Marc and Alex performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2017.
This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 27th February 2015. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
We often take our training partners for granted. However, we should not be so blasé – our training partners are important people, who help us learn, and who deserve our respect and care. We have a duty and responsibility to look after our training partners, to keep them safe, and to help them develop their skills just as they help us to develop our own.
Rather than always taking advice, coaching and help from our partners, we should seek to help them too. In the long term, the more good fencers are present in a club, the better the training will become for everyone. When practising, ensure that both you and your partner have the opportunity to work on techniques, don’t allow yourself to hog all the training time.
Setting aside all the usual reasons for keeping your training partners safe, if you break your partner, then you can no longer train with that person until he or she recovers. On a very selfish level, it is in your own best interests to keep your training partners safe and in one piece, as well as the usual moral obligations. This means that you need to moderate your strength and speed to a level that your partner can handle. If your partner is a newcomer to the club, then going all out is unlikely to be safe or fruitful; and even if your partner is much more experienced, but carries an injury, then you should pitch yourself at a level of practice that does not cause any threat of exacerbating the problem.
It is very easy to throw around the word “respect”. Yes, it is important to respect your training partners – but why?
They give up their own training time to help you with problems. They allow you to hit them, repeatedly, so that you can learn a new technique or skill. They moderate and control their own strikes so that they do not damage you, even though they may have the capability to do so. This is a critical point: they respect you enough to look after you, keep you safe and help you learn, even if they would enjoy practising harder or faster or with someone better. That deserves some respect in return.
Appropriate training tools
An important part of your responsibility to your training partners is to acquire and use appropriate training tools. For example, if you buy a sword that you enjoy using, but that has an uncomfortably sharp point that causes pain when you practise thrusting techniques, then you should be more thoughtful and careful when selecting your training tools – or use another sword with a less painful point when working with thrusts.
There are two sides to the coin of practising a technique. When you perform a technique repeatedly, you do so in order to improve your skills, and you need an appropriate tool that you can handle correctly that allows you to improve. However, your training partner may also be taking hits from you repeatedly, he or she will be doing you the courtesy of receiving those hits without complaint, and will be wearing the correct protective gear so that you can perform the techniques properly. Yes, you need to have a training weapon that you can use correctly, but you need to look after your training partners without hurting them.
Consider your training tools. Would you like to be on the receiving end? If not, what could you do to improve the situation? Something as simple as adding a leather or rubber tip to the sword can make a huge difference; choosing not to put anything on the tip of a semi-sharp point because you prefer the aesthetics without one is simply irresponsible and childish.
Another major consideration is the expense to which you are willing to go with your training tools. For example, you might be on a shoestring budget, and so you might decide to settle for a cheap sword that has a history and reputation for breaking. However, is putting your partners’ lives at risk from broken blades a reasonable thing to do? Saving up for a more expensive sword might not be as much fun, but you have a duty of care to your training partners, and therefore you should make sensible and responsible choices with regards to your budgeting and purchases. Without naming brands, if you have the choice between a cheapish feder from a company with a history of poor quality control, and a more expensive feder from a smith with a good reputation, then save your pennies and buy the sword that will be less likely to snap and skewer your training partners.
Appropriate safety gear
In a similar vein, you need to ensure that you have the correct safety gear to allow your training partners to practise their techniques on you. It is also irresponsible to expect your partners to touch you softly because you prefer to train in comfort without wearing a padded jacket, if at the same time you are happy enough to smack your partner full force across the torso because he did you the courtesy of putting on his padded jacket to let you practise at a proper intensity. Likewise, asking your sparring partner to be careful of your hands because your gloves are not very well padded, but then sniping hard at his hands, is poor sportsmanship and disrespectful.
Yes, it may be hot and bulky and restrictive to wear more protective gear. Sure, it may make your life more difficult, and you might be able to perform less adroitly than if you wore just a mask, gloves and t-shirt. But if your training partner needs to work at a higher level of skill, speed or impact, then be a good training partner for him and put on your protective gear so that he can train properly.
If you mean to train seriously at higher levels of intensity, then you need to invest in proper safety equipment. From the selfish point of view, it will keep you safe and allow you to keep training even if a partner slips and hits you hard by accident; it will even allow you to practise at a higher level of speed and intent, letting you achieve a higher level of skill in your art. From the ethical point of view, having the appropriate safety equipment means that you can give your training partners the opportunity to train safely and correctly without hindering what they are able to do when they practise with you.
This is not to say that you must always pad up like the Michelin Man; that would be the wrong message. Keep yourself safe and wear protective equipment appropriate for the training that you are doing, but also wear the appropriate gear to let your partner train at the right intensity for the activity.
There are many decisions that are taken during the purchase of safety gear and training swords that reflect your own personal preferences. However, it is important to consider your training partners when you plan your budget, so that you can help keep them safe and also help them develop their skills too. Your choice of gear has a direct bearing both on how safe an activity is for your partners and on how much they can learn from any given activity.
Treat your partners with respect and keep in mind that they are sacrificing their time and opportunity so that you can practise and learn. Bear in mind that your instructors probably spend much more time teaching than they do receiving tuition or practice themselves, and that senior students in the club may also go above and beyond the call of duty to help newer club members. When they have the opportunity to practise with you, be considerate and be a good training partner, and ensure that they can learn something and improve their skills by training with you.
Practising a martial art is not a one-sided activity. You should give back as much as you take from your club and training partners, and help them as they have helped you.
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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.