Protection and Pain: Finding the Balance


In the picture above you can see two Valkyrie coaches going at with Cold Steel plastic Bowie trainers, and wearing partial High Gear body armour suits. High Gear suits are awesome. We are incredibly lucky to have a pair of these suits at the school. Each suit provides a set of wrist-to-instep protection that is guaranteed to keep you safe from injury while sparring with full intent. So why are we wearing only partial suits in this photo?

What makes the High Gear suits valuable, as explained on their website, is that they prevent injury but they don’t prevent pain. So if I punch you in the face while you are wearing the helm, you won’t get a broken nose. But your head will rock back and you will feel like you just got punched in the face. You will not enjoy it. But you won’t be injured.

Why is this a useful thing? For a martial artist, it’s the perfect balance between protection and realism. When I hit my sparring partner in the face, I get excellent feedback about what happens when I hit someone. I can see how the head snaps back, and about how the body curls up and instinctively turns away a little bit. I get a great sense of how I need to follow up my attacks, and I would not get that if we did non-contact sparring. The timing and tempo would be all wrong. At the same time, I have a hugely vested interest in not getting punched back, because it really, really hurts. But at the end of the session neither of us in any worse for the wear.

We are wearing partial suits because even though the pain is transmitted fairly well, you can eventually get used to it and start ignoring it. And the mass of the suits, as light as they are, still affects your fight and your body mechanics. It’s an artificial thing, and as such can add artifacts to your fight game that you might not want showing up in the event of a real altercation. In the above drill, we’ve added slaps to the face and knees to the body as counters we want to work on, so for this drill we have added just enough armour to protect the parts we expect to be hit, to allow realistic strikes.

When I started in the SCA doing rapier, the armour standards were pretty stringent. You had to be covered head-to-toe in tear resistant clothing. Your torso, inner thighs and biceps down to the extent of the exposure of the femoral and brachial artery, had to covered with puncture resistant clothing. There was even a test for this, using a device that had to be constructed to exact standards. I just accepted that as the way things were and all was good.

But then as I got more exposure to the wider world of the SCA and learned about it’s history and how it was being practiced outside of my little corner, things got clearer. When SCA rapier had started, people were using modern olympic foils and epee blades to fight with. Since the whole point of the organization was to at least try to look non-modern in your clothing, no one wanted to wear proper fencing jackets. Now, this is a truly risky thing because part of the game was using foils and epee’s to throw cuts, which was something they were never designed to do. If you don’t know, a broken foil or epee is truly a lethal weapon. It’s killed people. So yes, stringent requirements were made for clothing that would provide equivalent protection to proper fencing jackets.

Now the fun thing for me, is that in my little area, we never used foils or epees to fence with. Early on someone had discovered schlager blades could be purchased, and later a fantastic sparring blade from Del Tin was introduced and widely accepted. On the cheap, for a while people made do with fiberglass blades covered in duct tape. Horrible, but that was how things were. Nary an epee to be seen.

So why the hell were we (and still are) forced to wear armour intended to protect us against broken foil blades? Modern rapier simulators don’t break into jagged slivers of steel, they break into a flat, blunt screwdriver shape. It will still penetrate a body, but requires significantly more force. And much less protection is required to stop it.

The full body, no skin exposed coverage? It’s not durable enough to protect against a puncture by broken foil. I can only imagine the intent is to stop scratched and superficial cuts. I’m sure many people care about cuts and scratches while fencing, but…some of us don’t. We also don’t mind bruises. Absolutely we mind dying, or going blind! But yes, it did irritate me to no end to be told I couldn’t fight because the sleeve of my shirt could be pulled up enough past my gauntlets to expose a little bit of forearm flesh to the ravages of a blunt blade.

Which leads me to what I consider appropriate protective gear for rapier fencing.

And I would have to say, it not only depends on context, but that it should also vary.

