Author Archives: AlexBourdas

Running long classes

In my last post, I talked about Running Short Classes. I talked about the challenges that can be involved in running a short class, and I gave advice on how to run a short class. Potentially equally challenging can be running a long class.

As mentioned briefly in my last post, time management is often an issue for beginning instructors, and I gave the most common noticeable example of this, which is newer instructors getting through all their material too quickly. This would normally lead to the instructor desperately trying to fill the rest of the class.

It is also worth mentioning that what exactly constitutes a long class will vary a lot from person to person.  Someone who is new to instructing may think that an hour long class sounds like a very long time, while a more experienced instructor may consider a long class to be a several hour long seminar.

Pace yourself, and let things take time

The first, and simplest, piece of advice is simply to pace yourself. There’s no need to race to the end of the material, or to hurry the students through all the drills and techniques you want to cover. While you shouldn’t have students perform the same drill or technique for so long they get bored, you also need to make sure they get plenty of practice, and giving them lots of time before you introduce the next drill or technique will ensure that they have the time they need, and that you don’t run out of drills and techniques too quickly.

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Running short classes

As an instructor, being versatile is key, and one way to develop and improve versatility is to teach classes of different lengths. It is not much use only being able to teach classes of one specific length, but this is a problem I see very often. If you give a less experienced instructor a longer class time than they are used to, they will often rush through their material far too quickly, and run out of things to teach in the end of their class. Another interesting problem is that of short classes: can an instructor still deliver a worth-while class in 30 minutes?

I think that being able to deliver a 30 minute class that students still feel gave them good value for money is an excellent test of an instructor’s versatility. Giving classes of this length will require an instructor to be efficient, to not take up more time than necessary, and to pack as much value into every second as possible. All these skills will transfer over into longer classes as well, so the skills needed to teach a half an hour class will also be useful when teaching a three hour class.



With a short class, you can’t afford to waste time, so you need to look critically at every other element of the class, and ruthlessly cut out anything that isn’t necessary in order to run your class more efficiently.

For example, is your warm-up taking 10 or 15 minutes? If this is the case, then you’ve already lost a third or half of the class. The primary purpose of a warm-up is to warm-up the student’s muscles to help prevent injury, so if your warm-up includes lots of stretching for example, is this actually necessary, or does it simply take up time? In a longer class, you may want to include more stretching as you can afford to spend more time (although you should still be careful not to spend time unnecessarily), but this is not true in a shorter class.

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Engaging a class

One of the skills that is very important to an instructor is engaging a class. It won’t matter how well structured a class is, how much research went into it, or how technically correct the material is if the students are not kept engaged with the class in some way. If they lose interest, then they are not going to be able to pick up the lessons effectively.

There are many ways to engage a class; just as there many ways to mismanage the engagement of a class and to lose their interest, or to let the attempts to engage them distract them from the actual technical material that is being taught.


Humour is one of the most obvious ways of engaging a class, and can be one of the easiest. Simply telling a joke or two is a quick way to make the atmosphere seem friendlier and a little less serious. Some care needs to be taken with humour though: a joke may seem like it will be funny, but then fall flat, which will not help with engaging the class, and could even do the opposite. One example comes to mind of a seminar I once took part in where the instructor came across as quite strict and serious, but out of the blue made one or two very bad jokes. This simply came across as jarring. Other instructors might include too many jokes, to the point where it becomes hard to take them seriously. It is also worth bearing in mind that everyone might not share your sense of humour, and telling a joke during class time that people might find either offensive or cringe-worthy will also not help.

The occasional well-timed, well-told joke can definitely help engage a class, although jokes that are badly timed, badly told or that are simply inappropriate, or making too many jokes can damage how you are perceived in your student’s eyes.

Humour can be more subtle than telling obvious jokes as well: I can think of some instructors who’ve done well from using a certain kind of dry humour for instance. Many of the treatises we study include phrases such as “…and then you may do as you like to him…” or “…this blow he will not soon forget”. Phrases like this, when delivered during a technique demonstration with an under-stated voice, a wink and a smile can go a long way towards this sort of humour.

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Belfast Bladeworks 2016 Review

Me fencing against Andrzej Rozycki. Photo copyright of Michael Barbour/2nd Shooter, 2016.

Me fencing against Andrzej Rozycki. Photo copyright of Michael Barbour/2nd Shooter, 2016.


