Unhelpful advice 3: Myths of the short person in martial arts

Keith Farrell teaching a lesson at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 5th April 2013. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

As a relatively short person (5 feet 6 inches, or roughly 167 centimetres in height), I have heard all kinds of “advice” and platitudes in my two decades of involvement with martial arts. People have lots of very strange ideas about how short people should fight, and produce some very dangerous and ill-conceived advice!

The articles comprising part 3, part 4 and part 5 of this series on unhelpful advice will seek to address some of the myths and advice that I have heard other people give to shorter fencers.

Short people are faster

This is a myth that seems to have pervaded many (or even most) martial arts. I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told that it doesn’t matter that shorter people have a smaller reach than taller people, because short people are faster and thus can nullify any reach advantage of the taller person.

This is nonsense! Shorter people are not inherently faster, nor are taller people inherently slower. There is not a linear graph that can plot the relationship between increasing height and diminishing speed.

Shorter people do sometimes become faster than their taller counterparts, simply out of necessity. However, this is a result of training and practice, of the development of the “fast-twitch” muscles and the explosiveness of motion. It is a skill that must be practised and cultivated; it is not a natural characteristic of people under a certain height, that suddenly disappears when a person becomes taller.

People often remark to me when they see me sparring that I appear to be exceptionally fast. Speed and explosiveness are skills that I have trained for the better part of 20 years and I acquired these skills though hard work, sweat, and lots of effort. Yes, it is possible to become very fast as a short person, but it requires input and effort, and does not happen overnight!

I know a lot of tall people who are very fast, and I know a lot of short people who have not put in the necessary effort to develop speed.

This myth is nonsense!

Short people are more technical

This is another myth I hear on a fairly regular basis. I can see why people come to this conclusion: taller people have a natural advantage in terms of reach, and so they can rely on this; shorter people cannot allow themselves to rely on reach, and so they must develop more technical skill in order to compensate. Therefore short people are more technical. QED.

It almost makes sense, until that final leap. As with the previous myth, technical skill is something that is developed out of necessity; it is not a natural characteristic of short people that diminishes as one grows taller. Besides, there are many taller people who are exceptionally skilful. If I happen to be more technical and skilful than a taller person then it is because I have trained more (or perhaps just more cleverly/correctly) than that person, and it has nothing to do with height.

This myth is also nonsense.

Short people do not tire as quickly

This is an interesting statement. It is sort of a myth, but maybe not completely. The theory behind the statement is that shorter people simply have less body mass to carry about, and so will use less energy than someone who is taller, heavier, or with more mass.

To the extent that it is indeed easier to move less mass than to move more mass, I do agree. People who have less mass to carry do indeed have a smaller energy requirement to keep that mass moving. However, short people can still carry a lot of mass, and tall people can be very skinny!

Another factor is fitness, strength and stamina. A short person with a low level of fitness and stamina will have difficulty sparring continuously for five minutes. A larger person who trains regularly and who has well-developed fitness and stamina can keep sparring for ten minutes or longer without a problem.

This statement has to be classified as a myth alongside “short people are faster”, because fitness and stamina are not characteristics that belong solely to short people. Rather, fitness and stamina are a product of hard work and constant training, and can be a characteristic of any person.

As a side note, sometimes temperature and climate can have a lot to do with how swiftly people tire. As a proper Scotsman, I can keep fencing in the cold until I run out of opponents. If I visit a warmer climate (such as France, Australia, even the north of England!), then sometimes it is all I can do to fence for ten minutes before I collapse in a sweaty heap. I’m sure the taller and bulkier of the native French fencing population could keep sparring for longer than me in such a climate, since being used to such an environment also has an impact on stamina in these conditions.

To say that short people do not tire as quickly is wrong, and misses a lot of important factors.

Concluding remarks

Fighting against a taller opponent is always going to be a difficult task. And, unfortunately, much of the advice that is so often given is actually nonsense. Hopefully this article has addressed some of the myths that plague short fighters around the world, and hopefully it will inspire people to train harder to improve their fighting skills.

To finish the article, I would like to offer a video clip of a sparring match I had with Daniel Jaquet at Fechtschule Brugge 2016. Daniel is quite a bit taller than me and is very fast. However, I did my best to apply techniques properly and to shut him down where I could, and it was certainly an interesting challenge.

If this fight can inspire some of my fellow short people then I will be delighted.

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.