Previously, we featured a piece introducing new folks to HEMA, and detailing out some of what is really involved in Historical European Martial Arts.

We wanted to take a bit of a turn, though, and look at something that frequently crosses the minds of experienced fencers, martial artists, and HEMA practitioners:

Should I really bother competing?

If you’ve picked up a combat sport as a hobby, public competition is intimidating, especially early on. The rules and regulations may be different from your club and throw you for a loop, the equipment restrictions can be tight due to the safety required for cross-club competition, the tournaments may be far away – the list is almost endless. All that said;

You absolutely should compete in tournaments.

These guys aren't messing around.

These guys aren’t messing around.

One of the biggest downfalls in competitive solo martial arts/sports (like HEMA) is the limitation on the number of opponents you encounter at your normal practices or classes. This is especially harmful when engaging in HEMA or classical fencing which at their core are martial arts (unlike the “sport” of Olympic fencing, or for instance, running). You get to know your club mates. Their strengths, their weaknesses. Martial arts instructors will consistently preach that training to fight a specific opponent based on their flaws or shortcomings is a waste of time, and they’re correct. No, we shouldn’t be dismissing what we know about an opponent going into a fight, but if you can only win a pass after you’ve fought that opponent a few times and learned their tricks, are you really studying a martial art or just getting good at learning to read people while you get killed?

An interesting, and valuable, but definitely highly specialized skill.


And unless you’re processing data as fast as the lean mean machine from Detroit, it won’t do you much good in a martial setting.

There is zero practicality in the art of learning to swordfight your friends with the intimate knowledge of the way they fight.

The original documents from the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods back this up. Many historical masters frequently delineate between the “art” and the “use” of their techniques. We can draw a few very important conclusions from this – the most important of which, is that drilling techniques and practicing the “art” in it’s purest and most perfect form is an absolutely separate (and equally as important) set of skills from practical execution and what it means to engage in the “use” of the weapons. The London Masters of Defence weren’t required (to the best of my knowledge) to show off their formal technique and engage in a display of choreographed routines, but they WERE required to accept all challengers for a period of time upon the submission to open their school. This is likely what bred an emphasis on the “use” in English swordsmanship, and contributed later on to a love of watching two people beat the snot out of each other in single stick or even early-modern pugilism.

What happens when you start to separate them in your own training, though? Why isn’t a “real” fight just like the drills or the plates? Well ideally, it is, and if you’re so good that it looks like the plates every time you pick up a sword and fight, I bow down to your consistency and ability to deal with the unknown. One of my favorite anecdotes when I’m teaching rapier – if a person approaches me with a dagger between his teeth, and a rapier between his toes while he stands on one leg jumping around, I need to be able to fight him. If he wins? Well, in spite of the seemingly unorthodox or impractical, the “a win is a win” mentality absolutely cannot be ignored in the context of European martial arts, and is the major differentiation between the “art” and “use”. The best way for us, in 2016, to work on our “use”, is by competing in tournaments and striving to achieve a facsimile of the pressure “the duel” would put a swordsman under.

“But we always train hard, and everybody in our club fights differently! We have a great mix,” said Johnny Longsword, keen that his training was up to par and he had nothing to prove.

Well, first of all, you’re lucky, Johnny. Most clubs have effectively two kinds of participants – people who started together in this club and fight like the coach or people who have a wildcard factor because they had some prior training elsewhere. Even in these situations of extremely diverse clubs, there is still a level of variance that can only be achieved by competing against other clubs in other areas at major events like Longpoint, CombatCon, or even international events outside of the United States.

While many argue that the technical limitations of equipment and the rules for awarding points are detrimental to the techniques as part of a martial art, there are a few aspects of the tournament environment that nicely replicate the real-world scenario.

Primarily, the pressure. Fighting with something to lose does things to your brain that the hardest and most intense practice bouts simply cannot achieve. Activating your very real fight-or-flight reflex is a critical part of understanding how your body and mind will perform under combat duress. The awareness of a spectating audience (typically of fighters more senior and/or more skilled than you) and that losing the bout carries a meaningful weight activates a similar rush of adrenaline to the body that would normally be caused by the fear of injury or bodily harm present in a real fight. The fear isn’t nearly as great, but it’s likely much higher than when you’re in a gym full of your peers who you trust and know that after practice you’re going to get Slurpees.


My post-practice regimen is frozen, delicious, and frequently banana flavored. I am a picture of HEMA health.

This fear and adrenaline can cause us to make mistakes we wouldn’t normally make. Training and drills are tested as we enter the competitive environment because the room for error is considerably lower and the reliance on muscle memory is higher than in practice.

There is also an endurance factor, in a tournament setting. Those who have competed know that pools are exhausting, but getting cold while waiting on your bracket can be even worse. Pushing your own individual limits is a part of any well constructed day of tournament competition. It’s hard to consider a 1-2 hour practice a real test of your ability to fight the 20th fighter in a row, as well as to fight the best fighter in the bracket after waiting around for half an hour forces you to go into the fight “cold.”

Both are valued skills, according to the source material – we can see that based on the efficiency of movement across sword styles in Europe showing a focus on not wasting any energy or motion. Additionally, late period sources even go so far as to discuss the preparation for a duel, implying that even with notice the duel is going to be over very quickly once it begins and the preparation is tantamount to success. This mindset also implies that preparing for a duel is different in some ways from typical practice and study of the techniques – much like preparing for a tournament may change your practice routine.

So start prepping, and let’s cross swords at CombatCon 2016 – tons of people you’ve never fought and may not get to fight anywhere else, plus classes with all the guys who beat you the day before. That’s a win/win, folks.