Xmas informal tournament observations

A bunch of people got some tournament-style practice in on Monday, courtesy of our Southern Historical Fencing League brethren visiting for the holiday. We ran one round of fights, then seeded a double elim bracket. We had 14 people, so the top seeded got some byes.

fight score spreadsheet:

image of tournament brackets:


Major lessons learned/observed

Use more footwork!

Many fighters put down roots by the 2nd or further action in a single heated exchange. This happens b/c the brain is overloaded with unfamiliar movements, and always ditches foot coordination first. Some people demonstrated the value of instead being able to sidestep and cut around, in that moment. You HAVE to drill footwork patterns beforehand in order to have that reflex under pressure.


Wrist/arm structure!

Several fighters tended to wing their rear elbow out and/or collapse their wrist in Ochs (crossed or uncrossed wrist). This resulted in weak zwerchhau strikes or covers that meant either no hit or the opponent blasted through. When going to Ochs, push the hands squarely up and away from the center of your chest, in an overhead press motion. This gets your hands off the center line so you don't trade taking a head hit for a hand hit, and instead cover the head w your sword's stark (strong). The press also helps straighten the wrist and line up the shoulder and elbow to minimize injury risk.



Saw a BUNCH of exchanges where fighters plowed in like buffel, striking hard repeatedly, until they were tied up forearm to forearm. This happens a LOT, all the time, over the past two decades of WMA/HEMA sparring. Please stop. If you can be the smarter one to see it first, you can:

  1. Quickly step out laterally and snipe him for free as he passes (see footwork above).
  2. Double down and seize initiative to enter even deeper to set up a throw (since our club now has half a dozen people with that skill set) while the opponent is still thinking "I'm gonna git his sword!"


Closing the line!

Most longsword people don't mentally start their cover game until the first strike is thrown. This wastes a great opportunity for a safe entry setup even before the zufechten (Onset). Both fighters throw their first right overhand zornhau to enter, and then upon the bind, they're all herp-a-derp, maybe i shud close a line and work my guards. Instead, take a page from rapier, and set up an invitation and/or close a line from just OUTSIDE of the Onset. Then as you enter, adapt to the opponent's response. He will:

  1. Stay still too long like a mook, so just stay the course w your closed line and hit him (typical zornhau, zornort, etc.).
  2. He will commit to closing a line out; when he moves to close one line, he necessarily opens another one. Change and hit him where he opens up, in the krieg (War).
  3. He will strike at you reflexively, ignoring his defense. Close your line (a shallow krumphau or going to Kron can help) and, in the Krieg now, wind against his sword (in order to keep your line closed while striking). This can e.g. mean going from the bind, sliding his upper blade onto your crossguard, and follow with a wind to thrust, or let the tip slingshot wider to strike zwerchhau, sturzhau, etc.


Fight clean!

A quick survey of the bout outcomes showed that there was a 1.0 exact correlation between clean hits and winners. i.e. if you got more clean hits than your opponent did, you definitely won on raw points, Nordic net points, AND (certainly) either of the alternate schemes that reward higher point values to clean hits. There was not a single mixed outcome where the person scoring fewer clean hits won more points (only possible if the clean hit leader scored only 1-pt hits, matched by sufficient 1-pt net double hits, and then the clean hit loser scored few but sufficient 1-pt or 2-pt hits to tip the balance).

Ties on clean hits tended to go to the fighter with more experience/skill, but only by a margin of 1-2 pts overall, so very close.

This makes sense intuitively, since more clean hits within a limit of 10 exchanges means you got points while simultaneously shutting your opponent out of the chance per exchange to score points. But it's nice to have quant confirmation.


Feel free to ponder these observations and devise your own means of addressing them. We look forward to seeing some ingenuity!



Casual training in depth

Friday nights, we run a relaxed, open-ended training session to let people kick back and unwind from the week in a constructive, sword-related way. No structure, no scheduled drills. People who show up choose to focus on something they noticed or wanted to refine from the past week of training, or ask for drills to help them with their current practice topics.

