A theory-based approach to teaching HEMA

HEMA, it can be said, is only in its second generation by now, though some claim to be in the fourth already. This makes us a very young Art, and even younger than other modern martial arts, since we have no precedent on which to base our knowledge. Judo, BJJ, regular ju jitsu, boxing etc. all have precedents. Ironically, the precedent of sports fencing is also HEMA, though it has become so specialized it is of limited use to HEMA as is. This means we have no traditional or theoretical backing on which to base our trainings except for the often vague manuscripts, our interpretation of which may or may not be correct.

While this is a handicap to some extent, at least for current practitioners, it also allows us to build up on everything that sports science has achieved so far; and it has achieved a lot. Theories on motor learning and strength training can help us achieve mastery of HEMA much faster and more efficiently. What follows is a simple proposition that might make teaching more efficient and lessen the burden of instructors. There is only one way in which we may test the correctness of our interpretations, and that is their efficiency in non-controlled instances performed by expert swordsmen.

Below are the results of my research gained from academic articles on the field of motor learning, which I did my best to apply to HEMA. As I myself am a practitioner of the German Longsword of the Lichtenauer tradition, I use examples and exercises meant for it. Sadly, I am not familiar with the Italian Longsword tradition or any other weapon save the dagger. Hopefully, the adaptation and extrapolation of these methods should not be too difficult, especially as a lot of general theory is provided.

This article is based on the concept of motor learning, which is simply the acquisition of new physical skills. The process starts in the brain with remapping of neural pathways which leads to finding the most efficient route, synaptogenesis (the formation of new synapses), and the strengthening of synaptic connections (Deanna L. Adkins, 2006), which allows us to perform our techniques faster and more accurately. As different levels of practitioners have different neurological changes, more details will follow in the sections of each level of practitioner.

 

Stages of Motor Learning:

According to Abernethy et al. (2005, pp. 260-261), there are 3 stages of motor learning:

The verbal-cognitive phase: this is the first phase, when the practitioner does not quite grasp what he is doing yet.  ”During the first phase, a beginner executes a series of unnecessary movements, activates muscles that are not relevant and is unable to bring them into balance. Consequently, his starting position and movement rhythm are incorrect, while his posture is stiff. This phase of motor learning lasts from 15 to 30 hours” (Milan Čoh, 2004). If you have ever trained beginners, this should sound rather familiar. If we take a look into the brain’s function in this stage, we find that the neuron pathways start remapping themselves (Deanna L. Adkins, 2006), looking for the most efficient way to perform the action. As such, there is a lot of thinking present, in the form of what muscles to activate, what to visualize, what the goal of the strike/technique is etc. Verbal instructions and demonstration are extremely important at this stage. It helps immensely if the learner knows what he should do. It will also show if the learner has any previous experience with sport, as they will be able to use the neural pathways acquired thusly to help them learn faster (Bruce Abernethy, 2005, p. 261). Importantly, due to heavy reliance on external feedback, learners at this stage should not perform solo drills without someone overseeing them. From here on, I will refer to such learners as either beginners (if they have prior experience in sports) or novices (if they don’t).

The associative phase: The second phase of motor learning, where the learner already knows how to perform the technique. From here on in, it’s fine-tuning of it. ”In the second, associative phase, the quality of movement improves substantially. Movements are already smoother and more relaxed, while superfluous movements gradually vanish. In the motor part of the central nervous system a notion appears as a motor stereotype. This phase lasts from 3 to 5 months” (Milan Čoh, 2004). While the temporal aspect of Čoh might be underestimated if we take a look at the definition of the third phase, the description hits home. The creation of a motor stereotype means that neuron remapping has achieved a satisfactory level for smooth execution of techniques. The learner is also better able to adapt to dynamic changes (Bruce Abernethy, 2005), such as provided by sparring. Having the basic re-mapping required already achieved, solo drills performed without supervision should be encouraged from this point onwards. The learners in this stage will be referred to as intermediates.

