Training new HEMA fighters as judges

[note: I have thoughts at the bottom on how learning to judge can be used to improve your own fencing.]

Following on last night’s first intro to judging for a lot of folks, here’s an example of tournament judging from the Helsinki 2016 men’s final longsword.

Note the judges didn’t move constantly, but they did shift to keep an eye on the action. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re mentally focused on watching, and forget to step even once to the side, which may get you a better vantage point.

Julius reminded us that, last year in tournament, the call of “point” and “halt” usually followed the actual action by one tempo. Obviously, we train in order to tighten up the calls, make them sooner as our perception speed improves.

There aren’t really any clear-cut progressions for training judging skills. So for now, watch video footage in your spare time (Bryan does it while he works out on certain exercises). Try making your own calls. Just like in our basic single strikes and paired strikes, only practice spotting the first hit of all. Then practice spotting the first and second hit. Anything after that is thrown out, anyway.

Bear in mind that experienced fencers will tend to fight more cleanly, with at most a single hit each. Other fencers, especially aggressive ones, may rapid-fire 2-3 hits each, so practice spotting the very first hit of all. The brain is easily fooled into remembering the last hit and not the first hit.

In future, given time and interest, we could set up a judging-specific clinic wherein two fighters pre-arrange a particular action set, but not obviously which fighter will go first. e.g. Red strikes, Blue parries. It’s an antagonist drill, so Red may hit, or may not. Blue may parry, or even counter hit Red during the parry. They break, reset.

Judges then have to call the action. Fighters correct them if needed.


Fighters circle more, before and during the single action. forces judges to move to maintain line of sight to action.

Fighters agree to quickly fight through specifically two actions at a time. Then specifically three actions at a time. These will give judges a clear set-up to identify only the first hit landed by each fighter.

The next progression will be for the fighters to launch an unspecific number of actions between one and three. If the previous fixed scenarios have been effective, this stage should be relatively easy to adapt to, for judges.

Thoughts on using judging practice to improve your own fencing:

I’ll get the cheeseball tournament tactics out of the way first.

Develop situational/field awareness so that you can spot which judges have the most accurate eye for the action. Look for footwork and movement that will let you set up the action to play to those judges. If you only focus on tactically maneuvering against your opponent (which should be the real focus of a fight, yes), you may occasionally rob yourself of points b/c you happened to obscure the correct scoring action with your or your opponent’s body, relative to a judge’s point of view. Judges are supposed to move and keep up, but they don’t always.

Currently in HEMA, high hits have primacy. Under some rulesets (like the Nordic Historical Fencing League and, by extension, our related Purpleheart Open, as well as other events) score more (strike or thrust to head, thrust to torso). High strikes are also more visible — oberhau to the head, or thrust from Ochs to the upper chest. Unterhau strikes to the ribs or forearms and thrusts from Pflug tend to be obscured by the fighters’ bodies to at least one or two judges at any given time. Also, the visual traffic jam of four arms and two swords can itself confuse the issue as to whether the lower strikes landed or were parried/avoided.

For actual fighting and fencing skill improvement, use your judging practice to assess opponents.

When are they about to strike?
Where are they about to strike? High or low, left or right.
How are they about to strike? Long edge, short edge, thrust, winding, range transition to grapple, etc.
Is it a feint? From a distance, could you spot the set-up before the opponent spotted it? Watch the hips, shoulders, and hands/crossguard, especially hips/shoulders the faster and harder the opponents are fencing.
Having struck and/or parried, are they about to launch a follow-up action that may result in an afterblow?
Are both fighters about to launch first strikes that will double hit?
Are they coming out of a prior action into a double hit?
And at the last, absent the tournament judging aspect, situational awareness and higher hits have clear benefits for your actual training as well. It’s always good to know if you’re about to back into a wall or into uneven footing. Historically overhand strikes to the head, upper torso, and arms have greater frequency of emphasis. Underhand strikes to the same are also useful, especially as spoiling or follow-up attacks to strike to the opponent’s different windows/lines. And strikes (over or under) to the low targets (legs) were shown largely to demonstrate how to counter them. That implies that they were used, they were a threat, but they may not have been preferred b/c of the greater risk to your own head when striking to an opponent’s lower targets.

(This last bit is a generalization, as there are still a fair number of techniques that wind or strike to the lower torso or legs, as well as throws and takedowns to the same.)