Over the past five years, an increasing number of HEMA tournaments have added a new kind of award, aimed at rewarding fighters who display extraordinary technical fencing skills. The key motivation for this kind of award has been a desire to encourage HEMA competitors to fence in a more technical manner, rather than focusing entirely on those simple yet effective techniques which offer the easiest path to victory in tournaments. This trend also reflects the desire of many in the HEMA community to recognize those fighters who demonstrate grace, skill, and a command of their martial art, independently of how they place in the overall tournament rankings.
However, the implementation of these awards has been rather haphazard in practice. In most cases, dedicated tournament officials have not been assigned the task of deciding this award; rather, it has been left to regular line judges and referees. Understandably, these officials tend to focus on their primary tasks of governing the fight, awarding points, and determining victory. Technical excellence has generally remained an afterthought.
Compounding the problem is a general lack of guidance on what factors to consider in granting awards for technical excellence. (The only written guidelines I could find were Antoine Coudre's Tetramorph ruleset, used in France.) Instead, officials have largely been left to their own devices. Without common standards, some have simply looked for a high level of fencing skill (timing, distance management, etc.). Others have evaluated the general “look” or “feel” of a fencer’s performance, concentrating on aesthetic factors and body mechanics. Still others have remained narrowly focused on the use of recognizable techniques drawn from period fencing manuals. Unsurprisingly, this lack of a common approach results in confused, muddy decision-making.
The effect of these defects has been to dilute the impact of such awards. Properly implemented, awards for “Best Technical Fighter” have the potential for creating a fencing culture in which tournament fighters have a real incentive to care not just about whether they win, but about how they win. In turn, this will help to create tournaments that are more entertaining for spectators, do a better job of portraying HEMA to the general public, and which better reflect the fencing manuals that form our primary source material. The remainder of this article presents some general suggestions and guidelines for implementing technical awards in HEMA tournaments.
Recommendation #1: Formal Assignment of Dedicated Technical Judges
At the recent Dutch Lions Cup (Utrecht, Netherlands), the tournament organizers assigned two tournament officials as technical judges, whose sole responsibility was to evaluate the fights for technical excellence. In my view, this is a positive step in the right direction. Having carried out this function before as a regular line judge, I noticed a night-and-day difference. The job went from being a mere afterthought to becoming my primary task.
As with the other judges, these officials wore suits, had badges, and were visible to all the fighters. This, too, was a positive development. As one of those judges, I was struck by the level of interest among both fighters and spectators as to what I was doing. Ensuring that technical judges are visible, a formal part of the judging staff, and busy taking notes, are all great ways of letting fighters know that they are being judged not only on their effectiveness, but on their technical skill.
By definition, the selection of Technical Judges must place a premium on individuals who are not only well-educated in primary source material, but who are experienced fighters themselves. This is important, since the way a specific technique manifests itself in combat can often be quite different from the way in which it is presented in primary source material. Moreover, their education must not only be deep (e.g. the ability to recognize specific techniques from a particular school) but also broad (e.g. good familiarity with techniques from across a number of different traditions using the same weapon). In practice, the number of individuals who are qualified to carry out this role tends to be quite small, making the choice of technical judges an important decision.
Recommendation #2: Eliminate “Good Fencing Skills” From Consideration
In evaluating a fighter’s performance, it is first important to clarify what is not included under the rubric of “technical excellence”. In any tournament, there will be fighters who excel in key fencing skills: Their biomechanics are superior; their footwork is clean and effective; they move fluidly and fluently with the sword; all their basic fencing actions with the sword are correct and efficient; they have excellent distance management skills; their sense of timing is impeccable; they display a good tactical sense; and they dominate the fight, keeping constant pressure on their opponent, whether in attack or defense.
None of these should be important factors in an award for technical skills, in my view. These are critical skills, no doubt; but they are primarily concerned with pure effectiveness as a fighter. Fencers who possess these attributes will inevitably reap rewards in terms of their win-loss ratio. Considering these as factors in awards for technical excellence risks “double-dipping”, effectively rewarding the fencer twice for the same skills.
