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Tag: hema tournament

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:

This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:

5. Shooting

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!

This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it  feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.

4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.

When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.

3. Aikido

I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.

But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.

If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.

2. T’ai Chi Chuan

When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.

“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”

“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”

“We do a lot of forms …”

“Goddam it, where do I sign???”

Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.

In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.

I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…

1. Historical European Martial Arts

You guessed that it was coming, right?

I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.

I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.

Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.

But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.

So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?

Sport longsword is not a new phenomenon. Meyer, 1570.

I love the HEMA tournament scene. This will come as a surprise to many people, because I am not really involved with it in any direct way. In fact, I have seen people referring to me as “anti-tournament”.* Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I am not personally interested in entering or organising tournaments, does not mean that I don’t understand their value.
My own tournament life extended from 1987, when I entered my first foil tournament, through to 2002, when I entered (and won) a rapier tournament in Italy. The sport-fencing scene is especially tournament-dominated. It is fair to say that tournaments are the only meaningful measure of success in that sport (and most others). I was never a great sport fencer, but I won a local competition or two, and ended up in the last 8 in sabre at the Scottish Universities tournament in 1993. Tournaments were great if you did well, but it was equally possible that you would travel for hours, and wait around for hours, and get a few bouts in, then wait for more hours while your more successful teammates got to fence, and then travel for hours back home again. The ratio of time spent to fights fought always bugged me; you got far more bouts in far less time in less formal environments.
At school I was involved in organising our annual tournament, and so I have a pretty good idea what a huge amount of work it is to set up and run a tournament. That’s why I’ve never organised an open tournament in Finland; it’s way too much work for something I’m only peripherally interested in. But I do encourage my students worldwide to enter tournaments if they are interested, and it’s always nice to see a current or past student doing well in that environment. I do tell them not to expect to do very well though, as our training is not optimised for tournament success. (Perhaps I should write a post about how to train for tournaments sometime?)

The things I like about the tournament scene are:
1) It provides a sense of community for a very widely distributed group of like-minded people. Other events do this too, but the advantage of the tournament scene is that anyone can show up and take part, with any background, and every competitor is (at least in theory) equal and welcome. Your club or style don’t determine your value.
2)It provides external validation for fencers who need it. This can hurt as much as it helps, because poor performance on the day can be hugely discouraging. In the long run, internal validation is much better, but most fencers go through a stage of needing to test themselves, and tournaments provide one easy way to do that.
3) It creates an easy-to-explain model of what we do for the casually curious. One of the most common questions I get asked is “do you have tournaments?” If I don’t want to explain exactly what I really do, then I can just say “yes, there’s a big international circuit now, though it’s not really my focus”. Saves me so much time. Tournaments also attracts media attention, because everyone understands them.
4) It creates a much, much bigger market of fencers with particular equipment needs: the current availability of (for example) longsword free-fencing kit is directly due to the tournament circuit that has developed. This is huge: those of us doing HEMA in the early 1990’s will remember that our equipment was a hodgepodge of sport fencing kit and some dodgy re-enactment or SCA gear. Without sport fencing, there would have been no masks. How much would that have slowed our progress?
5) It provides training opportunities for working under pressure, and developing attributes such as timing, measure, speed, and tactical sense.
6) It demonstrates the effect of rule-sets. One of the hardest things to explain to beginners is how much rule-set affect behaviour. Tournaments have clearly-defined and published rule-sets, and that determines more than any other factor what kind of actions work.
7) As we saw in my last post, tournaments shine a spotlight on diversity. Who, exactly, is really welcome?
8) Most people like the idea of tournaments to give them something to train towards. So the sport-HEMA scene is always going to attract lots and lots of people. Excellent. For me and many others in the early nineties, sport fencing (and the SCA for many of my friends) provided our first entry into the sword world, but in the end proved frustrating. It was not real enough. So we left to create HEMA from scratch. The tournament scene provides a similar easy-entry route into the sword world. I look at the sport-HEMA scene as a massive pool of potential future historical-HEMA students and teachers.

The final in the rapier tournament, 2002. That's me on the right.