When I’m coaching one-on-one, my preference would be a heavy leather welding jacket, leather apron, and good rigid martial arts body protection pad. I want my students hitting me with speed and intention, hundreds if not thousands of time during a coaching session. And I might be running many sessions during the day. If I’m working on drilling a specific entry with a student, I will also not be doing the normal defensive fade and shuffle I habitually do that reduces the oomph of incoming blows. I want to survive that, so…yeah. As armoured as I can be. I’m mostly a punching bag for this sort of training, anyway.

When I’m bouting friends? If we are working on things, or trying each other out…mask and gorget will do. Generally we wear clothes but whatever. I know I’m going to get bruises and maybe some blood, but I’m okay with that. If I get hit I will feel pain. I am seriously unlikely to get injured. If we are pushing our limits a little, we are also working on our defense as much as our offense and bluntly you need some fear to do that.

Drills in class? Depends on the lesson. If we are working finicky technical things, no protective gear. I want the students paying attention and never neglecting that they are at risk. I also want them constantly thinking of how even a blunt rapier can hurt their friend. Awareness of wounding and risk is important, and is never supposed to be a one-sided thing. If I want students to pay attention to a particular thing, and not be distracted by awareness of risk as much, I will have them put on masks. If we are doing speed drills, full gear. Competition drills? Extra padding because everyone is going to take repetitive hits and I want them working on a thing and not feeling fear for these techniques.

Tournament? Do I know and have fought everyone? Are the stakes low? Gorget and Mask. Buncha people I don’t know, high stakes, possible bad blood? Gorget, mask, fencing jacket or equivalent…for students I might reccomend additional padding. And honestly don’t fight if there is bad blood or potential temper eruptions. Tournaments are sport, no sport is worth dealing with situations or people like that.

Multiple hits/afterblow/other stuff tournament? Fencing jacket, extra padding, and some rigid protection where bone is close to skin. With less fear, people commit more and with a compound pace there will a commiserate change in control. Chaos will happen, and stupid also has a higher chance of happening.

I think to make a good fencer, the fencer should be well versed in the full continuum of fear. They should bout when they dread a slight touch, and they should bout when they blow off a shot or two in order to complete the technique/s they intend to land.

My context of training fencers is to prepare them for an actual fight with sharps, and in that context it makes no sense to let them specialize in any one format.

On top of all that you must think about weapon selection and alterations for safety, but that will another post for another day.



April 9 Tournament Wrap-up


Valkyrie had it’s first tournament just a little less than two weeks ago. Results can be found on our facebook page, and I talked about the format in a previous blog post. It’s been enough time that I’m able to put together some thoughts about how it went, and what we will change with the next one.

We had 214 or so fights, and no injuries beyond the usual colourful bruises, scrapes and occasional bit of blood from a scratch. There was no conflict or bad feelings to be noted in the entire tournament. We only had three problems surface around the bouts themselves. Two where resolved on the spot to the satisfaction of both the fighters and the audience, and the third caused some mumbles afterwards but didn’t affect the fight at the time. One fight missed being tallied and included in the fighters totals at the end, and unfortunately meant they missed an opportunity to have a playoff for the championship of their category.

Moving forward as organizers, we will make some changes.

Tallying the fights will be done in a quiet room away from the fighters. Apparently people wanted to check the results can make the person counting the fights feel like they are under a bit of pressure, and that can result in making mistakes.

Now that we have a better sense of how long the fights will last, we will slow the pace down a little to allow for smoother reporting and a little more time for announcements of winners online and to the audience.

We’ll also be changing the wording of our rules, and how we explain them ahead of time. The rules were close enough to how some schools normally do things that some of the fighters didn’t pick up on an essential difference, and because of that we wound up reversing the decision of one fight after video review. I don’t know if we were lucky it only happened once, or unlucky that it didn’t happen more frequently which might have given us an opportunity to clarify things on the day.

Things that really worked?

