While attending Iron Gate Exhibition 2014, a fellow instructor approached me with the following thought-provoking inquiry: "What would make you want to quit HEMA?" After a few minutes of conversation, it was made clear to me that this person approached me for one primary reason: compared to most of my opponents, I'm a midget.
As a fighter of relatively small stature, I've developed something of a reputation for approaching larger opponents with eagerness rather than timidity. Although it probably has a lot to do with the fact that there aren't a ton of us really short people in the HEMA scene at present, the fact that others see this as notable indicates the need for a broader conversation on the issue of how to encourage smaller fighters who may see larger opponents as intimidating and express a reluctance to engage with them in sparring or competition. As an instructor, I also have some experience on the other side of the fence; we've had more than one beginning student show lack of enthusiasm or even outright discouragement at the prospect of facing off with someone larger, stronger, or more aggressive. However, I've also seen many of these students overcome their physical and psychological barriers to become skilled, assertive fighters. Which brings me back to the conversation I had at IGX.
As it turned out, the instructor in question boasts an impressive 50-50 ratio of male and female fighters and takes on students as young as third graders. Commendably, he also takes measures to ensure that everyone can afford to pursue his or her passion for swords regardless of circumstances. Yet, despite these efforts, he is still struggling to retain timid students who fear drilling - much less sparring - with larger fighters. So his question to me was really "how can I motivate these fighters to stick around?" Until now, he has been actively preventing physically mismatched pairs from working together. While this may make sense as an initial approach to avoid scaring off beginners, it is not a valid strategy for long-term retention. So, in case there are other instructors out there experiencing similar dilemmas, I'd like to pass on the advice I shared at IGX.
First off, keep the environment supportive and safe. Don't let smaller or more timid fighters be ridiculed or bullied. Even words uttered in jest may be taken seriously and have a more damaging impact than one might intend or suspect. Smaller fighters should not learn to associate their size with feelings of shame, inadequacy, or weakness. Instead, they are challenges to overcome, hidden strengths to be developed, and physical realities to be accepted and worked with; they do not preclude anyone from becoming a strong, skilled, capable fighter. Reinforce this to your students, and teach them to view themselves and their statures in a positive, constructive light.
This also applies to physical bullying. Buffels who haven't learned appropriate force control and get an ego boost from bashing smaller opponents don't belong in sparring matches period, much less against timid fighters. Additionally, smaller fighters may need help finding adequate safety gear. Talk to your students and make sure that everyone is respectful, knows how to responsibly judge appropriate force levels, and will look out for everyone else in the club. You're all a big family; emphasize this culture. Which brings me to my next major point: communication. This is perhaps the single most important weapon in your arsenal when working with students.
Talk to your club at large and make sure that everyone knows to look out for their own safety. If a situation is concerning or feels unsafe, there is no shame in removing oneself from it, and in fact it is that person's responsibility to do so. Figure out why it's unsafe and work to fix the issue. Also make sure club members feel comfortable communicating with each other. It's okay to let your partner know if you don't have knee protection that day, if you're nursing an injury, if they're hitting hard enough to cause damage, or if the drill is getting too fast and intense for you to deal with- yet. Start slow and light; build up as the fighter grows more skilled and - more to the point - confident. Always push just beyond the limits of his or her comfort zone. Don't let your students stagnate due to intimidation, but don't push so hard that you scare them off. Moreover, express your confidence in them, and they will be motivated to work harder and live up to what you already know they can do. They may question their abilities, but if you demonstrate faith that they are capable and will do well, chances are they will give it a go.
DO NOT actively avoid pairing unequally sized fighters. Ultimately, the goal is to get these people sparring and - depending on their goals - competing. Even without competition, our arts teach defense against opponents you wouldn't have been able to choose back in the day. You still don't choose your opponents in modern competitions. As a practitioner of HEMA, you learn to use what resources you have, work with your strengths and limitations, and develop a fighting style that allows you to adapt to any opponent or situation you find yourself facing. Some techniques will work better for shorter people, others for larger people. As an easy example, shorter fighters will probably use an unterschnitt whereas larger ones will likely have more opportunities to apply an oberschnitt. If you're short, ox is your friend, whereas larger fighters will probably find their ribs attacked more often and their heads less, so might have better luck fighting from plow. Likewise, when facing aggressive fighters: when you go up against a buffel, no matter how short or tall you are, you sidestep. If you're already short, getting into an even lower stance makes you harder to reach and gives you easier access to an opponent's ribs and legs.
There are loads of techniques in Wallerstein that cater to smaller fighters. Nathan Grepares offers a great seminar instructing shorter fighters in how to deal with height differences. Bottom line: instead of enabling these individuals to avoid intimidating situations and preventing this vital part of their growth as a fighter, work to make the situations less - or not - intimidating. Identify particular issues they may be having and arm them with the tools to deal with them effectively. The other part of this is that, by actively preventing them from facing larger or more aggressive opponents, you are expressing an extreme non-verbal lack of confidence in their ability to face and prevail against these "intimidating" fighters. You're building up the intimidation factor and reinforcing their doubts in their own ability to cope with such fighting styles. You are also compounding the safety issue, since they will be in more danger not knowing how to defend themselves against such opponents when the need arises. On the other hand, if you put them against fighters of all sizes and styles but do so in a controlled setting and instruct them in how to deal with the inherent challenges, you will be teaching them to have confidence in themselves, achieve things beyond what they thought they were capable of, and grow into skilled and experienced fighters who can defend themselves and perform well in class and competition. This is how you retain all students. You teach them to be more than they were before, and you teach them what they are there to learn. You challenge them; you help them to grow as individuals and martial artists. This applies not only to small, timid students; it is a common principle that applies to ALL students.
Last but not least: every individual is different. This is why it is so important to keep lines of communication open. Be encouraging, but don't force the person to do something they don't genuinely want to do. What is he or she looking to get out of the experience? Are they there for social reasons? Just to stay in shape? To learn the historical aspects of swordsmanship? To become a serious international competitor? To learn self-defense? The potential reasons are endless, but having this information will help you ensure that their needs are being met. Maybe the person has zero interest in fighting competitively. That's okay. It doesn't mean you can't encourage them to try it out, but don't pressure them if it's something that causes them stress and not enjoyment.
On the other hand, would they really like to compete but are afraid they won't do well? Are they concerned about getting injured? Perhaps having access to additional protective gear would help them feel more comfortable. How about going over some tournament videos ahead of time and preparing via coached sparring? Entering into a nylon tournament before trying a steel? Skipping fighting altogether the first time and observing, staffing, or competing in forms or cutting? If you invited them to come be your coach while you fight, would they come? Be respectful of the individual and their needs and desires. Be supportive and encouraging. Be confident in their ability to learn and do well. Most of the time, your fighters will stick around. And if they don't, then maybe he or she didn't belong in the first place. Maybe trying out sword fighting was a novelty, but they're really into Tae Kwon Do, or roller derby, or knitting. And that's okay, too. You learned something, they learned something, and just maybe they'll send you their friends.