Some observations on women, tournaments and heavy hitting

I’d like to think I’ve done a decent cross-section through the HEMA tournament in Europe. At the same time, I’ve been organising tournaments bimonthly to yearly in South Africa. I’ve spent a lot of time fighting, judging and organising tournaments, from before they were fashionable until they became the big thing they are now. The recent hullaballoo about heavy hitting and women’s participation in tournaments is nothing new- the arguments came out in the late 2000s when we were arguing that tournaments must happen, they came out in 2010 when we argued that women’s tournaments may be a necessary evil, they came out again now.

I remember my very first HEMA event- Dijon 2004. We were a motley bunch, standing outside and working our classes in amongst the menhirs. Very calm, that year, except for the gatka guys and far too much talking and drinking. Not a lot of sparring that year. However, at Dijon 2005, sparring suddenly exploded. We can probably blame the Brits for that- Matt Easton and his Schola Gladiatoria queue had “invented” the shinai simulator, and we were all going beserk. We fought for hours at a time, with just a mask and light gloves. There were even mass melees (I was an honourary Swede for those, along with Matt Galas). However, there were never any complaints about hard hitting, though some of us got some lovely welts on exposed skin from the shinai. With so little protection, there was a tacit understanding of what level of force could and couldn’t be used. A number of women were involved in the fighting quite happily.

Fast forward 6 years, to my next international event. Anja and I attended Colin Richards’ WWOC 2010, and fought in a number of tournaments. First morning of the tournament- several fingers broken. By the end of the longsword tournament (14 odd fights later- I loved the format), there were 5 broken fingers and my entire right side was black and blue (my gambeson wasn’t up for it really, and I had a technical fault; did win “Best Bruise” though). Competitors were clad in light armour- gambesons, lacrosse gloves, the weapons were Rawlings synthetics. Anja came 14th out nearly 40 competitors, only woman to complete the open tournament (one had her hand broken, others saw the aggression and stood out). Matt Galas called me an “old dog”. I was happy enough with my own fighting (not my fitness), but I wasn’t that happy with the level of competition- too much flailing, too much athleticism over skill. Perhaps it was the weapons.

Two years later, at WWOC 2012, I didn’t fight, but stood in the ring as a marshall. I spent 2 days trying to keep a handle on a group of longsword fighters. The idea seemed to be to batter the other guy’s sword out of the way. Masks got caved in. A finger got broken through an Ensifer sparring glove. The swords were steel, the armour was heavy- heavy gambesons, back of the head, sparring gloves, gorgets, arms and legs protection. The fighting was one-dimensional in the main- who is faster and stronger. One woman took part in the tournament, Anja chose not to as we weren’t used to steel yet. She took the Women’s competition again. I didn’t like the fighting I saw in longsword, and stopped teaching longsword in the group for 2 years, concentrating on better form and control in single handed weapons.

2013, Anja and I did Fightcamp for the first time. Had a lot of fun in the tournaments, felt like the mood was right. Technique and fun was the order of the day. Some really good fighting. Just not enough fights. Plenty of women fighting, lots more watching.

2014, we restarted longsword, taking a more traditional approach and concentrating on doing things exactly as they were done. We were highly amused to see some articles on “naked fencing”- we’ve always operated that way. Anja and I attended WWOC 2014, a much calmer event than two years before. The fighting was much better- less brute strength, more finesse. Didn’t get much chance to fight inbetween all my teaching, but enjoyed myself. I attended Fightcamp as well, got to torment the rapierists with my sidesword, lost to Piermarco in the Eglington, longsword vs sword and buckler.

Attended Swordfish 2014 to support my student, who got to fight Axel Petterson in his pool. He didn’t freeze up, and had a good time despite his hospital adventure (turned his knee while wrestling some young woman at midnight). Won my rapier pool, despite having to use the dagger thingy. Sat complaining with Roger Norling about how the fighting we saw didn’t resemble what we read in the manuals. Compared to what we had seen on the live stream in 2014, the fighting was mostly subdued- the rules and the marshals emphasised control. Not so many broken swords (in the tournament at least; a certain machine saw some breakage).

Putting it all together

Making sense of it all isn’t that easy. Here’s some of my thoughts:

1) Heavy hitting seemed to peak a couple of years ago. In the old days, we didn’t have the protection and the community was smaller- there was a tacit knowledge of what strength was acceptable and what wasn’t. With the advent of synthetic and steel simulators, heavy protective gear was used and power hitting became the norm at many competitions. As the skill and experience level goes up, the amount of heavy hitting has decreased. However, some people still hit to injure- reminds me of the escalation in SCA combat, where if he didn’t acknowledge the hit, you just hit harder.

