HEMA, in it’s modern revival, is a new and blooming hobby. This article talks a bit about the strengths and weaknesses this creates, and then gives some guidance for the new instructor.
The blessing and the curse of HEMA is that it is “new”.
There is a rich history of attempts at resurrecting ancient swordplay, but the current revival dates back only to the 1990s. Many clubs are much younger than this, being founded in the last decade or less. Moreover, it’s small in the way that a niche hobby is, with comparatively few practitioners often geographically isolated from each other.
On the plus side, this means that HEMA is experimental, paradoxically innovating even as it looks to historical sources for guidance, and not tethered greatly by tradition or gerontocratic hierarchies. As a HEMA practitioner, I’m free to do what I want, to try new interpretations of a source’s technique, to compete where I want, and no-one has any right to stop me. Even those most experienced admit their interpretations are subject to change; be suspicious of the know-it-all!
“Let a hundred flowers bloom” then, and let’s hope that no-one is in a position to suppress the schools of thought before they can contend. Generally, HEMA culture has been open, egalitarian, and selfless. Let’s keep it that way! Roger Norling, of Gothenburg Free Fencer’s Guild, has a great article on all this that’s likely more coherent than my description. Go read it.
Yet, HEMA culture also has some weaknesses…
The negative is that HEMA has little by way of accumulated knowledge, either about the arts themselves or how to train and teach them. Sure, in twenty odd years we’ve learned a thing or two. Compared to the hundreds of years, and much higher practitioner numbers, of combat sports like boxing, wrestling, or (Olympic) fencing, though, we’re infants. I was lucky when I began HEMA, because I got to train under an instructor who’d been trying this HEMA thing from the era of “fuzzy photocopies of Talhoffer passed between medieval re-enactors like Samizdat”. He had a lot of it worked out already, and some experience teaching and training it.
He’s also changed both what and how he teaches it repeatedly in the eight years since I began training with him. I could learn from him, but he was still learning himself. Obviously, any good coach should be a lifelong learner, but we’re talking about lacking a secure foundation of basic pedagogy as well as technical knowledge. This has affected the majority of established HEMA clubs that I’ve visited, never mind newly founded ones.
It’s common in HEMA for new clubs to be founded in “isolation”, inspired by the founder finding about HEMA on the internet or by a student from another club moving to a new area and missing their HEMA training. They want a club and they want HEMA. They’re not sure whether they’re ready to teach it. In fact, they’re sure that they’re not. I wasn’t…
Here’s my advice for those readers who’re in that Newbie New Coach situation.
Since I started writing this post, Guy Windsor published a guide on his blog that made half this article redundant. Such is life. I’ll therefore be focused on what he hasn’t already said. Teaching and Training rather than organization and finance. This is good, because my organisational skills are mediocre when I try hard…
We’ll assume you know what you want to study. If not, hit up Wiktenauer and get inspired. Or do Liechtenauer tradition longsword, because that is my favourite and you want to stay on my good side.
Got a source? Great! But how to train, how to teach?
Say hi to the “HEMA World Domination” group on Facebook. It’s by HEMA coaches, for HEMA coaches, and we’ll commiserate and congratulate you as needed.
You don’t have to be the best, but you should be sincere and positive.
It’s ok if you’re not a legendary HEMA competitor, researcher, or coach already. Really, it’s ok. You formed this club so folks who suck at HEMA can get together and work out how to suck less. It’s ok to have imposter syndrome, or not know answers. What’s less acceptable is hiding behind acting the dictator, or avoiding pressure-testing yourself or your interpretations because you can’t risk being found out. So admit where you’re shaky, explain why you think what you think, and most of all remember that a coach’s role is to facilitate people’s training.
I was lucky, when I started my club, to have a handful of experienced HEMA students. I was even more lucky that they were driven and inquisitive students. I joked that I could leave them alone for 2 hours and they’d still be making amazing progress. It wasn’t really a joke so much as a funny truth.
What’s almost more important than informing people is keeping them focused on fencing and wanting to learn more. Be ready to play cheerleader as much as coach.
Steal. Without remorse.