Fight cards. Having each fighter have a printed “dance card” at the records table, and having each fighter initial the results of their bouts immediately after helped immensely in cutting down on errors. Going over the cards the next day and seeing the crossings out and rewrites made me smile, as I’ve suffered before from a list person miss-reporting a number of my fights in a tournament. It’s a sucky way to lose.

Calling on the fighters at the beginning of the tournament to behave like mature adults, call their own shots received, re-fight at the slightest doubt around the outcome, and call back bad blows worked extremely well. Having the top competitors being very experienced SCA fighters made a big difference, as they were able to provide excellent examples of the behavior I wanted to see. The referees and single judge (me) were able to swiftly answer and doubts the fighters had about what had happened…which mostly meant a swift answer of “Re-fight!”

Splitting fighters into categories based on tournament experience, not on technical ability. Because tournament fighting is a skill. This worked really well. There were no real blowouts or people getting stomped. Each category showed tight clustering of wins/losses, and it was very apparent watching the bouts that the fighters were all universally well matched to each other. This made for interesting bouts and lots of involvement in the bout itself. It was also really fun to match lower categories against upper categories for some of the bouts, because when the surprise upset came…as it did on occasion…it was a really cool thing that people enjoyed.

Not punishing double kills. Without punishment, the double-kills ceased to have any effect on the tournament, and as such stopped being any sort of tactic or back-handed reward. By not putting much attention on the double kill, fighters seemed to be better able to get their game in order after and work to put in a clean shot.

Single pass, single touch to win. I don’t believe any tournament can replicate all the facets of a real duel, so it’s worthwhile having formats that specialize in different aspects. Single pass, single touch puts an immense amount of pressure on the fighter to not get touched, no matter what. You don’t have a pass or two to throw away in order to get a sense of your opponent, either. You have to judge what you see in front of, make a decision with haste, and then decisively act on that decision. In this case, it made for very clean fights with very clear winners.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. We will definitely be running these tournaments regularly, and keeping an updated an ongoing roster of fighters, results, and videos. And a few other fun related things will be announced in the next month or two.


Habitus: Or Why SCA Rapier Is Awesome…And Why SCA Rapier Sucks.

Sparring with Henry

Clearly I’m a little proud of my SCA rapier background. I had access to a number of seriously talented fencing teachers and dedicated historians, and came from an area with a history of turning out some of the best rapier fighters in the world. That said, I’ve also seen some horrible rapier fencers in the SCA.

For the majority of the training time, the training is identical between the great fighters and the shit fighters. Training consists of armour up and fight whoever is there to train with you. Period.

On the surface, we are seeing pure Darwinian evolution at work. The naturally good fighters rise to the top, and everyone else either drops out or reaches a certain stable point of usually very low skill and stays there. If an area has good fighters, it’s because random chance caused a pocket of genetic freaks to collect in that spot. If an area produces bad fighters, bad genetics are to blame.

And maybe that is what is going on. I think there is something else happening, and it has interesting implications for teaching rapier outside of the SCA.

I think the secret has to do with the difference between how children learn and how adults learn, and something called Habitus.

Kids learn from doing the right thing and being praised for it at the right time. Adults learn from trying to do things that are way beyond their comfort level. BTW, if you want cites for that, too damn bad. This is a blog post, not an academic paper, so go do your own research.

SCA rapier practice is excellent at adult instruction. Routinely, you are given a few brief lessons on how to hold a sword and how to stand, taught the safety rules…maybe a rudimentary footwork drill and some parries. And then you are out on the fighting floor. Right away you have to try and put all those pieces together and try to hit some other guy. All they while trying not to get hit. And the guy you are fighting might be either a current inter-kingdom champion, or someone as new as you.

The brain works really hard under those circumstances. It’s an immersion learning process coupled with the swift darwinian filter of being hit with a sword. With the right stimulus…damn straight you can make an excellent fighter.

