Recruitment and Retention: because it is illegal and ineffective to kidnap people and make them fence me.

So at Master Wistric’s elevation I spoke with him about my time thus far as a Gleann Abhann rapier fighter. My sentiments were something along the line of “Well the events are very far away… blah blah blah when I do make it to events the rapier fighters only fight for a little bit and in a very similar tourney styles… blah blah blah (more whining about how I want there to be a gazillion rapier fighters that live in my apartment complex). Newly made and swaged to the max Master Wistric’s response was something along the lines of “Quit your whining you aren’t a baby or even that new of a fencer (I’m sure the words were significantly meaner and most likely had some profanity) and actively MAKE the community what you want it to be”

So with emphasis on making the community I want, I began pondering the best approach. This required examining my assets and detriments as a fencer, organizer, and person in general.  External drivers that cause people to stop fencing such as school, work, family are outside of my control so I don’t really want to focus on them.  Instead I want to focus on things I can control thus the assets and weaknesses list (Admittedly there are somethings outside of my control on both lists but I think these are the biggest things effecting recruitment and retention in my area)

  • Goal
    • Grow both local and kingdom wide fencing community (hopefully with a more diverse group)
  • Assets
    • In college- comes with access to many young individuals looking for hobbies, also access to modern fencing clubs,  gym spaces, etc
    • Passion and the passion to share my knowledge
    • super informal practice- pretty much just mask gloves gorget (Helps keep initial costs down)
    • Not the worst fencer in the world- I may not be top tier, but I am definitely working my way there and can at the very least teach basic fundamentals
    • pretty much willing to fight anyone any time anywhere/ not afraid of letting a new fighter learn their limits with me as the pin cushion
    • Experience doing the SCA on the cheap ( link this to recruiting college students)
    • As far as fencers go I don’t feel I have a huge ego and  can examine this objectively
  • Weaknesses
    • Often too intense/ abrasive for some people
    • Can throw too much info at new fighters
    • Occasionally present negative or dismissive attitude towards things, people, rules I don’t like or see as out dated
    • Irregular schedule due to school
    • Often disorganized
    • Often don’t have more than one way (or ocassionally too many ways) of explaining something simple
    • I often have a challenging time teaching women (this is of course not ubiquitous, but I’ve noticed that in fencing and in teaching Tang Soo Do I am often either too intense or my teaching style doesn’t seem to be the most effective manner in conveying information)
    • I often make reference to Atlantean customs which does sometimes does not seem received well (often includes the phrase ” when I was X we did Y”)

Now in the past I have successfully recruited and contributed to the retention of rapier fighters (Torse and Cailin in Atlantia) and two strip fencers in Gleann Abhann and 1 crossover from heavy.    All of the people I recruited already liked fencing or the SCA (in the case of the heavy crossover) so it really was as easy as ” Hey wanna fence with these bigger swords, ohh and you get to use your off hand”  and they were all like “HELLS YEAH”.   So there wasn’t much work on my end other then showing up and fencing.  Yet, these resources for fencers have been thoroughly taped out and the community always had room for growth.

I have some specific questions I would like to mull around with all the readers of this board.

1.  What techniques have you used to specifically recruit and retain new rapier fighters from outside the SCA?

2. What are some techniques/ ideas to get heavy cross overs to fencing? (Don’t say introduce them to C&T we know that is a possible solution, but I’m not sure if I see C&T heavy cross overs jumping on the rapier boat)

3.  How do you approach  recruitment for diverse groups of people?

4. How do you approach your weaknesses in the realm of recruitment and retention and work towards reducing or even eliminating those problems? (If you have any advice on overcoming some of my personally listed weaknesses please feel free to share)

5. How do you keep things interesting for a variety of beginner level fighters

6. Looking at what I’m working with what assets do you think would result in the best recruitment and retention and which weaknesses should be top priority for adjustment

Thanks all for your input.

Miguel Mono De Hierro



10 comments to Recruitment and Retention: because it is illegal and ineffective to kidnap people and make them fence me.

