Martial control in HEMA

In historical fencing, we have developed a culture of valorizing injury and hard striking. We post photos of bruises or destroyed protective gear, inviting others to admire the risks we take in fencing; our toughness as we fight on through danger, injury, fatigue, and pain. Some instructors brag about their students’ reputation for hard hitting in tournaments.

To avoid singling out individuals or schools, I won’t give any examples except my own. I’ve posted pictures of my bruises online. I’ve shown off my dented fencing mask. I’ve told the story of that time a fencer disarmed me and I punched him so hard in the face that his fencing mask scraped the skin off the bridge of his nose.

Toughness, both mental and physical, resilience, daring, fortitude, and courage are fine qualities, and as martial artists we want to build them all. But does valorizing our injuries and our heavy strikes really promote these qualities? I argue that it doesn’t. Rather, it promotes carelessness, disrespect for our own and others’ bodies, needless risk-taking, and plain stupidity.

Heavy bruising isn’t a good thing; it’s evidence that both fencers screwed up. The bruised fencer got hit. The fencer who hit them did so with insufficient control, or without respect for their body, or both.

I want to fence for the rest of my life. I can’t do that if I destroy my body, or if I’m a drooling mess from accumulated brain injury. Even in the short term, I can’t train as effectively with bone bruises on my forearms and deep contusions in my thigh muscles – no matter how “tough” I am. This goes for my training partners, too.

In Managing safety in martial arts, Devon Boorman of Academie Duello writes: “Good practitioners don’t want to hurt their partners. It should be your goal to leave your fellow fencers healthier than they were when you found them.”

I also want to leave myself healthier after each training or sparring session. In Training for the Future, Keith Farrell writes: “I would quite like to keep fencing until I am 68, or 88, or even 128 years of age (might as well aim high!), and I simply won’t be able to manage this if I tear my rotator cuff a couple of times, or blow out the ligaments in my knee, or give myself permanent wrist pains.”

Keith’s article is about how he avoids injury by consistently using good body mechanics, and by prioritizing stability, balance and safe movement over winning. He acknowledges:

I realise that this does lead to limitations on what I can achieve with my sparring, and I often lose training fights with people who expect me to win against them. It means that in tournaments and competitions, I don’t always place as well as I know I could, if I were to compromise on the standards I set for myself.

This attitude is equally applicable to control and self-moderation in striking. I want to fence until I’m 128, and I want my training partners to do so too. I would rather not land any strike than land one that I can’t control. I would rather not hit my opponent than hit them and injure them.

When I train, my goal is to fence with total control over my sword and my body: to strike where and when I want to, with the exact amount of force that I choose. I want to be able to face off against a heavy hitter and maintain my composure, using only enough impact to make a valid touch, even when my opponent is coming at me like a truck. I’ll give respect, even when I don’t receive it.

Maybe I’m not at that point yet, but I’ll get there. That’s what becoming a martial artist means to me.