Force levels in HEMA competitions are a hot topic for discussion, and that’s a good thing. Participant safety is very important: having people go home with their body in working order is always worth working towards. But it is also true that there is inherent risk in any sporting activity, and doubly so if we’re talking about a combat sport like HEMA. Which raises very thorny issues about what level of risk we are willing to accept, vs what tradeoffs and constraints it forces on us.
But this article isn’t about that. This article is about a rather unproductive way people approach the topic of safety: where they don’t consider hitting hard as a tactical concept. What does that mean? Have you ever heard the following?
- “Hitting hard only happens because of a lack of control.”
- “You would never have to swing a sword hard.”
- “People swing hard because of quality requirements on strikes.”
I’m here to tell you that these are all wrong. No matter how much control someone has, how sharp a sword is, or how low the quality requirements are, there will always be a tactical use for hitting hard in HEMA. And fixating on these types of myths keeps us from focusing on ways that we can – realistically – constrain the level of force in competition.
Hard hitting is not a scoring calibration issue. Reducing the scoring criteria will not solve the issue because it is a tactical element rather than a scoring obligation.
To start with, let’s look at some physics. Imagine you’re trying to bring a car to a stop at an intersection. You are moving at a constant speed, and then start slowing down before reaching the “target”, aka the stop line.
This is similar to a sword swing, except instead of coasting at a constant speed you bring the sword up and slow down as you approach the target. Bringing your sword to a nice stop right as it comes into contact.
But let’s say that instead of slowing down as you approach, you just keep speeding up. It would look like the purple line, instead of the green.
What you see is that instead of slowing down before you get to the target, you get there a lot quicker! See below the time difference between accelerating right to the target, and trying to pull back before the hit. It takes a LOT longer to pull back a strike.
If the opponent manages to parry it will also be MUCH more difficult to parry a firm strike. You can see that if the sword gets parried at the time indicated by the yellow line, it will be going a lot faster, and thus take a lot more commitment to stop.
And, all other things being equal, making an attack harder to stop is to your advantage. Not only does the defender have to put more effort into the parry, they will be slower to transition into their next action.
It would be very foolish to assume this means that all hits benefit from a hard swing. But, you could also put it another way: if two people are doing equally tight movements and one has more force behind it, who has the advantage? The point is that, all other things being equal, a harder swing can sometimes confer benefits. And if it confers benefits people will start to do it when stressed in the heat of the moment – whether they planned to or not.
Are you still skeptical? Let’s see what John Chow has to say about modern olympic saber in Make The Cut: Sabre Fencing For Adults.
“Many coaches hold to the principle that good fencers hit fast but never hard. They “touch”, light and crisp, hence the official referee term for denoting hits. If this is the case, then there are no good fencers in the top-64 in the world rankings. You don’t need to hit hard, but almost everyone does, at least some of the time. The electronic scoring equipment registers all contacts between sabre and lame as valid hits regardless of impact force or whether the preceding action was a cut with the front edge or a slice with the back edge or a thrust with the tip or a whipover with either flat side of the blade. But fencers still hit hard with all of these actions.
Fencers hit as hard as they need to hit so that their attack will arrive before their opponent can block, or to smash through their opponent’s parry or whip around their opponent’s blade. This is usually as hard as they can hit, while not winding up. Winding up slows down their overall attack and gives their opponent time to pull away or to parry or counter-attack. Actually, many fencers will occasionally choose to hit so hard that they need to wind up to do so. The risks of winding up are often outweighed by the benefits of hitting hard.”
Even in a game that is (a) incredibly high level, (b) demands no actual sword impact, there is still a huge tactical benefit from using as much force as you can get away with. Olympic saber uses equipment that can facilitate this level of force. HEMA is not so fortunate. And we have to accept that no matter what scoring criteria we use, there will always be a tactical application to having high force swings.
If you still don’t believe that the force of people’s swings will be hard without having quality requirements for cuts, let’s look at sports where there is a use of force that is completely uncorrelated to the scoring criteria.