  • Gawin

    I’ve been mulling over a similar posting based on my move to Calontir. While the situation is of course, not exactly the same, there are certainly parallels. Calontir is C&T default and the program is < 3 years old, which has its own unique challenges. My overall strategy has been as follows:"

    1) Shut up about where you're from. It's going to cause more hurt feelings than it will convince people that you know what you're talking about. The only acceptable time to bring it up is while you're trying to learn the customs of your new kingdom. For instance, "I just moved here from X, could you explain Y." I have to some extent taken this to an extreme. I've only worn my gold scarf at KWAR since I moved here because at the moment, the name of the game is to be seen as part of the new kingdom's community.

    2) Become a marshal and marshal the shit out of everything – I'm assuming that you've already done the first part, though if you're having under-armored practices, you're not exactly falling in-line with the extablished marshallate hierarchy. However, this goes a step further, you gotta go be the MiC of some events that way you can run whatever tourney formats you want. Of course, you won't get to fight in them the first time around, but when other people start copying you, you'll have your chance.

    3) Up your game in the rest of the Society – Get your garb up to snuff (Which it sounds like you're working on :-D) I don't mean just get yourself decked out in a better SCA fencer "uniform" (baggy pants, stripey socks, a poorly fitted sleeveless "doublet", and billowy shirt sleeves), but rather in actual period garb. One of the best decisions I made before moving was to pass on a large portion of my older garb to another fencer. I invested in a tall hat, made a much better fitted doublet with sleeves for fighting in, and got my wife to make me a ruff. Now I'm the guy wearing a ruff and doublet at war in the middle of summer. *Everybody* knows who I am now.

    4) Loaner gear – Obviously if you want to recruit locally, you're going to need loaner gear for the people that show up. Having the equipment is a major hurdle for new fencers and, if you can alleviate that, you're removing one of the major barriers to entry. I had the benefit of knowing that I was moving to Calontir years in advance so I organized a loaner gear drive in Atlantia before I moved and have been scouring thrift shops for gloves and elbows and have made a slew of hoods and gorgets for not only my group, but for the neighboring groups (who lack both equipment and a marshal)

    5) Practices – organize weekly practices locally and regular regional practices (you may have to travel to nearby groups). At this moment, I am one of two C&T marshals in the entire state of Iowa and the other guy doesn't really fence. How big are other groups in your area? Can you convince the fencers in those groups to attend a monthly regional practice?

    6) Teach – sign up to teach classes at University events, etc. Use the content to shape people to your viewpoints. For instance, if I wanted to change how people thought about the force mechanics involved in appropriate calibration, I might teach a class on how to deliver a good thrust (or cut).

    7) Drills – The teaching model where a new fighter shows up, is given a 5 minute lesson, and then told "let's fight" is aversive to a lot of people. Generally people hate being put into situations where they don't know what to do. There are some newcomers who will stick around for this, but lots will leave if they 1) Don't feel confident that they know what to do 2) Don't feel like there's a clear path towards knowing what they're supposed to do or 3) don't feel like they're getting any value for their time. Tassin once remarked that he stuck around because we had a book and an egg timer, so he knew we were serious.

    8) Teach from a system – It doesn't matter much which system you choose, but working from a system will provide a framework to help you understand the ideal as an instructor and will help your students to understand how to get from point A to B. I know your background is more modern fencing than historic, but I'd wager that you were taught from a system, even if your coaches didn't make it obvious.

    As far as your specific questions:

    1) People are generally recruited via word of mouth. They learn about the SCA from a friend and they stick around because they build friendships.
    2) Obligation – If the crown asks the armored fighters to fight on the rapier field with them at war, well, that usually works pretty good. It's too bad your prince and princess don't know anything about fencing */s*

    Lack of other options. There wasn't really a rattan practice in Kberg when I got started in the SCA, so fencing was the only game in town.

    Invitation – People do stuff and stay around in the SCA because of friendships. Go become friends with some rattan fighters and invite them to come try out rapier too.

    3) On an individual basis? Find out what individuals are interested in and point them in the right direction. It doesn't really matter if that thing is rapier fighting. If they have a good time doing stuff in the SCA, they'll tell their friends and significant others.

