One thing I have yet to see in my short relationship with HEMA is discussions on the importance of getting body positions perfect. I think a lot of this is down to my expectations coming from a sport that places a huge importance on body position. Everything from the angle of your foot being slightly wrong to your shoulder being slightly dipped could be critical. I was taught to watch my opponent for these slight tells to let me know where they were going, or that they were tired and it could be exploited, or just that they had a bad habit that would expose them to something. Or it could be that it’s really not as important as I think it is so no one really puts much time into it. Most importantly I can’t sleep so thought I’d write something.
As I’ve covered before I’ve done a little bit of coaching and a lot of it includes quite a lot of detail in body position. It’s something I’ve become very used to watching for so tend to project the same thinking onto what I see in HEMA. Then this picture turned up a few times on my Facebook feed.
The general discussion was about how the guard between the styles depicted were very similar, just with small differences but to my eyes they were so very far apart.
First a disclaimer, I’ve never studied Kenjitsu and I think I have a total of 4 hours of longsword experience so can’t talk about how accurate the pictures are, if they were supposed to be used in similar ways or how “good” an example of the guards the pictures represent. But that’s ok as I don’t want to discuss any of those issues. I just want to talk about what I see as some massive differences between the two pictures and what I feel that would mean if you were using those two guards. I also don’t have a particular dog in this fight, I’m not trying to say that one is better than the other. I’m just going to point out what I feel are the effects of the differences as I see them.
Rather than try to cover all of the guards shown I’ve picked one that I think will work for the purpose of this little waffle.
The names given in the original of Chudan no Kamae and Pflug or Posta Breve are asking for a dyslexic guy like me to repeatedly type them incorrectly so I’m going to call them Red and Black.
As we can see Black is standing much taller than Red, whilst I don’t think this is the biggest difference it is the most obvious. You may think it doesn’t really matter but dropping your weight slightly lowers your centre of gravity and this impacts the speed at which you can move, or change direction. It also changes your leverage, if you get close enough to grapple your opponent being lower will usually make your life a lot easier. Being lower also gives you better balance, you are harder to push around.
But with the higher stance Black will be able to move around far more gently than Red, you can glide around the room from a tall position far easier than a low one. The taller stance is also putting far less strain on the big muscles in the legs making it easier to stay in this guard for long periods of time. This does go the other was as well because as Red has already engaged their leg muscles due to the stance they are using it will be easier for them to activate the muscles to generate either more force or more speed. The height difference is achieved, in part by the wider stance.
More so than the difference in height the difference in stance length is huge. Black has their feet very much inside the frame of their body where as Red has a very long stance. Whilst it is not clear fro the drawing I believe Red’s heels would be inline and I’m going to guess that Blacks are similarly close (if this is wrong and totally throws off my analysis please let me know). Red’s long stance makes it very strong in the direction of travel. The distance from the centre of gravity to their rear foot creates a strong brace allowing them to generate a lot of force into the ground with limited effort. With Black being upright a small amount of force would get them off balance, it’s only a short distance for their upper body to move to take it over their rear foot. This will either cause them to fall or more likely cause them to reset their feet. That’s not too bad though as the short stance allows for them to quickly move their feet without have to adjust their weight too much. It’s similar to I said above about being able to glide around easily. The tall and narrow stance works together.
Whilst Red is strong in the direction of travel they are weak when pushed from the side and if this happens it’s a much bigger task for them to move their feet. That great rear brace can’t support their weigh on it’s own and just picking up the front foot would cause Red to fall over. They would need to gather with a step, or possible jump (which has it’s own issues) to reset their stance. Black on the other hand has similar balance and strength in all directions and can just as simply reset to pressure in any direction.
So these two points combined really change what the guard is for and how you would use them. I imagine Red would be great for resisting a powerful attack from the front where as Black would be more use for dealing with multiple opponents. (Again disclaimer about not knowing either style, just grabbing an example to demonstrate the differences highlighted so far).
