So I finally responded to a post in the Esfinges Facebook group, which is an online space for female HEMA people. A young woman wrote in describing her own post-practice frustrations and asked for input on how to deal with, basically, feeling like you suck too hard to be handling a sword.
I fancy myself something of an expert at sucking (see tales from my days as a 7th grade soccer star here), so I finally felt like I could contribute something useful to the group:
I think it’s important to understand that failure is, in and of itself, an experience that demands the cultivation of grace and compassion. It’s relatively easy to be enthusiastic and kind and supportive of others (and ourselves) when we’re winning, or when we know we’re good at something. People are less adept at handling struggle and frustration. I’ve met people at tournaments who seemed awesome…until they lost. Then it would be like hanging out with another person. Those types of folks are usually not worth building relationships with, and I find they don’t have a lot of longevity in their respective fields.
Learning to deal with frustration is part of become adept at something. I’ll second the suggestion to journal. I’d also challenge you to do more things that force you to deal with those feelings. Failing means we’re trying, and pushing beyond what we know we’re already good at. In my own practice, I work to remind myself of where I’ve succeeded. And also of where I’ve failed even harder than what I’m experiencing in the moment. I say things like, “Okay, I sucked today. But you know what? I was here and I did it, and things are better than they were last year. And I’m certainly better for having tried than if I’d just stayed home.”
Do that, and in time, I really do believe that success follows. It’s just that we don’t talk much about all of the failure that mastery requires.
Having finished exuding the wisdom that can only result from decades spent failing, loudly and in public (and being, as far as I can tell, a good decade older than many of the more vocal group members), I was suddenly struck by something. Something that’s been nagging at me since I started competing in fencing tournaments that I haven’t been able to pinpoint until now:
HEMA people don’t seem to collectively know how to lose.
It’s like there’s a stigma against trying something and sucking at it. And maybe it’s in my head, but I feel like I’m running into it extra hard with the women I’m meeting.
I get excited to see other women at tournaments and I bop on over and introduce myself, and I frequently get something like, “Oh I’m not competing today! I’m just not ready yet!” Or, “I’m still a beginner—I’m just here to watch!” More than once I’ve had other women tell me I’m brave for competing, like I’ve just signed up to donate a lobe of liver or something. I also hear a lot of, “Oh, I’m not a good fencer, you should really talk to someone else!”
We learn this kind of self-deprecating speech over the course of our lives. I learned to say things like this before getting on stage and playing guitar (girls don’t play rock music any more than they handle weapons, as far as the world seems to be concerned). I catch myself saying shit like this about fencing, too. So I get it. Jesus, I get it.
But fundamentally what’s happened is these women haven’t given themselves permission to fight. Some of them might get online later and find an excuse. We do a lot of complaining about larger opponents, poorly-fitting protective gear (because no one in Poland has ever seen a naked woman, as far as I can tell), instructors who can’t empathize they way we wish they could (though I’m lucky to have one who works at this), and similar. And those are real issues, certainly. Yeah, shit can be a lot harder as a girl. I 110% agree. And that’s a battle that we need to be fighting.
But I’m also okay with losing. And I think that’s a big part of the underlying issue, in the art as a whole. Losing is hard, and it’s a lot easier to just not try. It’s much easier to drink and be angry and complain on the Internet about how unfair things are. It’s much easier to come up with reasons why you shouldn’t be expected to do things.
Quitting is easy. Never trying to begin with is even easier.
I’m okay with walking into a ring, understanding that I could be slaughtered. I might make particular choices about who I spar just for the sake of preventing unnecessary injury, but I’m not going to “wait until I’m better” the way I feel like I’m being told to. I know that I might never feel ready. And I spent enough time wrangling with depression to know that I can’t always trust my own perception of myself or my abilities. I have to do things despite how I feel.
It’s not just us ladies, of course.
At one point, I heard someone in my own fencing circle rumbling about the need for a “fight team” of elite students, so that we could make a better impression as a school. Students should earn the right to compete in outside tournaments.
Like if one of us displays weakness, the wolves will close in.
Let’s be real: If people had to wait to compete until they felt like they were assured victory, most of us would never leave our homes. It’s this line of thinking that says you shouldn’t try anything unless you know you’ll already be good at it. That might fly in a Mountain Dew commercial, but real life isn’t like that. In fact, I think that kind of attitude is cowardly. Shit, if I waited until I thought I was ready for things, I’d still be hiding in my bedroom, living with my parents, maybe even married to someone I hate. I definitely wouldn’t have gone to grad school. I wouldn’t have nabbed that book deal. I wouldn’t have ever published anything. I wouldn’t have ever gotten on stage to perform. I wouldn’t have the friends I do now. I sure as fuck would never have become a priestess running a coven.
Maybe some of this is pressure to be acknowledged as a “real” sport. Maybe it’s a nerd thing. Half of us have spent our lives playing D&D and being bullied for wanting to go the Renaissance faire instead of trying out for football. It feels good to be validated somewhere, finally.
I don’t know. But I think when I get frustrated by peoples’ bad attitudes at tournaments, this is part of what’s behind it. I don’t recall running into these things when I was doing Taekwondo, though maybe it’s because I just wasn’t paying attention (there were also plenty more women, so I think we’d collectively hammered some things out already and weren’t dealing with the same level of frustration).
So I’ll say it again: Part of being good at something is being good at failing. Winning is actually a lot less impressive, in my mind. Someone has to win, after all. But good losers are too few and far between.
I’ve dealt with too much bullshit in my life to be overly worried about whether or not strangers at a tournament think I should be there or not. I care what my instructor thinks, I care about my own safety (well…), and I care about whether or not I’m coming out better at the other end of things. But I’m really over the deprecating talk of being “worthy” of handling a sword. I’m going to do the thing regardless of whether or not anyone thinks I’m worthy. Because I like trying.