No pain, no gain

My brother, Ollie, recently sent me an article regarding HEMA and full contact. The article was really well researched and written by a HEMA instructor who was trying to define full contact sports and explore whether or not HEMA fell into this category.

He makes a couple of interesting points which make a lot of sense when you first read them. For example:

“The aim of learning any martial art should be to walk out of a fight in the same condition as you walked in.”


“No one should be damaging anyone period…unless it’s a fight.”

Now, I happen to agree with these ideas in principle. Roland Warzecha has said on many occasions that the first goal in any fight is to survive. What’s more is that the people that we are training with are often our friends. The people I train with on a regular basis are like family to me and the person I train with for the most part is my wife. So, yes, I definitely don’t want to go around breaking their bones or spitting them with a sword.

What is more, any action that results in an injury will mean weeks or possibly months without training. Despite wearing protective headgear, concussions are still a danger. Studies in micro-concussions have shown that over time even minor blows to the head, if repeated, can have an adverse effect on memory and motor functions. Broken bones and blunt force trauma can be caused by uncontrolled or overly forceful strikes which are made worse by the increased surface area of blunted sword. The reason we wear so much padding is because the weapons with which we train are bloody dangerous.

But then they are supposed to be bloody dangerous. We can remove the sharp edges and remove the force from our strikes, but swords are still swords. We cannot fully remove the function of a sword to make it safer and if we seek to, then we are no longer practicing swordplay.

I’m not saying we need to do things that are irresponsibly dangerous, but if our aim for a martial art class is to walk out the same way you walked in, then you will never learn how to deal with the pressures of a truly violent situation. You’ll never grow. For some people, that’s exactly what they want. They want to let off some steam and by practicing a couple of plays. But this throws into question whether or not your goals are to become a sportsman/sportswoman or a swordsman/swordswoman; a fencer or a fighter and the differences between the two.

Anyone can thread a needle, but threading a needle while being chased by a rabid Rottweiler is an entirely different situation. The mind shrinks when we panic. We take shallower breaths and our heart rate increases. Our mouths go dry and our vision is affected. Adrenalin and cortisol are released into the blood stream which can cause the muscles to tense up. Critical thinking and decision making go out the window as we give way to “behavioural looping,” attempting the same strike over and over again regardless as to whether or not it’s successful.

Pain and pressure are things that set apart a martial artist from a pair of cretins practicing Chi Sau and flapping their hands at each for hours on end, barely working up a sweat.

If we are at no point exposed to pain, how can we learn to cope with it? Conditioning is important. Admittedly, there are different levels to which you can take it. I’ve often asked my sparring partner to box me in a corner and just unload while I plant my feet or I’ve taken beatings from wooden rods (often wielded by the Mrs) to get me used to blunt strikes.

No Pain, No Gain

There are things you can do to condition specific parts of your body too like your hands and shins for making strikes. However, I would never take it to the level my Krav Maga instructor, Jim Halton, does where he regularly gets his nose broken from letting through strikes so he doesn’t get soft. The guy’s a beast.

If you are actively trying to avoid your students getting bruises, then the form which you practice cannot be comparable to the ‘real thing’. And while we’ll NEVER really get the real thing, isn’t it the goal to get as close as reasonably possible?   This is indeed the case with modern-day fencing and re-enactment. Now, re-enactment is something I love, but I never feel like I’m in any real danger when sparring with a re-enactor.

I know that’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. In HEMA, like with any martial art, you choose your own level of involvement and the risks therein. The more hours you put into it, the greater the chance of injury. The school you join, though, should be willing to rise to your level. Not by putting you in danger of injury, but offering constructive ways in which you can condition yourself both physically and mentally.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating people who go around swinging swords with the intention of hurting their opponent to make themselves feel big. What I am saying is that by trying to minimise risk, we inform the style of combat. What’s more, we may create more problems. For example: when gloves were introduced into boxing, not only did the style change, but combatants were able to strike harder which simply created a different series of dangers.

Danger, pressure, stress, failure and pain play as big a role in shaping a martial artist, if not bigger, than success and form. You get out of it what you put into it. Fencer or fighter?

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