I believe that honesty is incredibly important in the pursuit of martial arts. Of course, honesty is an important characteristic in real life as well – dealing with people fairly is better than being underhanded and devious. Dishonest people quickly gain a reputation for their misbehaviour.
However, there may be other ways that honesty improves your martial arts, that might be less comfortable to address and integrate into your practice. Some types of honesty do require work and effort before they become second nature.
Honesty about what you need to improve
Let’s start with an easy one. It is important to be honest about what you need to improve in your training, so that you can focus on the right thing. Obviously.
However, this can be tough if you are in a position where there is pressure to get better at something, yet you know that it is something else that demands your attention. For example, you might be receiving pressure from instructors or from friends to work on becoming faster and stronger so that you can score more hits during sparring or competition; but if you know that you really need to work on your general stability or on looking after a joint after an injury, it can be difficult to do what you know you should be doing in the midst of the peer pressure (or even worse, pressure from your instructor).
By being honest about your needs, you can focus your training on what you need in order to improve your practice at your pace.
For me, I need to spend more time doing repetitions with a partner if I want to become substantially better at HEMA.
Honesty about what you are doing well
While this may seem obvious, it is something that many people struggle with. Time and again, I see people doing quite cool things that they weren’t able to do a year ago, only to hear them say something like “I’m rubbish” or “I’ll never be able to do it properly”.
It is important to be able to make an honest assessment of what you are doing well in your practice. That might be as simple as not getting hit as often as before, or not falling over as often, or not arching your back as you raise the sword over your head. However, these are still negative statements; it helps to be able to look at them as something positive.
“Not getting hit as often as before” means the same as “getting better at defending yourself”.
“Not falling over as often” means the same as “getting better at footwork”.
“Not arching your back when you raise the sword over your head” means the same as “improving your core strength and your body structure”.
It’s not just a matter of reversing your statement. You have to be able to identify what you are doing well in order to understand what improvements you have made already, and to be able to plot a sensible course for further improvement. Furthermore, it is greatly beneficial for your mental health to be able to see that you are doing good things and that you are getting better, and it is a major factor in improving your chances of achieving your goals
For me, I think I’m doing pretty well at quite a lot of things. I can see where I’m having success in my practice, and I’d quite like to have even more success.
Honesty about the frequency of your training
Do you train as often as you think you do? Have you ever found yourself saying “oh, I go to the club quite a lot” only to find that it has been several weeks since you were last there? How much supplementary training do you do outside the club’s regular sessions?
I have written before about the importance of consistency in martial arts, and the more often (and the more regularly!) you train, the better you will become. If you can be honest with yourself about the frequency of your training both at and outside the club, and how consistently and diligently you do your practice, then you will be better poised to regard training as a priority, and you will be more likely to improve faster.
For me, although I attend the club every single week, I don’t usually do very many repetitions at most sessions. I usually spend my time instructing. I could probably double the amount of training that I’m doing by inserting myself into the training of more exercises at the club.
Honesty about your diet and health
Do you eat well? Do you indulge more than you should?
Honesty about your diet and your health is probably good for life in general. I won’t suggest that you need to be super healthy and super fit to do martial arts, or that you need to inspect everything you eat with the attention of a dietician or nutritionist – that is rather excessive!
However, if you want to get better at martial arts, then it really helps if you can make efforts to improve your body as well. How much easier would it be to fence if you lost a couple of kilos? How much easier would it be to fence if you could gain a little more strength? How much longer could you keep sparring if you stopped smoking?
Of course, at the end of the day, you have every right to make your choices about diet and health, and to set your priorities however you please. But can you make an honest assessment of what you are eating and how healthy you are? Can you take even a few small steps to become healthier as a result?
For me, I could probably improve my health if I drank less beer. I could also probably improve my health if I slept more, which would mean going to bed a bit earlier and not working so late at night. Maybe I should give my health and more sleep a higher priority – that would probably be intelligent.