On the 3rd and 4th of December, I participated in Belfast Bladeworks 2016, which was, as the locals would have said, good craic. Belfast Bladeworks was an open longsword tournament, and was the fourth tournament of the Irish Historical Fencing League 2016.

I hadn’t been to any of the previous league events, so I didn’t have the chance to rank high in the league, but I’ve always enjoyed my interactions so far with the Irish HEMA community, and wanted to get a chance to fence with some of them again.

The original plan for the event didn’t quite work, as numbers were lower than expected, possibly due to how close the event was to Christmas. The Saturday had meant to be taken up by the tournament, to be followed by a Fechtschule on the Sunday, although the lower turnout meant these activities didn’t take as long as the time allotted to them.

There were 14 people participating in the tournament, and I understand the previous events in the I.H.F.L.  had a much higher turnout. The venue was on the smaller side though, so I think the number of participants was about right for the amount of space available.

The quality of the fencing was high through-out. In several of the pool fights I had to remind myself after the first exchange to keep focussed and not to under-estimate my opponents. I was very proud of my fencing overall though and ultimately won all but one of my pool fights, and so advanced to the eliminations stage.

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Systems vs self experience, invention and mixing & matching

Originally, I had wanted to write a reply to Shadiveristy’s video The Problem with HEMA, although excellent replies were made by Dave Rawlings, Martin Austwick and Matt Easton before I had the chance[1] [2] [3]. After giving it some time, I thought this was a good opportunity to address an idea that is present in Shadiversity’s video, and that I’ve heard from many other people as well.

HEMA treatises represent a deep well of useful and valid martial information, but there are often people who believe that their own experience with sword fighting is somehow more useful and valid than the information that can be found in those treatises, or the information that can be gained from HEMA instructors.

“You know what works best for you”

This is one of the most common reasons giving for mixing and matching techniques from different source materials, or techniques that are not from any source material. The rationale that every individual knows what techniques work best for them in a fight, and that therefore, they should use those techniques while not using any techniques that don’t work them, seems sound at first glance.

The practice of martial arts however; is at least in part the practicing of techniques that are new and that might seem uncomfortable or unusual at first. If a technique doesn’t work, the best option may be continuing to try to make it work rather than give up on it entirely.

If a technique doesn’t work for you, then this may be because you don’t have the right sort of build or height for it; or it may in fact mean that you simply don’t have the right structure or understanding of the technique. It may be that you are trying to carry out the technique at the wrong time, or the wrong distance, or that you haven’t set up the technique correctly.

With a certain level of experience, I think someone can say a technique doesn’t work for them, but without that experience, I think this excuse is a lazy answer.

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The limitations with experimental archaeology

Last week I wrote a post called The Importance of Written Sources, and in that article, I mentioned using experimental archaeology in the context of HEMA to help recreate fighting systems for which we do not have any written sources. Shortly after I wrote this, an article was published on ScienceNordic[1]. This article includes a video from a group called Combat Archaeology, as well as a summary and quotes about the experiment, and what they found.

The article is of course somewhat sensationally titled. It claims that an ‘Archaeologist discovers a new style of Viking combat’, when the scope was really much more limited than this. The description of the video states:

The experiment attempted to determine what body techniques Viking Age round shields are inclined to facilitate and which they restrict or otherwise discourage. More specifically, the aim was to critically assess body techniques in terms of deflection and to obtain empirical data outlining the effects associated with an aggressive as well as relatively passive use of the shield.

In essence, the experiment is designed to compare the effectiveness of passive vs. active uses of the shield, although this is of course not the same as discovering an entire style, as I’ll mention below.

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The importance of written sources

Some time ago I wrote an article called Questions on What Is, and What Is Not HEMA, and recently I’ve been thinking about that question a little more. Firstly, I think that a differentiation must be made between historical European martial arts, as in martial arts that were practiced historically in Europe, and HEMA, as in the modern sporting practice. Viking sword and shield, as in the styles of fighting done with a sword and shield by the Scandinavian cultures that we refer to as the Vikings today, was clearly a historical European martial art; it was a martial art used historically in Europe. However, I would also argue that it is not part of HEMA, the modern discipline.