I’ll use hockey as an example. Is the force people bodycheck each other with related to the “quality standard” in order to get points? That question is so weird to ask that you are confused right now. The answer is no, you get points for getting the puck in the net, hitting is irrelevant.
Yet bodychecking is an important part of the game, using more force can be an important enabling condition to set up the scoring action. Being more physical than your opponent can be a huge advantage, shutting them down and creating openings for you.
And in case the parallels to fencing aren’t clear enough, if there is an over-emphasis on physicality it can also backfire on you. In hockey the objective isn’t to bodycheck people, the goal is to get pucks into the net. If you start playing too wide because you’re “hitting too hard” you naturally start to give up op openings.
The takeaway from the last two sections is that fencers “having better control” or “not needing quality to score” are not going to eliminate hard hits from tournaments. They will just create a mix of light and hard hits as the needs of the exchange dictate, and unfortunately you only need one hard hit to cause an injury.
But since we used hockey as an example above, let’s contrast it with another goal based sport.
One would expect that in soccer they would also like to be landing hard body checks as a strategic element, even though it doesn’t score directly. But why don’t they? Because they are penalized for doing so.
If we want to limit force in tournaments there are only two options, which can be used independently or in conjunction:
- Make it socially unacceptable
- Make it not help win (aka penalize it)
Method #1: Social
If you can get social pressure to work for limiting force, it works amazing. Until it doesn’t. The problem with social conventions is that they eventually find someone who doesn’t play along, and then fall apart.
This can happen because there is no actual consequence for the person who is hitting too hard. Maybe they have some social capital so no one will call them out. Maybe they are not local and thus don’t really care what the local scene thinks of them. Ultimately the social method works for smaller events that have everyone buying into the same level of acceptable force. But it’s not scalable for anything that is (a) larger, and (b) more competitive. Scalability: Why bugs are small and tournament rulesets are hard.
Bottom line, this is great if you have it but is not reliable for a competitive event.
Method #2: Enforcement
This is the part about giving penalty cards. I don’t want to say too much about issuing penalties for excessive force, other than it is a lot harder than people think it is. Often there are strikes that look fairly innocuous but people complain about hitting really hard. There are also actions which look really brutal but are actually delivered with a high degree of control.
But the bottom line is that outside of social conventions this is the only thing limiting the force used in the tournament. In modern Olympic fencing they don’t enforce level-of-force, and solve the problem through gear. This is not something that is really compatible with longswords, so we are stuck doing the best we can with enforcement.
I’m not going to talk about how to best implement excessive force penalties here, that is a different story for a different article. The important part for now is we recognize the role that active penalization plays in the story.
(Not to say we can’t have improvements on the equipment side, but that is another story.)
The purpose of this article was for me (the author) to make you (the reader) understand that hard hits will always be an intrinsically part of tactics for optimal performance under ANY ruleset. If you have to hit and not be hit, you’re going to have situations that are going to encourage you to attack harder.
The quality threshold of the hits isn’t what is going to make people hit harder, it is how the judges are rewarding and punishing this behavior. And how they are communicating to the fencers about why they may or may not be getting points. Because frustration has never been known to increase control.
So rather than getting into dumb arguments about quality thresholds or test cutting in relation to tournament force*, we should be focusing on how the officials are communicating to the fencers, managing frustration levels, and using penalties to keep behavior within acceptable bounds. I’m not converting those in this article, but look forward to something on that topic in the future.
*we should still be having lots of dumb arguments about quality thresholds in terms of game design.
TL;DR for those incapable of subtilty:
- Some mix of hard swings will exist as an optimal game strategy no matter what the scoring criteria are.
- In order to limit the force levels to whatever the event organizer choses they need to rely on penalization. Cultural norms also help but are only so reliable.
- Points #1 and #2 exist independent of where you chose to set your acceptable level of force. This article is completely agnostic on the subject of how an organizer should determine their tournament’s level of force.
Speaking of excessive force that wasn’t necessary for scoring, in The Art of Learning author Josh Waitzkin relates a chess match from his youth, whereby an opponent was kicking under the table in order to distract him and throw him off his game. It seems that even in chess there needs to be officiating to curb excessive force when people really want to win. 😀