SCA Fighter Challenges: How to Defeat Skill Regression

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The loud crack of a rattan sword hitting a shield and the dull thud of a shot hitting its mark. The sharp yell of ‘good’ or a shake of a head followed by ‘light.’ The acidic smell of a hot rubber ax head or the recognizable scent of sweaty fighters. The thrill of winning a fight and the adrenaline high of a well fought practice.

To go from being the center of the action and pushing your limits as a human being to well… not, is hard.

It’s hard mentally, physically and even chemically to grant yourself an outlet, a fun place to express yourself in a way that not many people understand, only to be forced into a necessary break in progress and practice due to an injury, lack of time, lack of funds, burnout or any other reason.

In the hobby of SCA fighting, this happens to most fighters at some point in their career and sometimes more than once. It can be frustrating, but we find other things to do to keep us busy until we can return to the battle field.

But once we get the chance to return to the battle field, we sometimes hold ourselves back. We’re not at the same fighting level that we were right before we had to sit out and that tends to scare us. It’s not fun to put on armor and it fits differently. It’s not a good feeling when you pick up the sword and shield and they’re heavier than you remember. And it sure as hell isn’t fun when you finally motivate yourself to fight and you feel like you have two left feet and a flat snap is all you can think of.

During the woods battle at Pennsic I ended up with a nasty concussion early in the battle. My expression shows how 'happy' I am to be out of the fight. Not. Was cleared by EMTs but I was determined to help. Was able to bring water to the fighters for the rest of the day.
During the woods battle at Pennsic I ended up with a nasty concussion early in the battle. My expression shows how ‘happy’ I am to be out of the fight. Not. Was cleared by EMTs but I was determined to help. I volunteered to bring water to the fighters for the rest of the day.

My Experiences With Fighter Regression

My first taste of the ‘regression fears’ occurred right after Pennsic 2015. For the months leading up to Pennsic, I fought my heart out. I was attending 2-3 practices a week. Everything I did even in day to day living was to become a better and stronger fighter.

I was working out consistently and I was on a solid diet of clean eating. I had a goal to be able to fight in every single fight and be able to hold my own. This was my first big war and I wanted to be confident that I would be able to not only survive but thrive.

Pennsic came and went and I was proud of my showing. I fought in every battle and even had the energy to do pickups on Wednesday. I was the strongest and fastest I’ve ever been in my entire life. The following week I even traveled with The Voyage North to Canada to participate in Bicolline, a week long LARP where heavy fighting was the norm. Not only was I able to keep up but ended up doing really well. I felt like a beast!

Once home I decided to give myself a break. I was feeling close to a burnout and my body needed a rest. One week turned into two that then turned into three that then turned into two months. I ate whatever I wanted, cancelled my gym membership and stopped fighting. I went from having a sword in my hand every day for two weeks to not even knowing where my sword was. But I had had the honor of becoming my knight’s man at arms at Pennsic and I wanted to get back into the action and make him proud.

Leading during one of the battles at Bicolline. I'm the one on the left in the helmet.
Leading during one of the battles at Bicolline. I’m the one on the left looking at the camera.

I’ll never forget the feeling of this practice. I was armoring up and the nerves started kicking in. Fears started creeping in, not fears of getting hit but fears of I don’t want to look bad. Sure, I felt I did really well at Pennsic but that just set the bar even higher in my mind. How can I fight in front of these guys at my best and then at my worst? This is embarrassing…

I sat on the bench biting the inside of my lip and watching everyone else fight. I had wanted this so badly a few moments ago, why do I want to run the other way right now? Why do I want to pat myself on the back for doing well at Pennsic and quit while I’m ahead? I proved to myself I could already accomplish something why do I have to test myself again? I know I’m going to suck…

These arguments went on and on until my knight sat next to me, nudged me and simply said ‘go fight.’

So I did.

