Is technique important?

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

Sometimes there is a question about technique and its importance, compared with other elements of fighting, martial arts, and/or sports. Often some people will suggest that historically accurate technique is what verifies our practice of HEMA; other people will suggest that technique is of relatively little importance and that it is principles that are more important.

I have been thinking about how best to answer this. In the past, due to my karate training, I was of the mindset that principles were more important and that techniques were simply the embodiment of those principles. At the moment, however, I am flirting a little with what might be heresy: my current thinking is that technique is incredibly important in our study of HEMA with swords (especially cutting swords with edges) and that hiding technical deficiencies behind “principles” is a very easy crutch to avoid addressing the real problem.

I may well swing back in the other direction again at some point in time, but I would like to examine this approach while it is fresh in my mind. Maybe it will help me learn something, maybe it won’t; maybe it will help other people come to terms with their own thoughts on the matter, or spark some new thoughts.

My main reason for stating that technique is important is that if you perform a cutting technique and do not display a minimum level of competency, the cut simply won’t work. It will land flat and “slap” the opponent; or it will land with the edge poorly aligned and may bounce or only go slightly into the target; or, if you turn the sword while it is still in the target, you can damage your own sword. (I have posted a video demonstrating what I consider to be good cutting mechanics with the longsword, so you may see what I mean about success and failure.) I have had two of my sharp swords damaged by people who turned the blade while still in the target, i.e. who performed their technique insufficiently and damaged my sword as a result while failing to have any successful effect on a not-very-tough target; I’m now perfectly aware that this is a problem if people attempt test cutting with poor technique.

I am of the opinion that if we cannot cause any actual effect on the target, then it doesn’t really matter what we do, because it’s all a bit rubbish anyway. It doesn’t matter if you hit at the perfect time, if the best that you do is slap your opponent, perhaps even damaging or breaking your own sword (or worse: MY sword!) in the process!

Without even getting into the argument about whether or not a given interpretation of a technique is correct or incorrect (Ringeck says this, Meyer says that, some chap called Bob says this other thing…), we can make a very objective assessment of whether or not a technique is successful: does it match at least one description of the action in our source material, and does it have a measurable effect on the target, without damaging or breaking you or your sword in the process?

It is important to realise that incorrect performance of technique can lead to joint pains and muscular pains. I have diagnosed myself with bad technique on several occasions, and by correcting the technique, I have cured my joint pains and muscle pains. I have managed to help other people cure their joint pains, muscle pains, and tendon issues, by helping them improve their technique so that they were no longer damaging themselves.

For example, when I began to practise with the basket-hilted broadsword, I was studying Hutton’s Cold Steel. It is not a bad source, but it was designed for a particular type of sword (a long, light (c. 600-800 grams or so), slim sabre with a comfortably large basket). It was definitely not intended for the Hanwei practical broadsword that weighed 1.8 kilograms. By using the wrong tool for the source (or the wrong source for the tool in hand), the mechanics of my actions were inappropriate and incorrect. This led directly to wrist pains as I tried to wield a 1.8 kg broadsword like a duelling sabre of a third of the weight.

My solution was to acquire a more usefully weighted sword (800 grams instead of 1800 grams) and to work with a more appropriate source (I moved away from Hutton and began to read Roworth) that described better, more appropriate mechanics for my purposes. Using the right tool for the right source, and following the technical instructions to the letter, meant that my wrist pains disappeared in just a couple of months. Improving my technique led directly to an improvement in my health.

So, in summary, poor and incorrect technique is unlikely to have any meaningful effect on your opponent, but you run the risk of damaging both yourself and your own sword. With good technique, you can have a meaningful effect on your opponent, and you have a much lower chance of damaging yourself and your own sword.

Therefore, technique is important.

That being said, it is ALSO important to learn distance, range, timing, footwork, sensitivity, planning, all that jazz. Without any of that, you may have good techniques, but you will probably never get them to work in sparring. However, it is also no use being good at these skills (so that you can land hits at will) if your techniques are rubbish (i.e. the hits don’t do anything to the opponent, but maybe hurt you and maybe damage your own sword).

I think good technique is the first step towards being a good fencer, because without the ability to have a meaningful effect on the target, it’s all pointless! Once you develop good technique, and can have a meaningful effect on the target, you can then improve your other skills so that you become better able to land your (good quality!) hits at will.

Once you reach a certain level of skill, individual techniques probably matter less, and you can probably “break the rules” while still achieving a high quality result. Until you reach that level of skill, however, technique is still incredibly important, because it is good technique that causes the effect when you land the hit and that keeps both you and your own sword free from self-inflicted damage while you train.

I don’t think I’m at that certain level of skill yet. I’m still working on making sure my techniques have a meaningful effect on the target, and I’m still working on making sure I don’t damage myself or my own sword while using the techniques. I’m also working on developing the other skills, but working on improving my technique still takes at least half my time and attention. I am currently injury-free and my fencing (both in friendly sparring and competitive environments) is better than it ever has been before.

I fear that the suggestion that “technique doesn’t matter” trivialises many of these issues, and that it gives people with poor technique a crutch and throwaway justification to support their lack of attention to detail during their pursuit of “fun” elements such as dancing about playing sword-tag in sparring. I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that any specific person is guilty of this (passive aggressive yet pointed blog articles are not the way to handle issues with any particular person); but I have been involved in face to face discussions at events where people who have poor and ineffective technique are more than happy to say that “technique doesn’t matter”, so I feel that the phrase is somewhat problematic when people start to use it as an excuse for poor performance.

What are your thoughts on the matter? How important is “technique” to you in your practice? Might you achieve better results or better health by focusing on improving your technique – or vice versa, would you achieve better results or better health by ignoring the technical aspects of your performance and focusing on other elements?

This article is not intending to grind any axes or push any particular agenda. I am very interested to hear any discussion that this generates, because as I said earlier, I used to think differently and have perhaps more recently changed my mind, and may well change it again in the near or distant future. Please do indulge me and share your thoughts on the matter, and let’s have a mature discussion about it.

Keith Farrell

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.