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Notes from A Salty HEMA Instructor: Keeping Your Cool In Combat

Hey there fellow HEMA-ist. If you’re reading this you’re probably hoping to get the scoop on how not to freeze up during sparring. It’s a classic tale, really: You hear about HEMA and decide to try it out, you go to your first few lessons and decide you like it and want to do it more, then you decide to subject yourself to the crucible of full contact sparring. Then you get a crash course in simulated life-or-death scenarios that can be surprisingly startling at best, frightening at worst, and you find yourself unsure what to do when someone’s trying to do you wrong (and by that I mean make you “die”). Then you freeze up and do nothing and get bippity boppity booped right on the head. Then you rinse and repeat. Once the fight is over you shuffle out of the ring feeling like you suck. And honestly, you probably do. But that’s okay! The good news about martial arts is that everyone sucks at things sometimes, even the veterans (even though we don’t like to admit it), so there’s always motivation to take new approaches and try new things to get better! The bad news, however, is that for freezing up in sparring there is no magic pill that transforms you into a glorious killing machine. The only true cure for cold sparring feet is experience, and the only way to get experience is to fling yourself into the jaws of combat, heedless of the horrors that await. Thankfully for us all though, there are some things you can practice and keep in your mental toolkit during fights. Ideally, you should practice these exercises enough until they become second nature and you don’t have to even think about what to do anymore, you just already know. Let’s get to it!

Thing 1: Footwork Drills

This may not be what you hoped to see as the first thing on this list, but you’re tough. You’ll get over it. Good footwork is one of the most important elements of any martial art. Get footwork down and you can at least not-die in any martial art you decide to try. Yes, really. The best way to practice footwork is simulated fight drills, and one of my favorites is what I call the 1-2 Sidestep. Here’s how it works: When you inevitably fight some hotshot who goes on the offensive, get in the habit of stepping off to the side after a couple of steps instead of only moving backwards. In the case of this drill, we’re practicing taking two steps back then stepping off to the side. Any side. Follow your heart. This not only lessens the risk of getting skewered like a kebab, but also allows you to take the center line against your opponent if they don’t quickly follow you. Then you can kebab your opponent with the skewer of justice and reclaim the day! Or you can simply get out and get into a guard, which will give you another chance to kebab your opponent with the skewer of justice and reclaim the day. Pretty straightforward. Or backward. And not straight. You know what I mean. Regardless, this can be practiced with a partner or on your own. Look at artful diagram in Figure 1 that definitely I didn’t draw myself for an illustrated version of this drill:

Figure 1

Thing 2: Slow Sparring

You’ve made it this far into the article so I suppose you deserve a treat. Next up on the list is slow sparring, which is more or less what it sounds like. This one can be done on your own but is much more effective as a partner drill. First grab a partner. Harder. There you go. Then determine which of you will be attacking and which will be defending, and settle down in any ol’ guard. The attacker starts the exchange by slowly throwing any attack towards the defender, who will slowly defend any way that strikes their fancy. Both the attacker and defender now have a chance to follow up with a second strike or counter attack, taking pauses when needed by either party to determine their next step. The exchange goes on with one technique after another until one “hits” their opponent, one of the parties withdraws (like I always say: when in doubt, get out), or both parties separate and reset naturally. The purpose of this drill is to give you the time you need to spot your opponent’s openings in any given situation and figure out a way to exploit them without the pressure of a full-speed encounter. This is a particularly handy drill to do right before sparring.

Thing 3: The Plays

Last but not least in our list is something that probably seems obvious but bears pointing out anyways: Study the source material. HEMA is after all founded on the treatises various masters wrote for rich douchebags hundreds of years ago to make a buck. Many of these treatises can be found and/or purchased online ( being the go-to for a lot of this material). The treatises give a lot of information on stances and guards and the bodily divisions of your opponent and such, but are chockablock with combat scenarios, known as “plays,” that outline how to execute specific techniques, how your opponent might counter them, how you can counter their counter, how your opponent can counter the counter to their counter, and so on. They are literally step-by-step descriptions of what to do when you find yourself in various nasty situations. They even have pictures!

For an example: Here are some plays for the Zornhau from the Psuedo Peter von Danzig treatise (image from treatise seen as Figure 2 below): “Gloss: Mark, the Wrath-hew breaks all Over-hews with the point, and yet is nothing other than a simple peasant strike, and drive it thus: When you come to him with the pre-fencing, if he then hews at your head from above on his right side, then hew also with him wrathfully from your right side from above, without any parrying, on his sword. If he is then Soft on the sword, then shoot in the long point straight before you and stab him to the face or the breast. So Set-on him.” Seems like there’s not much use to it at first since it’s pretty simple, but just you wait. There’s another step. “Gloss: Mark, that is when you hew in on him with the Wrath-hew, then shoot the long point into the face or breast, as the fore-described states. If he becomes aware of the point and parries strongly and presses your sword to the side, then wrench up over it with your sword on his sword’s blade, off above from his sword, and hew him to the other side, yet on his sword's blade, into the head. That is called 'taking off above.'"

Figure 2: Image from the von Danzig treatise.

I’ll spare you further exchanges as honestly it goes on forever, but you get the idea. You practice the first step, then the next, then the next, and so on until it becomes second nature like the footwork drill I talked about earlier. Since the point of these treatises is to show you how to respond in various scenarios, why bother reinventing the wheel when you can avail yourself of the stuff written for the pretentious upper classes, but has survived and found its way into the hands of unwashed poors such as we. The language is old-fashioned to say the least, so don’t worry if it takes a few reads to figure out what the masters are saying sometimes. It’s easy to access, easy to read (for the most part), and easy to practice in small or large chunks. So study the source material like sunglasses dude in Figure 3, ya lazy bum.

Figure 3

This list is by no means exhaustive. As a matter of fact, I can write a second article with more tips and tricks used by our school president and others (if you ask nicely). Still, this should give you a good start. Ultimately, sparring will become less intimidating if you practice these drills with any semblance of regularity. Leave a comment on any drills you practice to help keep you from freezing up during sparring. Regardless of whether you comment or not, find some unlucky soul to train with and get to practicing!

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