Some thoughts about the afterblow

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Alex and James performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2018.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 14th October 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

The afterblow is still sometimes a contentious issue in the HEMA community, depending on the person or people with whom you speak. I used to disapprove of the concept myself, but over the last several years, I have recognised it to be a valuable training method with genuinely important outcomes. I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the matter.

The afterblow, broadly speaking, is a rule whereby if you strike an opponent in sparring or competition, they have a period of time or a number of actions that they may use to strike you back. If they are successful, then sometimes it might nullify your original hit against them, sometimes it may just decrease the number of points you receive for your hit, or it may even give more points to your opponent than what you scored with your original hit.

The concept is implemented in many different fashions at different events and in different clubs, but the idea is generally the same: after receiving a hit, you have a period of time in which to attempt to strike back at your opponent. The same thing from another point of view: after giving a hit, you must retreat safely, as your opponent still has an opportunity to strike you back.  These two definitions are virtually the same, but the mentality and conceptualisation behind them is different.

The most valuable result of using this rule is that to score a point, the attacker must get in cleanly (without being hit), strike cleanly (without being hit), and withdraw cleanly (without being hit). In other words, the attacker must be in control of the fight before, during, and after the giving of a hit. Simply saying “but I hit first” is not good enough; the onus is on the attacker to keep himself safe all the way through the process.

I think this is a fantastic goal to which fencers can aspire. It is also an eminently achievable goal, as many practitioners in the community today have learned to keep themselves safe even after they give their blows. Whatever one’s opinion of the rule or the concept of the afterblow, surely no rational person can argue that learning to keep yourself as safe as possible while fencing is anything but a valuable skill.

Of course, a large part of the value and usefulness of the afterblow comes down to the mindset of the individual.

If I have the mindset that “I must keep myself safe on my withdrawal, even after landing a hit”, then this is a very safe and reasonable point of view that will probably help me fence better.

Comparatively, if I have the mindset that “if I am hit then I have one action to nullify his point”, then this is a problem. Instead of trying to stay safe, it lets me focus on what happens after being hit. Tacitly, I accept being hit, and instead try to focus on nothing more than landing a revenge blow on my opponent. This kind of mindset often leads to very scrappy and somewhat suicidal fencing.

If I have the mindset that “no one but me is responsible for my own safety at any stage in the fight, including after I have landed my own hit”, then I will fence safely and will not be stupid or suicidal.

Comparatively, if I have the mindset that “it doesn’t matter if I’m hit because I can always hit him back with the afterblow”, then yet again, the fencing will often be marred by stupid and suicidal actions.

As with so much of fencing, and indeed martial arts in general, the attitude and mentality that we possess will dictate how the fencing will occur. A healthy mentality will lead to good-looking, sensible fencing; a poor mentality will lead to scrappy-looking, suicidal fencing. The rules that any given event or club choose to use to provide a framework for free sparring or competition are relatively unimportant. The rules may encourage one style of fighting or another, but a good fencer will fence well under any set of rules, because he or she knows how to fence well and how to fence safely.

A question for practitioners: what is your mentality with regards to being hit during sparring or competition? Is there any way that you could modify your mentality to achieve better results and to receive fewer hits?

A question for club leaders: what mentality do you instil in your students? Do you teach that it is alright to take a hit, or do you try to teach a healthier sense of self-preservation? What can you do at club level to help your students develop a better mental approach and point of view with regard to concepts like the afterblow and remaining safe during fencing?

In closing, I have found the concept of the afterblow to be one of the things that has had the greatest positive impact on my own fencing. Because my mentality is that of not wanting to be hit, and therefore viewing the afterblow as something that forces me to defend myself on my way out after giving a hit, I have become much better at defending myself and controlling my opponent during a fight. The concept has helped me learn to implement many of the pieces of information discussed in the historical sources that I study – but it has done so because of my point of view on how to describe and interpret the concept of the afterblow.

A good mentality makes a good fencer. A poor mentality makes a poor fencer. A fight isn’t all in your head, but what goes on in your head has a direct impact on the physical aspects of the fight.