Special #3: Arto Fama teaches Zwerhau
Dear all,

I am excited to share a video of an individual lesson given by Arto Fama, a renowned Dutch HEMA fighter and instructor. The lesson was received (as well as recorded) by an experienced Swiss fighter, Daniel Olivier Sutter. This video is very interesting not only because Arto is famous for his proficiency in throwing Zwerhauen in various combinations, but also thanks to sound pedagogics employed during the session.

In this entry I am going to focus only on the first part of the video, which should be classified as a Teaching Lesson (classification). However, there is also the second part, where sparring-like scenarios are used to put the technique into a more combative context.

Teaching lessons may seem the easiest to conduct for an instructor, because they are slow-paced, focus on mechanical aspects of technique mostly, and cover topics well-known to the instructor. In reality, they require just as much focus and pedagogical flexibility as any other individual fencing lesson. Tactics of particular fencers is based on and limited by their technical repertoire, so what instructors lack in teaching basic techniques is usually quite hard to compensate by teaching tactics. Some examples of my teaching approach to this problem can be seen in one of my previous Patron-only videos.

Today, however, I would like to use the great lesson given by Arto Fama to make a list of some of the best practices in teaching individual technical lessons in HEMA:

  • 1. Slow pace, relaxation and good mood. As I have already mentioned a few times on different occasions - teaching, and especially teaching new kinaesthetic patterns, is most efficient when the student remains calm, fresh and focused. The early stages of motor learning involve excessive tension and suboptimal muscle coordination by nature and there is no need to add more tension to it by creating a nervous atmosphere or demanding fast execution from the very start. Interestingly, since speed is commonly seen as a crucial factor in fencing, many students feel they have to move fast and strong in a lesson. If they have a competitive experience on top of that, then they (sub)consciously associate fencing actions with violent movement fuelled with adrenaline and have hard times 'going soft'. Finally, speed also makes it easier for them to overlook faults in their performance, which in many cases can be mistaken for the lack of faults. As a consequence, the majority of fencers need to be supervised regarding the speed of execution of fencing techniques addressed by a lesson and reminded of the need to relax between repetitions.
    Arto uderstands it very well as the phrases "slowly!", "relax!", "breathe!" can be heard almost as a mantra throughout the session.
  • 2. Creating reflexes. Fencing technique is most useful when it is so ingrained in one's body that they no longer need to think how to perform it and can instead fully concentrate on the opponent and when to do it. Before that happens, a set of sensory motor reflexes has to be created in student's body and mind by raising their bodily awareness. In a lesson, this is achieved by discussing the elementary motor (and sometimes emotional) components of the trained technique (Arto does it here and here) and then evoking them back through concise reminders whenever needed (e.g. here). A coach should not be afraid to appear picky, as these reminders are usually frequent at the beginning, but tend to become largely unneccessary over time, when the student starts to internalise them. Skipping them, on the other hand, will in most cases result in gradual accumulation of errors that will ultimately require the coach to go back to the basics again and re-work already established faulty reflexes.
  • 3. Identifying tension. It is the job of the coach to help students learn to see signs of unnecessary tension in their bodies. One of the most common habits to get rid of is tensing shoulders while manoeuvring the weapon. This is done by many uncosciously as it produces an impression of greater strength. But in fact it is just stiffness which does not contribute to increased power , while it does much to hinder fencers' speed, accuracy and adaptability  (this way one contracts antagonistic muscles which interfere with each other's functions). Raised shoulders are the marker of excessive tension which is easiest to spot in gambesons and Arto shows it here.
  • 4. Critique and encouragement. The coach has to be scrupulous and strict when it comes to correcting crucial errors while teaching technique. Any neglect in that regard will surface sooner or later in the form of bad habits which will require more work by both the coach and the student (plus a lot of frustration). However, it is important to give some positive feedback to the student. Especially that being corrected constantly may make the student think he or she does really bad, whereas in fact the coach may be concentrating on correcting some minor flaws and is generally happy with student's perfomance. Communication helps to solve this sort of misunderstandings and Arto gives an example here.
  • 5. Focus on decision-making. Much of the perceived speed of execution of techniques in sparring comes not from the speed of movement, but from the quick decision-making. But in order to learn how to make good decisions one has to focus first and foremost on telling right from wrong, working out the speed of these decisions comes much later. Therefore, a good lesson should make student practice making decisions instead of just swinging the sword wildly, just like here.
  • Keep it real. The focus on decision-making means that the coach has to make sure the situations encountered by the student in a lesson reflect realistic combat situations. Here, Arto drops his parry to show Daniel that he is no longer aiming for the head with his first strike. This is a very smart tool, since it makes the student understand the error without a single word from the coach, which has a positive effect on student's self-reliance.
  • Touch!  Words are tricky when it comes to transferring bodily knowledge. Therefore, it is often much easier to prompt students to use their bodies in the correct way if you directly touch, push or guide them to proper positions and moves. As Arto presents, this can be done with the hand, the leg or even the weapon. Check an example here.

And that's it for now. If you want to meet Arto Fama in person - there will be a chance soon, as he is going to visit ŚKUNKS, a major Polish HEMA event in June 2018.

As always, I am very curious of your thoughts, so feel free to share your opinions in the comments!

And when you're done - go and give your HEMA some practice! :)