Recently I came to act on a singular selfish and childish desire: "I want to play with swords". Unfortunately to get the most satisfaction from playing with swords you need a minimum of two people and the more the merrier, as a variety of people adds a mix of different skills and extra challenge which leads to more fun and insights. It is this that led me to start a local HEMA group.
Let's take a step back for a moment: I have been playing with swords for the past year and a half now, so what changed? In March this year I moved from Guildford (UK), where I studied with the School of the Sword and English Martial Arts Academy, to Mountain View, USA.
Being new to the area, I looked to continue my studies and found two accessible locations: Davenriche European Martial Arts School and Schola Saint George. The first is a well structured institute and the other a casual weekend meetup group ina park. For various reasons I decided I wanted more, and set out to get more people into HEMA.
It's worth noting that I label my meetups as a “study group” rather than classes, I do this to promote initiative and ownership from members. For beginners however I still introduce the group as a class, this is done so they are not intimidated and feel that they have someone to guide them as they begin their studies.
Now that I was set on starting a new HEMA group, let's talk about the challenges I encountered:
The list might be sorted into a simple logical order: You need a place to meet and equipment to train with, and people to use the equipment and practice with. Finally, becoming an instructor is a matter of necessity to guide newbies. Hmm, no.
In truth, the list should be reversed if you sort it by challenge or importance, or maybe remain the same but ordered from easiest to hardest:
There is one more thing that I didn't quite pay attention to when I just got started and that is insurance. I'll comment on it at the end.
Let's look at each of these individually.
This is the easiest to get started with, especially if you live in a temperate climate where rain isn't much of a problem and you can train outside.
For my group we vary between using a nearby park and the dance studio at the office. We are lucky enough to have great facilities at work which we can use.
For those who live in climates where rain is a challenge, consider local gyms and schools and see if you can borrow or rent a space. You can get lucky with places letting you start for free.
My first decision was to make it as easy as possible for people to get started, therefore I would get enough equipment to allow newcomers to jump in and try it out.
HEMA requires a lot of gear which imposes a big restriction on people starting out. The minimum equipment in my eyes are: a sword, gloves and mask - which can be an intimidating purchase, especially if one is just trying it out and haven't quite figured out if they'd like to pursue it further or not.
For those reasons I decided to get enough equipment for 6 people. After deciding what is the minimal acceptable equipment I'd like and doing some research, I decided to buy 6 sets consisting of:
(In the end I only got two masks to start with due to expenses.)
This was an expensive purchase which I accepted that I am unlikely to recover given my group's financial model and I am fine with this because it brought me a lot of joy and new people to work with.
If you are interested, I made a short blog post about protective gear and different types of drilling practices and the amount of equipment they require: Historical European Martial Arts - Equipment.
This section consists of two parts: finding new people and maintaining people. While finding people is a challenge, keeping people coming on a regular basis is possibly more challenging and complicated, especially if you're new to instructing and are still learning your way around running a group.
Let's start with the simple truth here: You only need one other person. Once you have one other person with you on a regular basis, you are a minimally viable and functioning club Congratulations!
Work hard to get at least one person join you on a regular basis, be it a good friend or a workmate with a casual interest in swords, do whatever you can to instill passion in them and get them excited. Having one other person will help you get further and make your club less awkward for a new person who doesn’t know you to join the crazy random person wielding a sword in the park.
Once you have one regular person with you, it is time to get more people. Find places you can advertise the group, here are some ideas:
Once you have someone interested come over, maintain their interest. This might be easy with no challenge at all, I mean: "Swords! Come on, what's not to like?" - other times however it is not so simple.
This goes back to my previous decision on equipment. Make it as easy as possible for someone to join in by removing any possible obstacle from their path. Equipment is the first obstacle, the second is having fun.
In my experience, people best keep at things which drive their enjoyment. Starting out with HEMA can be very dry and boring, or very cool and exciting, you must be on the latter.
