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All Swords All The Time – Updates Tuesdays and Fridays

In response to Jake Norwood’s Article – “When Vikings Take All Your Gold And Silver”

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by Meg Floyd

Jake Norwood posted an article earlier today that was originally a response in a longer Facebook discussion, but was since altered a bit to stand on its own. He said:

The Europeans have been saying we’re a few years behind for a while. That’s to be expected, our clubs are younger, or competitive scene is younger, and we’re much more fractured than they are as a community.

I also know that the Europeans overstate their case in a lot of ways. I’ve fenced in and/or judged many events in Europe, and they have beginner fencers who suck over there, too. Lots of them. And they have know it alls who can’t fence and casual fencers just like we do, too. It’s just that no one pays for those guys to come to the US, so few of us ever get to see them. But they’re out there.

What they have that the US doesn’t, though, is a culture of coaching. They don’t coddle shitty ideas the way that we do over here. They’re in better physical shape when they start HEMA, generally (because ‘murica). They train more than we do. A lot more than we do. The guys who swept PHO this weekend probably train 3-5 times a week, or at least run through parts of the year when the do. They train in large, supportive environments that aren’t angsting over whether competition is bad or not. They are surrounded by other committed fighters who give them no-nonsense feedback about whether what they’re doing is working or not.

I’m going to start off by saying that I agree fully with Jake, and that indeed, these things have been on my mind a great deal lately, especially in the process of becoming an instructor the last couple of years, and trying to build my club with my fellow instructors, both back in Florida and at our new club here in Colorado. Second, I’m going to suggest rather than being insulted by Jake’s apt words, we should instead regard his article as a challenge to rise to excellence. Jake called for responses to his article, so here’s a list of things I think we can do to improve our club culture here in the U.S.

1) Read GHFS’s “How We Train“, the manual they put out and then translated for instructors. There are a lot of good points made in this document, particularly about dealing with students and your fellow instructors, and creating a good club culture.
2) Have more than one instructor if possible. This both increases the number of warm bodies, meaning someone’s always there to unlock the door and turn the lights on, and keeps one person from burning out.
3) Actively avoid/kill the cult of personality and Sensei Syndrome in your club. Having two instructors helps with this. Being a humble coach who’s focused on your students helps a lot, too. This means actually thinking of yourself in the paradigm of, how can I better serve my students?
4) Accept that coaching is a discipline in and of itself and something worthwhile for you, as an instructor, to study. There’s a lot of resources out there on coaching methodology in other sports like Olympic fixing, boxing, MMA, Brazilian jiu jitsu. One of my favorites is Understanding Fencing by Zbigniew Czajkowski (which incidentally is heavily used by many of the Finnish fencing clubs.)
5) Network online with everyone, especially people who have been doing it longer and better than you have (the Swedes, the Finns, etc). Ask questions. Be respectful. Learn everything. There’s many people hard at work putting resources out there for folks trying to improve their clubs.
6) Invest in travel if you can, to national events, but over to Europe as well. Take an extra few days to go train with the local European clubs, take notes, and bring home what seems useful. See how they do things. Steal anything that seems useful cheerfully and ruthlessly.
7) Invest in your local community, by which I mean, hold small events for any HEMA clubs within an acceptable driving distance. This ties the community together and these are the people who will come out to your big event when you finally throw it. (Things that come to mind are Shortpoint, Kron BBQ, the several Mini-Kriegs we threw in Florida before we left and are going to start throwing in Colorado here in June.) Providing exposure to a competitive environment raises the bar for local newbies who don’t have the funds or motivation to go out to a larger event yet, and gives them a goal to focus on. They’re also a lot of fun.
8) Realize and accept that physical conditioning is part of being a good HEMA fencer, and include it in your club culture from the start. It is a fact that obesity levels are much higher in the U.S., and the average fitness level of your beginning student is going to be lower. Scale your expectations to that, but don’t scale off on intensity as you build up to it. American fencers need this extra workout just as much, if not more, than European students.
9) Invest in your students. Talk to them about their goals, what kind of fencer they want to be, what they want to get out of HEMA. An example of this is something I came up with for our club where every three months, we pull everyone aside to sit down and talk in private about how the last three months have gone, what they’re having trouble with, what’s working for them, what’s not, etc, so they can start building the narrative in their head of what kind of fencer they want to be. This identity of themselves as a historical fencer is very important to pursuing longterm goals, in my opinion.
10) Have a club culture of open doors. Anyone who visits is welcome at Krieg School, as long as they abide by our gear requirements (which admittedly I’ve become somewhat draconian about). We’re also going to start having an open doors Fight Night once per month starting in April where everyone from the local martial arts scene is welcome to come out and give HEMA a try.
11) Be supportive, but push your students. Give them goals to accomplish, if this means an intra-club tournament, or homework on a particular weapon. Make it clear to them that their development is something you want the most.
12) Demand only two things of your students: that they try their hardest, and that they display good sportsmanship, both at home in the club and abroad at events. This is something an instructor should definitely do by leading by example (by themselves trying their hardest, participating in warmups, and being a good sport when they compete).
13) Finally, use online resources when you can’t travel. GHFS, Sword Carolina, and Ilkka Hartikainen’s Marozzo channel are just a few I can think of off the top of my head that are regularly putting videos out about warmups, footwork, techniques, etc.
14) Encourage your students to become scholars in their own right. Show them the Wiktenauer. Get them reading the sources. Encourage them to network to the wider community, make friends, and become well-rounded fencers in their own right.
15) Teach judging at home. This is super easy to do. Have a few scored bouting matches every week. Within a year, your students will have more hours of judging experience than most instructors judging at events have had the last few years. Have everyone dress up, and switch out who’s fighting and who’s judging during sparring time. Instead of just calling hits, stop and discuss what happened vs. what the judges called. Besides increasing the number of competent judges in the community, it teaches the student to watch a fight and try to understand what’s going on, which is a skill in and of itself.
16) Keep a written record of everything, if you’re the coach. It’s amazing what you can forget in a short time. Try to keep a file of notes on each student if possible, and especially a note on your own training.
17) This one seems like a no brainer, but write a syllabus and lesson plans, and use it. Lessons go much more productively if you walk in with a plan.
18) Video everything and keep a private bank of club videos just for your students. I do this, and it’s behind a password-locked screen only students get access to (to nullify concerns about looking stupid in videos/not wanting confidentiality violated). Encourage students to go back and watch the videos.
I’m sure there are many other thoughts and ideas out there as to what we can do to improve our club culture here in the U.S. Leave a response and let me know what you think.
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