I'm going to say something that will go over too well with the Europeans and very poorly with the US fencers. But looking at the Purpleheart Open longsword results this weekend really hammered this in for me.
The Europeans have been saying we're a few years behind for a while. That's to be expected, our clubs are younger, or competitive scene is younger, and we're much more fractured than they are as a community.
I also know that the Europeans overstate their case in a lot of ways. I've fenced in and/or judged many events in Europe, and they have beginner fencers who suck over there, too. Lots of them. And they have know it alls who can't fence and casual fencers just like we do, too. It's just that no one pays for those guys to come to the US, so few of us ever get to see them. But they're out there.
What they have that the US doesn't, though, is a culture of coaching. They don't coddle shitty ideas the way that we do over here. They're in better physical shape when they start HEMA, generally (because 'murica). They train more than we do. A lot more than we do. The guys who swept PHO this weekend probably train 3-5 times a week, or at least run through parts of the year when the do. They train in large, supportive environments that aren't angsting over whether competition is bad or not. They are surrounded by other committed fighters who give them no-nonsense feedback about whether what they're doing is working or not.
They compete as often as 12 times a year, often revisiting the same rivalries, pushing them to not rely on the same approach as last year.
Their club structures allow them to train, not just to teach. I swear all I ever do anymore is teach.
We should be embarrassed that we've never won a US longsword tournament that a European has attended. I wasn't before this weekend. I just figured it was part of our maturation process. But for some reason PHO really got to me this year. Ruined my whole weekend.
We could blame it on the rules if we wanted, and I'm sure that the rules had some play in it (PHO invited a bunch of the Nordic Historical Fencing League's top fencers to our country to play by their rules...duh...), but has been true regardless of the rules for the last six years.
Nathan Grepares and Mike Edelson--two of the US's best fencers--made it right up toward the end, as I expected they would. But why can't we beat them? Why can't we really genuinely show them up? Why is it that we've only got a handful of guys even coming close to that? Guys like Mike, Nathan, Ben Strickling, or me? (No, Casper Andersen doesn't count).
I think it's because we're just now creeping out of the back-yard club phase. We're still very much in the instructor-led club phase, where a single personality really holds this all together within a given geography. The Europeans don't have that problem anymore, except perhaps in the UK where they seem to be suffering from a similar problem.
Axel Pettersson has Anders Linnard. Kristian Ruokonen has Matias Parmala.Carl Ryrberg has all the rest of Sweden. Ties Kool has the Orc Brigade at AMEK. None of these guys is a stand alone master on a mountain; these guys are all members of clubs which very much function as teams.
The hard truth is that US fighters aren't up to snuff because US clubs aren't up to snuff. That's a bigger problem than rules sets.
Post Script: I would really like to see a series of articles responding to this, discussing the European method of training and also exploring ways to improve the US coaching culture. Send me a note if you want to write one. firstname.lastname@example.org
Post-Post Script: This blog was original posted as a response to a larger discussion on Facebook. It has been changed slightly to stand alone here at xkdf.org.