For the past 8 months I’ve set myself a challenge: To inflict the least amount of pain that I could to whomever I would fence or drill with.
It’s quite a contradiction when you think about it. Not only do I practice a martial art that involves hitting people with a sword and often score for doing so in competitive environments, but the other person also has a sword which they intend to strike me with.
The unfortunate part is that in most cases, competitive or otherwise, my opponent doesn’t care about keeping me safe as they get tunnel vision about winning, which is exactly what I hope to change one day.
When doing martial arts, it is important to understand that you are the main thing keeping the other person safe: not their gear, not them, but you. You truly are the difference between safety and a concussion or a broken bone.
The fact is, it is extremely easy to cause damage. Striking at the hands or arms with intent is likely to fracture a bone even through protective gear. See this example where a strike in a tournament led to an arm fracture:
According to Per Magnus Haaland, the person who was injured in the video above, his opponent did not use raw power and he believes this could have been prevented by wearing additional plates under the cuffs.
In a similar situation, Cameron Thompson received a forearm fracture from an enthusiastic oberhau that went through a SPES AP jacket and the cuffs of the Sparring Glove.
And while bone fractures are relatively easy to diagnose and leave obvious damage, we are slowly becoming increasingly aware of long-lasting damage from concussions and repetitive head trauma in the form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). In the following video, Peter Smallridge receives a significant blow to the head that may have resulted in a concussion:
Fractured bones, concussions and torn ligaments all have significant lifelong consequences, and keeping ourselves and our friends, partners, tournament combatants and everyone around us safe should be our goal whenever we hold a sword, even with the purpose of striking someone.
Most people do not intend to injure their sparring partners. This is something we should recognize because it means that any one of us can inflict a serious injury to a friend or a fellow practitioner. We need to adopt a new attitude. It is not sufficient to not intend to injure; we must actively intend not to injure.
It is often suggested that we should put on as much safety gear as we can to minimize the risk, but we must remember that we are using levers capable of reaching extremely high velocities and delivering large amounts of force, and our protective gear is simply incapable of guaranteeing safety.
It can be seen throughout martial arts and sports that as people add more protective gear, their behaviour becomes more dangerous in what is called risk compensation. As our helmets becomes heavier and more “safe”, people feel more comfortable to give it all they’ve got when hitting the head, as seen in boxing. For a somewhat closer-to-home example, see this video.
Another problem that may arise is that when one part of our gear improves, another may lag behind. It is relatively easier to build sturdier headgear than it is to build protective and mobile handwear. This may cause mis-matched calibration where a person may feel like it is safe to deliver a hard hitting blow to the head but might hit a less protected target instead and cause damage. Also, it is important to note that there is no evidence that our current design of headgear prevents CTE in any way.
In addition to risk compensation and mis-matched calibration, there is another problem: the more protective gear we wear, the heavier it gets. This means that we become less mobile as the gear interferes more in our art, and that we get tired more easily, sweat more and ultimately can fence less.
Instead, what we need to do is to take responsibility for the safety of our opponents throughout the fight and make sure that we are not delivering a strike that could injure.
If you practice HEMA, I propose this: next time you put on the gear to spar someone, whether it is a friend, a training partner or a tournament combatant, make a conscious effort to keep this in your mind throughout the whole fight: "I'm not going to injure my training partner". You might find the way you fence changes.
If this is limiting you in any way, then maybe you are compensating with force instead of keeping up with technique. I’d suggest this article for ideas to examine in your fencing. I also think slow fencing is an incredible tool for improvement and recommend this article by Kate and another by Devon Boorman.
If you feel like the other person is fighting you in a dangerous way and the only way for you to keep up is by increasing your own intensity, then consider asking them to tone it down, and if they won't, it may be time to back away. You don't have to fence everyone.
Similarly, if you are an event organizer or a judge in a tournament, you can make a difference by paying attention to the fighters and calling out when fencers behave dangerously. As event organizers it is our responsibility to have all the participants go back home as healthy as they came with an added smile on their face from a positive experience.
If you are a participant, you can approach a member of staff and voice your concerns when something dangerous happens. Call out things instead of letting them silently become the norm.
There are many benefits to changing our approach and taking responsibility.
The safer we are, the less chance for an injury that may create a negative impact that may last weeks, months or even a lifetime.
The safer we are, the less protective gear we need to wear, the less sweaty and tired we get and the more we can fence.
The safer we are, the more we become controlled and skilled in the art.
The safer we are, the more risks we can take in terms of gear, technique, and realism. The only way to get to work with sharps, minimal protection, or at similar levels of "danger" that approximate the reality of the arts we practice, is to exercise a high level of control and completely trust our partner.
The safer we are, the more we can enjoy swords, because swords are fun.
So, the next time you go out there to fence, make a conscious effort to inflict the least harm possible on your opponent, so that you may both improve and make swords more fun.
For more reading, I also recommend Kate’s post on martial control.