This article is the first in a series on how the Aliveness concept and training framework of Matt Thornton can be used in HEMA, to more consistently and reliably bring the old techniques alive in free play.
Did you ever face the situation that you trained a technique over and over, again and again and it just straight out refuses to come out during free play? Then you know the frustration if expectations and results don’t match.
Failing time and time again, because you can’t pull of what you should be able to doesn’t feel nice. It can be devastating and lead the most dedicated of us down a path of frustration. It can be a reason why people quit HEMA altogether.
If you’re an instructor you probably figured out the skills necessary to pull off some, if not most of the historical techniques in free play and you try to convey these skills to your students. Being able to provide in depth help regarding techniques is a tremendous asset to your students and speeds up this process considerably.
The question is, are you able to point out the key elements that helped you unlock a technique and can you create an optimal learning environment for students?
In this article, I want to analyze the learning process until a technique can be used in free play and how the Aliveness framework can help to improve this process.
The Aliveness system was created by Matt Thornton and is formulated around modern MMA and uses the vocabulary of its single parts like Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Wrestling. So for better comprehension I will provide HEMA specific examples. Even though they might be a bit longsword centric, as this is our primary area of study, Aliveness can be applied to most other weapons and unarmed combat as well.
The learning process
Learning a new technique in HEMA usually starts with understanding required movement and body mechanics, the purpose of it and the initial situation. Basically how it is supposed to work, what it is supposed to accomplish and when it is used.
If you’re starting with an empty slate, this research can require anything fom studying the sources, reading articles on sites like Hroarr, watching Youtube videos or joining Facebook discussions. If your group has an experienced fencer, this is oftentimes part of his role as a teacher or guide.
A technique is then usually worked on cooperatively, with minimal or no resistance from a training partner. Because, how would you ever learn something new without trying it out first and playing around with it?
This stage in the learning process of HEMA is often called technique training. I find this rather misleading as you can focus on specific techniques in a sparring environment as well, which is usually not considered to be technique training. A more precise description of what is happening, is that you’re being introduced to new ideas, concepts and movement patterns. This is why I like the nomenclature of the Aliveness system, which instead calls it the introduction stage.
Now, if our goal as a scene is to become more competent historical fencers that use historical techniques to their full potential, training only with minimal resistance is most likely not enough. It doesn’t matter if we think about a modern/medieval tournament context or dueling with sharps, it’s fair to assume that in a fight an opponent won’t cooperate and will confront us with high resistance levels.
Higher resistance doesn’t necessarily equate to hitting harder or faster, even if that might also be the case, but that an opponent will try his best to mask his real intentions, lay out traps and play out every advantage he has. Contrary to this, you have to correctly read his true intentions in the search for the right moment and timing in which you can successfully apply your own plan.
I think it’s fair to assume that learning to handle a high level of resistance results in a more skilled and well rounded fencer.
So would I advise to go out and train with high resistance all the time? Is this the key to unlocking techniques in free play?
If training goes from low resistance directly to a high resistance environment like free play or a fight, it’s needlessly difficult for students to apply what they learned, since necessary steps in between have been skipped.
To make this clearer, let’s put some numbers on the resistance levels of various training stages.
Resistance levels during training
Let’s assume for the sake of argument, that an actual fight would put you against a resistance level of 100 %. Be that a fight with sharps zu ernst or at a tournament zu schimpf. This is our upper limit.
Let’s further assume that regular free play compared to a fight, is anywhere between a resistance level of 50 % to 80 % and beyond 80 % it is a fight. The exact level might depend on the fencers involved, their equipment and the general club etiquette and mindset towards free play. As I pointed out in my article on hitting hard in HEMA, even some full time athletes who are professionally competing in combat sports like MMA don’t venture beyond that in regular training. So I think that’s a good educated guess for the resistance range of free play.
In the Aliveness system, what HEMAists call free play is called the integration stage. In this case I’m going to stick with the established term, since I believe that there is a common understanding for it and it is precise enough.
Also, I would put the introduction stage in a resistance range of 0 % to 10 %, as this is a stage of cooperation.
These stages can then be mapped into a diagram:
Looking at HEMA training through the lens of resistance levels makes two things obvious. First that there should be a progression in resistance leading up to fighting and second, that there needs to be at least one more stage in between the introduction and free play.
