Question from the Audience: Competitiveness

To the main point: would you be willing to start a discussion topic on the pitfalls of excessive competitiveness? I admire your self-awareness of your problems with pride and anger, as mentioned in prior postings. It sounds like you had a really bad reaction to the rules of the rapier battle. I admire your wisdom in avoiding the armored bridge battles when you recognized that you were too angry to fight well.

Without details of the “beer stories,” would you be willing to comment on what cost you pay for your pride and anger? It sounds like your extreme competitiveness has the power to take away your fun, even though it also spurs you to outstanding performance. What effect does it have on people around you? Does it take away their fun, too? Does it set a poor example for Scholars and Free Scholars?

This is a really, really good question (and I’d like to see it sent to Lucien for one of his monthly “Questions for the White Scarves”).  And it’s gonna need some Laphroaig.

First, “Competitiveness,” and my experience with it, is a far more complex and variegated mix of emotions and goals.

There’s the drive to be better and to do better.  The Bigger/Stronger/Faster/Higher mentality.  This is an inherently good thing.  Applied across our lives it makes us want to be better people.  To take those skills and assets and talents we have and do for ourselves and for the world all that we can.

However, the downside of that is the frustration of failure.  My grandfather had a saying: “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”  It’s a terrible saying and I hate it.  Extrapolated out for failure, the result is “If you didn’t do it right, then some part of this equation was worthless, and it’s probably you.”  If you then failed to execute your form correctly in your fight, you view it as a failure on your part.  If you lost, it’s because you suck.  There are so many, many times that fencers (And I swear I’ll name names if you fuckers don’t stop this already) when asked what happened will say “I lost” or “I sucked.”  That’s the sort of answer you get when you think the options are  a binary “right” or “wrong.”

But remember that the laudable mentality is not “to be right” or “to be best.”  It’s “to be better.”  Anything worth doing is worth doing better: better than you did last time, better than you thought you could, better than yourself.  These aren’t superlatives (Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, Highest, Best), these are comparatives.

I feel like I’ve actually got a good grasp on this.  I didn’t always, but I do now.  What causes me to get frustrated is something else, but more on that later.


I enjoy a good, challenging fight.  While trying to stay humble I’ll say that, for me, the frequency of challenging encounters on the melee field has gone down over time.  In any given single engagement, or unit-on-unit engagement, I’m more likely to come away alive than I was X amount of time ago.  The likelihood of me being able to one-shot somebody in the other line has gone up, the likelihood of me being able to run that line has gone up, and the likelihood of being surprised has gone down.  Fish and barrels start to come in to it.

Scenarios that boil down to “fight for a long time” therefore lack a lot of the appeal they once had.  In goal-driven scenarios, the fighting gets focused and more intense.  When you’re at the center of that focus, you get to test yourself in the crucible.  When the goal is only “Kill people” then the focus becomes diffuse, the intensity drops off, and instead of being fun the fight becomes a chore.  Fighters meander back to the fight.  Fighters avoid people who keep sending them to rez.  Fighters look for chances to find quick glory rather than good fights.  I know I can keep a positive kill ratio if that’s all the job boils down to.

A “Kill them all” scenario becomes, for me, “Find some other purpose.”  Again referring back to the 30 Minute Apology Battle, I had other obligations to go attend to.  But I hit upon “Why not see how long you can stay alive, how many people you can kill, with one single life.”  And at Lay On, Celric and I went charging pall mall across the field.  Anybody can stay alive for an hour sitting on the rez line, the crucible is meeting that line head-on and seeing how long you can make it in the thick of things.

I like fighting, but I love fighting that makes me sweat for it.  My default mode is “fight,” a situation that triggers the “flight” response is enjoyable (and generally makes me laugh, see the bit about Sunday of Pennsic).

So, a chunk of my ‘competitiveness’ is really just challenge seeking.  I’ll deny it’s glory-hounding, though I’ve been accused of that in the past.  I’ve spent most of the past four Pennsics I’ve gone to in the backfield, commanding, opting to dole out the fun jobs (and the boring jobs) to other fighters rather than go seeking out the fun for myself.


The drive to do better, and challenge seeking, at most make me go seek out different opportunities to do better or find a challenge.  My frustration and anger come from other sources.