Quality of opponent certainly effects the training outcome, but with nothing a more thoroughly taught rapier fighter would consider training, never mind drilling, happening, how is it that some fighter develop notable styles? And those styles are easily seen to be not only transmissible, but effective in bouting. With the huge variety of opponents fought, each fighter should exhibit unique styles. They don’t. Experienced fighters can tell in a heartbeat where someone is from, when they started training and often who trained them. How?

Imagine three people standing side by side. Let’s make them clones. Identical musculature for our purpose. Identical builds (their training has not affected their muscle development different from one another) and length of training. One clone is a boxer. One is a wrestler. One is a ballet dancer.

Do you imagine all three of our clones standing the same? Walking the same? Lounging on the couch or arguing with a drunk the same? We don’t, and in reality we would not see them do these things the same, because they will have incorporated the Habitus, the physical mannerisms of not only their practice, but of those they practice with and are inspired to imitate. We feel a physical camaraderie with the people we train with because we all share some postural habits in common. In our movements and in our fighting we echo each other. This is rarely directly trained.

The habitus you incarnate has a powerful effect on your style. This is hugely important in rapier, where small ticks or habits can result in large openings in your game. When you train with the same partners all the time habitus can be detrimental if it is not effective for a style, because the bad habits become ingrained. This happens because the habitus is subconscious, and because it is a group marker, we ignore it. We tend to not exploit what we see as a signal of pack-membership. But fighting outside of our local pack, everything is fair game.

Tempers often flair in cross-group bouting, because people are being struck in ways that they are unused to. It’s outside of their experience and may feel unfair. Some fighters get angry, some tend to dismiss the blows. If someone has a habitus that naturally exploits the habitus of others, they may gain an inflated sense of ability while lacking a technical foundation to back it up.

Some SCA habitus is excellent, and some is quite poor. The HEMA world considers it’s technical training superior, but it lacks the inherent understanding of habitus as a powerful tool of transmission of skill. The downside of recreating an art from historical manuals is that there is no habitus to re-create, and it must be assumed from training partners. If the practitioners comes from a sport or classical fencing background, or Asian martial art style, we might see this habitus carry over. Lacking the deep immersion shock learning method of the SCA, it’s entirely possible to inculcate a habitus that has no real applicability to martial application.

Moving forward, SCA rapier can certainly benefit from picking up training habits from their HEMA/WMA fellows. And the HEMA/WMA world should be looking to the multi-decades experience of the SCA fighters to find varied habitus that might be of great value to keeping their art viable in future.

Blow Calling and Context


When I started in the SCA, lo those many years ago, things were great. We had what felt like a unified approach to dealing with how to acknowledge hits from rapiers, and it had been tested out over time and found to be good.

The context was first blood duel, assumed light shirts/clothing worn, and a sword pointed and sharp on both edges. You call the shot landed on you if you felt it, regardless if you thought it was good or not, and the other guy would tell you if it was actually good or not. Honourable and adult conduct was to be assumed at all times.


The idea behind this is that you can’t always tell how you’ve been hit, especially with a sharp. People who have been stabbed for real can back this up, as they mostly think they’ve been hit with a very light punch or two. You can see lots of video where someone gets stabbed, wanders around for a bit all confused, and then collapses. The person attacking you in the SCA context should have, if anything, a better idea of how their shot landed than you will. They know their own edge alignment and intent.

If we assume honourable conduct, this works pretty well. There was a strong social structure in place to indoctrinate people into this habit, and scold/correct bad behaviour.


About the time I started, a lot of other people did as well. SCA rapier was growing by leaps and bounds, and the prevalence of actual steel rapiers, as opposed to fiberglass simulators or modern epee’s helped tremendously. With growth came inevitable problems.

Down South, they had problems with people flailing about. The problem folk were happy to land any kind of slop, and reluctant to call it back.

Up North, we had problems with people ignoring shots. Problem folk seemed happy to ignore any shot they could get away with ignoring.

