Muddles and models are words that sound quite similar to each other, but what they represent are really quite different things. In my experience, whatever the field of endeavour, we tend to muddle through until we learn a good model.
To relate this to HEMA and martial arts in general, is your practice a muddle, or is there a model by which to organise it and help it make more sense or be more effective? If you teach at your club, then do you muddle through your lessons, happy to have survived one more session, or do you have a model for how to communicate information and skills to your students?
Models and fencing systems
I have written previously about the importance of developing and training systems for HEMA. Without a system, all we have is a set of tricks. These might be good tricks, but they are still just tricks, and cannot replace a proper study of a well-considered and complete system.
In business, it is important to develop systems and processes for doing business. Otherwise, you spend your time scrambling about trying to do something to make some money, and so much time and effort goes to waste. Once you have a system, on the other hand, you can just follow it again and again, and it achieves the same result every time. This is incredibly important for a healthy business.
A system is effectively a model. If you can describe it completely (or perhaps even draw it via flow charts or suchlike) then you probably have a good model for understanding the system. You can then apply your model to a variety of situations and see how well it holds up.
As I have written about previously, training HEMA without having a proper understanding of a complete system ends up quite flawed. You develop plenty of tricks but no real understanding of how to use them all together, or an inability to make your fencing look anything like our source material. This may be fine if you just want to fence with a sword, but it’s definitely not good enough if you want to be a “historical fencer”.
People without systems tend to be “one trick ponies”, who do one sort of thing again and again, in tightly controlled circumstances. It might be sufficiently enjoyable for them to keep wanting to do it, but it is not really a good way to become a better, more rounded fencer or martial artist.
By paying more attention to systems, fencers can improve their fundamentals, mechanics, and basic skill-set, and have a strong basis for adding tricks to their repertoire. It is important to have tricks as well as the “normal” techniques of a system, but it is the system that you use for your day-to-day, “bread and butter”, normal situation kind of fencing. The tricks are there to complement this skill-set.
Whether you want it or not, club instructors (and well known fencers) tend to become role models. Students in a club will model their fencing efforts and behaviours after their instructor. Martial artists will often model themselves after other martial artists whom their respect and admire.
If you are in a position of responsibility or authority, what behaviours and approaches are you modeling? What are people learning when they look at you and how you conduct yourself? Is this really the behaviour and approach that you would like more people to have in the community?
If the answer is that you would prefer to see more people show a different behaviour, then you need to model that yourself. Don’t wait for other people to model it for you, because your students or followers will still be modelling themselves after you in the meantime. Make a stand, decide what behaviours you want more people to show, and model that.
Models for teaching
For your average instructor, is it better to make up a lesson on the spot, or to deliver a well-planned lesson that covers exactly what you know that your class needs or wants to work on?
Is it better to give your students all the information at once, or to give them information step by step with time to practise and integrate each step before the next demonstration and exercise?
Is it more effective to do a little of this and a little of that and a little of some other thing, or to build on what has already been learned?
Is it more effective to utilise a random collection of exercises, or to start with a simple exercise and develop it in terms of complexity and decision-making until the end result looks a little like sparring?
Of course, the answer to all of these questions is that the modeled and structured approach is typically better. It takes practice to become a good teacher, just like it takes practice to become a good martial artist. It also requires the adoption of systems and models to be able to teach effectively, just as it takes the adoption of systems and models to be able to perform well as a historical fencer (or modern martial artist) in sparring.
What models do you use for teaching?
Think about the last lesson you taught. If you haven’t taught a lesson before, then think about the last lesson you participated in as a student, and consider what the instructor did.
Were there any models or systems or processes that you used?
Was there something repeatable, that you did repeatedly, that led to better results?
How did you make sure the lesson stuck with your students and wasn’t just forgotten?
How did you communicate and use your voice and language so that the message was received clearly and was understood by your students?
If you have difficulty answering these questions, then maybe you (and your students) would benefit from thinking a little more about these models.
Resources about teaching models
Where can you learn more about teaching martial arts, and useful models to consider?
I have given lectures and presentations on the subject of teaching HEMA over the year, including a reasonably well-known presentation on teaching models at the Dreynevent in 2013, and a presentation on identifying and training fundamental skills at the Iron Gate Exhibition in 2015.
A book about fencing pedagogy that many people know about in the HEMA community is Understanding Fencing by Zbigniew Czajkowski. It describes some useful modeled approaches to teaching modern fencing, and many of the ideas are quite applicable for HEMA and for other martial arts too.
Another book that might be worth reading is Shoto Budo: An Essential Text for Martial Artists by William Haggerty, technical director of the Shoto Budo karate organisation. It was in this organisation that I practised karate and where I initially learned how to teach martial arts, and I still use many of these lessons and models in my own teaching today. Although the examples all use karate skills and techniques, the whole book is a goldmine of teaching resources for HEMA instructors. I think it is such a useful resource that I try to keep copies in stock for sale through my website, because I want HEMA people to be able to order it and read it.
When you are sparring, does it ever feel like you are muddling through? That you don’t really know what you are doing and so you are just trying something, anything? That you don’t know if a technique will be able to work but you hope it might? Then the way to get better is to pay attention to the system and to practise using it, so that there is a sensible model that underpins the majority of what you do with sword in hand.
Thinking about the models you use in your martial arts practice and in your transmission of martial arts skills and information is time well spent. The better modelled and more structured your practice and performance, the more successful the end result will be.
In your practice and in your teaching, are you utilising models and systems, or are you just muddling through? If you want to improve, then models and systems will help you reach your goal.
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.