My Philosophy for Training and Teaching

Keith Farrell and Jacopo Penso at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

My philosophy for training and teaching has developed over the last twenty or so years of training and teaching martial arts. I have written about facets of my philosophy here and there over the years, and now I would like to bring it together and attempt to write a draft of what I think my philosophy might be.

I think that practising HEMA is one of the most wonderful things I can do with my time. HEMA has so much value in the modern world. I hope I can help my students become better fencers and also better people, and I hope that my legacy of this approach continues and is passed down when my advanced students move on to found their own clubs.

Discussion, argumentation, learning; these are all things that participation in HEMA can bring to enrich our lives. I really appreciate a good argument which leads to growth on both sides of the debate. However, people (myself included) need to learn how to argue well before the debates can be useful.

When I think about what HEMA is for me, I have a very particular point of view. It needs to be historically verifiable (the ‘H’), it needs to be European in nature (the ‘E’, although this can be a bit fuzzy at the edges!), and it needs to be a realistic and competent martial art (the ‘MA’). If what we are doing is lacking in any of these areas, it is no longer HEMA in my mind. It can still be a beneficial practice, and it can still be a lot of fun, but I wouldn’t consider it HEMA unless it satisfies these three points. An important question to ask is whether we are training what is written, or simply training with a particular kind of weapon; for example, am I training the system of Polish sabre, or simply training WITH a Polish sabre?

Memes annoy me. A little silliness in a serious pursuit can be fun, but being bombarded by nonsense for most of the day whenever I look online is not even remotely helpful. I know it is a naive thought, but I’d like memes that perpetuate myths to die out so that the myths and misconceptions can also die out – the mistranslated “end him rightly” meme is a prime candidate for this.

Training safely and effectively

Although it might be fun NOW to win more bouts, I want to make sure that I can keep training until I’m in my 80s (or even older). Therefore, I have to ensure that I am training for the future, and not accepting short-term gains in exchange for my long-term health. I have to pay attention to the warning signs of pain and learn the difference between the pain from a solid hit and the pain that tells me a muscle or joint is being overworked and needs a rest. Sometimes, it is valuable to know when not to win a fight.

We need to learn how to make both our footwork and handwork effective, so that they can work independently yet still support each other. We need to make sure that our footwork lessons are functional and effective, otherwise they are a waste of our time. One of the best ways we can train footwork is to play games like children. We can make footwork part of other exercises that are commonly practised in a more static fashion, such as Meyer’s four openings drill.

Training isn’t only for the salle. I can do things to keep fit while working from home, to keep developing my strength, and to make sure that I don’t damage myself by sitting for too long every day.

I think there are many similarities between fencing and driving, and it is interesting to compare the different activities we do to see what the similarities and differences are, and what we can learn from the other things that we do in life.

Learning to train in a consistent fashion is of incredible importance, not only to ourselves, but for the benefit of our training partners. We have to be able to give the correct stimulus in drills, otherwise our training partner cannot practise the correct response, and the drill breaks down. An excellent example of this is with the Schaitelhaw and how we fence from Alber. Learning to do things correctly, every time, is imperative. One of the best ways to do this is to start by learning big motions before trying to condense them and make them smaller and tighter. A good example of this is learning the position of Vom Tag over the head before working with the sword at the shoulder.

It’s also immensely important to give yourself the opportunity to have your performance judged by strictly boolean data, that you cannot hide from or excuse away. Test cutting is an excellent way to challenge yourself if you believe that you are a good fencer but find that you cannot cut through even the softest and easiest target with a sharp sword.

Safety and responsibility

No matter how much protective equipment we wear, or how flexible our swords are, there is always the chance that something will go wrong and an accident will occur. I believe that we all have a responsibility to our training partners, and that it is our own personal responsibility to look after those with whom we train.

People often talk about the difference between sparring with steel swords and sparring with synthetic swords. I think this is a red herring, and what is more important is to talk about intensity during training, as this makes more difference to risk and safety than using steel or synthetic training tools.

