What’s Your Game?

Varying motivations bring people to HEMA. Understanding these can help you attract and retain training partners by by ensuring that everyone’s needs are met.

A while back, I suggested giving The Inner Game of Tennis a read. One lesson from it that I touched on was the idea of different motivations and goals in playing tennis. Or, in our case, in historical fencing. Gallwey calls these “Games People Play”, and gives four main types, each with a variety of subtypes. Gallwey addresses both the strengths and weaknesses that can come with each Game. People are almost always endeavouring to play more than one of these Games at once, of course!

The Broad Types

Good-O:Good-O: Git gud. Includes both the quest for “perfection” as well as “competitive victories”. Looking stylish can be a form of this – who do you know who prefers to be called “technical” than win points? Conversely, it may be that someone finds a win to be a win, whether their fencing was “good” or not.

Friend-O: Socialising both on and off the tennis court, or in our case fencing pistes. Included here are Games of status as well as togetherness – consider the role of golf in business!

Health-O: Exercise, fresh air, a better body. For some, fencing or tennis or other hobbies offer motivation to take care of their diets etc., too!

Fun-O: Enjoyment! Includes the fun of learning new skills, of playing the Game itself, of getting to wail on someone with a sword after a long day in the office.

Extra HEMA Games

As a historic martial art, your HEMA practice is likely to add at least two more (sub-)Games: the historic aspect, and the martial one.
Many people practice HEMA from an interest in history, and this can extend into motivating their HEMA practice in two main ways – a research interest, and an identification.

The research interest is the larger part of History-O, a sub-Game of either Good-o or Fun-o; you enjoy reading about the art and/or its context, or you want to be a good researcher for status or just inner satisfaction. HROARR.com has run a HEMA scholarship award for the last four years to encourage and recognise such contributions to the community’s knowledge base.

Identification is, for me, a more troubling Game. No doubt many come to HEMA wanting to be “a real knight” or similar. The issues it potentially throws up are twofold - inaccuracy and bigotry - but both involve the romanticisation of the past. Glorifying medieval chivalry has a long tradition, of course, but it often involves wearing heavily rose-tinted glasses. This is exacerbated when the influence is from secondary media influenced by history. Yes, I mean Game of Thrones and the like. And to be clear, enjoying the link that HEMA presents you with to the past does not inherently come with racism, sexism, or even inaccuracy. But like any other appeal to historical nostalgia, it’s easy for distortions and blind spots to creep in.

The martial aspect of HEMA adds its own Game of “martial validity”. Our fencing practices are a reflection of more earnest and violent pursuit (or in some cases, of a historic game that itself was training for violence) and there’s continual debate in HEMA about the degree to which interpretations, training or actions are practical in serious struggle. The feeling is that sword fights may be anachronistic but we’ve decided to train for them, so we should do it right. This not only includes  test-cutting to ensure our techniques would be effective with sharps and pressure testing in competition, but also considerations of mentality and legality.

Photo by Dana Crow

For some, this Martial-O Game extends to the world outside the HEMA club – violence is not just an abstract consideration for them. Instead, they look to their HEMA training for solutions to real world self defence needs. This isn’t something I do, and I feel there are often issues with appropriateness or mis-selling, but the “Defence-o” Game is a motivation with as much validity as any other.

The Importance of Training Earnestly

Why take note of these Games? To help you play them! It’s lot easier to maintain your motivations when you’ve reflected on what they are. If you’re not sure what you want, how are you going to achieve it? Remember that you too will be playing a mix of Games.

It can at times be a surprise to realise the Games you’re playing. “I don’t really care about medals/compliments/rank, do I?” but it’s better to admit it and work on it than deny. It is up to you whether “work on it”means working towards the goal or working to minimise playing that Game because you dislike it!

Acknowledging and respecting the Games that others are engaged in will also help improve your training environment, as well as theirs. Not everyone is working towards the same goals, and making allowance for that is critical. It can be stressful if you’re obsessed with winning Swordfish while your training partner is just there to chat and lark around . On the other hand it’s also unpleasant if you’ve come to historical fencing to have fun, make friends and learn a bit and this one person acts like it’s a Rocky montage. Ivan Drago’s half, even. Complete buzzkill!

If folks are playing wildly different Games it may make sense to set up different training streams - say, a competition class. It may be enough to just make allowances within training for different goals.

Zen and the Art of Stabbing

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging what Gallwey sets out as the highest Game to play - to use tennis (in his case) as a vehicle for inner focus, towards an ultimate goal of harmony and joy.

For only when man is paying attention to something he really loves can he concentrate his mind and find true satisfaction. So the search is on, the search for the goal of the inner game.


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