How many instructors are struggling to find motivation to return to running a HEMA club this year? 2020 was truly brutal, across the globe, in so many ways; many clubs in many countries have been forced to close during local and national lockdowns, and some people haven’t been able to train or teach in person for months, perhaps even coming close to a year.
After so many months away from training and teaching, how many instructors have found other things to do that perhaps bring a little more joy and somewhat less stress than running a club and participating in online HEMA drama?
I suspect the number is going to be painfully large. I know a number of people who have been thinking along these lines, and I really hope that they can find the motivation to continue, because they are truly valuable people in our community, and we will all be the poorer if capable and knowledgeable people step back and decide not to return to the training halls once it is permitted to do so.
In this article, I’d like to offer some of my thoughts directly to those instructors and practitioners who might be losing motivation to return to HEMA training.
Playing with swords
If playing with swords makes you happy, then play with swords! It doesn’t need to be anything more than that if you are struggling for motivation.
Most of us probably became involved with HEMA in some fashion because initially we thought that swords were cool, and then we found an opportunity to become involved with a group of people to play with swords more regularly. And that was great! And then, over time, perhaps we started taking on more responsibility and had less time with swords actually in hand, or less time to do our own thing due to spending more time teaching others. And then doing HEMA became a burden rather than a time to have fun playing with swords.
That’s quite a common story among instructors. It’s quite a sad story! But there’s a relatively easy solution: spend more time playing with swords. Find ways to spend your HEMA time with sword in hand, playing, having fun, and not just standing at the side directing people.
Maybe you can change how you run your classes, so that you integrate yourself into more of the drills you set.
Maybe you can empower other people to run or oversee parts of your classes, so that you can participate without having to instruct at the same time.
Maybe you can consider how to work a bit more “unstructured playtime” into your classes so that the burden of teaching is taken off your shoulders at least some of the time.
There might be a wide variety of things you can do differently with the goal of spending a bit more time with your sword in your own hand, participating in drills and being able to move, laugh, and fence.
For my part, I want to spend more time this year playing with swords and less time being the instructor who stands at the side. My goal, when we are able to get back into regular group practices with contact drills again, is to include more exercises in my lessons where I can be involved for at least some of the repetitions. Alternatively, I’m going to be a little selfish and will join a pair to form a three, and ask to go through a few repetitions myself before stepping back and looking around the room to do the coaching. But I intend to do more repetitions of everything myself during class time.
We don’t need to participate in internet drama. Or at least, not all of it.
It can be really difficult to step back and allow people to be wrong on the internet. It can be even more difficult when you see someone talking nonsense, and then see other people praising them for wisdom and helpfulness. We want to see good information proliferate, and seeing nonsense spread is painful.
But if we engage with every single instance of people spreading myths and misconceptions, then we may well burn out, especially if our motivation is low to begin with.
A good idea is to unfollow, unlike, and unsubscribe from whatever social media channels that you feel bring drama into your life. You don’t need to abandon Facebook completely, but maybe it would be good to leave a larger HEMA discussion group if you find yourself getting into more arguments than you enjoy. At the end of the day, if you don’t see people being wrong on the internet, or don’t see them arguing in bad faith, then you won’t feel so bad about it.
Although it may seem that so much of HEMA happens on the internet, especially on social media, that’s not quite true. Most HEMA happens with sword in hand, in the training hall. We might then talk about it online, but the HEMA itself happens in the training hall. You can still be actively involved with playing with swords without ever talking about it online. Disengaging from HEMA on social media does not mean disengaging from the HEMA community, nor does it mean disengaging from HEMA entirely.
After spending a period of time away from HEMA on social media, maybe you will feel a bit more motivation to reconnect with people, or to participate in discussions online once again. Or maybe not. Either way, as long as you preserve your energy and motivation to remain involved with HEMA at your club, it’s all good.
My own decision has been to leave a bunch of Facebook groups where I haven’t had positive interactions in a long time. I’m unliking and unfollowing all over the place, to preserve my mental and emotional bandwidth, so that I can continue to participate in the discussions that I think are important.
I’m also spending more time on the r/wma subreddit, because in general, people write better answers and arguments there, and it’s a pleasure to see people write longer responses with a better quality of language. Also, being able to downvote nonsense quickly makes the nonsense disappear to the bottom of a discussion thread, rather than it remaining near the top. It’s just a better environment for discussion, more in line with how I like to interact with people, and so that’s where I’m spending more of my time instead of Facebook.
Finding (remembering) your niche
We will all probably be more attracted to some aspect of HEMA than we are to other aspects. However, over time, we might find ourselves drifting away from that. Maybe you have more students who want to learn a different discipline, or who want to direct their training towards a different goal. Maybe you studied something for a few years and got bored of it, but people keep trying to talk to you about it and drag you back in.
If there is a slice of the giant HEMA pie-chart that you enjoy more than anything else, then what can you do to spend more of your time doing that? Can you reduce the amount of time you spend doing the things that interest you less?
Perhaps it’s a matter of making sure that there is another instructor who can take over some of the teaching.
