Some Thoughts on Safety While Training

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Much of the conversation in the longsword fencing community revolves around safety equipment.  There is a constant striving for a gold-standard of safety gear which will allow participants to practice risk free at full speed.  My own preference in this regard is to begin train slower and more cautiously with less protective safety equipment with a focus on mastering techniques rather than rushing into free play or “live” drills.  This preference has evolved over many years of doing drills like this quite safely with various fencing groups by focusing on slow speeds to begin with, then introducing speed and appropriate protection over time.

However, this is purely my own choice; I encourage anyone who prefers to wear full safety equipment to do so.  I would also point out that as these very slow drills increase in speed over time it will become a requirement that correct gear be worn; specifically mask and gloves (fingers and heads being the most likely extremities to be injured) if you wish to continue up to full speed fencing.

To maximise safety, consider the following heuristics for safe drilling:

    • Practice with a Sense of Cooperation: When learning techniques the idea is that you are engaging in a cooperative endeavour rather than fighting to “win” whatever drill you’re doing.  Bad news – nobody wins in a drill, however if you make it into a competition both of you lose by sabotaging your learning.
    • If your partner is inexperienced: This is a no-brainer; slow down even more and take it easy.
    • When practicing without a mask: leave the point slightly offline in the guards so your partner doesn’t impale themselves accidentally if they step forward too far.  This is achieved quite easily – if a guard absolutely requires the point to be toward the face just cant it over a further 10 or 15 cm so it covers the line, but isn’t point on.  This way if they step forward your guard will “collapse” across safely.
    • Don’t struggle to dominate a technique: if you’re unable to master a technique, doing it faster and with more strength is unlikely to make you any better at it.  Consider backing off slightly and looking for weaknesses in your form (or ask the instructor if you have one).  It may be that your partner is the trouble and is resisting more than the level to which you’re training; go back to the first rule – it’s about cooperation when you’re learning.
    • Don’t be “That Guy”: You know, the one who says “then I’ll just do this” every time you practice a drill and freestyles a counter of their own at the end of the drill.  You’re not making any friends this way, and you’re missing the point that the drills are a graduated learning experience.  By adding your own flourishes and counters there’s every chance you’re teaching both yourself, and your partner, bad habits, and at the very least you’ll miss the learning objective entirely.
    • Hitting Harder isn’t Hitting Better: the guy who hits the hardest is rarely the winner of any exchange!  Whether it be in practice or in a tournament there is no need to unleash with all your fury against the training partner/opponent.  This doesn’t mean that solid blows won’t happen – they’re largely unavoidable statistically, however it does mean we should temper our attacks with a little bit of common sense.

Finally, participants should be aware that by taking part in the fun, they’re also subjecting themselves to the risks inherent to Historical European Martial Arts.  In the words of Death, in Terry Pratchett’s “The Hogfather”:

It’s a sword… it’s not meant to be safe.”

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