There are many things that distinguish Olympic and Classical fencing from historical fencing, but one that’s surprised me is the place of bouting with an instructor. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in Olympic or Classical schools, but it happens differently when it does, and in my experience doesn’t tend to raise the same questions.
I’ve not taken a poll, but I believe it’s common for instructors in historical circles to free fence with students. Not all do, but certainly many, and it’s easy to see why. Most “HEMA” clubs are grass-roots, that is, they start say with one or two people eager to explore extinct art X and they form a backyard study group. They start off, then, fencing one another. Many such clubs are so small that in order to have people to test techniques and plays against an instructor has to fence. That instructor often is only the instructor because they’ve spent more time with a text.
In Olympic and Classical schools normally instructors have been trained within those cultures—with long traditions of pedagogy, with established programs for training teachers, people entering these fencing spheres interact with instructors differently. New students, for example, take lessons from an instructor, but don’t fence them in free bouting. They may in time, but more often than not outside of teaching bouts new fencers fence against more advanced fencers. I’ve worked with four masters so far and only with the last have I enjoyed the privilege of free bouting. I had teaching bouts, sure, where I was restricted to specific things we’d been working on, just using them in real time, but not free bouting. Thus, my perspective as an instructor is largely shaped by these experiences.
The reason I’m exploring this here is that I’m always a bit shocked when someone asks me how they did or if I was holding back on them. These are honest questions, and I’m always happy to provide feedback, but it’s important I think to establish how one should think of any bout with an instructor. The caveat is that this is my view, one not shared by all within the historical community, but so far as the group I run goes this is how I look at it.
An instructor’s first duty is to teach. This should guide everything they do. This pertains not only to overseeing drill, but also to bouting. It’s especially important in bouting, because by its nature a combat between two people, even friendly, is a contest, it is competition, and few places are as prone to ego as this. Everyone likes to win, everyone wants to, but victory, even the small victory that comes in a single bout, isn’t the goal of an instructor in that match: their goal is to use that bout to build up the student. What does that mean?
First, it means that the instructor must balance pushing the student realistically enough that they respond correctly, but not so hard that they overwhelm that student. Second, it means that while the instructor is trying to land the touch, they’re not doing so at any cost—if landing the touch defeats the lesson, don’t land it. Start over, set it up for the student again. Third, it means holding back. This isn’t, by the way, being condescending toward that student, it’s honoring where they are skill-wise in that moment. Hitting them with every tool in your tool box, with all ferocity, is as useless and defeating as it is stupid. The instructor becomes a bully, the student is frustrated, embarrassed, and no one learns anything. The sala is not a place for the instructor to show off what they know, but to teach. If your self-worth requires you to seek these little wins, fine, but there are other venues for that. There is no glory in defeating your own students.
As an instructor, it’s your students who come first, not you. When you bout with them, your goal is to increase their skill; yours will improve in helping them.
It can be easy to get lost in the fun, so you must focus—limit yourself to those maneuvers that allow your students to see opportunities to use what they’ve learned, and set them up to do that. This doesn’t mean you’re handing it to them; one does with brand new fencers, but with more advanced students you need to sell it, make it real, otherwise you’re not helping them. Your job in these cases is to mimic what they’ll see on the strip or in the ring.
Instructors need good bouts too, and this is yet another argument for continuing education. One should never stop being a student. If you need bouts, find them, but go to the appropriate place—seek out better fencers than yourself, enter a decent tourney, go to a master and take lessons. It’s good for you, and, it’s good for your students.