Is it alright or frowned upon for people to make noise, to scream, or to make a kiai of some sort while practising HEMA? What about in competitions when adrenaline is running high?
This is a question that I have seen asked at least a couple of times in the last few months. Opinion is often somewhat divided – some people find screaming quite irritating or déclassé, while other people see it as a natural outpouring after a high intensity action.
I have quite a strong point of view on the matter, but I think it bears further consideration and discussion.
Screaming in other sports and activities
I have participated in a number of sports and activities over the years. It is an interesting exercise to think of each of these and consider how appropriate it would be to make noise during these activities.
It is quite common to see people scream at the end of an exchange during modern fencing, especially at higher level competitions.
Making the kiai is also a critical component of kendo for validating the hit, and is sometimes also an important part of training some styles of karate. However, in some other forms of karate, making a kiai is seen as inappropriate if your action wasn’t good enough to warrant it.
In swimming competitions, people rarely seem to scream at the end of a length or after a race. In athletics, it is rare to hear screaming after a long jump or after running a race. It would be seen as incredibly bad form to scream after winning a game of chess or a game of kubb, or while playing golf, or after finishing a performance at a music competition.
Clearly, some sports seem to expect that players will scream or make noise, other activities maybe tolerate it but it might not be so common, and it would seem to be frowned upon in other activities.
When might making noise be appropriate?
When people have adrenaline pumping, when they put their everything into what they are doing, when they are emotionally aroused, they may well scream or make some kind of noise as a way to vent excess tension or emotion. Not everyone has the same emotional balance, and some people are simply more passionate or more affected by adrenaline. Is it really fair to make everyone conform to the desires of people who work well at a low level of arousal and who can perform well without feeling the need to make noise?
Alternatively, when breathing out at the moment of striking or when making some major effort of the body, it may be the case that the breath is loud and comes out more like a hiss (like we often hear when boxers practise their punches) or a “huh” sort of sound (such as when people jump or throw heavy things). Here, it isn’t so much about making noise, but about breathing in a very strong, deliberate fashion, and that just so happens to create sound as a by-product.
Of course, if the rules of the sport require noise, then it is only reasonable to make it! For example, in kendo the kiai serves to validate the hit in a couple of different ways; without it, the hit will not be scored.
When might screaming NOT be appropriate?
When people scream or apply other under-handed techniques to attempt to sway judges, this is horrifically bad sportsmanship and should be punished.
When people have no self-control or grace, and cannot win or lose without screaming about their great achievements or their heavy misfortune, this is also very poor sportsmanship and should not be tolerated. It is important to be both a good winner and a good loser, and to take the result of the match in your stride without demeaning yourself in the process.
When people scream and it has a negative effect on other people, this needs to be policed. It is not fair to other competitors if their concentration is broken or their attention suddenly distracted by an unexpected, unnecessary noise. When your actions have a negative effect on other people in what should be a fair and balanced environment, you need to improve how you behave.
Finally, if you scream to indicate that you put your all into something, but it was still pretty rubbish, then this is not good. Ideally, you should work on performing better and more correctly in the first place, before you draw attention to your poor performance by screaming. (This was the rule in the karate organisation where I studied for 14 years; making a kiai was fine, if the performance was good enough to warrant it, otherwise people might just look at you like you were an idiot and the instructor might well rebuke you for disrupting the class.)
Do I make any noises when I’m fencing?
So, after discussing these thoughts, let me turn my attention to my own performance. Do I make any noises when I am fencing? It is probably no great secret that I prefer when people keep their screaming to themselves, and I find it quite déclassé when people scream at the end of an exchange or match.
I never scream in joy or frustration at the end of the match. When the fight finishes, I will typically take off my mask and advance to shake hands with or to hug my partner, but I will do so quietly. Well, maybe not always quietly – if it was enjoyable, and finished on a high note, there may well be laughter. I do laugh quite a lot when I am fencing, as I take genuine enjoyment from playing with swords, especially when my partner is willing to play with me (rather than just looking to apply the same technique or tactic over and over again).
I don’t mind hearing my students laugh when they are training. I think laughter is a sign that people are learning, having fun, and working together (at least to some extent) to achieve the outcome of the exercise. However, my thoughts are whether its fair to criticise some people for expressing themselves by screaming while approving of other people expressing themselves by laughter?
I also often breathe out firmly when engaging my whole body in an action, and this often makes a “huh” sort of sound. This usually happens more often when I’m sparring at a higher level of intensity.
Clearly, I make a variety of noises when I am fencing, it is not the case that I am entirely silent all of the time.
I am still not really sure how I feel about the question posed for this article. Having thought it through, I think I am more likely to approve of (or at least accept) people making noises in situations where it seems reasonable and appropriate to do so, where the noises themselves seem appropriate for the situation in question, and where the individual still shows proper sportsmanship.
If sportsmanship is not really evident, then that needs to be addressed anyway, regardless of whether or not the person is noisy. If the noises are not really appropriate for the situation (such as screaming loudly during low intensity training), then that is probably a behavioural mismatch, and that should be addressed, but differently.
I still don’t like hearing people scream loudly during competitive fencing, and I still think that people should probably be putting a bit more effort into looking after their training partners rather than beating them with every fibre of their being and every ounce of intensity that can be brought to bear.
However, after thinking it through, perhaps I may find myself being a bit more accepting of noises and screaming in some situations. Let’s see how that goes for the coming year of events!
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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.