Unhelpful advice 5: Yet more myths of the short person in martial arts

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

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 5th April 2013. It has been modified a little for reposting 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.

There is no disadvantage to being short

This is something I have heard a few times from various different people and places. It is a well-meaning attempt to show that while a short person does not have the same reach as a taller person, there are ways to deal with the problem, and as a result a shorter person can still function very effectively.

However, the statement itself is completely wrong. There ARE significant disadvantages to being shorter than an opponent. Reach of the arms is one disadvantage. Length of steps and lunges is another disadvantage. The fact that the opponent has a better angle to strike the top of your head with his sword is a severe disadvantage

It is not helpful to bemoan the disadvantages and to make excuses for poor performance based on height. “Oh, I couldn’t win, he was too tall!” or “there was nothing I could do to surmount his reach advantage” are both excuses I have heard. It is important to acknowledge that the disadvantages exist, but it is also important not to let them become a mental block or a barrier to your own improvement.

Acknowledge your disadvantages (whatever they might be), work out what to do to be able to work around these problems, train hard, and then the disadvantages will not be so much of a problem anymore.

Short people can never win against taller people

This is a myth I have heard from other short people who have never received the correct training and advice to be able to surmount the difficulty of reach. It is also a myth that I have heard from tall people who have never had the experience of fighting against a shorter person who had the skill and understanding to be able to defeat them.

Anyone can win a fight against anyone else. Some contributing factors make this more or less likely. Who is taller? Who is stronger? Who is faster? Who has more reach? Who has more skill? Who has more experience? Who is faster at adapting to new opponents? Who is better at reading opponents? Who is better at setting traps? Who is better at defending and staying safe? Who is more assertive and able to close distance with an attack? Who is better able to continue to fight effectively after the first or second or third attack in a sequence have been thrown? Who has more fitness and stamina? Who has had better training?

Combatants are almost always unequally matched. Someone is taller, or someone is stronger, or someone has more skill, or someone has had more relevant experience, or whatever. Someone always has an advantage, someone always has a disadvantage, and a good martial artist will be able to perform well regardless of the precise situation.

Someone who says that short people can never win is talking nonsense and has clearly never had the experience of fighting against a skilful but shorter opponent.

Short people can sit in Ochs / Hanging Guard / Whatever Guard

My two primary disciplines are German longsword and Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. As a result, I hear quite regularly that short people like me can sit in an Ochs guard with the longsword, or in a Hanging Guard with the broadsword, as these cover the high line and keep us safe from attacks from above, from taller people.

This is not helpful advice. Yes, if I sit underneath a well-structured Ochs then it will keep me safe against a descending vertical cut aimed at my head by a taller person. However, it will not keep me safe against a horizontal or rising cut aimed at my forearms or ribs. It will not keep me safe if someone thrusts at my torso. It will not keep me safe if someone binds with my Ochs and then winds with Mutieren by controlling the weak of my sword. Yes, the Ochs position CAN work effectively, but it is not a magic amulet that will always keep me safe.

As always, if an individual fights correctly and has an appropriate sense of self-preservation, then that individual will do well. If someone tries to follow a simplistic piece of advice without the necessary body structures or understanding of what is happening in the fight, then it will all go horribly wrong.

Short people can never rely on strength / reach

I hear it regularly that short people cannot rely on their reach, and weaker people cannot rely on their strength. To a degree, this is true; it cannot be the only strategy, since that will fail. However, it is good to learn to work with what you have.

Reach is something that is important to learn to be able to use and rely upon. While I know that my reach will never be as great as that of my taller opponents, I try to be the master of the domain that is within my reach. If my opponent comes fractionally too close then I can use my reach to smack him effectively from quite far away. If I cede control of distance and space to my opponent by not making use of the reach that I do have, then I make my fight so much more difficult for myself.

Strength can be developed quite easily, by undertaking appropriate exercises. It doesn’t require a year in the gym, or expensive machinery at home, to develop this strength; there are all kinds of ways to improve your useful strength. I often find myself with greater functional strength than larger people who have not tried to develop their strength at all, because practice is almost always better than one’s natural attributes without any practice to improve them.

Strength is also something that can be improved greatly by applying sensible body structure. I can use body structure to create parries that are immensely strong, and I can work with this strength to achieve my goals quite easily, without needing to swing really hard at my opponent. Although strength by itself cannot be relied upon to win you a fight, knowing how to use the strength that you do have is an important skill to develop.

So my point of view is that yes, short people can indeed rely on what strength and reach we do have, as long as we understand what we are capable of doing and how to do it effectively.

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 Cor Kronenburg at HEMAC Dijon 2016. Cor is huge, to put it mildly. However, I did my best to apply techniques properly and to draw upon my years of experience, and I’m quite happy with how it all unfolded.

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.