This stage is called the Isolation stage in the Aliveness system, since you progress in resistance by isolating certain aspects of the technical and tactical situation.
This middle ground is in my experience the key element to unlocking a techniques full potential and to successfully apply it in free play. Yet it is one I often find to be severely neglected or completely left out, not only in HEMA but also in other martial arts.
What I’ve personally witnessed in many HEMA, Judo and even Brazilian jiu-jitsu sessions is that training consisted of a long introduction stage, where the students would be shown one or multiple new techniques. Then they trained their techniques cooperatively until it was time for free play, sparring, randori or whatever the last part of training was called.
This way of training makes it hard to ingrain new techniques, as you have a sudden gap in resistance between the stages. This means that each student has to fill this gap by himself somehow. Compared to training sessions with an isolation stage, where the resistance was increasing step by step, I found this structure to be highly inefficient for me and from what I could observe, many other students as well.
So what is the isolation stage, why does it matter and how can it be utilized in training?
The isolation stage
The isolation stage serves as a stepping stone between introducing a technique and free play, in which the trainer slowly raises the level of resistance so that students learn step by step to deal with high resistance levels.
The aim of the isolation stage is to prepare students for the high resistance levels of free play and fighting, by letting them train isolated parts of the technical or tactical situation against a resisting training partner.
As the saying goes, the right technique at the wrong time is the wrong technique, so here you learn the correct timing of attacks and counters. You learn the what and when of your technical repertoire.
Again, resistance doesn’t equal to just hitting harder and faster. If for example, your training partner is only allowed one option to attack you know exactly what’s coming. This already makes it easier for you. If on the other hand, he has three or four different options he’s allowed to use, the resistance increases as you have to correctly decide which of your options you need to use.
It might seem obvious, but I want to clearly state that timing cannot be acquired without a resisting training partner. In my experience, no amount of solo work or form training will be able to train the sense of timing.
So, if the basics of a technique are learned in the introduction stage, the timing of the technique is learned in the isolation stage and in free play it is applied against high resistance, how exactly should the isolation stage be structured to train effectively?
The key is that most or all of the exercises you do in the isolation stage use Aliveness. In the next paragraph, I’m going to explain this key concept, after which the whole Aliveness framework is named after.
What is Aliveness?
Free play consists of three key elements: Motion as fencers are constantly trying to footwork their way into their preferred distance. Timing as they’re trying to observe what the other is planning and react accordingly to any situation. And lastly, as all of this is happening against a resisting opponent that tries to hit back, so there’s energy.
This combination of timing, energy and motion is what makes up free play and is what Matt Thornton coined with the term Aliveness. This is what exercises require during the isolation stage to bridge the gap to free play.
Let’s look into these terms with a bit more detail.
Motion simply means that some kind of realistic footwork is involved, so fencers move around to close the distance as they would in free play or a fight. If fencers just stand around waiting to be hit, because that’s what the exercise expects of them or if they walk around casually with straight knees, they would miss motion in the Aliveness sense.
Liechtenauer sources like the 44 A 8 clearly state that standing around and waiting is a surefire way to get beaten:
das ist wenn du mit dem zu° vechtñ zu° im kumpst |So soltu nicht still sten |vnd auff sein häw sehen noch warten was er gegen dir vicht |wist das alle vechter dye do sehen |vnd warten auff eins anderñ häw |vnd wollen anders nicht thuen wenn vor setzen die bedürffen sich solicher kunst gar wenig fräwen |wenn sÿ ist vernicht |vnd weerden do pey geslagen
This is when you come to him with the pre-fencing: then you shall not stand still and look after his hews, waiting for what he fences against you. Know that all fencers that look and wait on another’s hews and will do nothing other than parrying deserve such very little joy in their art, since they are destroyed and become struck thereby.
Of course, Liechtenauers longsword is not the only weapon requiring motion. In all fencing that begins outside of distance, someone has to move and close the distance, be that in Rapier, Saber or Sword & Buckler. Even if you’re doing Ringen and you already start with grips, you have lots of movement going on with throw attempts and their counters.