(The short one-on-one pointers or lessons are good material for writing down in your personal Google document training journals. If you don't have one yet, let me know and I'll create a doc on the Sword to Sword Google Drive and share it with you.)

After some rounds of sparring with everyone who showed up, Jessica and I stepped down to partial gear (mask, gauntlets, knees/elbows). We spent about 2 hours on slow sparring and fitness conditioning. The crowning moment came in an exchange where we'd entered a bind briefly, I went to abnehmen, she relaxed out of the re-bind, I wound into ochs reflexively to minutely nachreisen into her movement using fühlen, and she naturally rocked flawlessly into a stürzhau from auswinden. Pinned me like she was a professional entomologist.

A couple of other HEMA posts online have kicked around the idea of slow training. What is it? To me, you still engage and fire your core muscles in order to launch your actions (strikes, transitions, parries, whatever). You use all the muscles -- there are no muscles that you don't fire, that you normally would have. However, you only fire them enough to make them twitch and then you immediately let off the gas, so you're not powering through even a quarter of the normal full range of motion for any action. This means letting the initial blip of power carry through with very light residual momentum. The end result is usually about 20-30% of full fighting speed with even less power, so that the swords only accidentally fall onto your partner or bop them very lightly. Thrusts are placed in the intended line, with a slight lean in or weight drop, but miniscule.

A lot of my kung fu partner drills and practice were at this level. So why use it? What are the benefits and trade-offs?

+ Much longer endurance. Go for 5-10 minutes straight easily, continuous action.
+ Relaxation makes for smoother actions, leading to faster precise actions later in higher stress fighting/sparring.
+ Promotes learning to use the core for initial impetus of each action, building good overall body awareness, coordination, properly synchronized muscle recruitment, kinesthesia, proprioception.
+ Gives more fractions of a second to identify developing actions and process/explore different skills and action responses that, at full speed, you have not yet fully internalized.
+ Easier to identify actions, so that in case of someone screwing up, you can remember the exchange in greater detail and recreate it repeatedly as a momentary drill for a set of reps (3-10 times).

- Pace is completely unrealistic. Just as 100% full contact full speed full balls to walls does very little to enable learning new skills (esp. complex ones). Both extremes (full speed vs slow speed) must be used together in a cross-training format.
- Related, extra time can lead to distortions of actions and choices b/c there's simply more time to move the sword into places you might not be able to in half the time. This can be mitigated by stressing that both people initially twitch their core muscles but then rely only on the weak momentum to carry through an action. Simulates inability to easily redirect many actions in mid-motion at higher speeds and body tension.
- Easy to lose focus. B/c of lack of immediate stress, partners can lose interest and focus. Important to train with deliberate intention. Always be focusing on something, some part of your body mechanics. The format is slower-moving, so make sure you use the time to make every rep and every body mechanic of every rep count.


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Gamification of martial arts skills

[Excerpt from a HEMA discussion, where a NF person had read Steve Kamb's Level Up Your Life, and wanted to apply the superhero alter-ego concept to his new HEMA venture.]

You are probably familiar with the concept of gamification as applied to real life tasks, challenges, and struggles. It's one way to repackage the concept of achievable milestones with some fun, nerdy window dressing in order to hijack our mind and emotions that are already predisposed favorably towards things like D&D or video games.

A major challenge for new people entering a field of study is identifying recognizable and credible/meaningful landmarks or reference points. What IS progress measured by?

TL;DR: HEMA is currently a sandbox game, and some/many of us would prefer to keep it that way. You have to define your own metrics for progress. Are you in it for the killing art in practical application? The historical academic aspects? The competition and fitness of it? Perception skills, physical fitness, fighting psychology (your and the opponent's), and body awareness/coordination for skills learned to a deep level of instinctive reflex are all topics you can use to measure your progress.

In an RPG, you measure it through fungible XP, which is kind of boring by itself, just as money is in the real world. But XP lets you quantify the relative value, importance, or invested effort of disparate special feats, skills, and attributes. We both get this; this is just review.

