Rethinking the HEMA tournament and the social contract

Despite some of the accusations levelled at me after the last two blog posts (here and here), I really enjoy tournaments. I’ve run and competed in HEMA tournaments since before they were popular, and I see them as an essential part of my training and the training of my students. My principal objection to many tournaments today and the phenomena of heavy hitting in restrictive armoured clothing, is that these tournaments only cater to a small group within the HEMA community, which is something to consider and discuss.

At its core, the tournament is a social event, governed by the expectations of its organisers and the attendees. There is an implicit social contract tied into each and every tournament- the organisers have a vision which the participants are expected to help fufill; the participants have desires they hope the organisers will fulfil. Sometimes the organisers and the attendees are perfectly in sync, sometimes there is a jarring disconnect. I’ve attended tournaments where everybody is on the same page, competing freely without a problem. Similarly, I’ve attended a tournament where half the attendees clashed with the organisers, where two different visions of a tournament were simply incompatible. Many people simply don’t attend tournaments because they expect a certain experience, which may or may not actually occur, and other expect a certain experience and object when they don’t get that experience.

The obvious solution to this problem is to clearly communicate what the tournament’s purpose is and how it may or may not suit a participant’s needs and desires. For instance, a tournament which is very clear about its intent, purpose and mood will attract like-minded participants, whereas a tournament without such a declaration risks a mismatch with and amongst the participants.  Rules, in and amongst themselves, are obviously designed for a certain purpose, but not all rules are clear on the purpose for which they were built. Some rules simply don’t reflect the purpose they are supposedly designed for- rules designated as “testing skills” lead to game playing and simplistic play, whereas rules designed to simulate a “duel” lead to extended contests of physicality with little or no stress on the participants.

What I’d like to present here is some terminology and ideas on the purposes of tournaments and how rules can match the purpose. Hopefully this will help bridge the gap between tournament organisers and attendees, allowing both sides to articulate what they want from a tournament. Some of the ideas are not new, but hopefully I can present these in a clear fashion.

The purpose of the tournament

After much thought and internal debate, I believe we have three end-member purposes for a tournament. Most tournaments will have elements of these three purposes, but these are the major components in a tournament:

Test of Technical Skill: a test of skill is intended to determine which fighter has the best technique and grasp of his martial art. Scoring on particular areas or using limited targets are common in such tests.

Test of Nerve: a test of nerve is about being able to fight under maximum stress. A duel to the death is the ultimate test of nerve.

Test of Athleticism: a test of athleticism is designed to test a participant’s stamina and ability to perform techniques when tired, or favour faster or stronger participants. Not normally held for its own purpose, many rules knowingly or unknowingly incorporate a test of athleticism in either the format of an individual fight or in the overall tournament structure.

Two more terms may also be of use:

Historical: The rules are inspired from a direct historical antecedent

Modern: The rules have no links to historical formats and are a modern creation

Notes on the “Test of Technical Skill”

Tests of skill are primarily intended to bring the best sparring out of the participants. From an abstract point of view, we can consider that each participant has an inherent skill level, and our purpose is to rank them according to that skill level. Thus, the purpose of the rules is to bring out the best technical skill from the participants, and allow them to reach their potential.

In a pure test of technical skill, there are several things to consider. Tension and fear must be kept to a minimum, as should physical exhaustion- you need the participants in the best mindset to perform at the top of their game. Rules should reward technically difficult techniques and good fencing, and penalise poor fencing. Artificial constraints such as the afterblow or priority can be used to shape the type of fencing required.

If we look at historical tournaments, many have strong elements of this type of test. Both the Franco-Belgian tournaments and German Fechtschule have limited target areas and limitations on what techniques can be used.  Bolognese tournaments such as detailed in Manciolino have higher scores for certain target areas, and variations on the afterblow rules. Similarly, the type of fencing required was policed through a series of fines. In Belgium, using the edge instead of the flat yielded a fine; in Germany, using the point or striking the hands brought a fine.

In modern terms, certain rule sets are very explicit in rewarding technical skill. The rules for Longpoint 2015 are a good example of rules that clearly lay out their purpose and reward good sword play (controlling the opponent before striking, higher points for harder target areas, entering and exiting cleanly), while penalising bad swordplay (striking while unprotected, failing to exit cleanly after a strike). However, other rule sets fail to achieve the purpose they are ostensibly designed for. For example, a tournament which rewards certain target areas more than others, but which fails to penalise double hits or afterblows leads to gaming the rules and poor decision making (going for the high value target areas despite taking hits to other areas or controlling the opponent; rewarding the heavy obvious hit and ignoring lighter, more subtle hits).

The format for the tournament also plays a role in enabling a true test of skill. Round robins are better for testing skill than elimination formats, as eliminators tend to create tension and nerves. Similarly, fights with multiple passes will limit the “luck” factor and allow skilled fighters to shine. One of the best tournaments I ever attended had multiple round robin pools, so over two days I fought 14 or 15 bouts, allowing me to face a proper cross-section of participants and display my skill.