The autonomous phase: The last phase of motor learning, achieved when the learner has mastered the technique to such a degree that he can reliably and precisely perform it correctly, even under dynamic circumstances, such as a tournament bout. Here is what Čoh et al. have to say about it: ”…the individual kinematic and dynamic parameters of movement are optimally integrated. This lasts for several years and is never quite finished. The motor stereotype collapses only in extremely unpredictable circumstances such as fatigue, enormous pressure or stress” (Milan Čoh, 2004). Neurologically speaking, the re-mapping here has been pushed to such an extent that it isn’t present in the brain anymore, but has moved to the spinal cord, thus shortening the distance the impulses need to travel (Deanna L. Adkins, 2006). This also means that the actions are sub-conscious. As such, an expert practitioner might find it difficult to explain the exact movements he performs in a technique (Bruce Abernethy, 2005, p. 262).

Make them sweat: at every level, you should make your students sweat. At the start, this might need to be achieved mainly through strength and endurance training, but higher skill levels allow for a great amount of merging of skill/endurance training.

 

The Training

Before we move on to the specifics of training for each group of HEMA practitioners, we need to cover some basics first. Every training should include warm-up at the beginning and a cool-down period at the end. The warm-up will not only help prevent injuries, but also help operate at peak efficiency (Fradkin AJ, 2010). Strength and endurance training are also vastly beneficial to any sport, as strength does not only allow us to perform techniques more efficiently, it is also helps in skill retention, while endurance creates the optimal neural environment for faster learning (Deanna L. Adkins, 2006).

Number of techniques taught: when we look at how to structure skill trainings, we come to some limits. Namely, we can train a single strike or a single technique through many repetitions, or we can have a lot of techniques with fewer repetitions. So which one should we choose? Of course, this depends on the level of the practitioner; an expert will have mastered a lot of techniques, while a novice will struggle with a single one. Generally, there should only be one to two new techniques being learned anew at any given time. When general mapping of these techniques has been achieved, moving on to the next won’t cause interference of various techniques. If we teach many techniques at once, the neural pathways required for the action to be performed may become mixed up, especially if the techniques are perceived as similar (interference). So teaching many techniques at once, with only a few repetitions each, is suboptimal as it will take much longer for the learner to become proficient in any given technique. It is also important to start with the simpler techniques and move on to the more complex ones. For instance, Kurtzhaw should be taught after the Krumphaw, as it originates from it. If taught together with it, there will be a lot of interference due to the similarity in the execution of the strikes, which will lead to neutralizing both strikes somewhere in between, making both ineffective. In turn, the Oberhaw (or Meyer’s Zorn) should be taught before the Krumphaw, just as Scheitelhaw (Meyer’s Ober) should be taught before the Schielhaw. So, it would make sense for beginners to learn the simple strikes, Ober and Unterhaw first. They should learn these for about two months of regular practice (two times per week), after which a new strike is added (Scheitelhaw, let’s say).

Blocked/random practice: blocked practice means repeating a single skill over and over again ad nauseam until we have achieved mastery of it. Random practice is when either each performed is different, or when we have to adapt to what the partner is doing. So, if we have a group of Intermediates who have so far learned the Zwerchaw, Scheitelhaw and Schielhaw (along with the Ober and Unterhawen, of course), the partner will need to switch randomly between the Vom Tag, Pflug and Alber stances while the learner chooses the appropriate strike to respond with. In contrast, blocked practice would be 10 minutes of each strike, then moving onto the next. Both types of practice have their merits. Generally speaking, blocked practice is great for acquiring basic movements, while random practice helps retention and is better for the execution of techniques under stress (such as sparring).