Recommendation #3: List of Factors To Be Considered By Technical Judges
In judging technical excellence, it is best to avoid a general “gestalt” impression of a fencer’s performance, in favour of using a specific list of factors that can be cited as the justification for granting the award. This makes Technical Judges accountable, and allows tournament organizers to justify the awards they grant. The following is a list of factors that I believe are useful in judging the technical performance of fencers in HEMA competitions.
- Use of Recognizable Techniques
Judges should seek to identify discrete, recognizable techniques from period fencing manuals. The more complex, technically difficult, and rarely performed the technique is, the better. Examples: With the German longsword, use of the Krumphau as a single-time defense against an Oberhau. With the rapier, use of the side-stepping footwork known variously as a Girata, Volte, or Escampavita.
- Use of a Wide Range of Attacks
Judges should look for fencers who don’t simply repeat the same limited repertoire of actions, but who instead make use of a wide range of actions, including those which are more difficult to perform. This includes the use of appropriate techniques for particular measures. Examples include: Using the full range of cuts (high and low, right and left); the full range of thrusts (high and low); one-handed techniques and half-swording with the longsword; use of winding in the bind; pommel strikes, and use of disarms or grappling at close range. All of these make up the technical palate from which good martial artists will draw to demonstrate their range of technical skills.
- Use of a Wide Range of Defenses
Likewise, judges should pay attention to the quality and diversity of a fighter’s defense. Double-time defense is easiest, whether using blade contact (parry-riposte) or without blade contact (use of voids and evasions, followed by a riposte). Single-time defense is more technically difficult, and should be rewarded correspondingly, in those cases where it is used effectively. Thus, an effective stop-cut to the arm, or an effective single-time counter with opposition (such as countering an Oberhau with a Zwerch that scores) should be given high marks, considering their difficulty. Equally important is the fencer’s ability to parry the After-Blow as a mark of technical excellence – since this is not only critical to success, but difficult to perform as well.
- Use of a Wide Range of Guards
Most martial traditions in HEMA have a wide range of guard positions from which to fence. Judges should look for fencers who draw widely from the full range of possible guards. Focus should be on functional use of the guards, rather than mere posing out of range for a few moments. Preference should be given to those fencers who use a diverse range of guards within measure, using them as a platform to launch attacks and feints, or as a base from which to manage their defense.
- Combinations of Technique
The ability to chain together series of actions to form complex combinations is a mark of technical excellence. Accordingly, judges should be on the lookout for sophisticated combination attacks, employing well-timed and well-executed feints or actions on the blade as a set-up for the final attack. Also of interest is the appropriate selection of guards which are particularly well-suited as a starting point for the sequence. Worth noting, too, is the use of appropriate covering techniques to escape unharmed after the final attack is delivered. An example of this which I saw at the Dutch Lions Cup was a fencer who began from Wechselhut, used Meyer’s Treibhau three times to provoke the opponent, delivered an effective Unterhau which scored, and then cleanly parried the After-Blow before moving out of distance. Another example was the use of an uncommon guard (right Ochs), followed by a right Zwerch feint, followed by a successful left Zwerch, ending with a successful parry of the After-Blow.
- Seamless Transition Between Techniques
Another factor worth noting is the fencer’s ability to quickly and seamlessly transition between techniques at different ranges. Thus, a fencer who can transition from an initial thrust to a following cut, and then shifting without pause into half-swording or grappling is worthy of reward.
- Aesthetic Considerations
In my view, purely aesthetic considerations should not be a major factor in evaluating technical performance. However, it is undeniable that grace has always been prized alongside skill and effectiveness in every European martial tradition. Accordingly, while grace, artistic presentation, and fluid biomechanics are not strictly necessary for a good technical performance, I believe they are best viewed as a “bonus factor” or “tie-breaker” that could be used to tip the scale in cases where two fencers show an equal level of technical sophistication.
Recommendation #4: Guidelines For Application of the Factors Listed Above
The list of factors above is fairly simple, but their proper application requires additional thought. The following is a list of considerations to be applied by technical judges when evaluating the factors above.
