GW: I’m here today with Skye Hilton, who is a historical martial arts instructor and fitness trainer. She’s perhaps best known as the Nerd Trainer. So without further ado, Skye, welcome to The Sword Guy.
SH: Thank you very much for having me, Guy. It is a pleasure to be here.
GW: It’s nice to meet you. So just to orient ourselves, whereabouts in the world are you?
SH: I currently find myself in a west Texas, which is about a five hour drive from the nearest city. It is extremely isolated. And we’re in the Permian Basin. So a lot of people think of Texas and they think of cowboys and oil and all that kind of stuff. And that is exactly in the middle of where I currently live. In the wasteland. In the oil desert, as it were.
GW: So why the way you’re talking about it suggests that first thing, you’re not from there. And secondly, you’re not 100% on board with being there.
SH: No, no. Before moving here, I actually lived in the San Francisco Bay area in California for ten years. And before that I lived in Louisiana, which is just east of Texas. And Louisiana was New Orleans and Mardi Gras and Cajuns and all that kind of stuff, it’s swamps and alligators. And I grew up there, so I grew up in the southern U.S. So living here is not a complete culture shock. But having lived on the ocean on the west coast of California where it’s beautiful and you could drive like 20 minutes and go hiking in the mountains and look at redwoods and there’s trees and ocean and all these things to do. And then moving here to where I am, literally in a desert basin surrounded by oil rigs. And there’s nothing out here. There’s nothing really to do because most of it is blue collar work. There are no real cultural centres. It’s just people live here for the oil. That’s the only reason anyone lives out here is for the energy industry in this area, which is not only oil, but it’s also growing in wind energy and solar. But the closest city is a five hour drive away, and that’s going to be either Dallas, Fort Worth or Austin, Texas. If we go west, it’s El Paso and then more desert and then New Mexico and then, you know, atomic bomb testing. It’s like and we go north, it’s just farmland and cotton fields for 6 hours until you get to like Oklahoma City or, you know, Amarillo. So I’m really, really isolated here. And so me starting a school here is more out of necessity than anything else, because if I wanted to keep practising my sword work, either I start my school and instruct people to do fence with me, or I’m out in my backyard just swinging at a pail myself until an event comes along. And I load up my vehicle and drive 5 hours or 6 hours or catch a flight to go fencing.
GW: It’s actually interesting you say that well, there weren’t any schools around, so you just started one. You had to start. And I get asked a lot about starting schools. I think everyone builds it up as too big a thing in their heads. It’s like you don’t have to go straight away into a massive custom built facility with a million swords on the wall, which nobody has yet. So you just started. You’re in the middle of nowhere. I’m guessing somebody has a job in the middle of nowhere, and you had to go there for the money, is that right?
SH: That would be correct. Yes, California, as beautiful as it is, is very expensive to live at. So if you’re not making six figures a year or you have a partner or someone who is helping you with that, it is extremely hard to make a living there. And as we know, there’s a housing crisis. And there’s a lot of things happening in our country right now that just makes living in nice places very expensive. So, you know, we find ourselves where we find ourselves. And I found myself here and I was able to at least buy a house here. But again, it’s not California. It’s not what where you have a lot of amenities and a lot of things to do, which actually aided me in finding people to convince because there’s such little things of interest in this area that having something that isn’t like mundane or just something new, it’s like I can sword fight? That’s everybody’s first response. My mom never told me this. She’s told me, go to college. You get a job. Nobody said I could go sword fight. I’ve been robbed. So, coming here, I started just, because my partner, he sword fights as well. And he had a friend and we started at a little community centre and we just got word out through social media. And little bit by little bit, we would have people trickle in. And before COVID hit, we had almost 20 people.
GW: That’s a solid club.
SH: That’s a solid club. Exactly. And we’re at an auditorium in a community centre, like two or three times a week. And then COVID happened, and of course, we had to shut down. And then as Covid started to go up and down, back and forth, we practice outside.
GW: Well, there’s plenty of space in Texas.
SH: There are there is a lot a lot of space in Texas. We took a trip to Scotland in 2019 and my partner, who has never left the States. I’m like, oh, we’re just going to rent a car, we’re going to drive around Scotland. And he’s like, well, what if we break down? We’re in Scotland, Jake. We’ll be OK. We can just walk somewhere. We won’t be out in the wilderness with 100 miles of nothing around us, we’ll be OK.
GW: So when you moved to West Texas, you already had a background in historical martial arts. Now I know how you actually started because I’ve actually discussed it with a friend of mine, but for the benefit of the listeners. How did you get into historical martial arts?
SH: So I was actually really big into LARPing and different types of role play back in California. But I’ve always been interested in swords and sword fighting since I was a little girl growing up in the eighties. We were inundated with all the cartoons where the hero always had a sword. You always had the main person who had the sword. And so swords were very iconic. Also, I grew up in a house with both my parents were huge into history, so of course I was into history. And those two together, sword fighting and swords. I’d always had a fascination with it. And then when I was in California, we went to go see The Knights of Badassdom at a theatre and they had some people there.
GW: You went to go see what in the theatre?