I fought the worst fight I’ve ever fought. Probably even worse than when I first put on armor. It was not pretty. My arms felt like they were spaghetti wiggling all over the place and I couldn’t keep my shield up. I tripped over my feet not once but twice and couldn’t see a single opening. On top of that my brain kept replaying my strong fights at Pennsic and how far I’ve fallen: a cruel kick to my ego while I was already down.

I sat back down next to him, completely out of breath, ready to cry and so embarrassed I couldn’t look at him.

Maybe Pennsic was a fluke? Maybe I lost the level of skill that I will never be able to achieve again. This sucks.

He took one look at me and knew right away what my problem was. He explained that taking time after Pennsic was a normal thing for fighters to do. That everyone pushes hard and then relaxes as winter approaches and events become sparse. And not only was it normal for me to have taken a break but it was even more normal to feel like I backslid. But while I was beating myself up, I admitted I felt like I was worse off. He explained that it’s impossible. That I started out at point A, had reached point C at Pennsic and I’m just now at point B. Sure, my physical game isn’t there, but everything I’ve learned will always be there.

Not only did that explanation give me the comfort my brain needed but it also made me think back to my first practices of where my arm WAS spaghetti and how I COULDN’T hold up my shield for more than a few minutes. Instead of letting it drag me down it motivated me to push a little harder next time. For this ‘restart’ I would do the same thing… start out slow, concentrate on basics and give my body a chance to get strong again, but this time around I was already ahead of the game. I KNEW it was possible. I KNEW what level I could achieve if I worked towards it in a constant and positive manner.

Once I accepted that I was sitting at point B and that it was okay, it gave me a feeling of calm where I reached a new level of clarity. While my body was catching up to my brain it gave me a chance to develop and work on things all over again. Starting over and being okay with it gave me another layer of confidence and patience that I would have never thought possible. Granted I was still not in the great shape I was during Pennsic – I’m still not – but I felt more dangerous in a good way.

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Squire Martin and myself after a long day at Pennsic. She’s my buddy and I don’t know what I’d do without her.

After the Restart: Back On My Feet

A month later from my restart I went to an event in Canada and I was really excited. I know a lot of the guys and girls from that area and we don’t get to see each other often due to the distance. One of the fighters is a good friend of mine, Camil. We fought each other in pickups at Pennsic and he destroyed me. Each fight lasted seconds and he wasn’t even winded when we were done. I was slightly embarrassed and felt like I had just run a marathon. I was looking forward to a rematch with him to see if this restart in fighting had benefited me in any way. Instead of the prefight nerves I was able to walk into my fight with him calm and focused.

We fought and fought and fought… standing up, then both taking each other’s legs and finally he got me with a wrap to my head. We just knelt there both out of breath with huge grins on our faces. That ONE fight had lasted longer than our multiple fights at Pennsic combined and I had actually felt like I held my own!

That event was some of the best fighting I’ve ever put forward. I was recognizing openings in slow motion and my sword was actually making contact on those places. My mind wasn’t going black and I was able to make a conscious plan of action. Sure, I probably still lost more than I won but I was able to confidently walk tall and know I had reached a new level of fighting.

It's obvious I love to fight. You can usually find me smiling ear to ear when I'm on the front lines.
It’s obvious I love to fight. You can usually find me smiling ear to ear when I’m on the front lines. This was during the town battle,  IN AN ACTUAL MEDIEVAL TOWN, at Beltaines held at the Bicolline camp. It was amazing!!!

Eager to Fight Once More

As I sit here and type this I’m going on my fourth week of not fighting due to a surgery. Thankfully not from an injury but it still sidelined me for at least six weeks. Every day is hard to see my friends participating in things that my heart and mind misses. I want to be next to them, swapping bruises and sharing those feelings of accomplishment. Even chemically I feel like my emotions need the release that only fighting can provide.

Whenever it gets to be too much, I talk to my knight and he assures me we just have to knock a little rust off. It always reminds me of that conversation. I don’t know what point I’m at currently; I just know it’s possible. And not only is it possible, but I’ve done it before and can do it again.