I was raised with an over-developed sense of What is Right and Just.  Sweetums points out to me pretty frequently that I am just like my dad in this way.  When things aren’t Right, and he and I don’t have power to change things, we get frustrated and angry.  I watched my dad deal with it growing up, and watched how much it frustrated him.  I see the same insistence on justice, and the resultant frustration, in myself (like, when I’m typing up the Weekly Warfare and analyze my reactions in hindsight).

Marshals making stupid decisions, or changing rules mid-fight, or enforcing rules that don’t exist (ohmygod, armored marshals’ point must burn in hell), is not Right, it is not Just.  Except I don’t have power to stop them being stupid, ergo frustration.  The vast majority of my anger with situations on the melee field comes from this.  Somebody being stupid, and I can’t stop them.

The most grievous sin I’ve ever committed on the rapier field was due to somebody changing the rules all of a sudden.  I was supposed to get my gold scarf the next week.  I got it 52 weeks later.  I was suspended from fighting for a month and from marshaling for three months.  Being pissed off at the marshal and at the rules being changed was not worth it.


I’m also possessed of a glorification of Honor.  I’m okay with dishonesty (Ruairc and I had a long discussion about whether or not dishonesty was ever valid, me arguing that it was).  However, there are elements of our society that are points of absolute honor, either you have it 100% or you have it 0%.  One of those is shot calling.  Honorable shot calling keeps us safe more than anything else, because the other choice is “Hit them so hard they don’t want to hit you back.”

You can question a person’s shot calling (see my trip to Marshal’s court) without problem.  Hell, Jean Paul did a better job of it with me than I did with a fighter I talked to on the side of the field after one of the battles.  Sometimes the fighter (like me) didn’t notice and will say, “Oops, my bad.”  Sometimes the fighter noticed the hell out of it, including noticing it fail to hit them point on.  Continuing to question, though, then questions their honor and becomes rude.  The spark in the town battle for me was somebody saying “I thought I got you,” me saying “There was no contact at all,” and them saying “Okay” but stepping behind their line and saying (loudly and to a marshal, it looked like) “I can hit him harder if that’s what he needs.”  At that point you are well in to questioning my honor.

I probably take too strong an offense at this: In the past, I’ve been on the verge of offering to go blunts-off with somebody who kept questioning my honor.  I didn’t.  But it was going to be my answer if he asked one more time.  That is not a good thing.  That sort of short-tempered approach to defending one’s honor resulted in tens of thousands of dead French, Italians, English, Spaniards, and Germans in the 16th century.  We should be reproducing the best parts of the Renaissance, and that is not one of them.


All of this I am aware of.  All of this is what I’m thinking about when I tell people it’s a bad idea to use me as a role model.  It fed in to my decision to become a cadet and apprentice to Dame Roz: She has that same insistence on The Right and The Just, she burns with anger as fully as I do when they’re transgressed, but she practices more moderation and self-restraint than me.  I hope to develop that same moderation and self-restraint that she has.

When I’m cranky or frustrated, it spreads through those around me.  If I’m pissing and moaning, it rains on the parade of those others who, rightly, like to fight and are enjoying the fuck out of getting to fight.  So again I would recommend not taking my path.  It’s not a good one.




16 comments to Question from the Audience: Competitiveness

  • Tibbie Croser

    Thank you very much, Wistric. I admire your brutal honesty. I also now understand your views better than I did.

    As far as Questions to the White Scarves, Lucien already has a backlog of the ones I’ve sent him. I think, also, that the competitiveness issue is a question for everybody to answer, not just White Scarves. I may post it to Atlantian RapierNet under my own name rather than via Lucien.

    Have you looked at Connor’s attitudes toward finding a challenge? Connor has great natural gifts, and my impression is that he can win a tournament whenever he wants to, so he looks for other ways to challenge himself in fighting, as he’s mentioned on RapierNet. Then there’s Dante. His way of continuing to find challenges was to devote himself to fighting in a purely historical style.

    Yes, the rules and marshaling at Pennsic were not fair. As a history buff, I just figure that uneven numbers, bad terrain, goofy rules, and unfair marshaling help us recreate, in a tiny way, the conditions of Thermopylae or the Siege of Malta.

    More later.