You don’t know how to teach? Or even how to train a martial art? Go find out. I’ve learned a lot about coaching and teaching from other martial arts I train, but I’ve know people with good coaching skills they can apply from teaching motorbike maintenance, American football, and basketball.
The best option would almost certainly be to go get a sport fencing instructor qualification, but do what you can.
Also, when you can do HEMA somewhere else, do! Make a monthly trip to the next city, even if they’re not doing the same tradition as you, or save up some pennies and go to an international HEMA event. I’ve taken to referring to those trips as “recharging the HEMA batteries” because I come back not just inspired but refreshed by seeing new approaches and new enthusiastic faces – and not having to run everything!
Now in terms of structuring curriculums. Curricula? Stuff to teach over the long term.
You’ve got that source, but many historical manuals aren’t laid out like useful manuals. Often they aren’t manuals but aide-memoirs for advanced trickery, or advertising copy to persuade you to buy the personal instruction, or essays on one aspect of fencing, or they’re meant to be manuals but the author’s skill at fencing was better than his technical writing. Look to modern work on the source, whether hard copy or forum discussions or video. Just take it all with a pinch of salt.
In terms of what to teach first, while I have an itchy dislike of “basics” and “advanced” there are definitely fundamentals to any system. Performing some techniques depends on knowledge and/or proficiency in others, both on the part of the performer and on their training partner. You can’t practice parrying without an attack incoming.
Before a student can throw a good zornhau, they need a good vom tag to chamber the cut.
As a *rough* guideline, I go stance -> movement-> preparatory guards-> attacks -> cover -> counters in double time -> feints and compound attacks -> counters in single time.
Exactly which you use isn’t as relevant, but if you wanted to teach a [WARNING: GERMANISH JARGON INCOMING] Zwerchau counter under a Zwerchau that came as a disengagement from a bind in Ochs vs Kron that was generated by a parried Zwerchhau… you’d pretty much have to follow the above chain of dependency.
Lesson Planning. What To Consider At The Scale Of One Training Session. That Stuff.
I like a breakdown of about 15 minutes warm up, 15 minutes solo/simple drilling (stuff we know how to do already AKA “waking up the sword brain”), half an hour of technique (AKA “new stuff”), half an hour of sparring (which doesn’t necessarily mean “go fight” – limited sparring is more common) and half an hour warm down and stretch out (and chat, and packing). That’s a 2 hour class. That might not suit you, but that’s about what I like. I wish I could pack faster though…
With combinations of techniques in drills, either structure as flows (a to b to c) or as options (a to b, or to c, or to d), or a mix. It depends on the material or your mood. Or sometimes I teach “parallel” – so a, b, and c are all different techniques in different places but with the same logic. For example: Durchwechseln from hard bind in Sprechfenster is a disengagement. So is a Zucken against a strong bind on your Ochs. So is collapsing to a Hangen and Schnappen etc.
Occasionally a student asks a question that makes me throw the whole plan away anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that. Be happy to give your students what they need, not what you want to give.
Check the rear view mirror often- and realistically.
Review how classes went, and how students are learning. Don’t fall into the common mistake of taking things personally if the result isn’t 100% perfect. Things take time, especially learning complex open-ended skills. If a student hasn’t mastered something on the first attempt, you’re not a failure any more than they are. Perhaps look for more approaches to explaining it, or just let them rep it out.
Final Points: Principles Before Technique; Application Before Forms.
It’s better to have students who understand what a Vorschlag is and what it needs to do but only attack with simple Oberhaus, than students who can throw textbook versions of all five hidden strikes but can’t use them to initiate exchanges safely from the Zufechten. With new students who’re paying attention to why techniques work, I usually find they’re inventing half the syllabus before I get around to teaching it.
Once you’ve learned about the “thumb grip” for Zwerchaus, using it to Schielhau is natural. Once you’ve done a Zorn-Ort cover and thrust, combining them to a single time Absetzen is natural.
If you want to build up fencers and fighters, not technique collectors and posers, you’ll need to both make sure they get a good amount of tactics and principles in their training diet, and give them lots of supported and structured time to work on using their techniques in an alive manner.