Modern Asian martial arts evolved in a pre-Internet era and in hierarchical, group-oriented cultures where individual granularity of tracking skill progression was not a recognized or feasible concept. If you were a white belt, you learned ALL these things: X, Y, Z. You had to level up your character across the board to get to level 2, at which point you had those skills or feats as a total package deal, non-negotiable. Ditto up to level 20 cap, perhaps crudely equivalent to getting a 9th degree black belt or something.

Our post-Internet culture developed a taste for highly individualized personal preferences and the pursuit of uniquely genuine experiences or specific fields of study, which are enabled by the Internet's ability to record, share, and quickly research what ANYONE else has publicly said about any topic. This non-linear, individually-tailored approach began with crude multi-classing or smaller sub-packages of feats and skills, and ultimately reaches the logical extreme of totally a la carte XP purchase of individual feats and skills disregarding any character class structure whatsoever (e.g. the GURPS RPG system or similar). Gamification has a spectrum of choices available, from totally worthless achievements that are only valid for bragging rights, to achievements that have certain in-game credits, resources, or equipment unlocks attached, to actual feats and skills with level or attribute requirements that are fully integral to gameplay advancement.

How does this framework tie into HEMA progression? Short answer: However you damn well structure it. Several schools exist which use their own 2-5 tier ranking systems similar to old-school blanket level advancement. Many less formal schools, clubs, groups, or individuals use a sometimes-poorly-verbalized nonlinear and branching progression of skills and achievements (e.g. fitness, knowledge and use of stances and actions, speed, power, diversity of weapons trained). The latter model is far more flexible, and in fact most private or high level instructors I've trained with tend to evaluate individuals in small student groups this way anyway.

Which method or metrics you choose also depend on how you choose to approach HEMA. In any martial art, and specifically in HEMA swordfighting, I have seen 3 major paradigms for training (just ask others, and you'll get several other equally valid schemas):

1) Academic: Learn the catalog of historical moves. Properly place the sword as tool in the context of the clothing worn, fighting situations in which to employ it, socioeconomic circumstances of its evolution, creation, use, and decline, etc.

2) Sport: Compete for points in tournament events, to roughly gauge relative skill against other practitioners. Whether it's the NYF single hit tournaments, Longpoint rules, Swordfish/PHO rules, or BOTN/ACL bohurt rules, there are 1) significant restrictions on what's safely permitted, and 2) significant conventions and habits in terms of what judges will be able or willing to identify as scoring hits.

3) Combative: I mislike the term "martial" b/c it's been watered down, but most people use it. Both terms are intended to mean training to theoretically kill someone in completely unpredictable and often uncontrollable circumstances. Ultimately, do whatever it takes to stay alive and kill the other guy.

These can be compared to fighter subclasses like rangers, berserkers, paladins, etc.

As it stands, actual historical fighting treatises cover a wide spread of the above, clustering around judicial combat, which was largely combative but in a defined way (mutually agreed upon fight with matching weapons). To further complicate things, you'll encounter students in each category who believe in strong or weak interpretations of their systems. Strong = God created the world in 6 days, full stop. Weak = Genesis is a recorded form of a preliterate oral tradition, more of a metaphor for the 6000, 10,000, 4.3 billion, or 13.8 billion years of the creation of the earth or universe. This means strong interpretations literally read the manuals, sometimes claiming that if the manual doesn't describe a concept or movement, it was simply not done. Weak interpretations allow for unknown unknowns, such as the implication that medieval people must have engaged their core muscles in order to effectively strike, even though use of the core is not often explicitly described in a way that we understand it through sports science today.

This is related to how some strong academics and most sport participants in effect view HEMA as a prescriptive system, where you define the permissable actions to some greater or lesser degree. Other academics and sport participants, and pretty much any combative/martial practitioner, see HEMA as a descriptive system that provides fundamental concept and principles, a few illustrative examples, then sets you loose to see if you can make hay with the tools provided.

