ARMA Editorial – April 2009
Matching Goals With Means in Your Historical Fencing Practice

By John Clements
ARMA Director

In our efforts to reconstruct the lost teachings of the Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe we are simultaneously also trying to create a fellowship that practices a modern curriculum. The second activity follows from the first even as both activities are not always congruous.

After years of this “experiment” in Renaissance martial arts revival I have come to think there are two basic “kinds” of members we get in the ARMA. The first are those who do what they can, exploring and practicing the craft as best they can given their lifestyle and aptitude. Life often doesn't let them do as much as they would ideally like, but they accept things as best they are (I’m in this category myself). They understand that their own growth and progress as an individual martial artist means realistically matching their goals with their means. But they recognize in this subject that means helping one another and working collectively as a team.

The other kind of members are those who do less than they can given their aptitude and lifestyle. But even as they know they don’t do as much as they would like, they don’t accept that they are not achieving more. For these members, finding a way to deal with the challenge of matching their goals with their means while still enjoying the craft is their challenge. Improving their self-discipline is the real underlying task (I was long in this category myself).

Unfortunately, among the second group of members there is also another more harmful kind of person: a tiny selfish minority who feels resentment against those of either category who excel and achieve as practitioners. They become ugly, bitter, and spiteful and eventually seek to blame others for their own limitations and under-achievement as students. Their internal frustrations cause them to seek an outside focus on which to project their personal issues.

As a teacher, I honestly do not know what to do with this category of student, as I have come to learn that I can do nothing to help them. Their private agendas contradict the very camaraderie of our fellowship as well as the ethical teachings of the historical Masters themselves. We might wish self-centered persons would just honestly excuse themselves in good faith. But, alas, that is not in the nature of their frustrations.

I’ve long had other professional colleagues point out to me, and I have noticed more and more myself, that as an instructor there are two general types of students that are generally encountered within the martial arts overall: The first are those who want to know how to improve and will accept critical feedback when offered (doing that is most of my job here). Whether or not they can follow through on critical advice doesn't matter. Either they will try better, or at the least will acknowledge that they are not able to try. But they understand the critical process in martial study. They enjoy the journey and the process regardless of how far along they travel.

The other type of student resents and doesn't want to receive constructive criticism. It makes them feel bad inside. They then reject the challenge of having to improve which meeting criticism requires. Nor do they want to the experience the possibility of failing. They want their martial arts practice (and by extension, me as their teacher) to instead make them feel good about themselves no matter what. When I don’t do it for them I become the villain. I become their bad guy and the source of their sense of self-disappointment, the terrible cause of their own internal failing. They don’t appreciate that I am not here to make them feel good about who they are, but only to help show the larger group, and by extension themselves, a way to do something better.

Some times a student reaches a higher lever through hard work and commitment only to then see there is still more hard work ahead at still higher levels. They accept it as part of the nature of martial arts practice. They adjust to matching changed goals with available means. For still others, however, seeing there is still more ahead depresses them. They fail to realize the journey is the point, not the destinations you come to along the way. So, even if they may be good fighters, they in time peak in their learning, then fall into a plateau of skill that eventually declines. They are not able to say, “I am satisfied where I am in this craft given the effort I make with my current lifestyle and aptitude.” Instead, they allow themselves to feel inadequate because they know they could (and maybe should) be better than they are. When they feel bad at not achieving they blame the organization or the teacher --the authority who sets the standards, offers a higher example, and enforces discipline for bad conduct.

In this historical fencing association, and in my own courses and classes, I neither condemn nor condone failure to meet our physical standards of performing movements and actions. Rather, I only commend meeting or surpassing standards of a voluntary curriculum. Achievement of higher skill and ability is its own reward. But there is no consolation prize for not achieving. That’s just how it is. Yet, there is no question that there are those students who in their martial arts study want something less challenging, less demanding, less intimidating and more accommodating. That is clearly not what the ARMA is about and never has been. It’s also not the example I want my senior students to promote or offer.

I teach that there is a higher level of prowess in martial arts that, even though you may not be there yet yourself (and honestly might never be), you should never resent that others, to one degree or another, have reached it. You should never wish it somehow didn’t exist just so that you can avoid dealing with not being there yourself (or pretend instead to have reached it). That attitude is unhealthy and destructive. Would anyone really wish that someone in this craft did not try to set a higher standard and did not try to represent the best? Would they prefer instead that no one did? Or is it, perhaps, more that they feel if they cannot meet a higher standard they selfishly wish no one else would either? I cannot say. But it can be noticed that some students fail to ever honestly assess their means or truthfully acknowledge their goals, and this forever clouds every attempt to match the two in whatever martial art they pursue.

Being a part of the historical fighting guilds and studying under a master in an old Fechtschule was about more than just having the martial spirit and physical conditioning to skillfully execute techniques. It was also about shared values and issues of camaraderie, mutual respect, trust, and loyalty. These are principles of character. Because, to hold a bond with someone as a fellow brother in arms, fighting skills and technical knowledge alone are insufficient. Something else must be present. Experiencing these things is as much a part of exploring and celebrating our Renaissance martial heritage as is learning fighting techniques. It is no less an aspect to revive than the skills themselves. Without it, all you are doing is a hobby or role-playing exercise.

There are many different aspects to being a good student in of Renaissance martial arts and mastering its skills. After all, the whole point of an Art of Defence is to overcome physically superior opponents and to do this takes heart, spirit, or whatever you want to call it. In the end, in their fencing practice each student must match their own goals with their own means as best they are sincerely able.

As we emulate the historical fighting guilds, how you respect your fellows and your teachers is important to properly learning this craft. Some people I know will never understand that. As a student and as a teacher I have realized this through three decades now of pursuing historical fencing. It has been a difficult and sometimes painful lesson to learn. But with it comes the reward of wisdom.


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