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How to start a Historical Martial Arts club: 3 principles and 7 steps.

One of the most common questions I get asked is this: “there are no HMA clubs near me. What should I do?”, and my answer is always the same: “start one”. So the next question is “how do I do that?”

The most difficult part of starting a HMA club is deciding to do so. Once the decision has been made, the rest is not so hard.

I’ve been involved in starting many groups, from the Dawn Duellists’ Society in 1994, to the British Federation for Historical Swordplay in 1999,  The School of European Swordsmanship in 2001, and literally dozens of satellite clubs since then, so I have some ideas on the subject, as you might imagine.

Let’s begin with some general principles (this is extracted from an article published in Teaching and Interpreting Historical Swordsmanship in 2005):

“Starting a group is not as hard as it may seem, it just requires determination, and some basic social skills. The obstacles vary so widely in different countries and cultures that it is very hard to advise on the specifics, but I use a set of basic principles to run my school, which are applicable to any group (summarised in these terms by Mike Stillwell).

  • Group purpose: every group must have a purpose, clearly stated. “The study and practice of historical swordsmanship” covers most, but you may wish to narrow the focus.
  • Group needs: every group has specific needs, which must be met for the group to flourish. Typically they include financial health, sufficient membership, and the specific means to achieve the purpose, such as weapons, treatises and a place to practice.
  • Individual needs: every group is comprised of individuals, who will leave if their needs are not met. Such needs include sharing in the common purpose; assistance for beginners, and the various social needs that we all share. Most practitioners prefer a group where they feel welcome and needed, to one where they are looked on with suspicion until they have “proved” themselves. Even the most inexperienced beginner should be recognised as a vital part of the group: without such beginners, the Art, and the group, have no future.

A group will succeed if all the above needs are met, and kept in balance. Once the needs of any one individual (including the illustrious founder) take precedence, the group is doomed. Likewise, any group decision, whether made by the individual in charge, by a committee, or by the whole group, should be arrived at based on how well it serves the three needs. Individuals whose needs are met by the group will stay, and enable the group needs to be met, which enables the group purpose to be met. Of course, many individuals will fall by the wayside when they discover that their needs are not met by a group with that purpose; this is normal, so expect attrition. Also there are some individuals who feel a need to take over any group they join; this is not a problem provided that the group purpose and needs are served by their ascendancy. Just beware of political infighting, and establish the aims of the group clearly enough to prevent slippage. “

Now we have established the principles, let’s get into the specifics. You want to start a HMA club: what’s the first step?

1) Find a friend who'll have a go at swords. One friend is good; two is better. What, you’ve got three interested friends? Then this will be easy…

2) Be honest with yourself and your co-founders about your interests, and agree on exactly what, at this stage, the club is going to do. Establish in clear and exact terms the group purpose. For example “we are going to train for HMA tournaments in Longsword and take part in as many as we can”. Or “we are going to recreate Meyer’s swordsmanship from his book”. Or “we are Jedi and will train accordingly”. Look for the sources and help you might need. For groups wanting to “recreate Fiore’s art of arms”, you could use my books, syllabus and so on; but if you want to study Liechtenauer, then those won’t be much help. Many of my branches started out as “we will train from this book by this Windsor fellow” and grew from there. Choose, a book, a syllabus, a historical source, even a youtube channel, whatever suits your purpose, and say “we'll do this and only this”. It is much better to add things later, once the group is established, than to start out trying to please everyone. To begin with, focus on one thing, and make it absolutely clear what that thing is.

The key question at this stage is ‘does being part of this club actually meet my individual needs?’ If you wanted a club so you could learn to teach 18th century smallsword, and nobody in this club wants to do smallsword (they’re all obsessed with polearms), then start a different club and be clearer about your goals. It is perfectly okay, normal even, for the founders to start the club to scratch their own itch. Start the club you’d want to join.

3) Meet regularly. Once a week minimum, at the same time and in the same place. Depending on the weather and local laws, you could meet in a park, or (as the DDS did for years) train in a courtyard outside a pub in the centre of Edinburgh. You don’t need money for this; there is lots of free spaces most places, if you just look. When you start out, you will be ignorant and unskilled. That is okay!! Everybody starts at zero. But you have SO much more help available than I did in 1992, and I turned out alright. So you will probably do even better.

Fencing with Scott Wilson in Holyrood Park, February 2001.

4) Advertise in any free medium (twitter, facebook, etc). for like-minded people in your neighbourhood. If you’re training in a public space, then be ready for curious people of all ages and types to come up and talk to you. Be very clear about what you are trying to do, so Viking re-enactors won’t come along and be disappointed by your sword and buckler club, or vice-versa. Being specific means that people can see in advance whether the club is likely to meet their individual needs.

5) When you have 6-10 people coming regularly, it’s time to establish a formal club. Start collecting fees. Price it at the cost of a night out per month, minimum. Eg. in the UK, perhaps 25 quid. In Finland, maybe 30 euros. This is essential. One of the biggest mistakes beginner clubs make is to not gather fees, and they do this mostly because they don’t feel they are providing a service that is worth paying for. But you are not selling a service (unless you are setting up a professional school, which I am not covering here), you’re gathering the resources the club needs to meet its goals. Members who don’t want to pay are not going to help meet the group needs.

What is the money for? To help accomplish the group purpose. You can use for whatever helps pursue the purpose, such as to pay for a teacher, buy club equipment, send your most active class leaders to events they can’t afford to go to on their own, pay for a better venue; the list is endless. My point is that clubs that have money can pursue their purpose much more easily than those that don’t. I advise having members use a ‘set it and forget it’ direct debit or paypal regular payment; it’s much more effective than manually collecting dues.

6) At this stage you will need to register a non-profit organisation. This is usually quite easy to do, if you don’t mind filling in forms. Use whatever umbrella organisations are available. University students can start a University society to get access to University facilities. Your local sports fencing club might let you set up a sub-group within their umbrella (as, for instance, my branch in Oulu, Finland, did). If there is a suitable umbrella available, consider joining it. Be careful that doing so does not interfere with your group purpose, though. If joining an umbrella organisation means giving up your core purpose, or unacceptable changes to equipment or rules, then don’t do it.

Be careful that you understand the rules around what a non-profit organisation can and cannot do. I can’t advise you on the law in your country, but in general, you can hire a teacher (but the employee cannot usually be part of the governing board). You cannot use the funds to pay for your personal sword collection. You will also probably have to  file annual accounts and a list of members. This is not too much work if there are many hands helping; maybe one person handles the paperwork; another handles finding new members; a few others run regular classes. At this stage the thing to watch out for is that the individual needs of the people doing all the work are being met. Some kind of compensation for their efforts is appropriate (such as not having to pay dues, or subsidised attendance at an event, or a guarantee of never having to clean the training space, or something). The last thing you want is for the essential administration to not get done because the poor bugger doing it has been snowed under mounds of paper and can’t get to class, so quits. Look after your officers, they deserve it.

And there you have it. It’s really not so hard. It is a lot of work though, but that’s true of almost everything worthwhile.

I wrote this blog post in response to this survey; it was one of the most commonly expressed frustrations. Feel free to take the survey yourself- who knows, I might answer your question!

If you need help learning to teach, you might find this post useful.

If you need help recreating a historical swordsmanship style from a historical source, you might find this course useful.

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