  • Tibbie Croser

    In regard to problems caused by overcompetitiveness, I wasn’t thinking just of you, but also of a non-Atlantian fighter, also a supercompetitive guy, who had a spectacular meltdown at Night Under the Town due to something he perceived as not right and not just. Since I have a high regard for the guy, I was embarrassed to see him self-destructing. It created a very uncomfortable situation for the marshals and his teammates and anyone who saw it.

  • Alric

    Ok, I’ll work on giving up ‘I sucked’. I was very frustrated with myself that I lost my right hand so quickly in that champions fight. I did get around to recognizing where I did well in staying in the fight with my off hand and even landed a blow. Would have been better landed 2-4 inches to the right in his chest.

    Well written piece Sirah, Might be worth while for every to do there own self evaluation as you did here.

  • Tibbie Croser

    My personal deadly sins are envy and jealousy, as well as wrath. If you want a guest topic, I can tell you how I’ve tried to combat envy and jealousy.

  • Tibbie Croser

    I’ve just re-read your post, and I realize I misunderstood some things when I made my first reply. You do find challenge in singles fighting, but less and less challenge in melee. However, your anger and frustration come not from lack of challenge but from bad marshaling or bad rules or someone appearing to question your honor.

    You could take the dubious rules and marshaling of this Pennsic (and every Pennsic) as a compliment to Atlantia. We’re apparently so stupendous and fearsome that even when the other side far outnumbers us, they have to use cheesy rules and marshaling to ensure that they win.

  • Dante di Pietro

    Let me preface this by saying that there are numerous other kinds of rewards available, such as seeing a student achieve some milestone, or accomplishing a learning objective. Neither of those are competitive endeavors, however, and to some extent I distinguish between the historical component of my fighting and the competitive component of my fighting; one is knowing what to do, and the other is being able to execute that knowledge. Since you’re talking about competition, I am excluding non-competitive rewards from my discussion.

    I’m probably one of the most competitive people I know, and I don’t buy into the “competing against yourself” mentality. That’s a recipe to consider minor improvement, and a 2-12 record, a successful day. It’s the attitude of complacency. You’re competing against your opponents, and sometimes the odds aren’t in your favor. It’s okay to lose because you had the weaker skill set or made a mistake. It’s not okay to say, “Oh, well, I lasted longer than usual” and not work even harder to fix your deficiencies. All of the best people hate to lose, and the very best are the people who hate to lose so much that they are willing to go the extra mile to not do that very often.

    Right now, I devote a lot of energy into teaching fighting, and no small part of that is wanting better competition. I can’t get better unless I have a greater risk of defeat. Wins mean more against quality opposition; I’ve shown up at events, looked at the field, and known I’d be in the finals before I made it to the MOL table. There is no dopamine there. Winning only matters if you could have lost instead.

    What frustrates me the most, to that end, are people who don’t live up to their potential. The people who clearly want White Scarves, but aren’t willing to put in the work to fight at that level. The people who could be world beaters, but end up deciding that they would rather talk than practice. The people who say they want to improve, but three or four years go by and still have the same weaknesses that you told them to fix, or they argue that their way works for them when they’ve never been a serious contender. The instructional level that we have right now is unprecedented, and so few people are really taking advantage that I’m in awe of it. I was so, so lucky to have the practice that I did when I started, and that kind of environment *could* spring up in so many new places. We did so much work, every week, and so much extra outside of practice. When one of us inched ahead, the others would chase after even faster. Not everyone has the same potential, but to not do everything possible to reach it is unacceptable.

    Anything worth doing is worth doing right. If I fail, it is *my fault*, and up to me to fix it for the next time. It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose, in which case there is some other inadequacy to resolve; there’s a reason I started working on my conditioning a few years ago. If you sucked in a fight, own it, admit it, and don’t try to ameliorate the situation by saying that you did something good: pick a problem, fix it, rinse and repeat until success is achieved. Sometimes you fight badly, and how often you fight badly is a direct result of how okay you are with that fact.

    p.s. Most marshals have no clue about scenario design. That doesn’t even rattle my cage any more. Pennsic is always a 50-50 split of “obvious scenario redux” like capture-the-flag (which bad marshals can still ruin via terrain) and “new thing we never thought through”. I really only enjoyed the Champion’s Point this year, so I think next year will be a different vacation to recharge my batteries. 🙂

    • Wistric

      I find “I sucked” to be an absolute waste of time when I ask “How’d the fight go?” Yeah, you know you sucked, I know you sucked. Yeah, we both know you lost. Way too often that’s where the critical thinking ends, with self-recrimination and an absolute lack of progress. But let’s not dick around and waste time. Let’s actually cut to the what happened and how’re you going to do it different next time. That’s where the “Did you do better?” comes in. Don’t state the obvious with no useful information. Quantify your performance, analyze it, and improve it.

