Beginners’ courses in historical fencing

By Eliisa Keskinen

I have attended a decent amount of beginner’s courses as a participant, an assistant and an instructor. The majority of them have covered different types of HEMA but I’ve also taken beginner classes in mixed martial arts, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and savate. I’ve developed a good general idea of what makes a good beginner’s course, and I thought it might be worth sharing some ideas.

The longsword beginner’s courses at EHMS last 6-8 weeks at two 90-minute classes per week. We’ve also had single-weekend beginner’s courses as well as introducing beginners by inviting them to regular training, but we have come to the conclusion that the longer, structured courses work better both for getting people to show up and having them commit to training.

For equipment, we have enough loaner fencing masks and knight shop longsword wasters for the amount of people we can fit into our salle.  Club masks and synthetic wasters are very affordable so equipping the entire group with head protection and a safe training tool can be done on limited budget. However, it is perfectly possible to run beginner training using sticks (as our club did at very beginning) and without masks. One needs to begin somewhere.

General idea

In addition of teaching fencing, beginners’ courses should:

  • be safe
  • be fun
  • raise the fitness of every participant

Generally we haven’t had any major problems with safety even if we regularly let people spar at the end of the course. Basically having a safe course is easy and consist a few safety directions  (“when carrying swords/doing solo practice don’t flail aimlessly”) and slight moderation in pairing (no intense wrestling games with pairs of uneven size etc.).

Having fun is crucially important. Laughing releases endorphins, and endorphins are great when trying to get people hooked into training. Running different, fencing related (or just regular warm-up) games where people can move and play is great way to raise fitness and have fun. Also, it is easier to maintain motivation and thus a good learning mindset if one is in a good mood.

Not everyone who starts HEMA starts out fit. However, it is your duty as an instructor to make them fitter and to rediscover the joy of movement and strength we all have enjoyed as young children. To do this, you must convince your students that fitness is useful for fencing, and that getting fitter is not only possible but relatively straightforward.

As an instructor, you are a role model for your students, whether you want it or not. This means that if you aren’t fit already, you should at least be seen challenging yourself. Your students will do as you do and not as you say. If you slack off, your students will copy you. If you work hard, your students will work hard too.  The conditioning exercises should be challenging and adapted to the level of your students. Students should understand that strong and fast fencers are better fencers, and that everyone can get stronger and faster.

It is important to make new students feel at home in the class if you want them to commit to your school or club. Try to learn their names, and encourage them to get to know each other by letting people chat after and before classes, or ask questions such as “why do YOU want to learn fencing?” from participants.  Also give positive feedback to individuals. Try to call people by their name whenever possible. It is easy to quit class if one feels she/he is just a burden and not missed at all.

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Structure in every class

Our beginner classes are structured thus:

  • raising fitness, solo sword handling
  • basic techniques such as basic cuts and trusts
  • something new, “technique of the day”
  • after the mid-point of the course, structured sparring and progress towards free fencing

Our classes are 1.5 hours long, and I don’t really see point of doing longer sessions – people either cannot focus or the intensity level drops too much.

Getting fit

Conditioning can be done in many parts. It is pointless to have so intense 45-minute warm-up session that afterwards people are so tired and out of breath they cannot focus on the fencing material, which should be the main focus of class. I’ve found that a 10-15 minute warm-up followed by 10-30 minutes of physical conditioning works well. The intensity should be fairly easy at the beginning and should get harder every session. Every students starts at a different level, so suggesting easier/harder variants can be beneficial. However, in most groups the level of fitness varies wildly, so what is an intense workout to some will be a simple warmup to others. Everyone should certainly break a sweat, however.

People should be sweaty and short of breath after classes. I got a fresh perspective on this when I attended to MMA class as a first time, where even the very first class was hard. But you know what? I enjoyed it much more than some HEMA classes that I had attended even if I was not huge fan of physical conditioning at that time. We then started regularly to add more fitness elements to training, such as burpees, intense lunging practice, running, kettlebell or hitting focus mitts in rounds, and no-one quit. Quite the contrary: we got more participants and more committed students. This should be applied to beginner’s course as well: people should be on an upwards fitness curve through the course.

Back to basics

Every class should focus on basics. Core techniques such as  basic cuts, as well as the most common parries and trusts. You don’t need to spend minutes standing on guard to learn Vom Tag; it is enough that you teach the guards as a starting and ending points of cuts. In almost every class there should be some exercise with basics: solo sword handling, basic cut-parry-riposte with a partner etc.

As the course advances, you can start doing basics in a more dynamic fashion: e.g. when doing easy parry-riposte –drill, partners can do cuts moving instead of stationary, or you can add attacks on preparation to the technique (partner attacks when the other lowers her/his guards etc).

More difficult techniques

We include something new in every beginner class; this means that not every technique will be usable after the course, but it helps maintain interest and gives the students a good overview of the technical material contained in the German longsword tradition. Thus we have a  “technique of the day” which over the course includes all the 17 main techniques of German longsword. These are not the focus of each class, which remains on the basics.

Free fencing

My personal view is that it is more harmful to not let people fence early than it is to start sparring “too early”. We generally have sparred towards the end of each beginners’ course, and no harm has come from that. Sparring is not something mystical and dangerous thing you can do only if you are level 1000+ Jedi master, but putting it off for a long time until people are “ready” can create a distorted image like this. Sparring should be fun and not a serious “duel”, but rather a training game.

It is not necessarily a good idea to just give beginners swords and pit them against each other. They don’t know what you expect them to do, and just try to “win” by flailing in panic. It is neither fun nor educational and beginners generally tend to get demotivated by their “poor” performance. Fencing an instructor first who assesses how they do, fencing under direct supervision of an instructor, and using limited sets of techniques such as only hitting the upper openings are good ways to ease people into free fencing. Also be sure to tell people what you expect of them: it is a good idea to give a short talk on expected levels of force, what qualifies as a hit (most clubs do not wish to play a game of touch swords) what you wish to see them do (apply basic technique!), explain concepts such as afterblows and give a general overview on how a sparring match proceeds. Things such as stopping and taking distance after an exchange are not obvious to all.

Synthetic swords are good tools for beginners. They are relatively safe and do not require too much gear (mask, elbow and knee guards and some sort of protective gloves is plenty). I would not let students spar with metal swords before they have their own gear; I wouldn’t want to be responsible if someone would get injured sparring with loaner kit, and it serves as good motivation to acquire your own equipment.

Getting more ideas

It does not matter what style you train – the most important thing is to have people to come next time. Having a safe class where people have fun and they feel they develop in both fitness and fencing is not that difficult. Often HEMA people have a problem in that they have no perspective of how  other sports or martial arts classes do things when they start running their own. It is not a bad idea to go get some ideas from other martial arts as well. We for example have done many adapted practice games we have picked up from other sports such as MMA or Olympic fencing.

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