What makes a good HEMA club? As a potential student, what should you be looking for when you visit for the first time? And as a club leader, what might you be able to do to make your club better?
If you are looking to join a club, it can be useful to look out for a few things to make sure you are joining a healthy environment and not signing up to something unsafe. My suggestion is to look for a club that suits you – if you know what kind of environment you enjoy being in, look for a club that has that. If you enjoy being at the club then you will get so much more out of your time and effort!
Here is a brief checklist for evaluating a HEMA club.
Safety in general
Is there a clear sense of an environment with discipline and safety?
This is probably most important thing to look for, because otherwise, it is not going to be physically (or perhaps mentally) safe.
Look for people caring for their training partners rather than just walloping away.
Listen for reminders to be safe and admonitions when people hit too hard.
Do people line up and listen quietly when the instructor is speaking, or are they chatting with each other and not really paying attention? It is important to have discipline and to listen to the instructor, otherwise people may miss important details or safety advice.
When there is an environment with a baseline of discipline, where everyone knows that they are probably going to be safe, then everyone can have much more fun and explore the martial art within those parameters of discipline and safety. When the discipline is not present, or when the focus on safety is not sufficient, then it may seem more laid back and fun, and it may well be – until something goes wrong and someone gets hurt.
Look for discipline and safety, tempered by fun.
Does the instructor speak loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear?
Instructors need to be able to communicate effectively, and speaking loudly and clearly is a good start. It will be difficult to learn from someone who mumbles. I become so very frustrated by instructors who cannot speak loudly and clearly in their own language.
Of course, someone delivering a lesson in their second or third language should be given significantly more margin! I’m always amazed when people deliver a full lesson in a second or third language; that is not a skill I possess (yet!), and so I would be much less insistent about the quality of delivery. But a native speaker has little excuse, and should be loud and clear and understandable.
Does the instructor offer advice about how to keep the body in good condition, rather than just scoring points and winning bouts?
This is important, otherwise you will be more likely to suffer injuries further down the road! I firmly believe that it is important to train with an eye towards longevity, rather than accumulating short term victories and medals at the expense of the body. If your instructor can provide suggestions for how to keep yourself in good shape, or even to achieve a better shape, then this is a good thing.
Do the participants look happy and look like they are enjoying themselves?
That is always a good sign! A club can still be quite disciplines and focused, but look for smiles on people’s faces as they do things or listen to instruction. You will enjoy yourself more if everyone around you is happy and having fun.
Do they look like they work hard and see results from their efforts?
Good results come from effort and repetition, and a good club should provide opportunity for effort and repetition. Not every club is run by a professional, or by an international level instructor – many clubs are run by people who have a drive to play with swords, and that is perfectly fine! If the environment is safe, and people look like they are putting in effort and seeing results, then this is all you can really ask for.
A club where people don’t seem to be working or improving is probably less of a HEMA club and more of a social club. If you have a choice between a club that works hard (and plays hard) and sees results, and another club that has a bit less of a work ethic, go for the club that encourages more effort and returns better results. You will, unsurprisingly, see better results this way.
Do people other than the instructor(s) receive praise and respect?
You should see and hear respect given to everyone, because this means other people are valued in the club. If the instructor(s) and advanced students are building up and encouraging all the other participants, then this will be a healthy environment for you to join.
It can be all too easy for clubs to fall into cult-like behaviours where the instructors are venerated and students are seen as mere followers – this can happen for all kinds of reasons, malicious or not, but it is still a less healthy environment.
Do the fees work for your budget in the short term?
If you can live with the fees in the short term, that is fine. Remember, in the beginning, you are testing the waters to see if you will be continuing with the activity and/or with this club, so you can afford to invest a little money into finding out whether or not it will be good for you. If you cannot afford the fees in the short term, however, then it may just be too expensive a club for you at this time. No point in bankrupting yourself!
Sometimes people will give advice that a given attendance fee is too much or too little, or that clubs should be trying to make a profit or not make a profit or just break even, or whatever. At the end of the day, different clubs have different expenses and budgets, and different instructors have different goals for what they would like to be able to achieve with the club.
Having participated in and run martial arts clubs where people could attend free of charge, or for a tiny fee, or for a slightly larger fee, I can say for certain that the only time I have had enough money in the club bank account to be able to provide equipment, have a good website on decent hosting, advertise, stock a first aid kit, and generally to make the club a good and safe environment for people, was when the attendance fee was high enough to provide that money.
Does the club play with other clubs, or interact with the wider community?
A good club should have healthy links with other clubs and should interact with the wider community. Otherwise, the club becomes isolated, and it is a crying shame to lose the learning and friendship opportunities of the wider community.
If you ask a gentle question about interacting with other clubs or going to events, the instructor should hopefully sound quite encouraging. If the response is negative, however, or if the instructor immediately jumps to badmouthing other clubs or being negative about the community, then this is a sign that the club may have issues.
On the whole, if you are getting good vibes from a club, that is probably a good sign. If you are not getting good vibes, and it is really just the swords that are pulling you towards a club, then that is probably less than ideal and you might reconsider joining the club in its current form. The most important elements to my mind are safety and discipline, tempered by fun.
If you are a club leader and you have read this far, it might be a good opportunity to think about your club and how this checklist applies to your group. Do you tick all the boxes, or is there something that could be improved? Do you go above and beyond in some fashion? If so, please do let me know what you do at your club that exceeds these guidelines!
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.