Even if you think about a self defense situations where someone is suddenly ambushed, if the victim is not rendered helpless by the initial attack, people will move around in defense attempts. There might be any kind of punching, pushing, pulling, shoving or running away going on from both parties. They constantly move in relation to each other.
Energy means that there is resistance involved, so people are trying to actually hit their training partner and not fence too short or stop their hit before making contact.
Fencing too short increases the distance and moves the strong of your blade back, changing the relation of strong and weak and the angle of the blades binding into each other. So even though a technique might work well with the additional safety distance, the moment it is applied in the correct distance against someone with intention to hit, it’s likely to fail. In Liechtenauer terms, changing the distance messes up fühlen as stärke and schwäche have changed.
But that don’t take my word for it, let’s look at a source.
vnd haust vor deiner rechten seittñ volgstu dann dem haw nicht nach mit deinem zu° trit deins rechten fuess |So ist der haw valsch |vnd vngerecht |wenn dein rechte seitt die pleibt da hinden dar vmb wirt der haw zu° kurtz
hew from your right side, if you do not follow after the hew with a step forward of your right foot, then the hew is false and incorrect. When your right side remains behind, the hew becomes too short
Wenn er sich vor dir verhawt es sey von der rechten oder von der lincken seitten |So haw Im künlich nach zw° der plöss
when he hews before you (be it from the right or from the left side), then hew in boldly After to the opening
wenn du mit dem zu vechten zu Im kumpst |was du den vechten wild das treib mit gantz° sterck des leibs |vnd häw im do mit nahent ein zu° kopf |vnd zu leib
Mark, that is when you come to him with the pre-fencing: what you will then fence, drive it with the entire strength of your body, and hew in approaching therewith to the head and to the body
In conclusion, students should over time learn to defend and counter high energy attacks from an opponent. You never know when you will face a Büffel and it’s a rude awakening if nothing seems to work against a hard hitter. One could even come to the conclusion that historical techniques don’t work at all against strength and to beat them you simply have to use more strength yourself, when this really is just an artifact of only training against low energy levels.
This in turn means, that there should be ways for students to safely hit each other, for example with protective equipment or padded weapons. Or in the case of Ringen by using matts and showing students to fall correctly.
You don’t have to gear up fully to train with Aliveness, but it’s a valuable lesson if you do so at least from time to time and get attacked with higher intensity than you’re used to.
Timing, as discussed earlier, means that you learn exactly when to do what and read your opponent. In free play or a fight you don’t know the exact moment when your opponent starts his attack, even if you correctly concluded his intentions.
There is no fixed rhythm. Instead you have to react naturally to any stimulus from your opponent and judge the right moment to execute a technique.
Students shouldn’t always know when they’re going to be attacked and with which technique. Instead they should need to observe, conclude intentions correctly and find the right moment to attack themselves or counter.
Assessing the situation correctly might also entail feeling strength and weakness in the bind correctly. Any follow up technique from the bind should be a direct result of feeling and not just be done because that’s what in the play and part of this exercise.
Essentially you should be able to asses Vor and Nach or similar concepts.
Aliveness drill example
Here’s an easy example of an alive Zornhau drill that employs all three elements:
- Fencer A tries to hit his partner with an Oberhau from vom Tag. He’s allowed to faint and move around in any way he wants.
- Fencer B tries to thrust with the Zornhau Ort from the bind or hit A’s head directly, but only if this result in a secure bind as well. He’s not allowed to just attack with a free Oberhau. He’s also free to move around however he deems useful.
Both partners have opposite goals that can only be completed by successfully hitting, so there’s resistance and energy.
Fencer A will try to mask his intentions by using feints and footwork, to make it harder to know when the attack is coming. Also, he might try to sneak into a closer distance where Fencer B has less time to react.
Fencer B knows that he’s in the Nach from the drill layout, but he still has to correctly observe when exactly the Oberhau is coming so he can act with the correct timing.
Fencer B will probably learn quite fast not to let Fencer A get too close, because this decreases his reaction time and makes it harder to execute the Zornhau. As a result, both of them are constantly moving around, trying to change the distance in their favor. So there’s natural footwork and motion.
This drill is of course not perfect and the trainer would need to observe if it introduces new artifacts that have to be addressed in future drill iterations.