2) Women’s participation in the open tournaments has always been spotty. Yes, we had a lot of women sparring in the early days, but not necessarily in the tournaments. Most women see taking part in the Open as the prize; Anja has said she only takes part in the Women’s to help boost the numbers in those tournaments. However, she’s not a short or slender woman- she can compete with many men.

3) Events acquire their own characteristics. Heavy hitting would be frowned upon severely at certain events; unsurprisingly, I see more women fighting at these events. Where heavy hitting is ignored or even tacitly encouraged, you see a lot more brute force. And few small men and women…

4) Some groups are far worse than others. Every time I’ve run into heavy hitters, they tend to come from the same group or groups. If you see the instructor fight, you know what you’ll get from the students. Since we as organisers have to trust the instructors on whether their students are ready to fight, this means the problem needs to be cut off at the head. I couldn’t help notice how much calmer some events were after certain groups were banned (not necessarily for heavy hitting, but other behaviour). The same holds for things like gaming the rules- if the instructor does it and encourages his students to do it, then they will.

5) Protection matters, and it doesn’t. I’ve seen enough breaks and damage through the best equipment to know that we’re never going to be risk-free. However, decision-making and control makes a massive difference. If you are trained to fight as if you were unprotected, you don’t take the risks many people take- “Trust your equipment” ranks as the most stupid statement I’ve ever heard in sword fighting. If you take risks you wouldn’t take unprotected, then sooner or later your protective equipment will be compromised.

How to get more women and men into tournaments

Frankly, I don’t know. However, here’s some suggestions:

1) Everything starts with the club/instructor. If you are running a club and want to organise a tournament, your first priority must be to your own students. If your own female fighters and/or weaker men don’t want to take part, then you need to look at why. Are the rules and the environment too different from what happens in class? Then change the rules and the environment, possibly within your classes but definitely in the tournament. Don’t run a tournament to please other people, run it to please you and your people. And don’t afraid to ban groups that break the rules or ruin the experience.

2) Train all your fighters to fight safely. The way you fight without armour should be no different from the way you fight in armour (and if the protection prevents you fighting the same way, then change it). You shouldn’t be taking stupid risks in any fight, whether or not your armour protects you.

3) Sparring must be an integral part of the club for everybody, men and women all inclusive. Again, if women don’t want to take part in the internal sparring, then talk to them. If it’s a personal issue, that can be coached around. If it’s an issue with the behaviour of other students in the sparring, that’s an issue club culture needs to address. If sports fencing can do it, so can we- and there are lots of books on how to coach women sports fencers and set up the right environment to support them.

4) Entering any tournament involving outsiders is always a risk- after all, that’s why they are valuable, as you can’t predict what the opponent will do. However, within the club there must be an acknowledgement that some behaviour is unsafe, and that the club will support the fighter if they pull out on safety grounds. However, it is equally incumbent on the instructor to only allow/encourage a student to take part in a tournament if that student is really ready for it. If that student has never faced a big man going at full pace before, then they are not ready. That sort of prep should be done in the class, not in a tournament.

Basically, I think the problems of heavy hitting and a lack of female participation in tournaments start at home. Students who get away with heavy hitting and bullying weaker students should be shown the error of their ways in the class; women and smaller men should be allowed to develop the technique to deal with such people in the classroom. The instructor is critical here, as is the club culture. The same goes for the tournament itself. Do the organisers really want female participation, or do they just want participation? If they want more women, then they need to set the right, welcoming tone with the rules and the way fighters are policed. This may not be what the organisers want from the tournament, in which case they cannot complain when only the best and most competent women fighters take part. Similarly, women cannot complain if they don’t also set up tournaments they want to take part in. I’m not speaking about women’s tournaments, I’m speaking about women putting together rulesets and tournaments and inviting men to join them.

In the end, it’s a complex issue. I’m fortunate to live with a woman who fights alongside (and against) me, and I take some of my points from her. I want more woman at all levels of HEMA, not just tournaments, and I think we need to take a look internally at our teaching and club cultures. The only way to get more women involved at tournament really is to get them more involved with sparring, and sparring at pace. To do that, we need to take a hard look at our own practices. If sports fencing can do it, so can we!