Making road trips to small towns to teach fencing was always a special sort of fun. Inbred fencing is a real thing. In the world of SCA rapier, there are no standards, no rote lessons, no best practices. Everyone who can prove that they are capable of not hurting someone in a tournament is free to pursue anything they want, fighting in any style that strikes there fancy. Balancing that out is a community that only values winning.

Small towns tend to make big-headed champions who feel like they are they greatest thing since sliced bread, and they love it when the so-called “hot shots” come in from out of town to teach. Sure, they’re happy to have them come and drum up some interest, but mostly…they want an opportunity to show that they should be recognized for being as good as the hot shots. Never mind that the hotshots have been travelling all over the country, sometimes all over the world, testing themselves against the best of the best…

Coming in to town, you are lucky if you can get a nights rest first, maybe enough time to pretend to adjust to the altitude difference. I remember the joy of spending over a dozen hours crammed into a tight seat, only to have to fence in a tournament within fifteen minutes of parking the car. A major challenge, to be sure. I don’t recommend it, unless you enjoy telling stories of trying to prove yourself against bloodthirsty locals while your legs cheerfully cramp and fold up under you. Gave me a new sympathy for vikings, it did.

Inbred styles abound. Usually they echo what was popular amongst the larger groups years earlier. Fighting styles and tactics live on for ages without the pressure of serious competition. You start to recognize and tag different things, like the “swimming” style of using a rapier and dagger, where the fighter appears to be using an aggressive front crawl to alternately stab you with sword and then dagger. Sometimes..frequently, if you aren’t cautious, a local variant will surprise you. They’ll just do something so off the wall that you get nailed without realizing it.

For a pass, maybe two, you think…damn, this guy is really good…but then you figure out the hook, craft a counter, and then the game falls apart. After you’ve hit them five or six times you realize that they have a super shallow game. When their favourite technique doesn’t work, they don’t try something else…they try to go faster. They start to get angry. At that point, I usually plead fatigue and compliment them on their game, and then walk away. All I’m going to do is hit them harder and harder, and that’s just boring.

Every once in a while, you pick someone’s game apart, and they stop and ask what happened. You tell them, and they thank you and then pull something new out. Those are the really good fighters, the ones with potential. Every rare once in a while, you meet someone who can change on the fly, and gives you back everything you’ve given out…but those ones are the ones that probably have a history of travel.

The lesson for your own school is two fold. The first lesson is that you will become inbred. You get comfy fighting with each other, you develop tricks and habits to beat each other. New fighters, or fighters from other schools, won’t have those habits. Worse, they will have habits of their own that you won’t understand. Technical skill is no solution to this issue, only mental skill can overcome the problem. You have to be aware, fight with perception and reactivity against new people. Fight from a position of safety, with an eye to revealing secrets, not landing shots. Only attack when you are sure you know what you are facing.

Secondly, realize that the quirky shots work. You develop a favourite shot, and have some solid success with it amongst your training group…but everyone knows it and has a counter to it. You throw it only after elaborate setup, because it won’t work otherwise. But against the hosta, the foreign fighter…it’s an unknown technique. It is very worth working on what you know to be strong techniques that have no value within your group, if they are technically sound and only vulnerable to known counters. Every school likely has a few hidden trick techniques that are worth working on as tournament techniques. Even if they fail in tournaments, you are likely to know how they will be countered and have a reply in hand.

And make an effort to get out and fight everyone, everywhere you can. The best teacher in the long run is your own experience.