Don’t allow the ‘regression fear’ to sink in and get a hold on you. Don’t allow excuses to become legitimate reasons. Take your time to get where you feel comfortable to push yourself again and start from step one. It may seem like you’re starting at point A but you can take what you’ve learned from the first time through and expand on that. You’re starting out a step ahead than you did before: point B. Let the idea of how good you were before motivate you, not intimidate you. And if you can’t accomplish what you did before for some other reason, take strength in knowing that you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to. That knowledge can give you confidence to try and accomplish something else.

Have you ever experienced regression in SCA fighting and other aspects of your life? Let me know how you got through it in the comments!

12 thoughts on “SCA Fighter Challenges: How to Defeat Skill Regression

  1. Excellent article. I have experienced numerous regressions. I first authorized to fight back in 2000, and then in 2002 I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. From August 2002 until the summer of 2003, when I was cleared by my doctor to fight again, I had to take a break. It was tough in all of the ways you described. My post-surgery meds were not right, and before re-authorizing in 2004 I was so angry and frustrated that I sold my entire fighting kit. It took a couple of years, but when my health was good again, I went back to the joys of fighting. I was, however, starting from scratch again. Several of the old guard encouraged me to keep at it, so I did. Fighting in Pennsic XL was my “C” point, and then immediately after my meds got messed up again, and I backslid for about 18 months. I kept fighting because I love it, but my skills had degraded. I still get that ball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach before every practice, and I have to tell it to shut up as I put on my armour. The latest frustration was rotator cuff tendonitis this past summer. I am working through that, but the physical injury is nothing compared with the emotional one.

  2. Interesting. I’ve been battling a similar sort of regression in equestrian pursuits. I took time off to have children and coming back has been a painful uphill slog. A lot of your internal monologue sounds very familiar. I guess how I’m getting through it is just by refusing to quit. I suck now, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get back where I was, but I refuse to quit. I’m also seeking out training to help with specific skills. Back in the day I didn’t think there was anybody in the SCA who could teach me a damn thing about mounted sword games (gotta love arrogance) but in the years I took off the overall skill level in the SCA progressed while my personal skill level has backslid. It’s quite humbling to admit that not only are you not as good as you used to be, but that lots of people are now better than you ever were. However, sitting here feeling sorry for myself won’t make it better. Getting out there and working will. So back to work I go.

  3. I think I felt this type of regression the worst when I stopped training with horses. I competed in hunter/jumpers for about 8 years and was showing solid 3′ courses when I first moved away to finish undergrad. That first time I returned to my old barn and horse I realized what training with multiple horses 4 times a week was really worth. I had to remind myself (or rather my horse reminded me) how much I love riding regardless of my competitive level.
    The same is true for me with fighting. I am currently feeling regression since I am not able to get to nearly as many practices since I moved. I have trouble motivating myself to practice on pell without someone around to guide me, but I also know that I will learn what I can whenever I can even if it takes longer. I am nowhere near the level in SCA fighting that I was with riding, but I know that the only place for me to go from here is up. I will continue to go to practice whenever possible, maybe even make it to some events, and there is always more to learn. The most important part for me is that I enjoy fighting. The accomplishment of learning more and getting better is awesome, but that can not diminish the process and my ability to have fun even when getting my ass kicked or it wouldn’t be worthwhile.

  4. I experienced this big time after tearing my ACL and being sidelined for 10 months. My first practice in armor was a regional in Springfield-a high intensity and well attended practice. Before the injury I felt I was progressing and developing pretty well. Half way through that first practice I felt completely useless. I was frustrated and disappointed that I could come close to doing the things I thought I was capable of. After a couple of other practices feeling much the same way, a ‘good’ thing happened-Duke Edward broke my hand. Why was this good? Because instead of sidelining myself again, I decided to learn to fight lefty. This made me change the way I viewed fighting in a couple really important ways. #1- I stopped focusing on ‘winning’, and started focusing on technique. (I like to win mind you, but it wasn’t the only goal that mattered anymore.) #2- It was OK to experiment in practice and fail. It was OK to say to myself, “I’m not going to throw my ‘go to’ shot, I’m going to focus on doing ‘X’ today. “. And even if doing X becomes predicable or opens me up in other ways and I lose a fight, its ok- because at the end of the day I’m going to be much better at doing X. So overall, gor me the trick to overcoming regression was accepting that at first I simply was not going to be as good as I wanted . And then having the patience to allow myself to become better without the worry of losing. I still struggle with this, but understanding this struggle has made me a better and happier fighter.