Perhaps it’s a matter of changing the focus of the club a little, so that your lessons are more in line with the goals that you want to achieve.
Perhaps it’s going to be a matter of allowing your club’s numbers to thin a little because you decide that you can no longer cater for everyone.
Maybe help someone else set up another club nearby, so that the people who like doing things differently can still have a home and so that you can still all meet up and train together from time to time. But in your own club, reducing the focus and bringing it back to your niche might be the best way to keep your own interest, so that the club retains the benefit of your passion and knowledge.
When I set up Liverpool HEMA back in 2017, this was exactly what I did from the very beginning. I realised from my previous experience of running clubs that trying to run classes that didn’t interest me was a quick way to burn out, so I set up this club to focus only on what interested me the most. It has been an effective strategy, because the club has remained strong and has been thriving ever since, and everyone who studies at the club is passionate about the same things that really interest me. In this club, we haven’t drifted from our niche, because we had such a strong understanding of what that was and why we are sticking to it.
I know many instructors at other clubs feel stretched thin, because they can’t spend as much time doing what they are interested in, because the club developed differently. The only way to combat that sense of thinness is to focus again, and to spend your time doing what you enjoy doing.
Simplify your club admin
It might have been great to track anything and everything before the pandemic, and to have mountains of paperwork so that you could be on top of everything. But is that really how you want to spend your time?
I have had the experience of being in clubs where everything was tracked, and where there was paperwork to support a grading system, and where it took someone (typically me) a couple of additional hours every week to stay on top of things so that everything could continue to run smoothly. However, that was never what I wanted to do, and so when I opened Liverpool HEMA, I set it up so that it would require the bare minimum of paperwork to keep it running (while remaining compliant with all of our legal and moral obligations).
Is there any paperwork that you could stop doing in your club? Was there something that you were tracking that seemed important at one time, but now seems like more hassle than it is worth?
For other paperwork and admin, such as attendance tracking or membership management, could you spend a couple of hours creating a spreadsheet or other automatic tool so that the weekly processing becomes faster and more efficient? If you don’t have the necessary IT skills to do this yourself, might someone else in the club have the skills?
At the end of the day, all a club really needs to track are the attendance and finances, along with membership and insurance. Anything else is a “would like to have” add-on. Just how important are the “would like to have” features to your club, compared with how much hassle they bring you?
One final thought is that maybe your club members can help with some of the paperwork. Perhaps the “club committee” doesn’t need to follow the traditional job descriptions of president, secretary, and treasurer – maybe you can change it up so that your committee comprises instructor, money person, attendance person, social media person, and person who looks after club equipment. You can set up your club’s committee so that it is actually useful for your club; you don’t need to follow other models just because other people do it that way.
Follow the passion
I’m not saying “decide what your passion is and do that” (which might be helpful advice for some people and rubbish advice for others). Rather, I think we should all look for passion, in ourselves and in others.
What are your students passionate about? Will you get more enjoyment out of teaching if your students are more passionate and involved in the activity? That probably sounds too obvious to be worth saying. And yet, many clubs have a disconnect between what the instructor is passionate about and what the students are passionate about. Can you bring these more into alignment, so that you and your students are passionate about the same things?
Rather than following people just because they speak loudly about an issue, can you connect with and talk with people who are equally (or even more) passionate about something, but who are perhaps a little quieter about it? You don’t need to follow volume; but if you can find people who are genuinely passionate about what you enjoy, and if you can talk with these people and share your passion for the subject, you may feel more fulfilled than by listening mainly to those who are loudest.
Personally, I always feel that I get much more out of events and lessons when my students are passionate and excited by what I’m teaching or talking about. If people are just going through the motions but their heart is elsewhere, then I don’t really enjoy it so much myself.
Similarly, when I go to the pub after a day at an event, and people come up to me to talk to me about ideas they had during or after my lesson, this is wonderful! But if the discussion is all about other things that happened, perhaps a tournament in which I didn’t participate, then I’m much less enthused by the whole situation.
For me, it is much better for my own enjoyment and motivation if I can go where I know people will be passionate about the same things as me, and that way I’m more likely to enjoy the experience and more likely to go home afterwards with new ideas and greater motivation to keep doing what I do.
Part of being a good martial artist is being able to look after yourself so that you don’t injure yourself during a practice.
Part of being a good instructor is being able to look after yourself so that you don’t burn yourself out by running a club.
It’s all too easy to sign up for more and more admin burdens, more and more teaching time, and to find yourself spending less time doing what you actually enjoy while your various other responsibilities increase. When this happens, morale and motivation can plummet.
If you are losing your motivation to come back to HEMA this year, after so many months with the club closed or running at reduced capacity, then maybe you can find your joy in the activity again by shedding some of the responsibilities and demands upon your time.
I would love to hear from any of you who find this article helpful. Knowing that I have managed to make a difference for people is one of the greatest things that keeps me motivated to continue, so please drop me a message if this or some of my other work has helped you in any fashion.
I do hope to be able to see many of you again at an event at some point soon.
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.