Tuesday 31st March 2020
This has been a bad year for my swordfighting. I was a bit broken from competition last year and just as I was recovering from that, all classes got stopped due to Coronavirus. However, even with the lockdown it’s still possible to train by yourself… even if you’re wanting to start for the first time.
My brand of swordfighting is HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). Its focus is to take the techniques of old and try to recreate them as a martial art. It’s a lot of fun with a great community.
I both compete and instruct. I specialise in rapier & dagger as well as sword & buckler but I’m proficient in a number of other weapon systems and hold respectable world rankings in a handful (it’s not everyone’s metric but it’s mine). I fought rapier & dagger for the UK & Ireland at the European Games in Minsk last year making it through to the final 16. I also teach with School of the Sword. There are a lot of great schools in the UK, and whilst I’m totally biased, the HEMA schools in the south of England produce some of the finest fencers in the world. Just in my school alone we’ve had as many as 8 of the top 100 rapier & dagger fencers in the world. I regularly train with a number of them and we have fencers just as good who choose not to compete.
Although.. I’m not attending classes at the moment. None of us are. With Coronavirus, classes have been cancelled. It’s especially frustrating for me as I’m in the process of setting up a new branch of School of the Sword in Wiltshire and that’s had to be temporarily put on hold.
So what can you do if you either want to advance your swordfighting or even start when you are unable to train with anyone?
It’s OK Not To Train
I know this may be unpopular but no-one is forcing you to train. I’ve not trained much this year. The world has been such a dark and stressful place that HEMA has not been a priority these last few weeks. Chocolate has. And you know what? That’s OK.
The first thing I teach any new student is that they are responsible for their training. Yes, coming to class each week is great but I see a number of students who do that and never really advance. You can become proficient by being diligent about your attendance, but to be really good you have to go beyond that. People who switch their mindset from attending class to thinking how a resource could be useful for them to excel. Instead of passive learning, it’s much more active. You’ll ask more questions, try and get better understand, think about your own strengths and weaknesses more.
Remember classes are a resource. Online videos are a resource. Sources are a resource. HEMA has no end of resources. It’s up to you to take those resources and make use of them. Use this lockdown as an opportunity to level up.
I might not have trained the last couple of weeks because other things were more important, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intending to train this week.
So don’t train because you have to. Train because you want to. Make that switch in your mind from passive to active learning and I swear you’ll see improvement and better motivation.
It’s OK To Do It Badly
With what we do we WANT perfect form. We’re trying to recreate a martial art here. But at the same time, perfection is the result of an awful lot of failure.
If there’s one criticism I have of HEMA is that we are quick to judge. We’ll see a video of someone doing a longsword drill, and immediately make a comment about incorrect footwork, or the guard being slightly off. It’s meant to be helpful but it can be off-putting.
Criticism is essential to HEMA or anything we are trying to improve in, but in HEMA it can sometimes come ahead of encouragement.
When you try something new, you are going to suck. When it comes to sword and companion weapon I can challenge the world’s best, but give me a two-handed weapon and I’m like a drunk dad in a disco. I SUCK! That’s OK. I’ve given myself permission to suck. You should too.
When you start you’ll suck at a million and one different things and it can be overwhelming at times. Just tell yourself to pick one area (be it form, footwork, flow, guards or anything) and work on improving that. When you’ve mastered that, move onto the next thing.
You Don’t Need Weapons To Train.
So much of HEMA is body mechanics. Yes, a weight in your hand can help with momentum and flow, but I’ve taught people how to do Bolognese fencing using a saucepan lid and wooden spoon.
Obviously, there’s a part of HEMA that relies on the feedback you get when sparring with another person, and that’s off the table at the moment. But that’s fine. A poor guard will defend you badly, a good guard will “save your life”. These are foundations that are good to train whether you are starting out or have been fighting for decades.
Don’t Ignore The Basics
It’s unsexy but foundational stuff is the bread and butter of HEMA. Historical accounts as well as modern competitive fencers will tell you that there are plenty of really good fighters who know just a few moves… but know them really well.
As you progress it’s easy to slip into the complacency that the basics are beyond you, but I’ll tell you from experience, each time I revisit them, I find new nuance I hadn’t seen before.
A hundred thrusts a day may sound pretty boring compared to learning new techniques, but I guarantee you that if you do, people will be noticing your improvement next time you fence.
Consider a New Weapon.
I can’t do two-handed weapons. I recently started doing some limited training with a Montante because it was historically good for conditioning and it represented a new challenge.
I suck at it, and I love that I do.
If you’re proficient with some weapon systems, consider training something new whilst we’re in lockdown. Personally, I feel when first starting out in HEMA, sticking to a single weapon system is best until you become proficient with it, but as I’ve progressed with HEMA it’s amazing what insight you can get about yourself and your fighting by studying something different.
Your mileage may differ. You own your training now, remember?
Where to start
The sources have plenty of illustrations showing how you should stand. These are your various guards.
At its most basic, HEMA is just a collection of guards and moving between them. Picking the right guard for the right situation is where the challenge lies.
https://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Main_Page has a ton of sources. There’s a temptation to pick a weapon and then dive into all the various sources. Whilst there’s a lot of commonality between them all (the body only moves in certain directions), I’d pick one source and stick with it to start with. Learn to do one thing well, rather than suck at a lot. Some sources are better than others but HEMA people are really friendly and always willing to offer advice.
Stand in front of a mirror, or take a video on your phone and then compare to the original guards. I still do this to this day for some of my rapier.
Next you want to look at moving between those guards. This is where online videos can help. A simple search on Youtube should find you a bunch of videos. Some sources have forms – essentially a drill / kata moving between various guards. These were designed for solo practise. Once you have your guards sorted, these can be a good progression.
I swear if the HEMA communities ever left Facebook, that social media platform would disappear overnight. There are a million and one different facebook communities so advising just one is impossible. Some are better than others, but many of them have people posting videos of their training at the moment. I’d advise searching for HEMA in your country as a start. By the end of the week you’ll probably belong to 50.
Be aware that we all suck to some degree so if you’re watching videos, someone might be fantastic moving between guards, but could have terrible footwork whilst doing so. Don’t rely on a single video as your source.
Some facebook communities are really good at posting videos and offering constructive feedback. Sometimes that can come a little too readily, but it’s only because people want you to do well.
You Can Do It
I’m treating lockdown as an opportunity. I have a bunch of things I want to advance whilst the world is effectively on hold. That’s going to allow me to come out of this ahead (and it may take some time but Covid-19 will become history footnote at some point).
Just go ahead, own your training and allow yourself to suck.
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