Make your first lesson leave a memorable first impression, do this by teaching a sequence which begins simple and develops into something cool which feels awesome and powerful. Here is an example and how it might build up:
This is a great way to make a newcomer feel powerful and cool at the same time. With good demonstration, you can get them excited to learn from there.
Now you've probably noticed that this entire section preludes to becoming an instructor and should probably be seen as part of it.
While there is always a challenge in finding people who are interested in HEMA, I'd argue that becoming an instructor is far more challenging and will have you questioning yourself and your skill at every turn. This I believe is also a crucial contribution to one's development as a student.
Here are some tips to help you out:
Let's admit it: unless you have been doing HEMA for the past [insert arbitrary number:] 8 years or so, we both suck at this and still have a ton to improve upon.
It will be incredibly useful to accept that and recognize all the different ways you can improve. Not only will it help you as a student, but it'll make you more honest with your students and other people.
This might be obvious, however some people begin studying with an instructor and then move to a different city or country and want to continue. Fact is, even if you had a really good instructor chances are some of the finer nuances or intentions in the system may have been lost on you.
Whether you have an instructor or not, there is a lot of insight to be gained from reading the manuscripts and interpreting the plays. Not only will you gain a deeper understanding of the system, you will also understand the plays better, which you can then instruct for your students to follow.
Furthermore, when a question arises, you should be able to refer to the original text for possible insight, though keep in mind that you'll have to investigate the mechanics to understand them.
I like to compare my understanding with other people's interpretations. When looking into longsword I found some good resources online such as Sword Carolina Dobringer Playlist on YouTube and posts by other practitioners on the HEMA Alliance group on Facebook.
Look for relevant work done by others as many times they will have great insight. Even if you disagree with their interpretation, chances are you will learn something new and gain a new perspective. You can also ask questions online to get opinions about a specific topic.
(HEMA cat is unimpressed with your interpretation.)
This is split into two: (1) understanding your student's skills, and (2) understanding your student's best learning approach.
The first part should be relatively simple, being aware of what your students do well and what needs work will allow you to tailor drills specifically for them to help them improve.
For a student who is having difficulties in engagement you might want to look into second, third and fourth intent drills, as well as entering with a sidestep and hands first. A fencer with distance management issues could use measure drills, keeping them out of reach of an attack while having to deliver a counter afterwards.
The second part can be more complex. This requires you to understand in what way your student learns best. Some people are happy to do repetitive drills until they "get it" and need little management, while others are more happy when they can ask questions and explore the concepts and foundations of the system.
For the latter you want to promote problem solving and find ways they can explore the system and body mechanics further.
As a student, I really hate it when someone tells me to do something repetitive for an hour without explaining the principles behind it. And even then, I'm likely to feel like "I got the idea" and will get bored quickly.
Learning by blind repetition works for some, but in my experience people learn best when they are feeling engaged, challenged and come upon a solution as if they solved a puzzle.
I highly suggest to decompose your drills (when you can) into modular sets of actions and engage your students to figure out what the next action might be. This works best if it builds on top of a recently learnt concept. For example:
If you have recently demonstrated and explained mutieren, compose a sequence that will lead up to mutieren. Instruct the first step, later add the second step, let's say it's the parry. After a while ask "Ok, let's take this further. What can we do from here?" and let the pair experiment, if they are stuck, give them a hint to lead them to the mutieren: "Are they soft or strong? How can I get their weak on my strong?".
This will transform the drill into a thought exercise which will make it a lot more fun and engaging. As long as you properly set it up to your student's skill then they should enjoy it and feel like they have solved a puzzle.
Every once in a while you should do a light spar with your students. It is fun for them and you get to see how well they use concepts you attempt to teach in a more "real" scenario.
You should note however that you don't scare them or frustrate them. It is very easy to break a beginner's defense or attack and hit them, but doing it every time isn't rewarding or useful.
