Musing on “doing HEMA”


A question that came to my mind recently, after watching a fairly cringeworthy piece on historical fencing by the BBC, was this: is it better to do HEMA badly, or not to do it at all? Phrased differently: is it better just not to do HEMA if you cannot do it well?

My current answer is that it is still worth doing HEMA even if it is not being done well, and we should be encouraging more people to start doing HEMA and to keep doing HEMA, even if the performance is not great in the beginning.

The Dreyfus model of sill acquisition is one way of modelling the process by which people become better at skills, whether single skills or groups of related skills, such as martial arts.

At the start of the model, people are classed as “novices”, and the model expects that novices cannot produce a high standard of work. The next level of the model is “advanced beginner”, where people are expected to produce a higher standard of work, although great results are still not expected. Then people become “competent” and can produce a reasonable and meaningful standard of work. The next stage is “proficient”, at which point people can produce a good standard of work. Finally, the level of “expert” describes people who produce a consistently high level of work.

The model is of course much more complicated than this brief summary, and is well worth studying. However, this summary shows that people should not be expected to be good at anything in the beginning, but that will diligent study and practice, it is quite possible to be able to perform well.

We must all go through the stage of not being very good at something before we gain any kind of skill or competence. Therefore, as the HEMA community, we must retain and encourage people who are not doing HEMA very well, and give them the support they need to improve and become more competent and knowledgeable. If people just dropped out and gave up HEMA, because they were not good, then the community would falter and grow smaller, to the detriment of everyone remaining.

So, in my opinion, it is better to study HEMA and not be very good at it than to give up and quit.

However, I do think it is very important to have an honest assessment of your own ability and knowledge. Where I think problems occur are when people represent themselves as “experts” when they are at best “competent”, or perhaps even still a “novice” in the grand scheme of things.

I have no problems at all when someone tells me: “I run a club, but I have no idea if what I’m doing is right!” That is an honest assessment, and someone saying that sort of thing is probably doing better than they think. However, someone who says: “my club is really good and I have Talhoffer all figured out!” is probably nowhere near as skilful as they think they are.

I would strongly recommend reading up on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition and giving yourself an honest and frank appraisal: where do you sit in that model? I would say that with the longsword, I have probably only just moved from “competent” to “proficient”, and am still nowhere near the level of “expert”.

To wrap this up, I do hope that people who are currently not very good at HEMA will continue to train for a long time to come, and as a result, become very skilful. The more experts we have, the stronger the community will be!

So, as a community, we should not discourage or humiliate people who are not doing HEMA very well. We should try to be supportive and help them take the next step towards greater skill. Invite them to an event focusing on lessons (maybe tournaments are not entirely appropriate for people who are not very good to start with…) and so give them access to instructors who can help them understand and perform their chosen art(s) better. Offer your own skills and knowledge as a visiting instructor to help their club improve.

Everyone is rubbish in the beginning, and only those who stick through it and keep training will become better. So, as a community, let’s try to help new clubs and people who just dabble in HEMA to become more immersed, get them hooked, and then help them become fantastic historical fencers!

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  • Thank you for your thoughts, Keith. This issue has been bothering me for quite some time now. I am a part of university HEMA society; we study Fiore, primarily longsword and armizare techniques.
    All of us are self-taught. Even though there is a clear difference in skills between, say, first and second second year students, I still feel like we are nowhere near “competent” level.
    Could you recommend ways to improve and get better? To my knowledge, there aren’t any other HEMA clubs in our area.

    • Hi Anhel. I am glad my thoughts have been interesting for you. At which university is your club based, and in the UK, US, or in another country? If you have a look at some of our other articles in the “training” category, there will hopefully be quite a lot of food for thought.

      One of the best ways for you to improve as a club would be to invite over a knowledgeable instructor to give a weekend seminar with a focus on basic skills and further development. If you are in the UK, then I would be willing to come and teach; if you are based elsewhere, then there will doubtless be other knowledgeable instructors a bit closer to you. Although it may seem like an expensive thing to do, it will not be too painful in the grand scheme of things, and it will be one of the best investments your club could make!

      • We are based in Cheltenham, UK. Do you know any instructors in the area?

        I have read some of the articles, but for me personally the issue is how to transfer this theoretical knowledge into practice; I keep struggling with that.

        If we are talking about you coming over to teach us, say, for a one-two day seminar, on what conditions would it be?

        • What I’ll do is to send you an email to the address you used when registering to be able to comment here, and I’ll give you a little more information that way with regard to teaching a seminar.

          In general, for some more discussion about HEMA in the UK, it would be worth searching Facebook for the “UK HEMA” discussion group. Hopefully that group will be able to help somewhat!