In time, North and South dealt with the problem folk. As a consequence of how they dealt with the issue, South developed a habit of ignoring sloppy shots, or actively calling out anything they received that they thought was sloppy. North got into a habit of calling absolutely anything, even things they thought may have touched, but didn’t feel. All worked fine and well.

Until North met South. North was very proud of it’s skill in cutting attacks, and had made them a core of it’s fighting style. South was wary after their run in with problem folk. So…South started to ignore cuts from North, and questioned every blow. North saw this as the South being just another one of it’s problems, and responded by throwing more cuts to make the attacks clearer.

Tempers flared. At one point, I swore to never cross the border south and fence ever again. I had too many run ins with rhino-skinned fighters, some who would take injuries and still tell you your blow was invalid. North complained about South never taking shots, and South complained about North hitting to hard…and both sides accused the other of not following the rules, nor understanding there intent.


To be clear here, the good and the exceptional fighters in both North and South had no problem with fighting with each other. We understood the context and had experience with each other, and our bouts with each other were fought with mutual understanding. But when we fought the new or problem fighters, problems occured. Serious problems. When we got together to discuss and change rules and how to implement them, fighters that were in agreement in bouts got in heated arguments about interpretation, each side defending it’s unspoken worry about it’s own problem children. Each side started to see the other side as promoting the worst of bad behaviour, and couldn’t understand why the other side was being so dense about it.

The problem between North and South was caused by issues within their own sides, and each side’s effort to correct it’s own problems caused a clash when the two sides met. Instead of explaining their reasoning, and the issues that had caused them to come up with the solutions they did, each side dug in it’s heels about being right. Without context, there was pointless conflict.

When you move to defend your own position, it’s very easy to see the other side as being the worst example. Two good fighters from either camp can fight and see no difference in how each interprets blows, but once the spoken positions are out in the open, might find themselves in violent opposition, and accusing the other of making a farce out of their noble game.

I’m pretty sure I could fence any rapier fighter in the world (who isn’t a jackass, and yes I know there are some) for an afternoon, and we’d have a good time and have no issues disagreeing about who killed each other with what shot. Weapons dictate use, and in many ways dictate the social habits we incarnate as we bout. I’ve fought martial artists from all over the world, armed and unarmed, many style and weapons, and disagreement is rare. Not extremely rare, but rare. The more in common our weapons are, the rarer disagreement.

But online? I fear we aren’t too far away in the HEMA/WMA rapier world from calling one side thugs with shit control and no sense of how to use a real sword, and the other side a bunch of pansies afraid of getting hit and having no idea of how to attack with commitment. Which is complete and utter bullshit. And if we don’t stomp on it now, we are going to breed disdain and hatred between groups. Most especially when those groups are thousands of kilometers apart, and will only rarely get the chance to cross blades and really understand each other.

So you can make assumptions about what other people do, and have one side see you as an unredeemable ass while your side might cheer you on, or you can try to understand that even though someone else might do something that seems different from what you do, it might have a very sound reasoning for being that way…and if you had the chance to meet and bout, you might find those differences insignificant in reality.



Tourney Time


The bulk of my rapier training, before moving into full-time teaching, was for tournament fighting. At my peak, I think in a two year period I hit about 70 tournaments. Never won one, but towards the end I had a consistent habit of second place or at least in the finals. The preceding years saw greater and greater participation. My life was focused around competing and training for competing, and my marriage(s) and work history do reflect that. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time to make a five hour round trip to Seattle for a chance to spend half an hour sparring new people, and then head to Oregon that weekend for what amounted to about two minutes of sword time in a tournament.

I admit to getting a little burned out on tournaments. I no longer have the fire to compete, and have found new challenges to keep me focused on improving. My interest in rapier competition cost me a lot, but I also clearly recall the benefits. They’ve carried me firmly forward in life with no regrets on that score.