However, our training tools do need to be suitable safe. A safe training sword should be suitable for the discipline in question, and should have some kind of tipping solution, suitable flexibility in the thrust, and (for simple-hilted swords) an appropriate schilt or ricasso beside the crossguard.

Learning to do sparring well

When I spar, I need to learn how to deal with whatever the opponent throws at me, regardless of how well-formed or “correct” I think it is. If I can’t deal with it, I get hit, and that’s my problem. Therefore, I think it is important to include things like attacking the hands in sparring, so I that I can learn to keep myself safe.

I believe that physical characteristic and personal attributes, such as height and reach or speed and athleticism, is a poor strategy in the beginning. Relying on attribute fencing can bring medals in the short-term but leads to plateau in the long-term; a better approach is to learn to fence properly without having to rely on your attributes, and then, once you are a skilful fencer with a strong grasp of your system, you can then begin to personalise how you use your system according to your physical (and mental) attributes.

In my experience, sparring is not always the best training method to become better at sparring. Instead, we should drill intelligently, increasing the complexity of our exercises until simple lessons become almost like sparring, so that the fundamental skills and body structures become ingrained enough to become present in sparring.

As a shorter person, I often find myself sparring with taller opponents. There are all kinds of myths about the short personhow to win against a taller opponent, or even that victory as a short person is impossible; it is important to recognise these myths for what they are (nonsense), and to know that the “secret” to success as a shorter person is simply to do everything properly and correctly, all the time, with no shortcuts.

I think that the afterblow is one of the most important training tools that we can use when learning to fence safely, and we should train the withdrawal assiduously, to avoid being hit.

The role of tournaments

What we have seen in longsword tournaments over the last decade or so is that there has been a distinct improvement in people’s skill, and this can be attributed at least somewhat to the amount of time people spend making sure their techniques can work under pressure. We have seen the development of more historical technical in modern tournaments as more and more fencers increase in skill and as the average, baseline skill becomes higher in any given tournament.

We cannot allow the tournament scene to stagnate, because then it will cease to be as helpful, and will then branch away from the study of the sources, as it becomes a game with its own techniques and conventions. There are several thing we can do as a community to safeguard the future of HEMA tournaments so that they remain useful to the community for years or decades to come.

We can never simulate a “real fight” with our tournaments, and so it is simply not worth trying. Instead, we should pick a goal that is realistically achievable, choose a fencing behaviour that we would like to encourage and to see develop, and model our tournaments and rules on accomplishing that. This also helps to position tournaments as a training tool, rather than than making them the end goal of all of our training.

Training a system

I try to follow a source (or group of related sources) as best I can. This means prioritising the actions and concepts from those sources; if they don’t work, then I need to diagnose my problem and learn what I need to do in order to improve my skills to make them work. It means examining my practice with regard to the sources, and cutting out actions that the sources don’t seem to describe – for example, Ringeck doesn’t discuss very many feints, so when fighting according to that system, I should try to work more directly toward my opponent.

In the beginning, I believe we should focus on learning about the system we study, rather than merely learning tricks. However, tricks are a part of many systems, and so we should not hesitate to add the tricks once we have a solid grasp of the system.

We can never learn a historical system simply by picking up swords and “seeing what works”. In my opinion, we absolutely must have historical source material for us to make an honest claim that we are studying a historical fighting system such as Viking sword and shield, otherwise we are being slightly dishonest with ourselves as to the validity and accuracy of what we are doing.

There is always the question about how valid it is to question the masters, and when can we pronounce that one of the source is flawed? I think we have to become skilful and knowledgeable fencers first, otherwise our opinions are merely that: opinions. Another similar question is why not fight with mixed weapons more often? Again, I think we need to become skilful and knowledge fencers first, otherwise our experiments are not very useful; they might be fun, but if we gain results from an early experiment, before we can conduct the experiment more correctly and more usefully, might colour our thoughts and impressions unhelpfully for quite some time afterwards.