For instance, I happen to enjoy SM Stirling's Dies the Fire books far more than any Robert Jordan bullshit (but may he rest in peace). Understandably enough, I like to think of the fight in terms of: Did I die? Did he die? THEN assess did I get maimed or merely sliced for 5-20 stitches? That's pretty basic and combative, in terms of metrics. But I'm also a bit of an academic, and I enjoy periodically working the winding actions and long/short edge bladework simply for the joy of exploring openings and Fu:hlen (feeling or sensitivity). But also, I formerly enjoyed blowing the hell out of it with suicide sprints, box jumps, and other physical conditioning that made me far more athletic and capable of performing many of these actions at a level comparable to that of medieval knights who could do handstands, climb up the underside of ladder rungs like monkey bars, and vault into the saddle without touching the stirrups.

So pick your art, pick your personal level of interest and type of focus, and pick 3-5 things to work on. Periodically revise them, adding or removing topics to work on. If your life, work, school, family time do not permit the energy to reinvent the wheel from scratch, train with a group and follow their set of performance standards. It's all good, so long as you're swinging a sword and learning to be a fighter class PC.

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Training regimen ideas for HEMA swordfighting, attempt number umpty-million

[NOTE: this was dashed off as a comment response in a thread elsewhere, and requires/assumes a lot of prior knowledge and training on how to safely perform each of the exercises mentioned, as well as how to build progression towards the explosive speed and strength goals.]

Sport specificity is an important thing to keep in mind as you program your workouts. In our case, what do we need for better swordfighting performance?

Squats are a foundation of lower body strength. But we need the glutes and hams to fire explosively. So, sprint drills are good. But we fight to maneuver for position, not sprinting in a long, straight line. So we need constant start/stop sprints in different directions. Thus, our squats should be preparing us for football style cone drills and/or (my favorite) 1m/3m suicide sprints.

On the suicide sprints, I like to drop to a sprinting position, but with palms on the floor, elbows flexed, so I can explosively push-up to launch headlong into the next sprint, take 1-3 strides, turn immediately to drop into the starting position facing the opposite direction and using the opposite leg, and repeat. Based on our fencing strip floor, we do 60m total with 28 turn-and-drop changes. Really vital to keep good alignment on the ankles and knees on every turn, plus get low with the sprint lunge squat in order to minimize back strain and keep the back straight (lumbar focus).

That in turn requires a lot of joint stabilization strength, so balancing on bosu balls, simply balancing with a slightly flexed knee on the ball of one foot on the floor, one-legged calf raises, etc.

Then we need good core strength to protect our spine, maintain good balance and structure, and to explosively fire obliquely. Most people think in terms of abs and rotating at the waist. However, the torso has both anterior and posterior muscle chains that run vertically. The lumbar muscles along the back (by the spine) keep your posture upright, preventing you from dropping headfirst into the opponent's strikes when you rapidly change from forward to backward motion. Do reverse leg lifts and supermans. You'll also need good muscles back there to kick off a strong rising short edge strike (e.g. from albers or dente di zhenghiare).

A lot of the power for an accurate, clean, nearly vertical zornhau or any other overhand strike comes from the abs firing, contracting as when doing crunches. But overhand strikes are a full body motion, so pull-ups are really one of the best exercises you can possibly do. And ultimately, not just any pull-ups, but explosive clapping pull-ups (from the hang at 90% extension, pull up and launch up off the bar just a few inches to clap the hands, then catch the bar on your way down; don't hyperextend any joints in doing so -- ability to do about 50-60 pull-ups in sets of 10-20 roughly correlates to being able to do 5-15 clapping pull-ups in sets of 5). Also, pull-ups with knees together, tucking opposite right knee up to left elbow and vice versa really help work the obliques for the fastest, most powerful oberhau.

Putting it all together, box jumps are a brutal full-body exercise when done with full range of motion from a chair-sit squat, throwing the mass of the upper body upward into the launch, the sharp knee tuck to the chest, and the landing in a chair-sit squat on the balls of the feet. Your glutes, hams, calves, abs, and lower back all really work for this one, esp as you work towards anything over 36" tall. But the coordination of explosive strength makes for powerful drives from a crouched position.