    4) Write your plan down and follow it – this will help with your disorganization and hopefully will keep you from throwing too much info at new people. Assure newcomers that it's ok that they don't understand everything that you're saying. You'll repeat things as they become important and that they should always feel free to ask questions. Maybe use a stop-watch for yourself.

    As far as teaching things in different ways, that takes more practice than you might expect. Go watch Guy Windsor's videos is my first piece of advice. Break down actions into small parts and practice those with lots of repetitions. Have fencers close their eyes, move slowly, and describe what they're feeling.

    5) Honestly I'd say you'll do better to treat this like other Easter Martial Arts practice. The drills themselves should be simple, but challenging, and it's improvements in your fencers' feelings of competence that will keep them interested.

    6) Your intensity/enthusiasm underlies several of the weaknesses that you've listed. Find your chill. Changing stuff on this level is a long-term game (like grad school), and individual blow-ups can set you back by years. You can probably "fake it till you make it" by extensive use of planning, note-taking, counting to 10, etc. Over time, those behaviors will become habit. Controlling your personal affect (facial expression, excitedness, body language) is harder. The creation of a set of behavioral rules can help to change behavior (that's why low carb diets generally work rather well. There's a simple set of rules for what you can eat and the net result is you eat less food). Examples would include refusing to comment on blows that people shrug off (just hit them again. It's more important to effect your long-term changes than it is to win that pass), avoid touching your students (enthusiasm + unexpected physical contact from a relative stranger = creepy), Smile after your bouts, regardless of the outcome and thank your opponent for the fight (channel Ben), etc.

  • miguel

    Gwain your post on about Calontir help prompt this post.

    I think my biggest dilemma currently is the distance issue of events here, starkville is in the middle of no where. There are not a great deal of close “day trip” events and mixing combining that with reduced free time from grad school means I can almost always do local practice but stepping outside my group is difficult. I will say down here things tend to be a little more disorganized on the rapier side so it has been difficult to even switch over my authorization let alone work towards my marshalate, but it is time to just bite the bullet and make a serious commitment to going to events.

    I’m thinking as far as planning for teaching and such even making up lesson plan and keeping a copy of it in my fencing bag will be a good idea. That way I can pull it out and work right off it.

    I definitely need to start getting some regional practices going in MS. We have a large group in Jackson that doesn’t really travel, a few in starkville, a group in Hattiesburg, and some in Memphis. Starkville is actually equidistant north south so it would not be the worst idea to host a regional. Most of the regionals here are held 5-7 hours away making them hard to get to.

    I’ve definitely spent the last year or so chilling out at events (biting my tongue fairly often) and it has definitely allowed me integrate into the group better, and transition to a GA mindset. I think I probably only lost my cool once in the last 2 years, and immediately regretted it

    All of this is solid advice, but is there a technique or “pitch” you have found that really brings people more specifically to rapier, Like recruiting form other orders (Heavy or A&S) or selling points that seem be especially effective. I routinely feel like when I am describing the SCA to people it is such an expansive organization that it doesn’t translate well.

    Thanks for the advice I’ll try to incorporate as much as I can

    • Gawin

      The distance here was quite the adjustment too. Events are typically about 5 hours each way :-/. I would advise hunting down crash space or camping, however because it’s a good way to make friends who live in the kingdom.

      As far as recruiting…

      It’s pretty rough as a grad student. It seems like being on a college campus would be helpful, but the undergrads don’t have resources and the grad students don’t have time.

      The methods that some of the successful HEMA groups use are probably going to be more effective in getting you some dedicated practice buddies. Most importantly, HEMA groups are focused on sword fighting and people sign up for sword fighting. They frequently have other interests (LARP, Ren Faires) that you can cultivate later, but just invite them over for sword fighting. To get started, you really need at least one other dedicated person to train with. At the very least, the two of you can develop your skills together (drills rather than sparring will keep you from getting bored). After that, it’s about meeting new people and inviting them to learn how to sword fight. The internet has a variety of tools to post advertisements (Craigslist, Meetup, Reddit, Facebook, etc). You probably won’t have a high success rate, but ask enough people and you’ll get positive responses.