SH: It was this silly LARPing movie called The Knights of Badassdom.
GW: The Knights of Badassdom. That sounds like that sounds that nobody should miss.
SH: It was an interesting film. It was a comedy. But regardless, it was a big thing for the LARPing community where I lived and they had different people from LARPs there representing they’re like, come play our LARP when the movie’s over. Because it was a special showing. And they had one of the guys there that was with Historic Medieval Battle, basically like Battle of the Nations and things like that. And it was his turn to talk to the audience and he goes, whenever you’re tired of fighting with foam weapons, you can come fight with us. And he kind of told us a little bit about it and I was like, oh my God, I didn’t know this was real. I didn’t know I could really do it. So I talked to him, got involved, and I’m like, where do I start? Where do I start? And that’s where they’re like, oh, you should go see this guy who runs a sword school named Steaphen Fick and talk to him about it. And so sure enough, I call Steaphen and I’m like, on the ball on this. I’m like, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to go. And I show up at a school, fish to water, immediately take to it. I’m there hours out of the week and then a couple of years go by and I’m there days out of the week. And for a while it felt like I was one of the couple of people there with Steaphen, it’s like we were just living at the school, constantly doing sword work, looking to manuscripts. I got to travel with him in 2017 to Australia and New Zealand.
GW: Oh wow.
SH: Work with some classes with him there. And it was just really great, I just dove into it. I did a complete career change. I went from being a graphic designer to a personal trainer so that I would be in better shape in order to do the armoured fighting and the other fencing and everything that it entailed.
GW: Hang on a second. So you got so into to sword fighting that you quit your career as a graphic designer to train as a personal trainer so that you would be in better shape to swim swords around?
GW: That is dedication.
SH: Yes. Because it turns out you need a lot of back and core and shoulder strength in order to hold the sword out in front of you, especially if you’re wearing gauntlets or any kind of armour, because that is compounded with the weight of the weapon and the inertia and everything that is produced by moving. So men may take this for granted, but women need to really work at that.
GW: Honestly, men need to really work at it, too.
SH: Yes, they do. But yeah, I’m like, wow, I need to get in much better shape to do this. So I took my training much more diligently and I’m like, oh, I’m just going to make a career out of this. And I went ahead and shifted careers, got different certifications, and I’ve been a professional personal trainer, sword fighter for the last six or seven years. That’s on my resume, like you go to LinkedIn. That’s what it has. It’s got a picture of me and me gambeson and formal sword attire and that’s what’s on LinkedIn. I am like a travelling sword person, personal trainer. Have sword, will travel
GW: I’ve seen your LinkedIn profile. I research all of my guests before they come on the show.
GW: Okay. Let’s start with the certification. The NASM. What actually is it? Why did you do it?
SH: It is a National Academy of Sports Medicine, and there’s a lot of different schools. Most of them are online. Some of them are in-person that offer different specialisations for different things and different certifications. So it’s not particularly like you would go to a brick and mortar college, though you can get a degree for this. You can go and get degrees and there are specialised degrees for this that are offered at bricks and mortar schools. Having already paid off my student loans, I didn’t want to go back into student debt, so I just went ahead and got a certification and I picked NASM because they are supposed to be one of the much harder and more stringent schools to get certified through. And I did have to go in-person for the testing and all that kind of stuff where you report to a testing centre and sit there and take the test.
GW: Are okay, I was going to want to because I mean, if you don’t know how to demonstrate a clean and press, then you can really hurt your clients.
SH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you have to re-up it. So once you get the certification, you’re not just like good for life. Every two years, you have to retest and learn, continued education. So not only do I have just my personal training, I’m also a specialist in corrective exercise, working with senior citizens, working with youth, flexibility specialisation, bodybuilding specialisation. I’m also a nutrition coach, so I do this professionally. I run my own gym, I own my own gym here in Midland with another business partner of mine. And that’s also now where I teach my sword classes. So we have a shared space at the gym I run where I train people and do sword fighting.
GW: Okay, so I imagine it’s easier to make a living as a personal trainer than it is as a sword fighter. Is that true?
SH: Yes and no. I kind of feel like if I was in a place where I had access to a bigger facility, like you said earlier, like the big facility with all the fancy swords on the wall. And the right kind of advertising, I think you could actually make enough money to where you could make a living doing that, especially if you were very talented and outgoing and you had the availability and resources for you to travel and offer classes and make money off of that. And there’s a lot of different ways you can make a living off this. Steaphen does.
GW: I’ve done it for 20 years. It is doable.
GW: But in historical martial arts culture generally, particularly in Europe. People aren’t used to paying professional instructors, which I think is why 80% of my income comes from Americans, who are used to paying for me.
SH: That’s just how Americans are, we just throw money at problems. Oh, there’s a problem, just throw money at it. Maybe that’ll make it go away. But I’ve found that actually combining the two, both the sports medicine specialisation and all the health stuff, as well as working with sword people, it really helps when I’m doing instruction on the body mechanics. Because I can see when I’m spending all day watching people and making sure that they’re moving correctly. When I go to my sword classes, I can see where people are like, okay, this is why we’re doing it this way. This is why we do not position our guard this way because we have we don’t have structure. And I’ll demonstrate it and everybody else goes, “Ohhh”. And then they’ll try it and be like, oh yeah, it doesn’t work there. So knowing the body mechanics is extremely helpful when instructing people.
