The Root Cause of Bad HMA

At short while ago, I had Ruairc and Gawin over for the weekend, with the idea that they would do well with a couple of consecutive days of focused training in their Italian rapier pursuits (Fabris and Giganti, respectively). I expect they shall write about that experience in detail, but during the course of the weekend, Ruairc lamented to me the state of many training videos on YouTube, as well as the state of HMA in general… and then later, the ruleset of the SCA as well. It was a day for lamentations.

As it was quite late by the time this discussion arose, I hadn’t really responded in such a way as to do it justice. A few days went by and I revisited the topic, and here is my current answer to the question, “Why is there so much bad HMA on the Internet?” For the purposes of this, we will be assuming that the question is itself not grounded on faulty premises.

To illustrate my answer, please consider a hypothetical HMA study group working on Capoferro’s manual with every available translation. Let’s say it’s quite a large group, with 10 people. They all have some sort of athletic background, but no significant prior martial arts training. So far, such a group could exist in any major city.

Now, this group buys gear, and starts reading. They take extensive notes, collaborate with each other, and begin working their way through the plates. One of the ten acts as a sort of group leader, but in all meaningful ways, they have a collective learning experience. A few years go by, they practice thousands of hours during that time, moving from drills to sparring and back again, and at the end of that time put together a YouTube training series based on their own experiences. This series of videos is promptly sent to me, late at night, in the hopes that I will see it right when I wake up so that my day is ruined.

How delightful.

You might ask, “What went wrong? That sounded like a good plan.” That’s a fair question, so let us now examine some of the problems that are inherent and unavoidable in the above scenario:

    1. They are overly familiar with each other. Several years with a small number of opponents creates a situation where it is very, very easy to do a particular thing because it beats Partner X, and not because it’s automatically a good idea. All fighters have their quirks, and all of their training partners pick up on them over time, leading to positive reinforcement for reasons unrelated to the martial art.

    2. Everyone is using the same system, which is necessarily constrained to a set range of expected motions. This means that the practitioners will often be prepared to deal with people who are fighting the same way, but unprepared to deal with someone who is less “educated” than they are, or moves in a different way, or is comparably educated in a different system.

    3. Any single mistake that the group collectively accepted may never have been questioned. This might have compounded into other areas, as well. This can be especially problematic if the group actually has a leader, like someone with a collegiate fencing background, as the two combat sports have a considerable amount of overlap, but also have as many differences between them as boxing and kickboxing. Minor errors that aren’t caught can persist for years.

    4. Since they all began at a relatively equal level, there is no one who can assuredly claim that anyone else is wrong, so errors are even harder to detect. This is especially insidious if the error is successful, but only because of other extant errors. Mistakes that get positive reinforcement are nearly insurmountably difficult to recognize, accept, and change.

This, of course, isn’t even getting into the possibility that one guy decided to use an extra light blade one day, and then everyone else did, too, because it’s easier on the arm and faster, and then eventually everyone is whipping a noodly, half-pound blade in dui tempi actions left and right. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s the sort of thing historic martial artists should warn their children will happen to them if they don’t eat their vegetables; truly, it is the stuff of nightmares.

In the end, however, this poor group never really had much of a chance. It wasn’t that they didn’t follow a good, scientific method of hypothesize-test-conclude; it was that they were *incapable* of actually testing their understanding in a meaningful way because their sample size was too small.

It is better to take a system and be able to implement it effectively against opponents who are unknown and using uncertain methods. Variety is a necessary testing tool, and outside influences are incredibly important. If you cannot fight within a system against an opponent acting in a way that is divergent from that system’s parameters, you cannot claim real knowledge of it.

Ironically, I have found the SCA to be a superb vehicle for my own HMA studies, even with the adaptations necessary for safety, specifically because of how few of its practitioners study HMA.

In short, this study group failed to remember Capoferro’s 5th Admonition.

2 comments to The Root Cause of Bad HMA

  • Dom

    So what was wrong with their videos? The only thing that I can guess, from reading this post, is that they thought they were experts or “finished” learning.

    As you frequently lament, there is nowhere to truly practically apply HMA – due to rule sets, fast people, cheater blades etc – so all of this boils down to simply learning for the sake of knowledge, or seems to when put in this context.

    So since this group has no teacher, no arena to test actual skill(as opposed to knowledge), and a myriad of ways to introduce false data in to their tests; couldn’t it be said that they just aren’t done yet? That they are still in the process of figuring things out?

  • In the context of the initial question, this is an explanation of how a group can end up significantly divergent from what they are intending and not realize it, possibly ever. The same thing happens in all manner of studies and so forth, all the time; those studies are eventually discredited when the results are not confirmed independently, which takes us back to the idea that a broad range of opponent is necessary.

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