More thoughts about tricks and systems (in real life too!)

dussack sparring
Keith Farrell and Daniel Montoro sparring with dussacks. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2018.

The discussion about tricks and systems in HEMA seems to be recurring quite regularly at the moment. I recently saw something while reading an article about business productivity that gave me a new avenue of ideas to pursue, so I’d like to share these new thoughts.

I have written previously about tricks and systems, and why I think it is important to pursue a system rather than just building a collection of tricks. Furthermore, Nial Prince has written a guest article for the site about the importance of having a systematic approach to HEMA.

Systems and hacks in everyday life

I was reading an article about business productivity, which was mainly talking about things I already knew. Part of the article was about the “Eisenhower decision matrix”, which is quite a useful tool for prioritising your work, and one that I do implement myself.

However, in the article, this tool was described as a “clever trick” to boost your productivity; it was discussed more as a “life hack” than as a long-term system for managing your work. Of course, there are so many articles on the Internet offering “10 top life hacks” and “N-many productivity hacks” and so on…

So, I started to think. In everyday life, we do have systems for dealing with things. For example, a morning routine is a kind of system. Mine is to wake up, make coffee, and begin the day by catching up with news and less important emails/messages until I feel awake enough to delve into the more important tasks of the day. Other people have different morning routines, and that is the way that they cope with mornings – it is their system.

What’s the difference between systems and tricks or hacks in everyday life? Well, a system is a long-term solution to a problem, that often becomes automatic, so that you just deal with things in an effective way. If you come across a better system for dealing with the same problem, then you might adopt that new system and replace what you were doing previously.

For example, your system for getting to work might involve driving a particular route for 20 minutes. But then, if there are major roadworks, you might decide that for the duration of the works, the best solution is actually to spend 20 minutes on the train or subway, rather than driving for 40 minutes through traffic jams and roadworks. Therefore, you adopt a new system for getting to work, because for a certain period of time, that will be more efficient.

A “trick” or “hack” for getting to work might be to take your bicycle and go via your favourite juice bar for a pick-me-up smoothie, or whatever. This may leave you feeling healthier and more energised the first couple of times you do it – but is it genuinely a long-term solution? For most people, probably not. Therefore, it’s not really a system; it’s just a one-off trick that you might do from time to time when you want to experience that particular result, but the rest of the time you fall back on your system, which is probably just driving to work in your car.

If you consider your everyday life, what long-term systems do you have in place to manage such problems as waking up in the morning, getting to work, managing your workflow productively, cooking and eating healthily, and using your evenings to whatever end you prefer? What about cleaning and keeping your home tidy? What about maintenance of machines or tools? What is your system for paying bills on time? How do you make sure you actually get up and go out to your clubs or sports or to the gym?

And set against this, what one-off tricks or hacks do you implement from time to time when the mood strikes you or when you have a sudden fit of enthusiasm?

Systems and tricks in HEMA

To return to HEMA, we can consider our practice in the same way. Systems are the underlying algorithms that let us deal with all the day-to-day work, or all the general happenings when we fence. If the situation is this, the system suggests this response; if the situation is that, the system suggests that way of dealing with it. You don’t have to think about it very much because there is a tried-and-tested system that describes how you should conduct the fight.

If you don’t have a system in place, then you may well find yourself struggling to keep up with everything that is happening. When you first started HEMA, you probably found yourself struggling in sparring, without any good idea of what you should do or how to read a situation. Then, as you became better and more experienced, you probably developed some algorithms (systems) for dealing with commonly-occurring situations. Ideally, those algorithms would be the same as those described by the system that you study!

Tricks or hacks would be one-off items that might work in certain specific situations, or that might work for one specific person but not for another, or that might only work for as long as you have the enthusiasm (or physicality) to perform them.

For example, in Liechtenauer’s longsword, the system is very simple: observe the situation, and take the initiative with the right kind of action to put him under pressure, given the position in which he currently stands. If he acts before you do, then keep yourself safe until you can do something intelligent to change the situation. Much of the genius of Liechtenauer’s system, in my opinion, comes from simplifying the thought process so much that you can make good decisions even when under pressure.

However, tricks like squatting down to duck under your opponent’s cut while making your own simultaneous cut to his kneecap clearly cannot become a regular part of a system – not everyone has the strength, stamina, or knee health to make a regular deep squat in the middle of a fight. Can you do that as a regular response to every Zwerhaw you receive? Unlikely! Therefore, it is a one-off action, a trick; admittedly one that is useful to know and to be able to do, but it is not a sustainable algorithm for conducting every fight.

Consider the various actions, approaches, and solutions in the method of fencing that you study. How many of these are viable long-term solutions that you can implement again and again without a problem? How many of them rely on shock and surprise, and are otherwise one-off actions? When you lose that shock and surprise, what do you do after that to ensure that you still perform well in sparring, without being able to use that trick anymore?

If you were to compile a “listicle” of the “top 10 HEMA hacks to win the swordfight!” using the discipline that you study, then what tricks would you include in that? Is there any way that you could link the techniques so that they become more widely applicable in a greater range of situations?


The idea of relating tricks in HEMA to the everyday life hacks that are written about so often is quite intriguing, and it is giving me a lot to ponder. I use the “Eisenhower decision matrix” as a system in my everyday work, and the notion of thinking about it as a quick trick or a simple hack strikes me as very strange indeed.

Similarly, I follow the systems written about in my HEMA sources, and approach the fight with the algorithms they describe, and find that that works very well. Within most sources, there are also some one-off tricks, but I believe the best way to practise HEMA is to focus on the core systems, as that gives you the greatest range of responses to a wide variety of situations, and it also gives you the tactical flexibility to incorporate tricks as and when there is a good opportunity for them.