Over Labor Day weekend of 2019, I did something kind of insane. A friend from college invited me to Pittsburgh to engage in some Medieval shenanigans. And by Medieval, I mean sword fighting.
My friend Dave’s a member of the Historical European Martial Arts community. HEMA, for short, is an international community, dedicated to “the study and practice of historical European fighting techniques.”
Basically, HEMA allows you the chance to live out your Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones dreams, but without, you know, dying.
And Holy Roman Emperor is sword fighting fun. Legit, it was the most fun (and challenging thing) I’ve done in a really long time.
The Saturday of the tournament was the first time I had ever engaged in any type of martial arts. I’ve played contact sports my whole life, but this was something entirely new.
Of course, being a newb meant that I had a lot to learn from this experience.
1. You will suck — embrace it
As I drove to Pittsburgh I had delusions of grandeur. My family’s coat of arms is in Westminster Abby. So maybe it’s possible that I have this instinctual knowledge of proper sword fighting burned into my DNA?
Hold on, I need to laugh at how stupid that sounds now that I said it out loud.
Ok. I’m good.
Actually, I shouldn’t laugh at myself. Because that hope that you won’t suck is something we all experience. Any time you start something new you dream of the possibility that you’ll be a “natural.” That maybe you won’t suck like you do at everything else in life.
But then you find out how wrong are. And that you’re pretty much the Wayne Gretzky of Team Suck.
Let me give you the most important life lesson of all: you will suck; you’re gonna suck at 99% of the things you do in life.
So when you feel that dark cloud of sucktitude beginning to rain on your parade, here’s the only mantra you need to repeat to yourself: So what? Now what?
Ok. So you suck at goblet squats. Now what (are you gonna do about it)?
You can either choose to suck and simper and blame whatever it is you want to blame.
You can snuggle up to that suck and say, “hey, I suck. That’s cool. This is new. But if I keep slowly trying to improve I can be better over time.”
Then you have to ask yourself “how can I improve?” You might even have to use the one four letter word that (it seems) no one ever wants to use: help.
Asking for help is not a weakness. Giving up and not even trying to get better is weakness.
Reaching out to someone who is better than you and asking them to help requries more strength than wielding a sword.
Whatever it is you’re trying to get better at — lifting weights, improving your nutrition, sewing, reading, your finances, etc. — there’s a two step process to getting better:
1) embracing the fact that you suck, but can get better over time; and
2) do not be afraid to ask for help.
Swords are made stronger by fire and hammer. Without the help of fire and hammer all you’re left with is a pile of iron. Which is basically a paper weight.
Don’t be a paperweight.
2. Defense is your offense
Look, I know nothing about fighting with swords. Saturday was my first time. But in the hours leading up to the tournament, my friend Dave taught me some basics. What’s interesting is that the best sword positions are both offensive and defensive.
Here’s a basic image I found online of the longsword stances.
The easiest way to describe the offense/defense is this: imagine there are two stick dudes dueling it out. One is in Plow guard.
And the other is in high guard.
And the stick dude in high guard decides to smash the other stick dude in the middle of his stick noggin. For the stick dude in plow to block this shot, he would move up to ox guard position.
By doing this, he not only blocks the incoming attack, but now he’s in a position that grants him an opening to attack his opponent if he thrusts the edge into his opponents chest.
Ask any coach of any sport on the planet about what wins championships, and they’ll tell you: dominating defenses. And if you have a defense that functions as offense as well, then your opposition is in real trouble.
Think about it:
- Automatically saving for retirement with a 401k: this is a defensive maneuver for those years when you’re not working and have very little income. But it’s also offensive because it’s automatic. You never have a chance to see that money and spend it. Instead, your 401k makes you money without you doing any extra work.
- Meal prep/planning: this is the ultimate defense against “eating out.” Without having meals decided beforehand, you’re more likely to succumb to the temptations of ordering pizza or whatever else Uber Eats can deliver to you. But meal prep is also offensive because it helps you battle the stress of “what do I eat?” If you already have meals planned, you’re saving precious mental energy for those times when your willpower is near empty.
- Cleaning your office/kitchen/house: only doing it once your space is already messy is an offensive strategy. But cleaning it daily or in little chunks (like cleaning your stove/kitchen after every meal you cook) is a defensive measure against clutter and grossness.
3. It’s starts from the bottom
Sword fighting sounds easy: take your sword and hit your opponent. Ok. So that involves my arms. Therefore sword fighting must be all about the arms and how much power you can create with them.
Wrong. So. Freaking. Wrong.
Syrio Forel was the wisest man no one (except Arya) ever listened to. Because if your foot work is shit, everything else will be shit.