Vancouver is an interesting city. We have a deep history of Western Martial Arts practice, with many exceptional practitioners. But the tourney scene has sort of died stillborn each time something was tried. Part of it is a sense of wariness about other schools and reputations, same as in any martial art. Another aspect is a sense of sameness. The community feels small and there is no fun or adventure in competing against the same people all the time.

The problem is competitions are, and always have been, the best way for schools to meet each other. It’s the best way to share what we know, without the ego of arguing who knows better. We fight, and win or lose, we adapt to each other. We are changed by the experience and we walk away a different person, carrying some part of the others style with us. Without this exposure, each school becomes more and more of an isolated and entrenched island, and protectionism becomes an insidious aspect of teaching.

It’s time for Valkyrie to host a tournament, and I hope we can get the tourney scene in Vancouver kicked back into life. I want for my students all the benefits that competition taught me. Our first tournament is tomorrow.

Choosing a format took some thinking. I’ve fought in almost every tournament format imaginable, as have most SCA fighters. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. For our tournament, I wanted to try something new.

The tournament rules are built around the fighters having the best possible experience. The initial assumption is that all fighters are either mature adults, or willing to act as such. The adjudication in bouts is intended to support this, not overrule.

A bout is won when a blow is landed to the satisfaction of both fighters. Both fighters must feel that the telling blow was one they were happy to win with or lose to. Fighters will call blows that landed on them, and the fighter that landed the blow is responsible for declaring misaligned cuts or other invalid attacks. Fights will be to assumed first blood, and the blow calling standard will be assumed to sharp swords against light cloth. Fighters that have not had a chance to try using a sharp against an appropriate carcass will be calibrated before the bouts begin.

Ignoring shots landed, refusing to call back bad shots, excessive force, and other bad behaviour will result in ejection from the tournament. There may or may not be a warning issued first.

The referee/judges exist to provide necessary feedback to the fighters, and to ensure a smooth flow of action. If the fighters are unsure of what happened, or have different opinions of what happened, they will either receive clarification or direction to re-fight. The gold standard for a good blow is that a spectator from across the room should immediately know who won and who lost.

Fighters will be fighting with their best weapon combination, or single sword as preferred.

Aside from the conventions of the fight, the tournament format is designed to showcase not just the fighters, but there struggles and accomplishments over their fight career. It’s my hope to have quarterly tournaments under the same format, and the results of the previous tournament determine initial ranking in the current tournament. I want to create fans of rapier fighting, so I hope to give them the tools that fans of other sports have…anticipation of good match ups, win/loss statistics to track, ability to recognize when someone is on a tear, or when a major upset has happened and when to cheer for an underdog. I’m heavily inspired by the Sumo Basho’s for this.

Fighters have been sorted into categories based on their tournament experience rather than their technical ability. Each category of fighter will fight amongst themselves. Fighters with majority wins will be promoted up the ranks in their category, and majority losses will be demoted. Exceptional performance will be rewarded with promotion up a category, and a poor showing may result in a fighter being demoted a category. New categories will be added as more fighters join the tournament series. There will be a winner for each category as well as an overall winner.

The first pairings have already been announced on Facebook:

Round One
Category One:
1. Holmfeld vs. Olmedo
2. Nelson vs. Kittel

Category Two:
1. Persad vs. Chiu
2. Ring vs. Both
3. Van Humbeck vs. Sadowski
4. Fernandes vs. Rice*

Category Three:
1. Chan vs. Grassick
2. Smit vs. Wemyss
3. Litchfield vs. Hoffman

Round Two
Category One:
1. Nelson vs. Cat2Winner1
2. Kittel vs. Cat2Winner2
3. Olmedo vs. Cat2Winner3
4. Holmfeld vs. Fernandes*

Category Two:
1. Loser1 vs. Loser2
2. Loser3 vs. Chan*

Category Three:
No fights this round.