      Once you have people, the key is again, to focus on making training sessions beneficial. Lots of sparring is fun in the short term and sometimes is the “hook” you need to get someone new, but if that’s all you do for weeks at a time, you’re going to get 1) bored with the small number of partners that you have and 2) people quitting because they don’t feel like they’re progressing.

      That and keep inviting people (and encourage people to invite people). Make the people your friends first and your students second. Finally, hold your practices somewhere public and accessible. Nobody wants to go practice at some random stranger’s house (which is currently a rule I’m breaking at least for the winter, but I have 4 regular students at the moment and it’s winter in Iowa).

      That all being said, I haven’t even started working on trying to drum up the local numbers in general. The slight advantage that I have is that the local group is pretty functional and that C&T is new (so we’re still able to tap the pool of SCAdians who haven’t yet tried it out).

  • Tibbie Crosier

    Hi, Miguel. I think I met you at WoW in 2013, and I was impressed by your skill. I applaud your honesty about your own liabilities. See if you can get a co-trainer with a personality that complements yours, someone who’s more quiet and mellow. I imagine you do well with intense young guys like yourself, but a quieter instructor would be more reassuring to shy recruits, especially shy women.

    Crossovers from armored combat: Target fighters who have retired from heavy combat, or are cutting back on it due to age or injury. We have a number of people like this in northern Atlantia.

    Loaner gear: I’ve made hoods and jackets/tunics for my local practice. Simple designs fit a wider range of people. I made hoods that will fit either over or under a mask and close with Velcro at the neck. I made panel-and-gore tunics with half-sleeves or long sleeves. All were made from two layers of cotton canvas or denim. Not as breathable as linen, but inexpensive, sturdy, and machine washable.

    Gawin, good on you for going beyond the fencer “uniform” to period stylishness.

  • miguel

    Tibbie thanks for the info. As far as loaner gear you wouldn’t happen to have any free place to get those patterns. I have hopes of making some to keep in my fencing tote for other.

  • Ruairc

    I’ve been more-or-less away from the SCA for a few months, but building a HEMA practice from scratch isn’t too different from what you’re doing. Gawin has some solid advice, most of which I can only restate.

    1. Recruitment is mostly a matter of getting your activity out there; people will come of their own accord. Active recruiting (i.e. demos) can be good if targeted and run well, but data show that these require some nontrivial organization and skill to pull off, and tend to take a while to bear fruit. First and foremost, you need to be on anything that brings Your Thing to someone’s eyes when they type “martial arts”/”fantasy”/”medieval history” into a search box. Gawin mentioned some good leads. Word-of-mouth is solid, but you need your words in a few mouths first.

    1.1 “Fighting with swords is cool” is your hook. Retention comes from two sources: “I like the people I’m doing this with” and “I’m getting noticeably better at this thing”. (We hear “we want people to have fun” a lot in the SCA, but honestly, the subjective sense of having fun usually comes from one of the two above.)

    1.1.1 “I like the people” – Be a leader (primus inter pares). Be organized. Be consistent. Try to run social events outside of practice (whether that’s KBerg’s standard fencing-dinner or potlucks every few months). Local SCA might be able to help here. Also, be willing and able to guide people who are negative influences on others’ enjoyment, and be willing to throw out people who can’t be reformed (it’s rare, but it does happen). You’re charismatic and you recognize your shortcomings, so you should have this.

    1.1.2 “I’m getting noticeably better” – have a curriculum. Stick to it. (Designing this is hard; I’d suggest tapping knowledgeable SCAdians or sport fencing coaches for guidance. Or do a lot of reading. Trial and error.) Structure your practices. Give people goals (the more specific and attainable, the better), and then have them focus on those goals until they’re achieved. Give up the implicit “everyone is a special snowflake finding their own path to fencing greatness” idea. New people know nothing, and know they know nothing. Teach them what you know, and let them find their own path after they have a clue. Presenting other styles and options will only overwhelm them. (This is one of the great advantages of teaching historical swordfighting. “The master says X. So we’ll do X.”)