As with every training environment, tournaments have their limitations.
1) they serve no useful research purpose, unless you are studying historical tournament rule-sets and applying them. “It works/doesn’t work in tournaments” is just not a relevant statement when considering martial arts that have been developed for other purposes.
2) they privilege the gifted. In any sport, there is an optimum body type. As the tournament scene develops and the stakes get higher, we will start to see the different rule-sets privileging certain body types. Read The Sports Gene for super-detailed information on this phenomenon.
3) they are good for highlighting areas of weakness, but do not provide an ideal environment for fixing those weaknesses. From a training perspective, it’s more useful to be able to stop testing and start fixing immediately.
4) they privilege outcome over process. The people who “succeed” are by definition winning specific bouts. It doesn’t take into account how much they have improved or how hard they have worked. With a long enough head start, somebody could (in theory at least) win many tournaments without improving at all!

So, given how useful I think they are, and with the limitations I listed above taken into account, you might very well ask why I don’t take part? Here are my reasons:

1) I’ve been there and done that. In my current phase of training, formal tournaments are not an efficient learning environment for me. I can get just as much pressure from a demonstration bout, for instance, or from using sharp swords.
2) The stakes are not equal. I became a professional in 2001, and fought my last tournament in 2002. I won it. As a professional in a field of amateurs, I felt that I had robbed the top amateur of his deserved victory. If I win, so what? it’s my job. If I lose, then I have more to lose than the amateurs out there.
3) I don’t do things by halves. If I was to enter tournaments regularly, I’d take them seriously, and train for them seriously. But it’s not the combat environment I’m most interested in, so it’s not the one I want to train for.
4) It’s dangerous. The full-contact environment is one I enter only when necessary, because of the risk of injury. (Readers of The Seven Principles of Mastery will understand my attitude to injuries.) The tournament scene has an ok safety record, but is much more dangerous than most other training environments. All the broken bones I’ve seen since starting my school have come from one tournament or another. I’ll do it if I need to for my own training purposes, but not otherwise.

In conclusion then, I’m very pleased to see the worldwide development of the sport-HEMA scene. It grows the  wider sword community faster than any other factor: what’s not to love?


* I wrote about this in Swordfighting, pages 82-83.

Are testicles really an advantage in a sword fight?


I first met the illustrious Christian Tobler in 2003. We were sat chatting about something and I casually called him “Chris”. He politely replied “it’s Christian, actually”, and with a modicum of effort, I stopped shortening his name, and have called him Christian ever since.

If he’d asked me to call him Christina, I’d have done the same.

This is basic politeness. Unless somebody asks you to call them something that puts you in an awkward position (somebody you don’t really like wanting you to call them “darling snookums”, for instance; or somebody who is not your boss demanding to be called “Boss”, for another instance), the only reasonable thing to do is respect their wishes about how they are addressed.

Y’all can call me “Jedi Master Guy the living sword god” if you want. Go on, I dare you.

We have had a small number of transgender people in one or other branches of my School over the last 15 years. In every case, School policy is absolutely clear: respect their preferences. It really doesn’t matter a damn whether the person you are training with is male, female, trans, or even (gods protect us) Swedish. It matters what their weapon is doing and why.

Likewise, within the school, our tournaments are not segregated in any way. If you are smaller or weaker, or taller, or stronger, you are expected to deal with it as best you can and learn from the experience. That’s it. Weapons do not discriminate and neither should we. In our most recent tournament, students even had a free choice of weapon (axe, spear, sword, dagger or unarmed); the best fight of the day was one student with a dagger defeating another with a pollax. You gain honour in direct proportion to the difficulty of the fight.

I understand that there is an argument made regarding high-level competition having gender categories, and a stated policy regarding what is required to gain admission to one category or the other. With millions of dollars on the line, it makes a sort of sense, I suppose. And in some arts, such as MMA or wrestling, weight categories make sense. But in combat of any kind, they just don’t strike me as martial.

This is topical because a student of mine has recently been denied entry to the women’s longsword tournament at an event in the USA. This student has gone through all sorts of difficulties to become who she is meant to be; it seems perverse to me to add to those difficulties deliberately.

This is the whole point of training swordsmanship. You start out wanting to be something that you are not (yet): A swordsman. You train, and sweat, and bleed and suffer (in my classes, anyway), and through the alchemy of practice you become the person you aspire to be. For any swordsman to fail to see the similar but vastly more difficult course that trans people go through strikes me as a pathetic failure of imagination and empathy.

Training is all about personal growth, and respecting the efforts that our fellow students make to grow, in all aspects of their lives.

Frankly, I don’t care what you think about a transperson’s gender. The only polite and decent course is to respect their choice regarding how they are identified, and to respect the courage it has taken them to live as they do in a world so sadly full of people slow to love and quick to hate.

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