The reason for this distinction is sources. A Norse warrior living in the 9thor 10th centuries had no need to examine written sources to see if the way he was fighting with a sword and shield was historically authentic, whereas a 21st century practitioner cannot just fight with a sword and shield and claim his method of fighting is historically authentic. They must, or at least should, use evidence to back up their claims and demonstrate that what they are doing is likely to be historically authentic.[1]

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The problem with the broadsword and targe sources

Penicuik drawing 14. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik drawing 14. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

One of the weapon combinations that is used within the AHA is the Scottish broadsword and targe. This combination is of course quite iconic of the Scottish highlander, and so generates a lot of interest. There are few sword and targe sources however; so while we do not have to theorise an entire system from no evidence, we still run into all the problems identified by Keith in his “Interpretive” HEMA Systems article.


The three sources we have are the anonymous Penicuik sketches, Thomas Page’s The Use of the Broadsword, and Donald McBane’s The Expert Sword-man’s Companion. None of these sources are particularly detailed, and there isn’t as close a relationship in what they show as we might like.


Penicuik drawing 3. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik drawing 3. 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

If we look at the Penicuik sketches, one of the notable features we can see is that the targe side is almost always held forward. The two exceptions are a depiction of a right leg forward fencer in a low, invitational guard, and a drawing of two Highlanders fencing, one of whom has his right leg forward. All other images show the Highlanders with the targe side forward (i.e. normally left leg forward, unless they are right handed, in which case they are right leg forward). This means that if we were basing a system off the Penicuik sketches, we would need to start in predominantly targe side forward guards. We could pass forward during a fight and be in a sword side forward position while we are actively fencing, but when in starting guard, we should rarely be sword side forward.


Penicuik Drawing 23 (4). 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Penicuik Drawing 23 (4). 1746. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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Developing judging skills

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

AHA fencers judging at the recent Broadsword Tournament Trial Run

One of the skills that is very important for a HEMA practitioner is judging. The overall quality of a tournament will be affected by poor quality judging, and fencers will enjoy an event far less if they feel the judging was inaccurate, especially if they feel that they, or another fencer, should have won a fight which they lost, and vice versa.

It should be said that judging is difficult, and very often under-appreciated. Judges are more likely to be criticised for poor judging calls than they are to be thanked or congratulated. Additionally judges are often sacrificing their own ability to take part in tournaments by judging.

I believe therefore that criticism of judges should always be moderate, and that any criticism given directly to them should be constructive. However, this is not to say that criticisms about judging don’t have merit, as there are often valid criticisms to make. This means that all judges should try to improve their judging skills.

Even a HEMA practitioner who has never been a judge, and may not be plan on being a judge, should work on their judging skills. Some events ask fencers to act as judges, such as FightCamp, where tournament pools are entirely self judging, or the upcoming AHA Glasgow Broadsword Tournament, where the fighters will rotate through as junior referees under a consistent senior referee. Additionally, fighters should practice judging as that will help them to understand the judging process, hopefully making them more understanding of judges when they might want to give harsh criticism.

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The aesthetics of HEMA safety gear

Today I wanted to offer a brief set of recomendations for HEMA clothing and safety gear aesthetics. Safety gear should of course be protective, and this should be the prime concern, but we should also wear safety gear that looks professional, gives a good impression of HEMA, and also fits into the established HEMA aesthetic. We want people to take us seriously, whether they are students, potential training partners, or members of the public, we want to give HEMA a good image, and I think we should attempt to look good while doing HEMA to show respect for the discipline of HEMA itself.

Someone with a clean professional look will give off a much better impression on behalf of themselves, their club and HEMA generally. This means that we should try to present a look like this, rather than, for example, wear a mismash of badly maintained psuedo-historical gear and motocross gear. Even those wearing HEMA gear could often do something to improve their look, e.g. replacing a painted mask design with a more professional one, or replace some black items with something a little more distinctive.

Me in my current set of HEMA gear. Photo copyright of Lindsey McMahon.

Me in my current set of HEMA gear. Photo copyright of Lindsey McMahon.

As a comparison, this is previous st of gear, which is less distintrive and recognisable in terms of national and club colours, and also had a less professional mask design. Photo coyright of Keith Farrell.

As a comparison, this was my previous set of gear, which was less distinctive and recognisable in terms of national and club colours, and also had a less professional mask design.
Photo coyright of Keith Farrell.

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