Intrinsic/extrinsic feedback: whenever motor learning occurs, we have two types of possible feedback. (Richard A. Schimdt, 2008, str. 285-288) The first, intrinsic, is feedback received through the learner’s senses. Sight, sound and touch can all serve to provide feedback. The most important piece, and the one achieved last, is proprioception, or the feedback of our muscles. This lets us know what position are muscles are in, and to an experienced HEMA practitioner, it will relay information about the (in)correctness of the technique performed. Intrinsic feedback can be relied on by experts and advanced intermediates, while novices and beginners have no basic motor maps which would tell them when they are performing something correctly. Thus, beginners and intermediates rely heavily on extrinsic feedback – feedback from external sources. In most cases, this will be the coach. Extrinsic feedback is crucial to the advancement of beginners. An important point to consider is also resistance provided from the partner when performing a drill. Generally, when performing drills, there shouldn’t be any (except on the level of experts), the reason being it interferes with neuron mapping. If, for instance, the drill is a Schielhaw vs. Pflug, and the partner in pflug moves his sword upon contact against the shielhaw, the technique must be performed well in order to have a chance to work. However, a beginner (as well as an intermediate) will not perform a technique well every time. This will lead to adaptation of the technique to a counter from an opponent who knows what will happen. Thus, the technique will be incorrectly mapped, and much more difficult to correct in the future. Not only that, the learner will believe that the technique does not work and shy away from it. Therefore, drills should be performed without resistance from the partner. In the case of intermediates or above, sparring will provide training with resistance.

Speed/accuracy: although the speed-accuracy tradeoff does exist, it is not not apply to HEMA. In fact, the opposite seems to hold true: when we gain speed, we also gain accuracy. However, keep in mind that in the verbal-cognitive stage of motor learning, slow practice is essential since the learner needs to think about their movements, which they can’t do if they perform the movements quickly.

 

Learner levels

Every level of learners should have a different training regime. In personal experience, many HEMA practitioners believe that eastern martial arts have different levels mainly because of tradition. While this is true to an extent, it must also be considered that different levels of practitioners need different trainings. Below are four levels based on the stages of motor learning, and suggested ways of training for each group.

Novice: these are learners who have not had any prior experience with sports. Their neuron mapping is poor, providing little basis for teaching further motor skills (as motor skills are acquired faster if there are previous, at least partly connected, motor maps). As such, teaching them HEMA from the get-go might be a bad idea. Instead, we should focus on creating the basic motor mapping through strength, proprioception and endurance training.
In the start, strength, stamina and muscle hypertrophy happen relatively quickly (Preto, 2012, p. 88). This leads to some basic motor mapping which will make further learning easier for the practitioner, as well as better physical ability to perform techniques. Footwork exercises, without weapons, can also be vastly beneficial at this stage. Ideally, novices would begin with Ringen, as it builds strength and endurance, and provides great opportunities for motor mapping, especially in the form of various rolls which are an integral part of every grappling training.
However, this is only possible in a room with wrestling or tatami mats, and not all clubs may have access to it, especially if Ringen is not in their regular program. As such, strength, endurance, footwork and proprioception exercises should be used. This can also serve as a buffering period for the buying of some basic equipment.

Beginner: these are learners with some sort of background in sports. They will have a more varied array of neural pathways, meaning they will learn more easily and faster than novices. Also in this category are novices who have undergone the basic training mentioned in the category just above. Beginners start HEMA specific neuron mapping, meaning they will be clumsy at first. As such, very simple exercises should be used, starting with a single strike against a target. The target does not need to be in range, however it is necessary so that they can rely on their sight to see where the blade would have hit the target.
If even this proves to have too many mistakes, transitions into different stances should be used as a learning method of training. Coaches should focus on two things at most to improve with each beginner, otherwise information overflow will impair their learning. External feedback is invaluable at this stage, as beginners have no feeling for what is the correct form yet. However, they should not be allowed to provide feedback to each other, for the same reason.
As they are still in the verbal-cognitive stage, the exercises should be performed slowly, and learners should be given time to process every strike. Flow drills are also a good way to achieve motor mapping, but only with supervision. They should not be encouraged to do flow drills by themselves, as they might ingrain mistakes into their motor mapping, which will make them a lot more difficult to repair later on.
Footwork exercises (without weapons) are still vastly beneficial here. Strength and endurance training should be included in regular trainings, though not to the extent necessary for novices (45min per week, assuming 4h of trainings per week for beginners). Sparring and dynamic exercises are to be avoided, except when sparring is done with a non-weapon, such as a glove (or perhaps the SPES simulators) and for the purpose of getting a feeling for stances and distance.
The basic mode of training here should be blocked trainings, with external feedback after every block (not strike, so as to not overload the learner with information as well as giving the coach the opportunity to focus on the most often repeated and most grave mistakes).