One such artifact could be that Fencer A starts to game the rules of the drill, by closing distance too much without protecting himself. So Fencer B cannot use Zornhau from a realistic distance.
If this happens you might want to add a way for Fencer B to uphold the distance. For example, by allowing him to thrust a Zornhau Ort without a bind if he’s in range without stepping. This way Fencer B doesn’t have an incentive to shorten the distance, but there’s a danger of closing the distance too much for Fencer A.
A workshop called “Checkmate!” with great use of Aliveness was held and written down on Hroarr by Martin Fabian. Even though Martin is not using the term Aliveness, timing, energy and motion are applied from the very first partner exercise.
And without Aliveness?
If the training leading up to free play ignores any or all of these aspects, it will be difficult to utilize techniques against fencers trained with Aliveness.
A lack in motion and realistic footwork results in students not being able to close the distance effectively, so they would be open for Nachreisen and unable to evade attacks themselves.
If training lacked timing, students might not be able to correctly observe an opponents intentions, falling for otherwise obvious feints and traps or simply reacting too soon or too late for any number of reasons.
A lack in energy might lead to students fenceing with suboptimal body structure that collapses completely under pressure. Also if students never got hit at all in training, the simple fact of someone actually trying to hit them might be enough to overwhelm them.
On the other hand, training with Aliveness from early on can speed up the learning process considerably, as students are training closer to what they will experience in free play or a fight.
While there might be reasons for a specific exercise not to use timing, energy or motion, in my opinion a lack of Aliveness should be a clear decision with a specific goal in mind and not something that just happens.
One reason this sneaks into training without a conscious decision is that most workshops at events are presented without alive exercises. This is because a workshop’s goal is often to showcase new insights and interpretations of source material. Its goal is usually not to get competent at the taught techniques, as there’s only limited time and staff available for corrections. So participants are expected to continue training new techniques at their home clubs.
This means that event workshops are often one long introduction stage. This can be great for beginners as this broadens their horizon significantly, but creates a major problem if inexperienced HEMA instructors copy this structure for their regular club classes. This is not a teaching structure that creates competent fencers as it doesn’t utilize Aliveness!
What about source plays?
While plays from sources are a great mnemonic device and illustrate important principles, they often only cover one set of follow up actions. So just repeating them won’t allow students to assess and apply the principles behind the play correctly, as they don’t have to make decisions.
So doing a perfect replication of a source’s Zornhau play against a strong bind a hundred times and afterwards another against a weak bind a hundred times, won’t help students very much. This could easily be improved if the trainer turned this into an exercise, that required students to decide correctly if the bind is strong or weak.
In my opinion, an important aspect of a good HEMA trainer is that he’s able to create alive exercises from any play or combination of plays. The goal should be students becoming competent at the lesson and principle behind the play. Being able to replicate a play perfectly with cooperation is great for demonstrations and spreading knowledge, but how will this help a fencer in free play or a fight?
This might of course not apply if a source is used that has explicit training advise and exercises, like a military handbook that offers specific drill instructions.
If fencers are already competent in alive training and free play and have a good sense of timing and reading their opponent, I would argue that this can be further refined by attending a tournament from time to time.
I hope this article was able to shed some light on what Aliveness is and why training with Aliveness is so import for reaching competence in free play. For us, using the Aliveness framework turned out to be an immense help, as it provided a mental model that we could follow and which could be easily communicated. This made anything from training session preparation, teaching our new trainers and finding errors in drill design much easier.
I might add that I’m not affiliated with Matt Thornton, the creator of the Aliveness system, in any way and I haven’t met the man. I’m just a big enthusiast of his training system.
As a final disclaimer, a training system of any kind is supposed to provide assistance and orientation. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The principle of Aliveness is the absolute basis of Matt Thorntons system, so if that’s a sound concept for you I would strongly recommend to check out his Blog posts and Youtube videos on this topic.
I’m planning to write some follow up articles regarding the use of the Aliveness system in HEMA. If you would like to see a certain topic addressed in future posts or if you’d like to tell me why I’m wrong, you can reach me via the Schwabenfedern Facebook page.
I think an open discussion about training methodology is very healthy and can only benefit HEMA as a whole.
The cover photo was taken by me at the Swiss Gathering 2016.