    1.2 As Gawin said, people will come to swordfight. Make that the primary focus. Keep the other SCA stuff in the background. Have pictures on your phone and knowledge in your head, but only pull them out if people show interest (in the fancy-clothes and medievaloid-reenactment side), or to build excitement for an upcoming, local event, with loaner garb waiting in the wings.

    2. I have no idea. SCA events’ structure make it difficult for heavies or rapier fighters to cross over to the other, and most people only have time (or will only make time) to practice one. These hurdles are hard to overcome.

    3. Read this. That’s about all the help I can give.

    4. Above all, treat everything as an experiment. Try new ideas (small ones, in small ways; don’t continually reinvent your practices or they will lack consistency). Keep the things that work, or work better. Be ready to drop the less-good stuff. Observe. Set measurable goals for yourself to address your flaws (I’ve had to make a schedule for myself, down to “explaining this drill will take no more than 30 seconds”, and try to stick to it). Invite feedback (ideally from a trusted person who’s also fencing), and act on it. Your flaws will resolve themselves in time, so long as you are diligent and earnest about working on them.

    5. People will stay interested while they know what they’re working on and can see improvement. Make sure these things are always available, and that you are modeling them yourself. Identify an issue, then give them a specific goal (e.g. “hand before foot”) and a way to measure it (pretty obvious, in this case), then pull that goal into everything – solo work, drills, and sparring (if you include sparring). Ingrain the idea that “winning” or “hitting the opponent” or even “avoiding getting hit” is NOT the goal (these are too broad) – that in the beginning, it’s about understanding how fencing works, and that “using that understanding to achieve victory against resisting opponents” will come later. Start with nice, small, technical things (like “hand before foot”) and application in slow pair drills. Tactical stuff is harder to measure, and when things go wrong, people don’t always know why.

    5.1 Gradually build in complexity. Allow students to master a simple skill or movement in isolation (because that’s easy to do in solo drills or slow pair drills), then apply that skill to progressively more complex situations. This makes them feel like they’re learning. A curriculum will help for this. Ladder drills are great, too.

    5.2 Try to ensure that all beginner students get at least a little one-on-one time with an experienced instructor at every practice. The instructor can guide their attention and give them specific goals (which, if you haven’t figured it out yet, are super important to retention!).

    6. Your biggest assets will be your passion, your charisma, and your eagerness to self-examine and make corrections. Your biggest hurdles will be your disorganization and your passion (because you’ll be inclined to push people too fast or throw too many fun new interesting ideas at them – this is perhaps part of the reason you perceive that others find you “abrasive” or that your teaching style doesn’t work well for women). You have many of the social qualities of a good leader, but need to work on the administrative qualities.

    6.1 If you can be a good leader and offer people something they want, they will follow you.

    In my own practices, over the course of the last ten months, almost everything has been changed (often multiple times) – the curriculum, the methods of instruction, scheduling, practice locations … but a handful of basic philosophical maxims have remained, and are, I think, to credit for the majority of my success. I will make my next post on these. I hope you will find them useful.

    • Ruairc

      One more thing – keep a practice journal. State what you did, and how it worked, and what could be improved, and how. The more time you have to spend thinking about this (with the specificity forced by writing), the faster you’ll identify spots for improvement.

  • Dante di Pietro

    Lots of great advice so far! #freescholarpride

    This point has been touched on already, but I want to add that the new fencers need to feel at least somewhat capable when they get to an event. They don’t need to be *good* because that’s unrealistic, but they need to feel like they have a clue.

    I generally work out a 4 quadrant parry/riposte plan and build from there. I’m glossing over a bunch of elements, but basically a person needs to have an above, below, inside, and outside plan (A/I, A/O, B/I, B/O) so that they have *something* to try against any attack. It doesn’t have to work all the time, and it won’t, but “I knew what to do but it didn’t happen” is a lot less discouraging than “I had no idea what to do and kept getting hit.” If you know what to do, you can chip away at what wasn’t that. And that gets into the whole “systematic approach” thing everyone’s talking about, etc..

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