HEMA beyond tournaments: The Motus “Knightly” Obstacle course

There is a tendency in HEMA, like in other combat sports, to assume tournaments and free fencing to be the ultimate endgame. And that kind of thinking is not entirely wrong – sparring, competitive or otherwise, is the best way to pressure test your skills and understanding of fighting, despite all the artifacts such practice comes with.

However, HEMA is not a one-dimensional combat sport – not if you don’t want it to be. If there is a will, there is a way to expand your practice of HEMA beyond tournaments and free fighting.

This was exactly the goal we in the School of historical swordsmanship “Motus” had when we started working on our “Knightly” obstacle course, just before our annual summer training camp.

What is missing in sparring?

A myriad of things, naturally. As much as we call it “free” fighting, sparring and tournaments are defined in relatively strict boundaries. They are “free” in comparison to solo play, to technical two-person drills, to various restricted competitive drills. But there are still limits.

In sparring and tournaments, people typically use the same weapons, often even standardized to various degrees – which is absolutely sensible with regards to safety and providing an equal opportunity to compare your skills and athletic abilities. The good news is that mixed weapon tournaments exist, and regular club sparring with different weapons is popular all around the world.

Tourneys and spars are also quite often limited to a 1-on-1 fights, something you can describe as a duel simulation, or a self-defence simulation with just two participants in the conflict. Nowadays many people avoid the dueling comparison, as it doesn’t apply fully, but as a shorthand, it is an easily recognizable one.

In Motus, especially during our yearly summer camps, we have already gone beyond this limitation and have organized spars that are more akin to small skirmish battles than duels – 3 vs 3, 5 vs 5, 8 vs 8. This kind of game is fun, but it needs additional safety features (like very controlled blows to the back of the opponent, which is more likely to turn to you when someone is fighting more than one opponent) and it is often chaotic and leaves no room for singular tactical play. This is both a bug and a feature – both historically and in modern times such fights have the same issues.

Finally, sparring and tournaments are performed in a relatively sterile environment – a ring, a piste, a small hall. We also often emphasize sparring on uneven terrain, but that is a small “free” element in comparison to the options available.

That sterile environment also limits the types of pressure the fighters are subjected to. Their endurance and fine motor control skills are only pressured by pure fighting and by the intensity at which they do it.

What we wanted to put pressure on?

Let’s imagine a fighting scenario for a small group of fighters – three people, well-armed and ready, wearing light protection (up to the limit of what we understand as blossfechten or fighting out of armor). 

Before they can fight an enemy, they have to reach the enemy – so we must put their skill in moving through a field to the test. A field that has obstacles and hardships you won’t find on the flat floor of the salle.

Next, they may be faced with projectile attacks, and they may have to use projectile weapons of different types themselves. 

Third, they may have to deal with being outnumbered, being faced with superior weapons, and fighting just to survive.

Fourth, they may need to carry a wounded fellow fighter – something typical in any survival situation.

And fifth, they may be put under immense physical and psychological pressure for a long period of time, while maintaining their fighting capabilities for long enough to survive.

These are the five main pillars on which the Motus “Knightly” Obstacle course was built. The fundamental idea was born in the mind of our head instructor Miroslav Lesichkov, who polished it with the help of his assistants and advanced students.

How did we do it?

For the space we were in need of big enough ground to cover, while simultaneously keeping things tight enough to organize everything effectively.

We needed a big enough support team to provide the needed adversaries and to keep them relatively challenging. 

And we needed to think of varied challenges that hit each of the five pillars multiple times. The course had to be challenging, yet not insurmountable. It needed to push people to their limit and beyond, but not break or hurt them.

The final components

Our course was built partially inside the Camping Verila, which has been the spot for our summer training camp for over a decade. And partially outside – as we needed more terrain to cover.

