Consolidate and simplify

As a martial artist, you will frequently hear of techniques being described as either basic or advanced techniques. When starting HEMA, a lot of people will jump forward to training what might be seen as advanced techniques without much background in martial arts, and without understanding of fundamental concepts such as distance, timing, pressure, biomechanics, etc. Others will decide instead not to spend time on what they view as advanced techniques, and will instead focus on the basics instead. I sometimes hear HEMA practitioners describe a technique as being particularly advanced, and using this to explain why that technique doesn’t appear in sparring. Some HEMA practitioners may focus on “basic” techniques to the exclusion of “advanced” techniques.

However, I think this is often a false dichotomy. Within the German longsword tradition, I have a particular interest in winding, and have taught many classes and workshops on winding. Often however when I talk about winding, and why people often don’t wind at all in fights, I get told that winding is a really advanced technique and that people just aren’t skilled enough generally yet to use such advanced techniques, but as general skill rises these techniques might be seen more. I don’t agree with this however. Winding does require particular skills (specifically Fuhlen and the ability to create a stable bind and seize the centreline), but actual winding techniques themselves are not I think difficult or advanced. The skills needed for winding techniques are often lacking, but that doesn’t make those skills advanced skills per se, in the same way that many people don’t have a good sense of timing or distance, but that doesn’t make timing and distance management advanced skills.

If when training a technique people think of it as an advanced skill, they probably won’t attempt to use it in sparring. For the sake of argument, if a fencer is in a position to make use of one of two techniques, and they think of one of these techniques as being basic, and of the other as being advanced, they are more likely to want to stick to the technique they view as being basic.

This leaves two options. The first is to simply stick to “basic” techniques in sparring and accept that you will never or rarely use “advanced” techniques. The other is to stop thinking of “advanced” techniques as being advanced techniques.

To go back to winding, while I’ve heard a lot of people say that winding is really advanced, in my winding classes, I can break down any technique I teach into simple and easy to understand steps. By breaking down a technique into easy to understand steps, and by emphasising the simplicity of the technique, this helps to get rid of the idea that this technique is advanced and that there is little chance of actually using it in sparring, which is not a helpful idea for the students.

I don’t think that basic and advanced techniques is a useful dichotomy, rather I prefer to think of techniques as being in two categories: techniques you can explain simply, and techniques you don’t understand well enough to explain simply.

If you know a technique, but you think of it as being an advanced technique, then break it down into simple and basic steps. For example, if two students have bound swords, and I tell one of them to wind to an upper hanger, they may struggle to do this, so you break it down into simple steps.

Step one: wind the short edge of your sword onto their sword.
Step two: push both your hands straight upwards.
Step three: drop the point to threaten their face or chest.

These are three simple steps, and if you force them to go through each individually, then they can frame this technique mentally in a way that makes it seem more like a basic technique than an advanced one.

Next let’s say you want a student to learn to counter this wind with Mutieren. Mutieren seems like a pretty complex technique that confuses a lot of people, however again it can be broken down into simple steps.

Step one: wind the short edge of your sword onto their sword.
Step two: push both your hands straight upwards.
Step three: roll your short edge over their sword so your sword is above theirs.
Step four: drop the point to threaten their lower openings.

MS_Germ.Quart.2020_017v

MS Germ.Quart.2020. Folio 17v. Mutieren.

This time we have one more step, but each step is still as simple as it can be, and can be demonstrated easily. Additionally, the steps overlap as much as possible with the first winding technique we looked at, helping the student to consolidate their knowledge, and to view these techniques as being related rather than entirely separate.

Obviously as students start becoming more comfortable with these steps, they should start blending the steps together until they can finally produce one fluid action. However making the technique as simple to perform at first as possible is essential if they are to internalise the technique well enough to stop viewing it as an advanced technique.

This also means that all classes should start as simply as possibly, and should build up towards more difficult techniques. For example, if I wanted to teach a class on counters to the Zwerhaw, I would first start by teaching the Zwerhaw, and breaking down the Zwerhaw mechanics to be as simple as possible. I would then break down the mechanics for the counters, and drill them in simple steps, and then integrate those mechanics to counter a Zwerhaw.

MS E.1939.65.341. Folio 1r. A Zwerhaw being used to counter another Zwerhaw.

MS E.1939.65.341. Folio 1r. A Zwerhaw being used to counter another Zwerhaw.

Students who have been doing German longsword for a while are not likely to think of the Zwerhaw as an advanced technique, however they will probably think of countering a Zwerhaw by cutting from below with their own Zwerhaw as an advanced technique. So it might be tempting to launch straight into the counters to the Zwerhaw, and not go over the actual Zwerhaw itself. However, no matter how comfortable they are with the Zwerhaw, I would still start that class by reinforcing the simplicity of Zwerhaw mechanics, and then reinforce that those same mechanics are being used in the counter to a Zwerhaw, helping to bridge that gap between the “basic” technique and the “advanced” technique.

One good benchmark I would suggest is that if a complete beginner can take part in a class, then that class has been simplified enough. If a class would be completely inaccessible to a beginner it should be simplifed, even if all participants are intermediate or advanced students. This is not to say that a class should be dumbed down, but it should be presented in such a way as make the content seem simple.

Not only can simplifying techniques help with learning, but it also makes the techniques far simpler to perform. This sounds obvious, but is worth thinking about. I always used to perform the Zwerhaw by rotating the sword with the right hand and wrist, which seemed to work fine during drilling, however I always struggled to make this work during sparring. My sparring gloves simply didn’t give me the same dexterity as I’d had without gloves, so a lot of the time I failed to turn the short edge into the cut. I might cut with the long edge, or sometimes hit with the flat. Hitting with the flat presents an obvious problem, and while not as bad, hitting with the long edge was substandard in terms of assuring my own safety compared to hitting with the short edge.

Instead, thanks to some advice from Keith, I’ve been focusing on lifting the left hand instead. What I’ve noticed is that if I grip loosely with the right hand, and keep the right hand where it is in space, while pushing the left hand straight up, the sword will naturally rotate into a short edge cut, even when wearing sparring gloves.

So instead of actively trying to turn the sword, I can use the much simpler action of just punching upwards with the left hand. The end result is mechanics that are simpler to explain, and therefore easier to teach, and that are easier to perform.

If there’s any technique that you’re struggling with, or that you think of as being advanced, it’s worth thinking about how to simplify that technique, and if there are any mechanics from techniques you’ve already simplified that can be used. A consolidated knowledge of simple mechanics that can be used with both “basic” and “advanced” techniques is I think essential for the HEMA practitioner, and I would suggest that practitioners stop thinking of techniques as being advanced, but rather that they take those techniques and simplify their understanding of them.

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