Why It’s So Hard to Teach HEMA Practitioners to Cut Well

I’ve taught a lot of people how to use a sword, and specifically, how to cut with one.  For the last seven years, I’ve set out on what can almost be called a crusade (except that it has nothing to do with Jesus or the holy land) to teach HEMA fencers proper cutting mechanics. I have been joined in this holy war (okay, I’ll stop!) by my colleague Tristan Zukowski, who has traveled to even farther reaches to bring the light of truth to the sporty infidel (okay maybe I can’t stop!).

 My teachings have not been limited to HEMA fencers. I have taught practitioners of Japanese sword arts, sport fencers (the Olympic kind) and even random people off the street who had never held a sword before. With few exceptions, HEMA people are the hardest to teach.

At this point, I’m sure a few people want to go and comment, “I don’t find it hard to teach HEMA people to cut! Look at this youtube video of my students cutting!” Yeah, I’ve already seen it. Let’s just say we have different definitions of “cut well.” With that out of the way…

 The reason behind this is fairly simple. The primary way that we learn when studying martial arts, combat sports (or really, anything physical) is by forming muscle memory. We form muscle memory with repetition—we do the same thing over and over again until our brain automates the process by forming specific pathways that are triggered when we set out to do it. Think of it as an organic macro. This word, “macro,” is important, and will be used repeatedly in this article. A macro is a term used in programming (and gaming) to describe a sequence of instructions that are carried out with a single instruction. Look it up if you are unsure of what it means. As for how it applies, think of the first time you tried to do something complex in HEMA. You probably had to think about each step and carry out each movement in a very deliberate fashion. As you got better, you would just decide that you wanted to do it and then your body would perform the action without any conscious thought. That’s muscle memory—an organic macro.

  When I take someone off the street and teach them to cut, I am teaching them to form this macro from scratch. The movements that I am asking them to do are new, and, this is the key—those movements are not in conflict with previously recorded macros.

 The way almost everyone learns HEMA is by doing decision tree style technique drills and sparring with blunt training swords.  Attempting to cut typically comes later, either because these people want to compete in cutting tournaments, or they want to take their skill to the next level (make it “real”) .

 The problem with this approach is that by the time you try to learn to cut, your brain already has well developed (mature) macros for swinging a sword.  And, from a “using a real sword to kill” perspective, these macros are completely wrong.  If you just want to do sword sports, then there is no such thing as wrong, only things that do and don’t work in your sport.  But when it comes to the martial art of the sword, there is no room for bullshit. Things are either wrong (inefficient, ineffective, suboptimal, etc.) or they are right (if you want to know more about this, read my book, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application).  

 What happens all too often is that people cannot overcome their original macros and may not even want to, because they serve them well in competitive fencing.  So instead, after trying for a long time, their brain creates a new set of macros. Such a fencer is left with a set of sporting macros and a set of cutting macros, and the two aren’t remotely the same.  Some people even start cutting using their sporting macros, and because cutting tatami with a very sharp sword is pretty easy when your only standard is “did it sever the mat(s),” they get away with it.

 Unfortunately there are only two solutions for this, assuming it is something you care to fix in yourself or your students. The first is to slog through the slow and agonizing process of completely reprogramming your body mechanics to erase the sport macros (or at least to dump them in the “do not use” bucket) and replace them with fighting macros (based on solid cutting mechanics). The second can only be done with a fresh student, and that is to make sure they have the correct macros before letting them fence (or even drill). Unfortunately, this is not very practical for a variety of reasons, as I’m sure you were about to scream at the screen.  It can take months or even years to build these macros, and people want to start fencing right away, because it’s fun. You can balance the two effectively, so that you are teaching them the right way to move and making sure they move that way in fencing, but this is very difficult in HEMA because of the typical ratio of fencing to drilling/training.

 This is an issue that, in my opinion, has no solution that can ever be applied to the whole community or even a large part of that community. I believe that this is a phenomenon that will only get worse the more the community grows.  But perhaps knowing the problem exists and understanding it can help some people overcome it.  And if you happen to be a battodo teacher who’s had their friends from HEMA ask for help with their cutting and you’re wondering why they are so hard to teach, now you know.  But at least you know that it’s not because they’re dumb! So go apologize, take back all the mean things you’ve said about them, and show them this article.