Honesty about your problems and their solutions
I hear (and read) a lot of people excusing their lateness or state of being rushed by saying “I didn’t have time”. What that statement is usually covering for is “I didn’t make time to do it and so it didn’t get done in a timely fashion”. We do have choices about how to spend our time, and we typically spend it according to our priorities. So, in fact, “I didn’t have time” is shorthand for saying “that was of such low priority that I didn’t make time for it”.
In terms of your martial arts training, do you typically “not have time” to do? What else are you doing, to which you are giving a higher priority at the expense of your training and improvement? Can you re-arrange your priorities so that you can make time to do more training or more helpful things?
In a similar fashion, what problems do you hide behind simpler throw-away statements? Is there a deeper problem that could be addressed if you made a more honest assessment of the situation?
For me, I try to be as honest as possible when I make excuses, even if I’m just making excuses to myself. Beyond a certain point, there’s not really much excuse to be had, and I just have to take responsibility for a failure to do something. So, I try to avoid saying “I didn’t have time” and I try to give an honest reason, perhaps “I was doing other more important things” or “I simply couldn’t bring myself to deal with it today”. Then I can identify the solution more easily, and also implement the solution more easily.
Honesty about what you are trying to achieve
Why are you doing martial arts? What are you hoping to get out of it? What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to be with it in one year, two years, five years? What is it that drives you, that motivates you to get out of the house and go to the club?
When you can state your goals and motivations honestly, so much becomes easier. You no longer need to try to keep up with everyone else if it turns out that you have a very different goal or motivation. You don’t need to feel that you are doing something wrong by taking a different approach to your training or study. You can follow your motivations and work towards achieving your goals and you can be content with yourself and your achievements.
A lack of honesty about what people are doing and what they are trying to achieve is unfortunately common. It’s rarely malicious; it is usually just that people haven’t thought about it very deeply. I have written before about what HEMA means to me, and why I think that historical accuracy is important to strive for in our practice. I have also written about the difference between “doing Polish sabre” or “fencing with a Polish sabre”. I wouldn’t say that either approach is wrong. What I would say is that they are quite different activities with different goals that require different approaches, and therefore it is helpful to understand and be honest about what it is that you are trying to do, so that you can focus on doing that.
For me, in my training of HEMA, I want to recreate a historical fighting system as accurately as possible. I don’t want to modify it or develop it or add my own touch to it. I don’t want to reshape it to fit a modern context. I want to recreate it exactly as it was, as best I can, and THAT is the challenge that I enjoy. That is what I want to help people to do when I’m teaching.
Honesty about what you are willing to sacrifice
Of course, any investment of time and effort (and money!) means sacrifices elsewhere. If you spend time training, you can’t spend that time sleeping. If you choose to spend money on HEMA gear, you can’t spend that same money on beer or socialising. If you put your family first and always make time to spend with them, then your HEMA training may have to take second place and may suffer as a result.
What are your priorities? What is the number one thing that you will always make time for, and for which you will reshuffle or reschedule anything else? How does your martial arts training compare in terms of priorities to work, family, health, and relaxation? What are you willing to sacrifice to do more of something else?
For me, I put family first, quite consciously, and will sacrifice HEMA time to spend time with my wife. I have been quite bad in the past about sacrificing my health in order to do more work or to attend more HEMA events, and I think it’s about time for me to elevate my own health in terms of my priorities. Does that mean I need to sacrifice my martial arts practice? No, I don’t think so – it just means that something further down the list of priorities is going to have to get the chop!
We can be honest with many of our activities, priorities, and approaches. It may be uncomfortable to ask some of the questions in this article, and to consider the answers truthfully, but the result will be a better understanding of yourself and what you want to achieve with your life, and how your martial arts practice fits within this.
Since asking myself these questions a few years ago, and demanding honesty from myself in the answers, I have been able to become happier and more content with life and how I go about the things I do. I believe it has helped me gain a deeper understanding of the martial arts I practise, and it has helped me focus on doing the most useful things to aid my development.
I hope that this article is thought-provoking and that you spend some time considering these questions as honestly as possible. I would be delighted to hear from any of you if an honest assessment of these questions led to you choosing to change something in your life or in the way you approach your training. Please do drop me a message if you would like to share a story!
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.