Keeping Cutting In Perspective

When people talk about the sportification of HEMA, they are usually talking about how people fight in tournaments. They rarely talk about cutting, but sportification can creep in to that as well. I continually take steps within my own school and the tournaments I manage to encourage real martial application in cutting, and I will be making further changes to the Longpoint tournament this year to continue aligning competitors towards that goal.

When I set out to bring cutting to US HEMA, the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was convincing people that cutting was relevant to historical European fencing. The second biggest obstacle was making cutting something that people actually wanted to do. My priority was to get people doing it and then worry about the details later. As part of that plan, the cutting tournament at Longpoint is constantly evolving to address the problems I see cropping up in the community. Thus, the tournament in 2016 will be designed to bring an enhanced awareness of how cutting tatami translates to what would have been effective cutting technique in the middle ages. Also, it will attempt to weed out sport cutters.

Sportification in cutting is simple to understand if you know the purpose of cutting practice and how it applies to the art of fencing. For those who don't, I'll provide a simple explanation. Sport cutting is focusing on the medium in the competitions, tatami, rather than on using that medium to demonstrate effective martial cutting technique, just like sport fencing is focusing on training to use a feder or blunt to fence in protective gear, rather than to use a historical weapon in a historical context. For example, consider the stacked tatami feat in the Longpoint 2014 and 2015 cutting tournament finals, where double rolled mats were stacked on top of each other. Competitors had to strike down into the mats and maintain a straight trajectory, with the object of severing as many mats as possible without allowing the sword to turn. This demonstrates your ability to not only deliver sufficient power and velocity to cut deeply into a dense object, but your ability to maintain that power, along with an even grip and proper structure throughout the cutting arc (this is called follow-through).  If you've seen the livestream for either of those years, you saw how much mental preparation was required by every competitor and, most importantly, how people who were effortlessly cutting through single standing tatami mats and making it look easy faltered when faced with this challenge (particularly in 2015 when no one did well).

What do you think is closer to a clothed human body? A single tatami mat, or the stacked mats feat? And even then, do you think a double rolled tatami mat (which is what the stack consisted of) is nearly as thick or as dense as a human torso? And why did people who are so good at single mats falter so badly when faced with a more realistic challenge?

The trend in cutting tournaments has been to add fancier and more difficult cuts using single tatami mats. On the West Coast, they focus on random patterns signaled to the competitor with semaphores. On the East Coast, the trend has been to follow along with Longpoint, but to skip the more complicated multi-mat feats. The problem with this trend is that focusing on increasing difficulty using a single mat creates a training focus on cutting single tatami mats, and single tatami mats are not representative of any portion of a historical cutting target (a clothed human being).

In the past, I have used the Longpoint cutting tournament to steer change in cutting practices without providing much of an explanation as to the how and why. But cutting tournaments have proliferated to such an extent that cutting in HEMA is completely out of my control. Longpoint is still the premier cutting tournament in the world, but it alone can no longer dictate the direction that cutting in HEMA takes. I hope that event organizers and tournament managers will make an attempt to understand the nature of the changes I will be making, and why I will be making them. Some of the new challenges will focus on measuring consistent trajectory and follow-through in a way that single mats cannot. I will release details as the challenges are tested and perfected, along with video demonstrations and explanations. More importantly, this will be the first in a series of articles designed to impart a greater understanding of the role of cutting in martial training and how competition can drive that training in the right direction. A lot of material for these articles will come from my cutting mechanics book, which I hope to have finished before Longpoint.

Individual practitioners can also make positive changes in their own training. The key thing to keep in mind is that cutting is not separate from general fencing practice. Cutting tatami is not a distinct skill. Every time you swing a sword, you should be practicing cutting. If you train for cutting tournaments by ordering a ton of tatami mats, if you overswing (or otherwise allow your form to suffer) when you cut tatami, or if your body mechanics (how you move) are different when you're cutting than when you're fighting, you're probably a sport cutter or at least solidly on that path. Cutting physical targets is supposed to be calibration, not practice. It is best to practice in air, using the sound of edge alignment as your guide, and then calibrate using tatami to identify and correct mistakes while maintaining the same exact body mechanics that you use in fencing.

There are assorted reasons for training based on the sound, "sword wind" or tachikaze in Japanese, that are far too complicated to get into in a short article, but simplest is that it allows you to practice a full cutting stroke with a straight trajectory as opposed to the sort of short cutting stroke you need to get through a few inches of wet straw. There is also simple human nature to consider. When faced with a concrete task (in this case cutting single tatami mats) and practicing for that task, we will, consciously or otherwise, gear our body mechanics toward that task.

When you do calibrate, don't use swords that are too easy to cut with unless you're just starting out, and don't ever use swords that are too hard to cut with. Tatami is only useful as a calibrator if it provides the full scope of feedback of which it is capable. Using something that is inappropriate to that task compromises this feedback and hurts your development.

The most important thing is, for the sake of the art, please don't train for tournaments. Don't train to cut tatami. Don't use swords that you know are too easy to cut with, or too hard. Stay true to your art, and train to use your sword in a historically correct manner. Let the cutting tournaments be tests of your technique, not an avenue for you to earn fleeting and baseless glory.