GI Jane style burpees are also good, esp if done in highly focused concentration mode nonstop. From the push-up, explosively push (as if for a clapping push-up) to tuck the knees under. This puts you into the chair-sit squat, from which you IMMEDIATELY launch up for the pull-up bar -- no pause to spot the bar. So you have to spot the bar for your hands WHILE DRIVING UP INTO THE AIR, practicing your hand-eye coordination under fairly quick time pressure. Snatch the bar, do the pull-up. On the way down, release and fall, landing on the balls of your feet and IMMEDIATELY tuck into the chair-sit squat as you continue falling. Fall as if you're going to faceplant on the ground, but catch yourself with your hands in the push-up plank position, shooting your feet behind you. Help protect the shoulders by making sure you do it as a military press, which engages the lats and more core muscles to help support the shoulders -- winging them out puts a LOT of leverage strain on the shoulder joint alone, upon impact.

Slow, safe GI Janes with time for spotting the bar and the landing-to-plank are about 4 seconds per full rep. Done with dynamic spotting and no pauses, about 2.5-3 seconds per full rep. Closer to 2 seconds when actively propelling yourself down off the bar, but I was never able to reliably or consistently maintain that pace.

For extra extra bonus points, do a full muscle-up by launching more powerfully up to snatch the bar and smoothly launch with the pull-up into the muscle-up. Don't lose momentum during the pull-up by pausing in the hang before kipping into the muscle-up.

Overhead presses are very useful. In our case, we need light to medium weights, pressing dumbbells overhead in an over/under grip configuration, i.e. pressing the sword into ochs. But we need slow medium weight for strength and stability of the joints especially the shoulder, and then we need to build up fast, eventually explosive presses with lighter weights b/c the upper hanger needs to be sharp and fast -- especially if you prefer to fight from the nach, counterattacking with a sharp, slinging strike that rolls from the cover. So throwing an 8-lb medicine ball overhead and lightly bouncing it off a high wall in front of you is good.

And finally, wrist and elbow strengthening and stretching are important for range of motion and protecting these weakest, smallest joints from injury. Sort-of military presses (push-ups with elbows no farther than 45 degrees from the ribs) done as knuckle push-ups (or use parallette bars or dumbbells) helps with straight wrist stabilization as well as building stabilization strength for the shoulders. Also, use lighter dumbbells to rotate and flex the wrists; be sure to steadily work on the typically much weaker extensor muscles on the outside of the forearm with a palm-down dumbbell wrist curl.

  • 10 mins: squats to box jumps
  • 10 mins: pull-ups/push-ups alternating, or burpees
  • 10 mins: overhead presses
  • 10 mins: wrist/arm dumbbell strengthening (good set for resting if done as part of a superset)
  • 7 mins: 6x60m with 20 direction changes, suicide sprints at 45 sec/sprint

The 4x10 minute sections can obviously be rotated as 3-5 supersets, instead of doing each one as a solid block of 3-5 sets of the same exercise.

Be careful training up for this, as the complete 50-minute workout done at full-tilt with box jumps, GI Jane burpees, presses, wrists/arms, and capping off with suicide sprints can make you easily puke. The GI Jane burpees and suicides in particular will wipe out your immediate intramuscular glycogen reserves b/c they're designed to be HIIT exercises.

I especially have to emphasize the importance of going slowly to build up good form and strength in the tendons and stabilizers through many many MANY slow to medium reps. Otherwise you will strain, pull, and inflame numerous muscles and joints, which will only set back your training goals by weeks to months each time.

Most people take 2-3 months just to get up to each full HIIT exercise at a slow pace, and then easily 6-12 months to be able to do all of them in one session. The suicides alone take about 4-6 months to reach and sustain the 45-sec lap time if you start from a base of no exercise.



Training new HEMA fighters as judges.

[note: I have thoughts at the bottom on how learning to judge can be used to improve your own fencing.]

Following on last night's first intro to judging for a lot of folks, here's an example of tournament judging from the Helsinki 2016 men's final longsword.

Note the judges didn't move constantly, but they did shift to keep an eye on the action. It's easy to get tunnel vision when you're mentally focused on watching, and forget to step even once to the side, which may get you a better vantage point.