  5. Your description of falling off the horse (one day to two to a week to two weeks to two months) is spot-on, and mirrors my own struggle with weight. Fell off that horse very hard years ago and only recently found the desire to climb back on.

    One fantastic part of the SCA generally, and fighting specifically, is that it’s a community of people who grok your struggle (or at least we emphasize the need to attempt said grokking), so you can find a supportive and encouraging network to help you up when you fall down.

    Burnout is very real in any discipline, and those who shine brightest tend to run close to the redline, always close to burnout but not quite. It’s hard to learn how to push yourself without breaking yourself, and most of us only learn the hard way.

    Thankfully, when we do break, we’re surrounded by those who have come before, and they help us remember the lessons we’ve learned.

    ACBDC is a great way to remember progression. It’s an average over time.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. This was fantastic I have been trying to get back to where I wa’s with no luck. I broke my back and had spinal surgery. Then put on 40 lbs during recovery. I am slowly getting better but It has been slow.
    — THL Edward of Blackthorn, Æthelmearc.
    — NUGG

  7. Thanks so much for the article. After fighting for about 10 years I took a break to go back to college and took the next 20 years off. I came back to fighting not long ago and after my first fighter practice got a nasty inguinal hernia and subsequent surgery. I guess at my age I am more brittle than I like to admit. I’ve kept going to fighter practice to keep my head in the game and soon I will be back in armor again. Now the real work starts but I think with the fellowship of good friends any comeback is possible. I sure hope it is!

  8. Thank you for this well written artical. Like you I have had my setbacks with injury and burnout. On one of my last breaks I took the oppertunity to still go to practices and watch. I thought this would be depressing. However I found that instead of just watching I started to coach some of the newer fighters. In the process of teaching I was able to break down the mechanics of the shots better and in turn it helped when I came back to fight. While I was out of shape my mind was still active. I could still see the openings and my brain still had the timing down to make the shot count. I Have done this everytime that I have needed a break and I have seen a huge improvement in my fighting.

  9. Thank you for this. I am 50 now and took a ten year plus hiatus until about two years ago. Everyone who was new before is a pillar of the SCA now and I am new again. I went through everything you described and am still going through it to some degree. However, I am taking my fighting more seriously than I had before and I think I am fighting better than I ever had.

    The hardest thing to get past has been my own fears.
    Iain Macpherson
    Shire of An Dun Theine
    Kingdom of Meridies

  10. Excellent article. Thank you. It puts into words exactly what I’ve been dealing with. Thanks to mundane life and a couple non SCAdian related injuries getting in the way I’ve had to take an extended slow down to practice, and physical conditioning.
    Bringing to the present, I’m overweight (to me anyway), cardio sucks horribly, and my sword and shield work is horrible comparatively. It’s a struggle to look at my old self and not see that same fighter in the mirror right now. I use that image of me now as an example to goad me into what I see myself as in my minds eye, not the current truth of the mirror. Like your article mentioned, the sword remembers how to move, the feet are right, the body remembers. Now to get back into it and progress from point B.
    Hopefully we’ll meet on the field one day.

  11. Thank you! I had to take a 14 year break from fighting, and am worried – I know my brain knows more, but my body may be an issue, especially due to weight, age and injury. However, I am holding hope remembering coming back from a 6 month break, that I actually broke a skill plateau due to the time off. This and the motivation article are spurs I need.

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