As with any interest (obsession?), hobby or fitness jag, everyone comes to HEMA with goals. Mostly, we come to HEMA thinking we’re going to be like the Ye Knights of Olde or a character out of a movie. I mentioned before I wanted to grow up to be Athos / Oliver Reed as presented in 1973/4 version of The Three and Four Musketeers. However, being the world’s greatest swordsperson is a very long term goal and there comes a moment when the inveterate hobbyist realises it takes more time than one is willing to commit. To be fair, I’d already come to terms with never being the most advanced martial artist when I started my first martial art back in university, but it was one of my daydreams for the first five minutes of HEMA.
My mistake in this is something that many personal trainers and experienced martial artists can spot from a mile away. I never made short term goals that eventually build up to be the big, over-all achievement. Instead, I ended up doing the reverse as I have no intention of being the world’s greatest at anything, just continuing to enjoy the exercise and camaraderie I get from attending. Avoiding discussion over whether this is a lack that arises in my other careers, it’s worth looking at the short term goals I probably should have made earlier.
1. Make it through the warm up
Different instructors like different kinds of warm ups. I’ve known people who like the kind of workout that compliments fitness training and those that merely stretch out slowly so that the later exercise isn’t a shock to the system. Of course, these things are heavily debated but it comes down to one thing: if you (actually, me) are attending a once a week fencing session, you can’t expect the warm-up to be enough to keep you (me) fit. I had the advantage of doing quite physical outdoor work alongside my earlier years in HEMA, so I never really bothered. Since that component of my day-job has been taken away, I’ve had to actually start doing a short work out in the mornings in order to be fit enough to keep up with one or two of my instructors. I only do about fifteen minutes a day but it’s enough – for the moment.
Should I have done this before? For the level of involvement and fitness required for my level of HEMA, not necessarily. However, if I’d not abandoned my goal of being the greatest swordsperson ever, oh hell yes. Martial Arts are not a tool for fitness and, while not required, fitness can make you better at them. Basically, martial arts are a basic first step into getting fit and a reason to keep going to the gym (if that’s where you go for fitness training).
2. Get the basics right
In fencing, the basics are footwork and a handful of particular positions or movements that vary slightly from weapon to weapon. Without them, everything else falls apart. I could say all of that for any martial art, no doubt, but fencing is pretty famous for those people who are looking for the One Move. By which I mean that one move that’s unstoppable and will defeat any opponent. (Hint: It doesn’t exist.) This can translate to people at the HEMA weekends who are determined to work on complicated and complex parry-riposte (or equivalent) combinations. Given that a large number of HEMAist(e)s only attend a club once a week, this can mean an awfully large number of HEMAist(e)s struggling to map the movement because they still have trouble with the basics. There is no way most of us will be remembering it for our next training session.
In the days when fencing was an important part of being a soldier, man-at-arms, knight, gentleman or whatever, men (and some women) who could afford it would practice every day for hours. Most of them started as children. It could mean several years of practising footwork before they were even allowed to pick up a sword. In more modern terms, don’t be a snob about training sessions that cover basics and, if you have the time or the interest, at least consider the basics while not at training. Having limited time and / or interest, I’ve had to accept that I will be clumsy with the more complicated techniques and that I probably won’t remember how to do them once the lesson is over. Physical work requires practice to map it so well that you can do it without thinking.
3. Push yourself
The problem with just repeating the basics is, you’re not pushing yourself. However, pushing yourself doesn’t necessarily mean diving in to that search for the One Move. It can mean just taking that next step up and adding a couple more moves to your vocabulary without actually getting into the most complex thing you can find. It can mean trying a different weapon – and you’d surprised how difficult it can be to pick up the basics of, say, staff when you’re used to just using a one-handed weapon – or adding an off-hand weapon or even just off-hand movement to your existing weapon.
Basically, I have committed to learning or perfecting that little bit more than I did the week before every time I attend the club. As things stand, we train over four weapons on a weekly cycle: staff, longsword, rapier and dussack. If we’re lucky enough to get a fifth Wednesday in the month, we tend to play games and spar. But these weapons all have different styles and every session has that moment of “Hang on a minute, just how did you move to do that?” as I watch my club-mates / instructors. I don’t really have any choice if I want to continue to attend, which I do: I have to learn how to do these things.
However, getting to grips with these things takes its own time – and that timing is different for everyone, so:
4. Don’t let anyone push you too far
What pushes you too far will be different, most likely, from what pushes me over the edge. However, the best way to explain what I mean is to give you a couple of examples. First off, for full disclosure, I have Asperger’s syndrome (if you don’t know what that is and want to find out more, the National Autism Society has a good explanation here) and this affects how much I can process. I am aware that neurotypical people will also have issues processing particular things but my threshold is going to be a bit nearer than theirs are.
So, I don’t actually attend the staff sessions that often. In fact, I generally avoid them. I kind of wish I could learn more about using the staff but I have a peculiar problem with a room full of people engaging. What is it? Well, when there are multiple pairs of sticks being hit together, the sound feels like it’s trying to explode my brain. I’m okay with one pair hitting staves together and I can just about cope with two, but a full class is beyond me. If I turned up to the session, I would spend most of it hiding in my car, so it would be waste of my time and other people’s good will. This is not something I realised until I started learning staff, of course, so I couldn’t plan for it.
Another thing we don’t learn until we try it is what kind of teaching and learning styles work for us. I can’t listen and act at the same time – at least not while learning something new. The situation I found this out in was while having coached sparring. I had a friend / instructor sparring with me and a new-to-me but more experienced fencer telling me what I should do at the same time. This isn’t going to be easy for anyone but coming to a halt and having a minor melt-down as I did is always going to be considered overly sensitive by everyone around me. I did ask if we could do things one at a time and was basically told “no” (which is a whole other can of worms with regard to bad instructing), which was swiftly followed by me overloading (which is not mature, neurotypical human being behaviour).
It takes time to learn these things about ourselves so, please, in the first instance try things out unless you have a very good idea that they’re not going to work out. If they’re not going to work or they later prove not to work, try to explain yourself as clearly and as simply as you can, without being disrespectful of the people you are with. Don’t let someone else push you into it just because they’re somehow senior to you. You know your mind and body, or should, better than anyone – once you’ve learnt about it.
1. Enjoy yourself
Yes, I’ve started counting from one again. Because this is the most important thing I’ve learnt from my life and from martial arts in particular. While we all have to do things we don’t like (particularly when it comes to the day-job, kids and animals), these should be outweighed by the moments we enjoy. If you’re not enjoying the martial art you study or getting some kind of positive vibe out of attending and achieving (at your own pace), it isn’t the right martial art for you.
I enjoy what I get from HEMA – the friends, the esoteric conversation, the ability to (occasionally) get the technique right, the physical confidence. And I suspect the order I’ve put them in shows a lot more about me than I should admit to. Everything else I mentioned above? Just makes enjoying myself and keeping up with the others easier.