Looking at the head position we can see the theme continuing. Black has their head directly over the centre of gravity (The lines show from front of head to centre of gravity) allowing for their weight to be distributed evenly on both their feet (there may be a small weight shit to one foot or the other but it’s not clear form the picture, I doubt it’s a big shift if there is). This continues the theme of being able to move equally in all directions. Red on the other hand has their head significantly forward of the centre of gravity, this is pushing a lot of their weight forward onto the front leg. This puts them into a great position to attack forward from. The forward shifted weight will allow for a faster and more powerful attack forward no matter which leg they move. This comes with a disadvantage though as they will be slower in retreat. For them to be able to move backwards a speed and in control, they need to first shift their weight past their centre of gravity. This is not hard to do and can be done with speed but it effectively has an extra movement in the process slowing it down. No matter how quickly you are able to perform that movement it will always add to the total speed of your retreat.
Hips and Shoulders
Not only has Red got their weight forward they also look to have their shoulders and hips rotated to the inside, where as Black has their hips and shoulders more square. This again brings us back to the versatility of the stance that Black is in. By having your shoulders and hips square to your opponent it allows you to rotate in either direction with equal ease. As Red has turned their shoulders and hips inwards they will be able to move inwards quicker than they can move outwards.
It’s starting to feel like I’m just saying that Black has this lovely balanced stance but Red is in a terrible stance with limited movement but that is not what I’m seeing. Red is in a very strong aggressive stance, they are in control of their space and have picked a stance to deal with a specific threat. For it to be able to be strong in some ways it needs to compromise on others. Black’s stance though is very neutral, it is equally able to move in any direction but it does not have a specific strength. Each stance is the correct stance for a specific situation but those situations are very far apart. I assume that the styles that use these guards are tailored to use the specific advantages and disadvantages of the guards. As I said I don’t know, that’s not the point of this late night blog post.
No lines on this one, but it should be clear enough. To start with Black is holding the sword above their waist and away from there body. Red is holding theirs lower and closer. This will be using different muscles and like the legs this will make a difference. Black’s sword will be placing a strain on their shoulder muscles in a way that Red won’t have to deal with. But you’ve probably worked out that those muscles will be activated giving Black a slight speed advantage. Also with the blade held out from the body I imagine it will be far less restricted in which ways it can be effectively moved. With Red bringing their sword in close they have far less options on which direction they can move it.
The other difference I see is the gap between the hands, the longer that gap the greater leverage that can be applied which will impact the speed and control of the tip of the sword. I’m going to leave that area alone though as it’s not something I’ve covered in the various one handed swords I train with :-).
To me the biggest takeaway is that I don’t know enough about either style to understand why the guards are the way they are, or how they use them. I do hope though I’ve highlighted how what to some may look like a similar guard across two different styles may actually be very different guards used in very different ways.
To my eyes these two guards have far more in common than the two I looked at in this post.
So how does this matter in my training? These are extreme examples of how body position changes what you can do with a guard but even a small change comes at a cost. If your shoulders are not square when they are supposed to be then you can rotate one way quicker than the other. If your style expects you to ave squared shoulders and you don’t then other elements of the style may not work for you.
If the master you study believes you should have a long and narrow stance and has built the style around it’s strengths then by shortening your stance you may well be taking away some of the advantages your masted deliberately built into the style. (Also maybe not, unfortunately there is no one around to ask). They may have expected you to step with the ball of your foot, or the middle or heel of your foot hitting the ground first (not that the bothered to include it in their books) all of which changes the weight distribution of the step which has small implications on speed and power generation and balance.
The little details really matter but it’s very easy when teaching or coaching to only focus on the big details as they are easier to see and you get a bigger and more obvious improvement. The best coaches I’ve worked with though really care about the little details. It doesn’t mater if they are working with a raw beginner or a high level professional they will drill the importance of getting these little bits of body position perfect with every rep. To the beginner it makes little difference, they are still struggling with the big steps but if you don’t drill it then when they progress it will limit their upper ability level as they will have bad habits that they will need to unlearn for them to be able to progress.
The question to you then as a coach is what is more important, short term success in the students who have just come through the door. Or long term success in developing technically great practitioners at all levels in your school. One approach is not right and the other wrong and I imagine most people are already coaching in a nice balance between the two. Maybe someone at some point will be able to take a small part of this away and use it in a positive way, or maybe several people will be able to tell me about the massive mistakes I’ve made all the way through it and I’ll learn from it.
Either result would be a big win for me.