All Swords All The Time – Updates Tuesdays and Fridays

Ten Steps to HEMA Greatness

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Wrestlers are insane. This is common knowledge. They are also brilliant, which is under-appreciated. Wrestling itself is under-appreciated. It’s perhaps the toughest sport there is, the purest sport there is, and there’s no professional league and big salaries to make it worthwhile; it’s done for the love of the sport. Wrestlers are mentally as well as physically tough. They have to be.

To help the coaches and wrestlers of America, USA wrestling came out with a lovely little guide – Ten Steps to Greatness. It’s almost repetitive in it’s simplicity. Here’s a version adjusted a little for HEMA practitioners.


[Image from USA Wrestling]

1 Make the Commitment

“It’s easy to talk about it, but talk won’t put you at the top of the podium.”

You get out what you put in. If you want to be the best fencer you can be, you need to do more than talk about it. It’ll be hard, and it’ll be action. You’re going to do things. Imagine there’s a leaner, stronger version of you who’ll be attending the same tournaments and has been training for six months longer than you. If you can get more training in than your opponent, that’s already a step in the right direction. Don’t let your HEMA time be restricted to class time. Find a way to out train them. Out work them. Out think them. How much are you willing to give to get better?

If you decide HEMA isn’t worth your time, then that’s fine. Go live your life. Everyone else, read on.

2 Set Your Goals

“Without serious, well thought out goals, a wrestler is rudderless”

Write them down.  Be honest. Share them. Work out what steps it would take to get your there. Then make those steps your priorities. These aren’t necessarily competitive goals – it might be a certain type of technique appearing in sparring, reading and annotating your primary source manual or meeting a fitness threshold. Get better than you are now, and make a note so you can celebrate when you get there. Consider fitness tracking websites. Or just use a notebook and a biro. If you want to be fancy, make sure that your goals are SMART:-

  • Specific (What exactly do you want?)
  • Measurable (How will I know when it’s achieved?)
  • Achievable (Can I do this?)
  • Relevant (Is this really a goal for my interest?) and
  • Timely (what’s the deadline?)

3 Plan Out Your Year

“…they are just missing out on what you are doing, getting better”

Know what you have coming. Fill your days. Train at your club. Train alone. Spend your train journeys reading Wiktenauer and scrawling gameplan flow diagrams. Work out what you’ll work on ahead of time and then, this is the crucial step: work on it. Stick to it.

Interestingly, the national coach who wrote this section suggests cross-training in other wrestling disciplines. When was the last time you took a sport fencing, kendo, or escrima class? Or competed in those sports?

Personally I have my events (both competitions and workshop events AND regular training) for me and my students set on my Google calendar, so I can see how long to go and think about what point in the training cycle we’re at. Is this class’s sparring segment going to be light work to try all the new techniques or a 10x1minute shark tank?

4 Pick up the Sword Get on the Mat

“If your buddies aren’t there to push you, push yourself”

If you want to sword fight, there’s no substitute for time with a sword in your hand. With or without training partners Did I mention this list boils down to “train smart, train hard, but ultimately train a lot”? You can tweak your class routine all you want, but you’ll do even better to double the number of classes you train a week.

5 No Time to Waste

“Don’t use excuses. Don’t be satisfied with cop-outs”

Maintain a sense of urgency. Don’t rest on successes, don’t balk at setbacks. Just look for the next thing to do and do it. Make time to do it in.

Personally, and from what I’ve seen in others, there’s a big tendency to use pessimism to set goals low or abandon them. “I’ll never be able to win a tournament or beat Axel, so why bother competing, or even training hard” is nonsense.

First of all, the goal should be to improve, not to be better than any one person or group of people. If used positively, though, benchmarking yourself via competition can be a great motivator. I cannot overstate how happy I was to see Patryk Pilas transformed in our second longsword fight, six months after our first, and how much happier still I was to win the rubber match eighteen months after that.