We decided on the following elements:

  1. Fast and varied movement
  2. Getting attacked by projectiles
  3. Carrying a wounded mate
  4. Fighting an increasingly growing force
  5. Testing the full force of the body
  6. Testing the fine motor skills with projectiles

To achieve that, we built the following obstacles, ran in this order:

  1. Running shuttles
  2. Zig-zagging
  3. Being attacked by “zombies” with polearms and “peasants” with potatoes
  4. Carrying a wounded mate
  5. Jumping and ducking
  6. Crossing a beam 3 times, while being attacked by potato soldiers yet again
  7. Fighting 6 “bandits” for 1 minute with no stops
  8. Carrying a wounded mate
  9. Carrying car tires up a hill
  10. Throwing tennis balls precisely
  11. Hurling car tires down the hill
  12. Fighting 6 “bandits” for 2 minutes, no stops.
  13. Carrying a wounded mate
  14. Crossing a beam 3 times, while again being attacked with potatoes
  15. Jumping and ducking
  16. Shooting a bow 6 times at a target – 3 arrows standing, 3 arrows upright
  17. Throwing 3 kg medicine balls as hard as you could
  18. Facing 9 “bandits” with various weapons, helped by 5 “zombies” with polearms, while being rained upon by “peasants” with potatoes – for full 3 minutes

All of this was done in full gear (around <span class="convertIt ac_defaultColour acnone" data-original="12 kg" data-converted="1.9 st" data-convertitrate="<br><span class='ac_unitRate'> Rate: 1 kg = 0.16 st12 kg or 26 lbs), on the 27th of August, at a temperature of around 30 C (86 F). The full course, <span class="convertIt ac_defaultColour acnone" data-original="1 km" data-converted="1,094 yd" data-convertitrate="<br><span class='ac_unitRate'> Rate: 1 km = 1,093.61 yd1 km long (0.62 miles), took just shy of 30 minutes to complete. Everyone took turns in 3-people teams, with one guide to help with carrying weapons (so you can safely carry your wounded teammate), keeping time for the fights, carrying water just in case, and reminding you what the next task is.

All of us used arming swords and bucklers, because they are the best of our three weapons for the context of the challenge. A buckler can at least partially protect against projectiles. Our opponents had more freedom in their weapon choice, but we decided to not include longswords – they can be too dangerous in mass fights.

The course was manned by 6 “potato soldiers”, 5 “peasants” and 9 full-kited “bandits”. The participants are only allowed to hit the fighters.

People who don’t yet have full gear ran the same course, but without potato throwing (as it’s really dangerous without a mask), and with the fights being much more relaxed and closer to a free form drill. We had one such group, everyone else in our 30+ people training camp ran the course with all the kit possible.

This is the moment where you should stop reading and just experience it with your eyes. With the help of a dedicated cameraman who ran the course with our first team – our head instructor Miroslav Lesichkov, assistant-instructors Angel Chernaev and me, Borislav Krustev, and thanks to Angel’s awesome editing, we’ve managed to condense the full experience into 20 minutes – speeding up certain more “boring” parts and providing descriptions of the different obstacles, and helpful crowns (per Fiore) in the fights, so you can see who are the team members – as they are hard to identify, especially in the last fight.

So what is beyond tournaments and sparring?

Pain, hard effort, an almost complete degradation of your fine fencing skills, and a psychological battle of endurance that can leave your mind even more exhausted than your body.

Which was, after all, the goal of the exercise – a stress test of not just fencing abilities, but general athleticism, protecting against projectiles, using projectiles, taking the pressure and surviving the course.

The beginning for every group was fun – the guide acting like an NPC from a fantasy video game, the “peasants” and “potato soldiers” throwing insults and jokes, but after the second fight each team started reaching the point of controlled exhaustion – when you are incredibly tired, but that tiredness is a result of steady and varied tasks of athleticism, tactics and endurance. Your body is on the brink, but it can take it, your mind is under the real pressure, because the skills you are used to applying easily in the salle fall apart.

Everyone who went through the course ended it with a clearer picture of their own capabilities and failings. Some had to lie down for half an hour and have cold water poured on them. Some could put the kit on and go back as bandits for the next run. But all learned something.

The obstacle course has become a key part of our training – it is required for anyone who wants to be certified in one of our three main disciplines, arming sword, sword and buckler, and longsword. In 2021 we will most probably make a “basic” and “hard” version. If you want to try it and the global situation permits it, just come to our yearly summer training camp at the end of August.

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