I have been asked to provide some thoughts on how we can ensure the retention of those new people who have just begun their first steps in learning swordsmanship.
Our experience has been that for every ten people we get starting training such as the Beginners Classes only 20-40% will get to free sparing in armour. Of these, 50% drop off before too long. What then can we do to increase these retention rates?
I will start by admitting that SCA combat is not for everyone. It can be hard to get the basics down and it takes time. Compare this to Foam weapons groups were you will be out there wielding a sword in your first session.
My feeling is that we have to provide a range of attractor’s in order to keep people coming back. So here are some of my ideas. I would suggest that these are not in any order of importance as different things will appeal to different folk.
Training and progression
The first thing we need to do is provide new combatants clear and progressive training beyond authorisation. This can be difficult but I am sure most groups could easily together training sessions or seminars on different weapons forms, war fighting, different shield types. This gives new people a clear path of learning and also means they are not dumped in a tournament facing something that they have no idea of what to do.
I think a grading system would be a useful thing. I am not convinced that we can be able to introduce such a thing on a Kingdom wide scale. However we often do have the awards system and the various guards such as your local Baronial Guard. Make this recognition of progress for new combatants. Something to aspire to and maybe work towards. It trick always is to pitch such acknowledgements at a level that requires some effort. No one wants an award for attendance.
What is important is to give people progressive and achievable goals within the tournament arts.
A place to belong
The social parts of the SCA is often one of the things many people tell me keeps them coming back. Ensure that your new people are bought in to the social activities of the group. Get people to go to events and participate. Invite the new people to the pub after training.
War Units are a good group building activity. Getting your newly authorised combatants to be formally inducted into your group’s war unit can be both good theatre as well as groups building. Call a newly authorised person up in court and hand them a tabard and shield.
Pageantry and romance
Even though I have not talked about this a great deal on this blog, pageantry and romance are one of the big excitements for me. The entire image of banners flying the breeze, gorgeous ladies in the gallerie and heralds calling you to the field to swear an oath to the King, is in many ways what the SCA does best. It is important that we get our new people to be able to walk that stage as well. In their first tournament make sure they are carrying a favour. Make sure this means something. Point out all the good moments. Reward and acknowledge, but again this should be for real achievements and not so every kiddie gets a prise.
This is not for everyone
The final point I would like to make is that the activities of the SCA, LARP, HEMA, Metal Weapons, Battle of Nations, whatever group is not for everyone. Different people will have different levels of interest and involvement. Some things will appeal to differently. There is no shame in this.
I tend to start off by telling my beginning students that this is not the easiest of activities. It can be hard work, painful and bruising, frustrating and costly. But for those who put in the time effort and passion, you can get a lot out of this. Be honest with what it is we do, but also let people know that in all of this there is great friendships to be made, adventures to be had and victories to be won.