Intermediate: basic HEMA-specific motor mapping has already been achieved, and we can turn it up a notch. Strength training should still be done, at about the same rate as with beginners. Footwork exercises can be included in the warm-up/strength training. Since we have the basics covered, we can start putting in some drills which focus on speed. This does not mean exercises meant to be performed more slowly should be left out, however. More complex strikes can be taught, and some random practice becomes viable when enough strikes have been learned.
All of the above means this is the group which can have the most varied trainings. Here, endurance training can be combined with skill training for speed, giving us a lot of options for exercises. A great help for getting the most out of your learners is simply counting – on each digit, a technique needs to be performed on a partner. After reaching a set number (say, ten) the roles reverse.
This is also a good place to introduce two-sided exercises, where both learners in a pair have a task to accomplish – for instance, when a signal is given, one learner performs an Oberhaw meant to hit, and the other a Zwerchaw. The important thing with this type of exercise is sticking to the exercise – so the one who is doing the Oberhaw should not change the target from the head to the sword, for instance. With this type of exercises, be sure to stress that sometimes, one of the pair should not react to check if the partner’s strike is true. We can also throw in some random practice, as random practice is better for skill retention (Seyed A. Afsanepurak, 2012).
An example of such an exercise would be that one learner switches between stances randomly, while the other responds with appropriate techniques (one of the Vier Versetzen). At this stage, regular sparring should also be introduced (provided the appropriate safety gear), though it should be stressed that only techniques learned are to be used.
There should still be external feedback provided, although learners will also be able to rely on internal feedback to a degree. At this stage, external feedback can be given by other learners, especially if they have been training longer than the one who is receiving the feedback. External feedback should also be provided after sparring, if possible. Sparring in itself will also provide a whole new level of intrinsic feedback, making it an invaluable tool for training.

Expert: as this is the level where techniques can be performed reliably even under uncertain conditions, strength training becomes an important part of upping the practitioner’s skill level. Thus, whole session can be devoted exclusively to strength training. There still should be skill drills, though with a heavier reliance on random practice and sparring. The feedback is mainly internal, external is meant mostly for tactics and sparring evaluation. Individual coaching session make sense, as every athlete at this level needs a different approach to further his skill.

 

Conclusion

This has been a brief and hopefully concise summary of the main issues HEMA coaches should be aware of. It would not be foolish for a school to make a list of techniques of appropriate difficulty in every of the above categories of HEMA practitioners to provide a basis for a successful curriculum. Be aware of the differences in these levels – your students will undoubtedly progress faster if you do. Build exercises and trainings around what you know about the process of learning – it allows a great amount of flexibility.  Hopefully, in time, we shall get specialized literature on the subject by professional coaches to help us further the Art.

 

Bibliography

Bruce Abernethy, S. J. (2005). The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement, Second Edition. USA: Human Kinetics.

Deanna L. Adkins, J. B. (2006). Motor training induces experience specific patterns of plasticity across motor cortex and spinal cord. Journal of Applied Physiology 101, pp. 1776-1782. Retrieved from http://jap.physiology.org/content/101/6/1776.long

Fradkin AJ, Z. T. (2010). Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Reasearch, 140-148.

Milan Čoh, D. J.-G. (2004). Motor Learning in Sport. Physical Education and Sport, Vol. 2, pp. 45-59.

Preto, L. (2012). Understanding Physical Conditioning: A Movemen Based Approach. Charleston.

Richard A. Schimdt, C. A. (2008). Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-Based Learning Approach. USA: Human Kinetics.

Seyed A. Afsanepurak, N. K. (2012). The Effect of Blocked, Random, and Systematically Increasing Practice on. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 2397-2402. Retrieved from http://pelagiaresearchlibrary.com/european-journal-of-experimental-biology/vol2-iss6/EJEB-2012-2-6-2397-2402.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

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