HEMA, And The Illusion of Professionalism

I don’t blame HEMA, and its current state, on Game of Thrones. 

I blame us. 

For those of us who spend large portions of our life helping foster the community, we’ve all desired respect - not just from our peers, not just from other martial artists or fencers, but from the general public. 

We want everyone to recognize that HEMA is a collection of legitimate martial arts, just as valid and artful as any other martial art in the world.

Reader, there is something I need to tell you - it is starting to crumble. Who’s fault is it? Yours. Mine. Everyones.

Who is this article meant for?

  • People new to the community - to gain perspective on where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going
  • People getting frustrated by the community - to rethink what we want out of the volunteering we do.
  • To anyone who has ever nitpicked the work of others - to help you understand what kind of feedback is helpful, and what kind makes us want to quit.
  • Everyone who thinks HEMA should stay in the dark ages - you’ve benefitted from HEMA growing, and you need to see how.

This to some degree is an extension of Richard Marsden’s article from a few years back, “Who gets a seat at the table?” 

It’s valuable for everyone to read in full, but I will sum it up - ideas and opinions are easy. But execution? Execution is everything.

 “I remember when I first heard about HEMA - it all seemed kind of silly and trashy. But now? Man, it seems really cool.” - unnamed sport fencer

HEMA has come a long way in an incredibly short amount of time. A slow boil for decades, the moment its various martial arts disciplines started displaying impressive examples of skill; it went from running a marathon to sprinting a dash.

The volunteers of HEMA, those of us who execute and not just ideate, have had two primary goals in mind:

  1. Foster HEMA as a culture and a community across the globe, based on passion for the arts and compassion for each other.
  2. Build HEMA as a collection of arts that will endure through time, just as the Asian Martial Arts have.

For those who are new to HEMA a few years ago, many had the same initial impression: “This is so fucking cool, but man is this ragtag.” The repurposing of gear from other sports and martial arts, the thousands of yards of duct-tape, the backyard wrestling feel to tournaments. It was all commonplace just 4-5 years ago.

And through the laborious work of people who get-things-done, it’s changed virtually overnight.

 “HEMA is based on Volunteerism” - Matt Galas

We’ve spent time and money making sure events that are recorded and put online have the best presentation possible. Cameras, Judging uniforms, professional rings. Better and more accessible websites. Pro-level graphic design and video editing. We’ve done it all to make newcomers feel like these are actual martial arts, safe sports, and here for the long run. 

And it’s paid off! HEMA is experiencing year-over-year growth. Traffic to the HEMA Alliance website is expected to be double this year than the previous year. I don’t know how many times people find out what we do and say, “this is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

But this has come at a cost. We were so busy working on making HEMA feel professional; we forgot to remind everyone that nobody is getting paid.

You see, the only people actually making money off of HEMA are the handful of professional schools (as in, a literal handful - I can think of maybe 5), and vendors. Tournaments don’t make money. Non-profit schools don’t make money. The HEMA Alliance, despite what some claim, doesn’t earn money.

There are no paid judges. No paid staff. The Longpoint crew does not take a cut off the top of the event. The Nordic League does not have full-time employees. The governing council of the HEMA Alliance takes no salary.

You are not a consumer of HEMA - you are a participant.

(The following story is not meant to put anyone on 'blast' or to call anyone out, it only serves as an example.)

After Longpoint this year, I had to edit an insane amount of video footage. For 2-3 weeks after the tournament, I spent 40 hours a week splicing fights.

When I posted the Women’s Steel tournament, the first question asked was, “Where is my cartwheel?”

No “Thank you for doing this.” No appreciation. Just a question about where was the footage of them doing a cartwheel after a particular fight. After I told the person I would not be going back to find that footage, they insisted they’d have someone else do it. To this day, I have never seen them show any appreciation for what I or any other volunteer has done.

(edit: the person in question read the article, and has apologized profusely. They misunderstood the original conversation, and did not realize how much work or investment goes into these activities. I have great respect for anyone who can admit to faults.)

With professionalism, there are expectations around customer service, and “getting what you paid for.” You have every right to complain about your hard earned money not working for you. You have every right to say that X event didn’t deliver on what was promised…when its a professionally run event.

