Unreal tournament – when HEMA turns to ‘tag’

Image: HEMA sparring October 2018When you ‘train to the treatise’ but spar and compete to tournament rules, there’s a danger that the swordplay looks less like the historical sources and more like a grown-up game of tag.

It’s an issue that came up in discussion with some of the HEMA instructors around the country over the last few weeks; as soon as things turn competitive, the techniques we train in, based on the historical sources, go out the window in favour of ‘tagging’ and ‘sniping’ for points.

Furthermore, using blunt weapons, we attempt risky shots that our sense of self preservation wouldn’t entertain for a moment were the blades actually sharp. It’s one of the reasons we get so many double hits and after-blows in tournament play that wouldn’t happen in a ‘real’ sword fight.

We know from some groups and instructors who use sharps in controlled lessons and semi-freeplay, unlike blunt trainer and waster weapons, sharps bring an element of danger that only correct technique can mitigate.

While I’m not advocating we start using sharps, simply counting hits and after blows clearly misses an aspect of technique on the scorecard. Think of scoring ‘artistic impression’ in figure skating; what HEMA tournament rules are missing is something you could call ‘technical merit’ or application. The elite fighters at the top of the HEMA rankings generally (!) have it, and it’s the thing we want to build in to grass-roots club -play.

Certainly the current tournament formats don’t address it and that’s what is needed to develop technique in tournament play in the future.

How to apply ‘technical merit’, consistently, at any level of free play, at any tournament? No idea; it would be subjective, controversial and demand a level of training of referees way beyond anything we currently have. How would it work? Additional bonus points for technical merit, or points deductions for doubles and after blows? And what’s the standard?

Until then, we’re stuck with a lot of reflex waving and wiggling, racking up enough points to win through to the next round.

Before you ask, yes, my tournament play is a horrible confection of reflex waving and wiggling depending on the technical merit of the opponent I’m facing. RC