You cannot hide from boolean data

Keith Farrell cutting with a sharp longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

One of the most important developments in my practice of fencing was when I started doing test cutting, because this gave me boolean data, and either I succeeded or I failed. There was no longer any way to hide behind an excuse for why a technique didn’t work, as the data was perfectly clear: it either worked or it didn’t.

Test Cutting

This was a huge step for me, because it gave me the drive to ensure that ALL of my techniques could cut successfully. If someone didn’t cut, that meant it didn’t work, and therefore needed improvement.

Very quickly, I realised that there are a certain set of mechanics that need to be present for a cut to be successful:

  • it must have acceleration to bite into the target, otherwise it just knocks the target over;
  • it must have correct edge alignment, otherwise it just knocks the target over;
  • it must have an appropriate follow-through to take it out the other side of the target, otherwise it stops in the target (or just knocks the target over).

Therefore, all cuts require a relatively similar set of body motions in order to tick these boxes, and thus the engine that drives each technique must be fairly similar. The precise implementation of each technique, in terms of the direction it travels, the edge with which it hits, and so on, would all be different paint jobs, to continue with the car analogy, but they are all powered and driven by the same mechanical engine.

After making this realisation, and finding a set of mechanics that did indeed tick the boxes, all my techniques began to show more success when test cutting. I have kept improving these mechanics, and now more and more of my techniques are cutting successfully. This has a direct impact on their success in sparring, because I now know that I can rely on these techniques to work and to control space, to shut down my opponent’s sword, to control the bind and leave me with all the options I could want for follow-up actions.

HEMA Ratings Beta

One of the more recent developments in the HEMA community has been the release of the HEMA Ratings Beta service. Briefly, this is a service that aggregates the data from HEMA competitions, applies a standard mathematical formula to this data, and calculates a ranking and a rating for every practitioner who has competed in any of the tournaments that has submitted data.

Some people believe this is has led to “increased sportification”, that it has “destroyed the art”, and all the usual nonsense that is trotted out so often whenever a new point of view or idea is introduced to the community. Personally, I find this service now brings tournament fencing to the same boolean state as test cutting: either you win your fight, or you lose. Whatever happens, the data is recorded and processed in the calculations, and there is no way to hide.

I find it very easy to hide from poor tournament results, to make up some excuse or another. It was too hot and I’m a Scotsman so I can’t handle heat. I didn’t have enough sleep beforehand. I wasn’t in the right mental zone. My gear was giving me problems. I haven’t trained enough recently. My back was hurting and so I couldn’t use the sword properly. I was trying to work on one technique that I have been training recently, and I was trying to use it wherever possible. I don’t care about winning, I just want to train fencing. I don’t care about winning, I want to showcase “good” or “technical” fencing. So many excuses!

At the end of the day, my results are now recorded in the HEMA Ratings Beta service, and I cannot make excuses. Either I win, or I lose, and this is hard boolean data from which I cannot hide. Although I am not a competitive person, this now makes me treat competitions more seriously, because I know that there is no hiding from the aftermath.


I think this is a good thing. Anything that makes me treat the exercise more seriously is a positive development. Anything that removes my ability to hide behind excuses is wonderful. Usually I do a pretty good job of calling “bullshit” on myself when I realise I’m starting to make excuses for something, and these exercises that result in boolean data make it even easier to boil it all down to what is important: either success, or failure.

Failure is perfectly permissible in the training environment, when I am learning or working to improve a technique. Test cutting is, as the name suggests, a test to see how successful my training has been. Similarly, a tournament is a test of how successful my training has been. Can I make my Zwerhaw work with a sharp sword against a tatami mat? Can I make that same Zwerhaw work with a blunt sword against an uncooperative opponent in a tournament?

I find boolean data to be wonderful for me, because it cuts through the nonsense and gets straight to the point, with no excuses permitted.

For my readers, how do you keep yourself honest when you train and when you test yourself?