But with a volunteer community, execution is prized over ideas, and even over money. Everyone has opinions and ideas of how things should run. Everyone thinks that if everyone else just listens to them, the “ideas person,” things will run smoother. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The volunteers spend even more time thinking about what they’re executing on than ideas people spend casually having opinions. They reflect on how it will work in the long term, and how to scale it for the future. They think about how to run it on pennies. If you insist that volunteers need to listen to your ideas about how if they just used a piece of $15k software, then they spend less time executing - opinions then become a distraction. And at the end of the day, we need people who think and then do, rather than having to address bloviating.

Constructive suggestions are valued over sniping complaints. 

This topic is starting to shake HEMA at its core, and you might not realize it because it’s all behind the scenes.

But just like the story, I told above, I’ve heard slews of stories from those who volunteer for the community. Outright attacks from friends because X didn’t go perfectly. Toxic, passive aggressive posts on people’s walls about the cost and types of tournaments at an event. The nuclear bomb of, “you’re ruining HEMA.”

This doesn’t help. It doesn’t show someone the errors of their ways - it makes them focus on the mistakes in your message. It doesn’t inspire a volunteer to change - it encourages them to quit. 

How to fix this:

When I was talking to my epee coach about this problem, he told me this: “Sport fencing in the US went through all the same challenges in the 80’s. You’ll get through it because what you guys are doing is special.”

These problems aren’t hard, as they are primarily issues of motivation and perspective.
Here’s how we can make HEMA more productive, even when being critical, in the future:

  1. If not you, then who? Volunteer. If you have an idea that you think will benefit the community, then start working on it, and stop talking about it. Work on it even when you don’t want to. But don’t just ask what you can do - go and find what needs to be done. There are even small things that can help benefit the community.
  2. If you can’t volunteer, then be compassionate. Be gracious. Be understanding. Always make sure that your critique is done privately and productively, rather than just spouting off publicly. Always remind volunteers that you see them, and their efforts, and it means a lot to you. Give people who might be new to doing something the space to fail.
  3. If you run a club, then get your people volunteering the community. Give them tasks they can help with. Set a good example of how to provide feedback appropriately. I am convinced that most problems in a person’s fencing and attitude start at the school, and volunteering is no different.

A call to end volunteer discounts at tournaments.

Volunteer discounts have been used to incentivize people working at tournaments, but I am now of the belief that it’s contributing to the issue of fencers being consumers rather than participants. People complain that they worked too much, while other don’t volunteer at all and just complain about the judging. It gives the veneer of professionalism, with none of the benefits - trained people who are good at what they do.

So, how do you staff a tournament? Longpoint South solved this last year. If you’re participating in the tournament, then you are working at the tournament.

It’s simple - if you wish to fence, if you would like to grow as a martial artist, then you have to work. You have to experience the cold fear a judge feels when they’re not confident they’re making the right call, or the guilt a director feels when a decision affects one of their friends. The monotony of working a table or running a camera. This is how empathy works - understanding the experiences of others.

To avoid people gaming the system, the longsword tournament was split into two groups. Group 1 judged and directed Group 2’s pools and eliminations to completion, and only then did they switch. It didn’t take any longer than a typical tournament and made everyone a participant, rather than a consumer. The event was better for it.

And as tournament organizers, getting rid of volunteer discounts means that you either get to make the event cheaper, or invest that money into something better.

For the people who want HEMA in the dark ages, remember that you benefit too.

There are plenty of folks who wish HEMA stayed with a select few, only to be enjoyed by those who align with their views. While I respect many of these people, they tend to forget that they benefit from HEMA growing in ways they don't expect. Equipment gets better, training paradigms improve, and educational material proliferates. Even if you don't participate in tournaments, you benefit from them. Do not forget this as you waive your hand at those 'sport fencers.'

For the volunteers, let’s remember why we do this.

I have to remind myself, routinely, that I am not in this for recognition or even appreciation. That even when one bitter individual writes something scathing online, they do not represent the entire community of people who would not be together if it weren’t for you. That when someone asks for something without thinking, that they're not mean. That I give back to HEMA because it saved me from a very dark period in my life, and that I owe the community for their love.

We aren’t building HEMA for the participants of today, we are building it for their children, and their grandchildren. Hutton’s Revival died out in a single generation, partially because those involved kept everything close to their chest - they were the doers, and others were the consumers.

I look forward to the day when I can sit in a chair with a stick, teaching a young student the joy of holding a longsword, seeing that glint her eyes that says, “This is what I was looking for.”