      • Ruairc

        I’ve struggled a bit with “I sucked”. I still struggle with a variation, “I lost because of X. I execute/respond to X incorrectly because I suck.”

        I find some interesting parallels between this discussion and Musashi’s Void, or the intent-less-ness of mushin no shin. As I understand it, one of the tenets of this principle is to remove the distinctions and divisions of perception, thought, will, and action (some interesting parallels to the OODA loops there, but that’s its own topic), all separate steps on which the mind can focus, fixate, and stop moving. Before, during, and while reviewing a fight, the ideal, then, is to quiet the mind, remove the ego, and not attach judgment to actions, situations, or outcomes–to see things wholly, and simply as they are.

        From there, we can start intenting again. How could things have gone differently? What needs to happen to get there? How do I achieve that?

        Easier said than done, of course.

        I hold, however, that “I did better” does not necessarily lead to complacency. “I did better, and that’s enough” leads to complacency. People who become great do not do so by constantly improving. They do so by working to maximize the rate of their improvement.

        • Dante di Pietro

          I don’t use the Void, or anything like it. My fights are more like what you see in those Sherlock Holmes movies: “This, then that, then that, then that, then that, win… okay, GO!” I impose my will, and I’m not sure if that works in no-mind.

          I almost never thought in terms of “I did better.” I still think in terms of “I failed to _______.” I obsess over my losses until I’ve solved them; I can go 19-1, but the 1 is what stays with me. I’m usually not even too happy with myself if I go 10-0 but the fights are 2 of 3 and I didn’t 2-0 everyone. I don’t really endorse that way of thinking, but it’s what I’ve got.

          • Tibbie Croser

            Dante, does obsessing over your losses or your failure to achieve perfection take away any of your fun? Does it affect people around you?

            (My own perfectionism in other areas certainly has negative effects on people around me.)

          • Dante di Pietro

            It depends on what you mean by fun. Do I do a lot of giggling? Not so much. Some, but not so much. Fencing is sport combat to me, not a game I play as I would Mario Kart. I like doing it, but it’s not light entertainment.

            I don’t think it affects people around me in a bad way. I obsess over my failures, but I am also comfortable failing and don’t let that aspect dominate my mentality. Failing is a part of succeeding, so I don’t get upset when I fail. I just fix it. There doesn’t need to be a downward spiral of negativity to accompany recognizing a failure: you failed, you fix it, you fail a new way next time, you fix it, and so on.

    • Tibbie Croser

      Dante and Wistric, I wish all the marshals, White Scarves, and Free Scholars were as passionate about teaching as you two. I’ve been disappointed in one of the local practices where the Blue Scarves attend more regularly than some of the senior fighters. Much of my motivation in pursuing a rapier marshal’s warrant is to enable more teaching and practice to happen.

      University *can* be a good place to get rapier instruction, but the rapier classes are sometimes scheduled against each other or against required marshaling classes, plus University itself sometimes ends up conflicting with large local events.

      By the way, Dante, I now have Tom Leoni’s Giganti and Capo Ferro books. I’ve been reading them, but if I see you at an event when you’re free, I’d really appreciate some basic demonstrations of the positions and movements, especially the cavazione.

      • Dante di Pietro

        Thanks. 🙂

        And sure. The cavazione is, at its core, a disengage, but you have to know what engagement (finding the sword) is for a disengage to make contextual sense.

    • Tibbie Croser

      I’m speaking here from the very bottom of the rapier talent food chain. Sometimes I do something correctly or well in a fight without realizing it. Even if I lose the fight, it’s useful for me to get feedback on what I did right as well as all the things I did wrong. If I did something right, perhaps I can work on replicating, broadening, and improving it. This is in addition to working on the numerous deficiencies.

      • Dante di Pietro

        And that’s absolutely necessary from an instructional standpoint. Instructors need to measure their criticism and praise carefully, which is a whole different topic than a competitive mindset.

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