ones. This way you can check if the pressure of the competition really affects your fencing (it probably does) and to what extent and in what way.
Don’t feel bad if you lost. Even if it was every single bout. There is always much more to learn from losing than from winning.
Whatever you failed at is something to improve. If you did not fail at all, that would’ve meant you gained almost nothing, aside from an ego-boost.
If your goal is competitive fencing, you now have an idea of what that is and where you stand in relation to other competitors. If your goal is to test your martial art under pressure through a specific game, you now know the limitations of both yourself and the game – to some extent. Train more, bring what you’ve learned to your club, and if you enjoyed it, go compete again.
And remember – tournaments are just a part of HEMA, not necessarily the final goal. They are one of the many tools with which you can achieve your HEMA goals, whatever they might be.