When it comes to weight lifting or running, footwork matters so much more than you realize. Poor ankle mobility will lead to a terrible squat and deadlift.
For runners, how your foot strikes the ground in your stride can tell you a lot about what muscles you need to strengthen or if you’re gonna have issues in the long term.
Weak or poor mobility in the ankles are the first two things I look to improve for an online coaching client. Because if you get stronger from the bottom, it carries over to musculature at the top. Footwork is the foundation of sword fighting. But it’s also the foundation of lifting and running as well.
- Foot Supination (for runners who land on the inside of their feet with their stride)
- Ankle Mobility Stretch on 3 Planes
- Ankle Dorsiflexion
- Calf Raises with Toes Elevated
4. Mike Tyson was right
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
The first sword that connected with my headgear reverberated Iron Mike’s words throughout my skull.
You see, I had a plan; a very loosely based plan of “hit this motherfucker as hard as you can.” Which sounded like a great plan. Until I realized the other dude I was fighting also had the same plan.
But Robbie, didn’t you say having a plan is a defensive strategy above?
I did. And it is. But every plan will encounter resistance. You’ll even encounter the unknown variables that you didn’t know existed and could have never planned for.
This happens with my clients all the time. They start working with me but rarely consider:
- How their weekends are different than their weekdays
- The parties or social events they have on the calendar and how that affects their goals
- How friends and family will pressure them in subtle or not-so-subtle ways to “cheat”
- That changing their nutritional and exercise habits encourages that dark voice of doubt to speak louder than ever before
The final point above is the one that leads me to my half-point of what I learned.
You see, when you decide to start something “new,” — be it sword fighting, a business, eating healthier, or exercising — there’s one guaranteed thing you’ll encounter that wants to hold you back: Resistance.
4.5 What you do when you meet Resistance matters most
This is probably the biggest lesson I learned. And it occurred to me midway through my bouts, but the videos my friend Dave took of my fights drove it home even more.
How you respond to resistance when you’re met with resistance is the greatest determinant of your success.
When I look at the videos, here’s what’s obvious to me:
- strikes from opponents sent me retreating backwards, and I flailed at times leaving myself open to attack
- The sound of swords making contact startled me early on causing me to act instinctively and erratically (retreat mofo!)
- My defense was one-sided; I needed to follow through with my defensive maneuvers and not just “defend”
Look, I’ll admit it: minutes before we started Saturday, the Resistance in my mind was trying to find every reason not to sword fight. God, for a split second I even thought about faking an injury.
But I wanted to have this experience. I wanted to find out what I could discover about myself while connecting with my inner Tormund.
In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about the daily battle with “The Resistance”— an amorphous, cloaked entity that cannot be seen, only felt.
“We experience it (Resistance) as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
I had already conquered my Resistance by putting on my padded, armored jacket and helmet. I had already conquered that Resistance by standing in front of my opponent waiting for the referee to say “fight.”
But once I felt the physical resistance of an opposing blade, that’s when I freaked the hell out. The mental resistance was conquered. But it had transformed itself into something physical that my inner Resistance used to convince me that, “bro, you should just let them hit you so you can lose fast and be done with this.”
At the end of the day, I won a single match. I have no idea how that happened. But I’ll take it.
Still, it’s the battle with Resistance that has stuck with me since that day. Because we all experience Resistance.
How will you experience Resistance?
- When you think about starting a diet or going to the gym, but don’t.
- When you think about calling a counselor to seek help in your relationship or for your own mental health, but don’t pick up the phone.
- Signing up for a class to learn something, but you don’t do it because you don’t wanna look “dumb”
- Taking a stand for something you believe in, but don’t because you’re afraid of “what someone will think.”
That voice that speaks to you and convinces you to do nothing, that’s Resistance. And there’s only one way to defeat Resistance: you have to do whatever it is you’re afraid of doing.
You have to push past the Resistance to beat the Resistance.
Of course, that’s not what I did when I attempted to block an incoming strike.
I blocked attacks, sure. But I didn’t push into the incoming blade. I just blocked to block. I didn’t get offensive with my defense. What I needed to do was use more force — push past the incoming resistance — than what came at me. But hey, I was a rookie tossed into a trial by fire. So I’m okay with it at the end of the day.
But here’s what I want you to take away from my this: right now there’s a Resistance speaking it’s dark, twisted words of doubt in your ear.
- You’re a failure, don’t try and improve (insert your goal here)
- Your whole family is obese, accept it and move on—this is your fate.
- This didn’t work before, and it won’t this time. Why even try?
Whatever your Resistance may be, the only way to defeat it and win the battle is to push past it. Do the shit you’re afraid to do because that’s the only way to stop the Resistance. And ultimately, that’s the only way you can win your battle(s).