Some advice for beginners about their first HEMA class

Recently I've been doing a large portion of the beginner's classes at my club. It's the unavoidable duty of anyone who likes having a large selection of sparring partners. I've been doing these beginners classes for years, hmmm when I think about it now, over a decade. In all this time I've definitely noticed common themes in terms of which new people do well and which don't.

So, I've put together some advice for new people going to their first HEMA class to help them along. For the TL:DR crowd: don't be weird about learning.

Don't forget to keep your ego in check

This is the biggy, especially for guys. You're about to do something new and for 99% of guys insecurities around respect are really, really important. But firstly, know you should be respected as an individual from the moment you walk in the door. If you have to "earn" basic respect as a human being, you're in the wrong place. Leave.

Otherwise, relax and remember most instructors are just people like you and it'll all be cool if you show a basic level of respect and courtesy for them attempting to teach you. People can get all sorts of weird around other people attempting to teach them so just be like, normal.  Therefore: shut up when they talk, make a good effort to do what they ask, keep your tone friendly, and ask them questions when you don't know what you're doing wrong.

The best students are gracious in their learning, and this is the easiest path to earning you the most respect. That means generally maintaining a good humour, asking for help when you need it and then listening to the response. Pay attention to how you act when you are frustrated by not getting things, this is a key moment: don't take it out on those around you. Likewise, if someone else is not getting things and you're cool about facilitating their learning experience this is likely to earn you kudos as well.

Finally, remember to treat an instructor how you'd like to be treated: if you think they've made a mistake try or if you think they're explaining it badly raise this individually rather than in front of the class. Odds are pretty good that you've misunderstood so this will be best for you as well.

Don't kiss Ass 

No one likes a sycophant and if they do then you're in the wrong school. If they are good, they won't need you to tell them that they are good. Be respectful without being servile. So, don't be excessively grateful, you don't need to tell everyone how awesome the instructor is, you don't need to tell other people to shut up and trust the master etc etc.

Don't compete with your instructor

The flipside side of the above, bear in mind that often the beginners class are as much, if not more, about setting basic understanding of shared terminology, theory, safety practices, social etiquette etc rather than the Club deploying its top fighters to break new people. So your instructor will not necessarily reflect the highest standard of fighting in the Club. They will also be unlikely to fight full out with people walking in off the street. If you think you're better / more knowledgeable than them then patiently sit through the classes (or bugger off and learn somewhere else) otherwise you'll only be annoying everyone else around you.

Don't take your frustration out on the instructor

Most instructors are not mind-readers so if you're frustrated talk about how you are feeling (I think I'm doing what you're saying but what am I doing wrong?). Be very careful to keep from personally criticising your instructor (you keep saying that but it just doesn't work!).

Don't forget your teacher has a whole class

Don't hog their time - you'll want to squeeze as much knowledge from them as possible however don't forget that they've got a whole class to think about. Remember that you're part of a bigger picture and ensure that you're not trying to take up all of their time.

Don't ignore the social stuff

Understand that a lot of people who are into sword fighting are "special." That includes you. You'll be learning the sword fighting technique in the class but don't forget that you've also to learn the unwritten social rules as well. For example, there will undoubtedly be a time and place for chatting and banter during the class, however, there are probably certain generally accepted points where this will happen. Stopping after every action in a drill to socialise with your partner will probably earn you negative brownie points. Likewise, there is probably an informal (or formal) dress code, level of personal hygiene, understanding about how you take clothes on and off, pecking order about Club gear or where you put your gear etc. Ignoring all this sort of stuff or expecting someone to point it all out to you is unlikely to make a great impression. So, watch what the more experienced people are doing and ask questions when you're unsure. 

Don't be weird about your fitness

No one will expect you to be in peak physical condition when you start a class. 99% of your classmates will not be "fit" either. Those that are "fit" in your eyes, while having a headstart in overall fitness, will still often struggle in other areas such as coordination or with the specific muscle fitness required for swordsmanship. Chill.

Likewise, if you're Mr Buff who spends 4 hours a day in the gym then don't think that'll get you any extra cookies. Sure you're likely to breeze through the beginner's course but that's only because you'll only have the skills portion of the class to worry about. If you do zero work because you can Hulk Smash it's likely that the rest of the class will be catching up too you pretty soon.

Don't be weird about your experience

If you've never done anything like this before don't stress about it. That's what is expected, it's a beginners class. Likewise, if you have done martial arts before and especially if you have done some kind of swordsmanship then don't be weird about that either: there are tons of different recreational martial arts out there and odds are good that many "beginners" in the Club will have other experience and some / many of the people in the Club you're joining also have wide experience. Just be straight up about your experience, it'll help the instructor focus their time where it is needed. If you're totally new you'll get extra attention, if you've done something relevant then you'll probably get less attention but pushed along the programme faster. Whatever it is, don't go on about it in front of the whole class all the time (I can't do X because I've never done anything like this before... when I was doing Y martial arts we always did Z in this kind of situation).

Don't forget to make an effort

Did you read the basic info on the website? Did you email them and check it was all on beforehand and if there was anything you needed to know? Did you practice your drills between classes? Did you follow up on that info they suggested you read?

Basically, don't expect to turn up to a class once or twice a week and then in 6 months time magically become good at sword fighting. The more effort you make, especially up front, the more gains you'll make. Simple.


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