Julius reminded us that, last year in tournament, the call of "point" and "halt" usually followed the actual action by one tempo. Obviously, we train in order to tighten up the calls, make them sooner as our perception speed improves.

There aren't really any clear-cut progressions for training judging skills. So for now, watch video footage in your spare time (Bryan does it while he works out on certain exercises). Try making your own calls. Just like in our basic single strikes and paired strikes, only practice spotting the first hit of all. Then practice spotting the first and second hit. Anything after that is thrown out, anyway.

Bear in mind that experienced fencers will tend to fight more cleanly, with at most a single hit each. Other fencers, especially aggressive ones, may rapid-fire 2-3 hits each, so practice spotting the very first hit of all. The brain is easily fooled into remembering the last hit and not the first hit.

In future, given time and interest, we could set up a judging-specific clinic wherein two fighters pre-arrange a particular action set, but not obviously which fighter will go first. e.g. Red strikes, Blue parries. It's an antagonist drill, so Red may hit, or may not. Blue may parry, or even counter hit Red during the parry. They break, reset.

Judges then have to call the action. Fighters correct them if needed.


Fighters circle more, before and during the single action. forces judges to move to maintain line of sight to action.

Fighters agree to quickly fight through specifically two actions at a time. Then specifically three actions at a time. These will give judges a clear set-up to identify only the first hit landed by each fighter.

The next progression will be for the fighters to launch an unspecific number of actions between one and three. If the previous fixed scenarios have been effective, this stage should be relatively easy to adapt to, for judges.

Thoughts on using judging practice to improve your own fencing:

I'll get the cheeseball tournament tactics out of the way first.

Develop situational/field awareness so that you can spot which judges have the most accurate eye for the action. Look for footwork and movement that will let you set up the action to play to those judges. If you only focus on tactically maneuvering against your opponent (which should be the real focus of a fight, yes), you may occasionally rob yourself of points b/c you happened to obscure the correct scoring action with your or your opponent's body, relative to a judge's point of view. Judges are supposed to move and keep up, but they don't always.

Currently in HEMA, high hits have primacy. Under some rulesets (like the Nordic Historical Fencing League and, by extension, our related Purpleheart Open, as well as other events) score more (strike or thrust to head, thrust to torso). High strikes are also more visible -- oberhau to the head, or thrust from Ochs to the upper chest. Unterhau strikes to the ribs or forearms and thrusts from Pflug tend to be obscured by the fighters' bodies to at least one or two judges at any given time. Also, the visual traffic jam of four arms and two swords can itself confuse the issue as to whether the lower strikes landed or were parried/avoided.

For actual fighting and fencing skill improvement, use your judging practice to assess opponents.

  • When are they about to strike?
  • Where are they about to strike? High or low, left or right.
  • How are they about to strike? Long edge, short edge, thrust, winding, range transition to grapple, etc.
  • Is it a feint? From a distance, could you spot the set-up before the opponent spotted it? Watch the hips, shoulders, and hands/crossguard, especially hips/shoulders the faster and harder the opponents are fencing.
  • Having struck and/or parried, are they about to launch a follow-up action that may result in an afterblow?
  • Are both fighters about to launch first strikes that will double hit?
  • Are they coming out of a prior action into a double hit?

And at the last, absent the tournament judging aspect, situational awareness and higher hits have clear benefits for your actual training as well. It's always good to know if you're about to back into a wall or into uneven footing. Historically overhand strikes to the head, upper torso, and arms have greater frequency of emphasis. Underhand strikes to the same are also useful, especially as spoiling or follow-up attacks to strike to the opponent's different windows/lines. And strikes (over or under) to the low targets (legs) were shown largely to demonstrate how to counter them. That implies that they were used, they were a threat, but they may not have been preferred b/c of the greater risk to your own head when striking to an opponent's lower targets.

(This last bit is a generalization, as there are still a fair number of techniques that wind or strike to the lower torso or legs, as well as throws and takedowns to the same.)