What do plastic straws, fad diets, and training HEMA all have in common? Quite simply, regardless of what we might be discussing, there is always the temptation to go after the low hanging fruit or to jump on the bandwagon of whatever is currently popular, without addressing the underlying problems that lead to the issue that is visible.
Plastic straws and single-use items
Plastic straws are not, by themselves, responsible for all of the world’s woes. Plastic straws are not responsible for the majority of the damage to the environment. They are somewhat responsible, don’t get me wrong – but I think it is more correct to say that it is people’s behaviour and preference for using single-use plastics (single-use anythings, really) that is more important.
I’m all in favour of reducing our usage of single-use plastics for straws, ear cleaning buds, “disposable” cutlery, food wrappings, etc. However, banning individual examples will not solve the problem completely. Learning to look at the root cause of the problem (using and disposing of single-use anythings, rather than reusing things that can be reused) and then addressing the actual problem (our reliance on and preference for single-use anythings) would lead to significantly better results.
There are some times and situations where single-use things are preferable. Medical supplies are probably best kept as single-use items, rather than reused (unless there is a good method for sterilising and cleaning in between). I’m really not upset about hospitals using a clean (perhaps brand new) needle for each new patient. I really don’t think we need to reuse plasters once they have been used to stop some bleeding.
There can always be examples of situations where the root cause of the overall societal problem isn’t actually a problem in these particular situations. We should be able to make allowances for some small number of situations where this sort of thing is in fact reasonable.
Fad diets and calorie counting
There are all kinds of diets out there, all kinds of wacky theories for “detoxing” or “cleansifying” or whatever nonsense people are trying to peddle. At the end of the day, the relationship between food and diet and health is relatively simple: if you take in more calories than you need, you are probably going to put on weight, and you need a balanced diet with a variety of different nutrients in order to be healthy overall.
Now, of course, you might be able to point to a specific trick or piece of science that works in a very specific fashion to achieve a very specific goal. But is that a sustainable practice that everyone on earth could follow for their entire lives? Probably not.
Comparatively, if everyone on earth had a reasonable and accessible opportunity to eat a balanced diet with a variety of nutrients, and simply ate about as many calories as they burned (maybe averaged out over a week, or a fortnight, or a month or so), then it is much easier to believe that everyone would be able to do that for their whole lives without any major problems. The only stumbling blocks would be the accessibility and opportunity to purchase and prepare this balanced diet, and people’s own willpower to follow it.
I am not a qualified dietician, nutritionist, or doctor, but this seems like a relatively sensible and straight-forward proposition.
I don’t think having a bowl of kale every morning will totally balance out a bad diet, or having a smoothie, or that putting more parsley or garlic or other “superfoods” in your food will solve all your problems. Improving your health has to be a balanced affair where you make a habit of doing generally sensible things and addressing the underlying problems (including your habits) wherever possible.
So what does all this have to do with training HEMA? Swords aren’t made from single-use plastics. Fencing masks aren’t just a fad.
But what we see on a regular basis is that when people are having difficulty with something, it is all too common to jump onto a bandwagon of something currently popular to try to fix it, or otherwise to blame a “plastic straw” for all the issues.
What if you suffer broken hands during sparring or tournaments? Is buying bigger, heavier gloves really the answer? Or should you address the underlying problems of your inability to put your sword where it needs to be to keep your hands safe, your inability to judge distance well enough to keep your hands safe, and your training partner’s lack of control so that he or she hits you so hard that your hands are broken?
Don’t get me wrong, I think having good gloves are important. I wear Sparring Gloves and SPES Heavy gloves to reduce the chance of my hands getting broken. But I also address the underlying issues of distance management, correct technique and correct placement of my body and sword to keep myself safe. I also ask my partners to play nice because I don’t particularly want to get broken.
What if you are suffering from joint pains and back pains and muscle pains? Is it that your sword is too blade-heavy and that you just need a lighter sword? Or are you using your sword badly, with no structure or control of your own body, so that you are constantly joint-locking yourself and putting your body under more strain than it can safely handle?
Again, don’t get me wrong, I think it is dumb to use a sword that is too heavy for you, and would personally prefer to use swords of an appropriate size and weight for what I can comfortably wield. However, if I begin to suffer joint pains, in all likelihood they are developing because I’m doing something wrong with how I use the sword, not because of the sword itself. Rather than jump on a popular bandwagon and buy a different kind of sword because that sword is now popular and might be “better” for me, I will stop doing what leads to the joint pains, examine what has been happening and what might have caused it to go wrong, and then I will fix those problems.
Perhaps, as an instructor, your students are not having much luck performing certain techniques or concepts in sparring. Do you send them all to the gym to become stronger and faster? Or do you address certain fundamental mechanics so that everyone can perform any given action more correctly without needing to rely on strength, speed, or explosiveness for success?
Similarly, what about the situation as an instructor where your students are not really enjoying sparring or in-house tournaments because they keep getting bruised or waffled? Do you mandate even more protective gear, or switch to a lighter, more flexible kind of sword? Or do you perhaps help people get better at protecting themselves, help them become more able to fence intelligently rather than suicidally, and attempt to tackle a problem culture of hitting hard and not looking after sparring partners?
When we run into problems, it can be all too easy to look for a quick fix, a simple plaster or bandage to put on top of the issue and hope that that will be sufficient to make the problem go away. However, these fixes are rather temporary in nature because they are not tackling the real problem; we could consider these fixes to be like banning plastic straws, without tackling the underlying problems in society.
When you attempt to identify and correct problems in your own HEMA training or in the training or performance of your students, try to identify and correct the underlying problems that cause the visible issues, rather than just “banning plastic straws” in your club to try to fix what appears to have gone wrong.
Can you think of any examples of problems that you may have come across in your club in the past that you may have been tempted to treat like “plastic straws”, but that took a deeper, more involved process to be able to make an actual fix for the problem?
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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.