- Number of Techniques, Number of Attempts
Both the number of different techniques employed (e.g. Krumphau, Schielhau) and the number of times that the fencer uses each technique (e.g. Krumphau 3 times) are important. Judges should keep track of both the specific techniques which are used, and the number of times the fencer uses them. Examples: Fencer A used the Schielhau 3 times, Absezten 2 times, the Zwerchhau 5 times.
- Consistent Technical Approach Across Multiple Bouts
A fencer who uses technique in a single bout is praiseworthy, but far better is the fencer who consistently employs sophisticated technique across the course of multiple bouts. The best technical fencers employ this approach throughout the entire tournament, and should be rewarded for it. Also, many fighters will lower the level of their technique when fencing against difficult opponents (through fear) or unskilled opponents (because of their unpredictability). However, the best fencers maintain a technical approach throughout.
- Effective Use (Scoring) vs. Attempted Use
The goal of these awards is to reward and encourage the use of sophisticated fencing technique. However, that must be tempered by the ultimate purpose of fencing, which is, “To touch and not be touched”. A fencer who repeatedly attempts elaborate moves, but never succeeds, and is struck in the midst of his attempts, is not worthy of reward. In evaluating performance, judges should note whether the use of technique was effective (ideally scoring) or not. In cases where an attempted technique was unsuccessful, judges should assess whether the use of the technique was appropriate to the situation (which should be rewarded, albeit to a lesser degree) or inappropriate (which should not). An example of an appropriate attempt is a triple Zwerchhau which is parried by the opponent. An example of an inappropriate attempt is a handsome flourish performed out of measure.
- Pools vs. Eliminations and Finals
Fencing in the initial pools will normally be more technical than fencing in the eliminations and finals. Not only are the fencers fresh, but they are also more relaxed. Both stress and exhaustion increase as the fencers advance further into the tournament. It is natural for the amount of recognizable technique to diminish or become less effective during these latter phases. However, the best fencers can overcome this. Given this natural progression, judges should give additional weight to displays of technical skill in the eliminations and finals, since this represents a supreme effort by the fencers.
Recommendation #5: Award Fighters Valuable Prizes For Technical Excellence
Rule-sets are an important tool for tournament organizers, since they are an effective way of influencing the behaviour of fencers. Likewise, the awarding of prizes is also a way of creating strong incentives for fighters to alter their behaviour. Granting valuable prizes, rather than just certificates or plaques, is a good way of catching the attention of tournament competitors. At the recent Dutch Lions Cup in Utrecht, the tournament organizers went so far as to make the prize for “Best Technical Fighter” a prototype version of the much sought-after ProGauntlet. This kind of substantial prize not only draws interest, but sends the right message: That good technical fencing is as important to the HEMA tournament community as victory itself.
Food For Thought: Awarding Technical Points For Each Tournament Bout
Ideally, tournament organizers would assign one technical judge per arena, so all fights would be given equal attention. However, given the scarcity of qualified staff, this is impractical. One possibility is to assign the referee in each arena the additional duty of assigning a match point for technical excellence for each bout. This assessment, added to the more detailed assessment of the floating technical judges, could assist in making justifiable and supportable assessments of technical performances of fighters. It would also increase the level of technical scrutiny, further affecting the behaviour of competitors. In theory, these technical match points could be used in seeding for purposes of determining which fencers advance into the eliminations.
Another approach, used at some events in Mexico and the United States, has been to give each fencer in the tournament a voice, and allow them to cast votes for the fencers who they believe exhibited the best technique. This kind of participatory approach can either be used on its own, or used to supplement the other methods described above.
A variety of other approaches are possible, of course. I encourage tournament organizers to experiment with technical awards in upcoming HEMA events.
The appearance of awards for technical excellence in HEMA tournaments is a welcome development. The existence of these awards, backed by valuable prizes, creates a strong incentive for fencers to focus not just on whether they win, but how they win. Since rule-sets are tools for influencing the behaviour of the fencing community, the practice of rewarding the use of sophisticated technique should become the norm. By assigning dedicated technical judges to assess fighter performance, and by clearly defining the standards for judging technical performance, the results of these awards can be maximized, to the benefit of the entire HEMA community.