Pairings will continue this fashion for a total of 15 rounds. Category One and Two fighters will fight 15 fights, Category Three fighters will fight 8. There will be a winner in each category, the fighter with the most victories, and if need be there will be playoffs.

Winners and next round pairings will be announced on social media as they happen, and I’ll post the full results here afterwards.

On Making My Martial Arts School a “Safe Space”

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Kaja(s)words. Kaja Sadowski is an instructor and co-owner at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly.

A rainbow of boxing wraps at VWMAA

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “safe spaces”. Between constant articles about coddled university students who want to be protected at all costs from the real world, a recent blowup in the online HEMA community about letting Neo-Nazis air their views in martial arts forums, and the needs I’ve seen brought up in my local community in the wake of a disastrous Women’s Self-Defense news segment, there’s been ample opportunity to reflect on how we’ve chosen to mold our own space at Valkyrie WMAA. From the start, we’ve taken a pretty hard line on diversity and discrimination: we’ve got a clear and strict anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy; actively shut down unwelcoming behaviour among students and visitors; and have made serious efforts to make the space accessible and welcoming to everyone, from gender-neutral bathrooms and changerooms, to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and training areas, to the prominently-placed pride flag in our front window.

It’s easy to ascribe our stance to the fact that co-owner Courtney and I are both women (and one of us a queer woman), or to leftist politics. I mean, we put out faux “feminist propaganda” posters for International Women’s Day, and have been quite vocal in our support of LGBT rights and anti-discrimination initiatives within our community. I’m not going to deny that those things factor into my business choices, but the main reason for wanting to run Valkyrie WMAA the way we do is a simple, pragmatic, and apolitical one: I want my students to learn.

It’s really very straightforward. I’m a martial arts instructor. My job – my calling – is to train my students in my chosen arts. I aim to impart a complex range of technical knowledge that extends from precise motions of the body and blade, to global movements and body awareness, to high-speed tactical decision-making. It’s physically challenging, and mastery demands a lot of the human body. It’s also often psychologically challenging, as it pushes students to deal with their reluctance to harm others, and to negotiate their relationship with violence. This stuff is hard. Very hard. And, as the owner and operator of a school, an integral part of my job is creating an environment in which my students can best learn all of this very hard stuff.

If a female student is worried about whether the guy she’s partnered with is going to hit on her again, or “accidentally” grab her breast, or refuse to hit her in drills, she can’t focus on her training. If an Asian student feels like he has to prove he’s not a bookish stereotype, or has to put up with constant shitty Kung Fu jokes, he can’t focus on his training. If a queer student is anxious about how their fellow students will react when their partner comes to pick them up after class, or a transgender student is stuck worrying they’ll be called out for using the “wrong” bathroom or misgendered by their training partner, they can’t focus on their training. All of these students end up in a position where their learning suffers, because they can’t put 100% of their energy and effort into their training and instead have to deal with the background noise of harassment and discrimination. If I put them in that position, I have failed them as an instructor.

In martial arts in particular, this matters even more, because the vast majority of our training is partnered. Not only do we work together with our fellow students during drilling, but a substantial portion of that drilling involves hitting and being hit by your partner. If you cannot trust them to use force appropriately, and to both keep you safe and take your training needs seriously, you cannot learn. We place an enormous amount of trust in our training partners, and being paired with someone who doesn’t reward that trust can end in serious injury at worst, and a miserable training experience at best.

By actively and aggressively building my school into a safe space for all students, I’m simply ensuring that they can learn. This, at its core, is what “safe spaces” are really about – they are spaces where everyone can cast aside the weight of everyday life (whether that’s poverty, suffering, and discrimination, or the smaller annoyances of bad traffic and irritating co-workers) and focus entirely on the task at hand. In my school, that task is learning physical and mental skills that may well help my students cope with the very real challenges of life outside their training space. They shouldn’t be forced to bring those challenges inside with them.