Notes on the “Test of Nerves”

A test of nerves can be characterised more as an emotional event than a technical event, as the ability to perform actions when under extreme duress speaks more to the fighter’s mental fortitude than their technical skill. Many technical fighters never conquer their fears, whereas other fighters never bother to learn much technique, depending more on their courage and ability to handle fear to defeat an opponent. I believe tests of nerve are a valuable part of my training, but they are an experience that needs to be used with care.

A formal duel is obviously the highest test of nerve. To arrive at a place at a predetermined time to fight a predetermined opponent, with a high chance of death or permanent injury, is the height of bravery.  We can’t exactly duplicate that level of tension in a tournament, but many organisers do try, and most tournaments have an element of this type of challenge built into their format. For instance, any tournament which holds elimination bouts is ramping up the tension by making progress in the tournament dependent on winning a bout.

However, it is often easier to talk about what DOESN’T make a tournament a test of nerves than what does. For instance, wearing heavy protection removes the fear of physical injury, and reduces the fear inherent in the activity. Similarly, having multiple passes in a fight removes the fear of immediate failure.  Many HEMA fighters refer to themselves as “training for a duel”, or practicing “ernstfechten” in German terms. This group wants unlimited target areas and freedom to hit as hard as possible. However, if the main aim of these participants is to test their nerves, they make many decisions which actually negate their stated aim.

Historical tournaments have many pointers to their purposes as a test of nerves as well as skill. Though armour was available, and it would certainly have been possible for the participants of 15th and 16th century tournaments to wear levels of protection approaching those used today (helms and gauntlets existed, and many militia would have had leather or padded jacks), these were purposely not used, possibly because they limited participation to a monied elite, or because they distorted the fight. Taking a hit to the head, with the flat or with a blunt edge, without a mask, is a test most fighters simply won’t take. Within the historical context, the participants had to trust that their opponent would be in control at all times, and able to deliver such a strike without serious damage to their opponent (or their bank account, if they screwed up and got fined).

Similarly, the Franco-Belgian and German rules were effectively “one-shot kill” tournaments, rather than fights with multiple passes. German fighters were likely only to get one fight in a tournament, while Franco-Belgian participants could only guarantee 3 fights. Both formats, then, are not only tests of technical skill but also test of nerves.

Amongst modern rules systems, a test of nerves is best served by having a set of rules with either low point counts (fight over in 1 or 2 exchanges), or an instant kill provision (any head hit wins the fight). The HALAG rules deserve a mention here, in that they are short, brutal, and engender the right mindset, and we’ve had success with our own backsword league rules which can be settled with two head hits.

Notes on “Tests of Athleticism”

One of the big splits in the HEMA community is between those who incorporate a lot of physical fitness into their classes, and those who concentrate on technical skill and forgo the physical conditioning. Those who focus on fitness obviously tend to favour tournaments that reward their fitness and strength, and there are trends in tournaments which can considered as leading to “tests of athleticism”, which sometimes work against these tournaments as “tests of technical skill” or “test of nerves”. Firstly, the heavy gear required by many tournament organisers requires a high level of conditioning, to deal with the heat and the restricted movement. This, in particular, penalises women and smaller men, who carry a proportional heavier load to larger people. Secondly, fights with multiple passes require more fitness, as do bigger pools.

For some organisers, the higher athletic requirements are an explicit part of their event. However, such set-ups will limit the potential attendance, especially amongst women and older competitors. Historically, there were only a few fights, in which technical skill was rewarded, and there are plenty of accounts of older and overweight participants giving the youngsters hell. Limiting tournament participation only to those with time for extra exercise is a short term decision in my view, and not particularly useful for the future of HEMA. However, some athleticism will always be present, so a balance should be found.

Final thoughts

To my thinking, many tournaments have not got the balance between skill, nerves and athleticism right. Those arguing that they are simulating a duel often require heavy protection and run multiple passes and round robins, diluting the building of tension. Similarly, many tests of skill require a very high level of athleticism and tension, diluting the display of skill. I’ve mentioned some skill sets which I feel come close to achieving their goals, but we need to experiment more to get closer to our goals.

For instance, it is possible to construct rules using the historical situations as a base, but adding other elements. For a pure technical tournament, eliminate the eliminators and run more pools, using rules that remove the threat of physical harm and broaden the participation base rules which already emphasise skill can be enhanced by using limited target areas and shot selection, along with fines for dangerous behaviour (not disqualification, but perhaps the forfeit of a deposit, or, even worse, a club’s deposit). For a mix of tension and skill, use limited protection and “one-shot kill” rules to raise tension, but limited target areas and multiple pool fights to allow skill to come through (a large tournament using modified HALAG rules comes to mind). For pure tests of nerves and those who want to simulate a duel, use limited protection and no restrictions on areas ore techniques, with a “one-shot kill” approach and an elimination format.

However, at the core of everything is a plea to be much more upfront about what a tournament aims to create. A tournament intended as a test of nerves should be upfront about this intention, and the rules should reflect this intent; the same goes for the test of skills. In that way, participants know what to expect and “buy” into the social contract. Currently, too many tournaments want to suit everybody or a certain group’s expectation, effectively disappointing a lot people for whom the tournament setup is less than ideal. I want more people to take part in tournaments, so we need to look at what we want from tournaments and how we run them.