Instructive sparring can be difficult. You need to tune yourself up and down, providing a spectrum of difficulty levels that challenges your student but doesn't scare them away or frustrate them.
Sometimes you'll have to engage creating an opening in your attack so they can take advantage of it. Other times you will attack exploiting a hole in their defense to show them where they need to improve. The trick is balancing the ratio so your student is enjoying themselves.
And let's flip it around. If each time they engage you results in them being hit, they will learn to stop engaging, which is bad. You need to encourage them to engage, this can be done by creating openings or responding sub-optimally, for example parrying without riposting and with the point offline. Once they feel confident enough to engage, alternate and give some good defense to up the challenge, however remember to tune it back down.
Once you can control the flow of the spar, give them an occasional advice: "Take a side step as you engage/parry, so you get my opening". Likewise, call it out when they have done something well, such as demonstrating a concept in action: "That engagement was great! Your side step as you delivered the first strike made the opening on my left that you got with your second hit. Good job!"
Remember: Their victory is your victory as an instructor.
We've all been there: someone asks a question and the instructor is happy to oblige with an answer. This leads to demonstrating a technique, which leads to demonstrating a counter, possibly due to a follow-up question.
The cycle keeps going and some of the students are enchanted by the instructor's display of knowledge and technical performance, while the others start rolling their eyes and get bored.
As instructors, we are also practitioners and it is safe to say we are passionate about the art of combat, so it should come as no surprise that we can get excited to show our understanding when a student comes up with a question. However the flood of information isn't always productive for students still trying to grasp more basic concepts. Know when to stop.
"Get back to your Meyer Cutting Diagrams everyone!"
Curiously enough, time to move on to the next section.
Ok, that's quite a bit on becoming an instructor and it most definitely doesn't encompass everything. Let's look into some more general tips in making a club.
There is a lot you can do to help your school, club or study group flourish. Let's look into some short tips:
I mentioned briefly at the beginning that I like to call my club a study group. This is partially because I want to be honest and not claim to be an authority. For this reason I tend to refer to it as a study group, except for complete beginners where I will refer to it as classes for a while before they become more comfortable.
Find your own definition and base it around that. Different definitions can lead to your members viewing the group with different eyes.
If you are lucky enough, there might be other HEMA practitioners somewhere nearby. Make special meet-ups where a guest instructor will show up to give an extended lesson. That can bring fresh concepts and new perspectives as well as re-motivate your group.
Have study resources available for the group. This can include books, prints of the manuscripts and other cool things.
For my group I printed Meyer Cutting Diagrams on large paper to hang as we meet so people can practice the different patterns. I also made sure to share all the PDFs and web pages I use in the meet-ups.
I'm not going to go over how to market you group, however I will say to finding a theme and an art to attribute to your group can make it feel more special and distinguishable.
Look into a logo and some art to relate to your group. This will help you later when you do special events or ever go big and might want to have a website.
Being in a group makes you feel a part of something and having a club shirt or emblem makes you able to show off your pride being in that group, as well as feeling more "in" in a way.
Look into printing t-shirts or making patches that your group can put on their equipment. This can promote more positive group spirit.
You might want to make a website for your group and it can be useful at some point, however there is no need to rush to making a site if you are just starting out. For the time being your group can live on social networks such as facebook.com or meetup.com until you grow enough and become more stable.
In the future having a website can bring more credibility to your group and help attract new people.
Ok, it's the dreaded insurance part. I'm not going to say much as advice varies from place to place and I am far from an expert. This should however serve as a reminder that you should really look into insurance for the case something happens.
Lucky for us, this is a common problem and The HEMA Alliance provides some help with that: https://www.hemaalliance.com/club-affiliation/
I hope this post was helpful for you to get started. Remember that you can approach online groups for advice. The nice thing about HEMA is that everyone is connected and there are big groups on Facebook such as The HEMA Alliance and HEMA World Domination, the latter being specific for club owners.
Good luck in your endeavours and to see you at events!