Are you tough, smart, or both?

Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie
Keith Farrell and Mark Wilkie fencing with sabres at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2015.

A story that I have heard from several people and clubs over the years is that when they began training HEMA, they didn’t bother with much protective gear beyond fencing masks, and they just took the bruises that resulted, because they felt tough enough to do so. In fact, several such people were proud of their toughness, and would wear their bruises as a badge of honour. Indeed, many people on the “Spoils of War” group on Facebook seem to share this point of view.

I would like to look at this idea, and examine why people begin to change away from it.

As time passes for these clubs and individuals who are proud of their toughness, some of them begin to invest in a little more equipment. Perhaps to satisfy their insurance company, perhaps to satisfy entrance requirement for one event or another, or perhaps just to be able to fence with other people from other clubs with a more strict policy regarding protective gear. Whatever the reason, as these people begin to wear a little more protective equipment, they find themselves able to spar at higher speeds and higher intensities; and although they knew that they were tough, and could take a hit, they realise that they are receiving far more hits than they are able to give at such speeds and intensities.

This usually leads to a realisation that being tough and ignoring bruises is fine, and perhaps a useful ability in its own right, but as an approach it does not necessarily produce the best and most skilful fencers; it produces brave fencers who can take a hit and keep going. Not a bad thing at all! But nonetheless, a different outcome.

The second part of the realisation is usually that by wearing a little more protective gear, the club can practise at higher speeds and a greater level of intensity. Members learn how to keep going with greater physical exertion (becoming even tougher in the process!) and also how to fight more effectively at these speeds and intensities, becoming more skilful as fencers.

It often also leads to expanding the target zones, such as the hands or the legs. If people are not wearing any form of protection on the legs, a common “gentleman’s rule” is to avoid striking below the waist, to help protect the knees. However, by never attacking these targets, training partners never learn to defend these targets. So by wearing a little more protective equipment and expanding the target zones, people learn how to hit a greater variety of targets (with appropriate tactics), while also learning to defend even more of their own body against an opponent’s blows.

There is often a criticism levelled at people who pad up too much, so that they can barely feel any hits against them, that their protective gear makes them oblivious to risk so that they take great risks and do really stupid things, relying on their protective gear to save them. While I have certainly observed this kind of behaviour in some people, I rarely (if ever) see it from people who have a background of believing that wearing minimal gear and displaying the resulting bruises proudly is a badge of courage. I would say that people with this prior experience tend to learn to put on as much protective equipment as they need in order to be able to fence at high speeds and high intensity, but they still want to perceive themselves as “tough”, and so will avoid putting on too much padding.

I think this is a very healthy state of mind, and it’s always a pleasure to see people go through this journey, experience these realisations, and begin to fence with immense skill and high speeds and high intensities. Such people tend to be some of my favourite sparring partners.

For myself, since over the last few months I often found myself teaching anywhere from two to four evenings a week, and perhaps also teaching at a two or three day event over the weekend once or twice every month, I would rather avoid accumulating bruises! However, I feel it is important to work at high speeds and high intensities, otherwise how will I improve? I also spend a lot of my time working at lower speeds and lower intensities, and I have spoken previously about the value of triangulation in HEMA, as have Michael Chidester and Matt Easton, so I believe that working at all speeds and all intensities is important for a comprehensive training programme. I would prefer to avoid bruises, since they impede my ability to teach so often on a weekly and monthly basis, but I will from time to time indulge in fencing with minimal gear, as hard and as fast I dare, with a training partner who possess both skill and control, and who is likewise interested in developing his or her skill rather than just scoring touches and counting points. This way, I can remind myself that I am “tough” enough to handle some pain when I fail to keep myself safe, yet I know that because I am “smart” enough, I can improve such defensive skills by leaps and bounds by training with sufficient protective gear.

Are you just tough? Are you just smart? Or are you ambitious enough to want to be both tough AND smart in your training?