Secondly, a long term goal always seems far away. To use a non-HEMA example, I want to get my black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. After four years, I have gone from being a white belt to blue. Now there’s just purple and brown to go before black. If I think about it in terms of “it’s another eight years”, it seems daunting. If I go “I just need to keep showing up day by day and they can’t stop me making black belt” it’s easy. Look at the long term goal in perspective with the short term, which brings us to:

6 Build Yourself

“While you are building yourself, try to be a leader that brings other team members up as well.”

This comes back to “use the 95%+ of your lifetime that’s not a HEMA class” advice. Strength, cardio, flexibility, coordination, and most importantly technical and mental skills – all can be worked on, so invest some time in them. Try to push the rest of the club to do the same and you’ll have a squad of bad-asses to train with.

Look at online resources for fitness – and that doesn’t just mean strength and cardio, but flexibility and general health. If you’re a smoker, just think about what you could do with all that cardio you’d unlock by quitting. Personally, I have knock-knees. It wasn’t really noticeable until I started training sabre, and my coach got on my case about the rear leg collapsing with every lunge. Training myself not to do that takes a few minutes a day, literally I wait until I find myself standing around with nothing to do, then work on a few short lunges, observing where my knee points. If I can remedy this, I’ll have such a greater degree of strength, balance and movement in sabre fencing.

Look at mental and tactical resources, too. I recommend The Inner Game of Tennis, The Art of Learning and Understanding Fencing as springboard books.

7 Seek out the Best

“Iron sharpens iron”

That was actually written on the wall at the first gym where I ever trained wrestling. Travel as much as you can, compete as much as you can, meet as many people as you can. HEMA folks are friendly, by and large, and it’s a small enough community that even the “Names” are generally approachable and eager to share. Next time you’re on holiday, find out where you can drop in (personal best for distance training from home is Hobart, Tasmania!) and stab people. Go find the people who can kick your ass, and let them kick it, and ask them to teach you how they did it. You’ll learn a lot. Some HEMA clubs now run weekend or even week long training camp events, focused on more in depth coaching and development than the typical “three introductory classes a day” HEMA event schedule.

If someone comments that their club doesn’t allow them to reveal their secret techniques or to cross-train with outsiders, I vote we dojo-storm.

8 Take the Initiative

“The difference between an average and great wrestler is very simple”

I’m just going to quote another passage instead of elaborating.

“You have the plan to succeed right in your own hands, but you must make the mature decisions to motivate yourself and do everything you can to get better.”

9 Represent Yourself

“[Wrestlers are] people of character with strong wills that don’t have to act like fools to fit in”

Stand tall. This article is demanding a terrible commitment, and doing it in a blithe manner. You’re going to meet with temptations – the duvet and Netflix, the post-training beers, the lure of the forum post over the pell post, the thought (or, heaven forbid, fact) that politics will get you further in your club than prowess. If you’re the person you want yourself to be, or if you want to become that person, these are the times you’ll have to grit your teeth and keep going. It’s easy to make excuses, easier still to posture emptily. Hard to stay calm and keep things in perspective.

I suggest having at least one friend-come-training partner-come-priest(ess) confessor who can be relied upon to listen when you start talking about quitting HEMA, then tell you that you’re not going to quit, in a convincing voice.

10 Compete with Intensity

“The best way to really build on your potential is to challenge yourself with tough competition often”

I’m sure someone, somewhere is now typing out “HEMA is not a sport”. Pity they won’t even be in the pools at your next tournament. Yes, HEMA isn’t a pure sport, in almost any of its incarnations. Competing is the best way we currently have to assess how you’re developing and a great tool to see what you need to develop still further. The important thing is to realise that winning is nice, but it’s not the main goal. The main goal is always to do the best you can – ideally better than expected – and leave the competition satisfied that win or lose, you gave it every possible effort and were the best you that you could be.

Now get out there and fight!


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