GW: Absolutely. Yeah. I’m all about the body mechanics, as people who read my books will know. And has it been your experience, it’s certainly been mine, that most people who come to swordsmanship classes can barely walk correctly?
SH: A lot of people come in deconditioned. And I would say that, yes, I have witnessed that. I’ve seen people with two left hands, two left feet, and they will try and try and try and they just can’t get the mechanics.
GW: But what I mean is, is they have, for example, massively restricted range of motion in the ankle because they always wear footwear that constricts the ankle. And they never go into a squat.
SH: Oh, yes, ankles, knees, hips, spine. A lot of people just move through this world without thinking about their movement. So why would they come into sword class with the same kind of frame of mind or behaviour? And then you have people who have a martial arts background or any kind of sports background, and you show them and they get it immediately. So it’s where some people know their body and they have a sense of proprioception. And so they’re able to take to it immediately where other people have never had to do that. And so you have to kind of work a little bit more to train them.
GW: Okay. So for people listening, who want to be better at helping their beginners. What would you say they should look out for when your average computer programmer, sits in a chair all day sort of person comes along and wants to do swords and stuff but their body is all over the place. Where do you start?
SH: Well, that particular type of person, they’re going to have like bad posture and rolled shoulders and probably like knees. But I always start with big things first because if you try to correct everything, they’re not going to learn anything and you’re going to spend your entire class with that one person. So what I focus on are the basics. I start with the feet up, make sure you’re holding the weapon correct. Your posture’s straight and you’re moving. Big picture moving correctly. If you sit there and try to nitpick every single little detail of the posture, you’re not going to get anywhere. So focus with the big gross movements first, and that may take a while. But once they get the big gross movements down, not even 100%, maybe about 70% down, then you can start making them aware of the smaller details and work on those, just a little bit at a time. And that, I found, is the best way to go about it. Start with the big picture first, and then as they start to improve, focus on the smaller and smaller and smaller details. And if you are even correcting them or trying to say, okay, now that you’ve got this down, I’m going to nitpick you because you’ve gotten good enough at this I can start to nitpick you. And that way they don’t get so frustrated about, oh, but I just got that down and now you’re telling me I’m still wrong? If you tell them that they got that right, now I can really nitpick you because you got better, then they are a lot more open minded to it.
GW: Yeah. And it’s important that it’s never going to be perfect. And so it’s a question of getting it righter and righter and righter. Rather than it was wrong and now it’s right. So. So I try and train my students out of even thinking in terms of right and wrong when it comes to these things, it’s more, is this working? Is this better adapted to purpose or not?
SH: Yes. And that’s another thing I explain when people, because you have students come in who are all shapes and sizes and I kind of compare learning sword work to handwriting. You know, when you come in in primary school, everybody learns to write their letters this exact same way. But by the time you get into secondary and college, everybody’s handwriting is totally different because everybody is different. Everybody holds the pencil differently. Everybody’s hands are different shaped, everybody thinks different, everybody moves different. And your sword fighting is going to evolve like that. So you’re going to find things in the form that are going to work best for you, that aren’t necessarily going to be wrong or anything. It’s just that you’re going to take these certain aspects of like if you’re doing rapier and you’re going to find the ones that work best for you, to your body type and your frame, your mindset when you go fence, where other people may have, you know, someone who’s six foot four is going to fight differently than someone who’s five foot four. So you can’t expect everybody to behave the same. And that kind of goes without saying.
GW: Sure. Well, but it actually is worth saying because again, for people who, for example, just moved to the middle of nowhere and started a club and have no background in instruction and no formal pedagogical training or any of that sort of thing, that kind of advice is actually useful to have. Because it’s tempting to have this kind of Platonic idea of what this particular move should look like and then expect every student to conform to that ideal, when in fact, that ideal may only work for someone of this particular proportion of leg length to back length or whatever.
SH: Yeah. And that’s something I’ve run into. A lot of people learn, particularly in the US, because we don’t have a lot of schools and it’s so big is from YouTube videos or other media. And I’ve met a few people who are like, well, I watched this video and that’s not how they did it. I’m sure you’ve heard that too. And that’s not how they did it. And I’m like, well, show me how they did it. And they’ll show me and I’ll be like, well, I’m not saying they’re wrong, but if you go.
GW: You can’t say they’re wrong.
SH: A little differently. So we’ll practise how we’re doing it here. And if you’re unhappy with it, we’ll figure something out. But if you’re just learning from videos and you have no hands-on experience, then you’re missing out on a lot. You’re missing out on a lot of the finer details of the sword work. So that’s one thing that is kind of problematic when you don’t have that person-to-person to learn from. It’s very difficult to just go from books or videos when you don’t have that three dimensional kind of interface to learn the form, to have someone go, don’t put your toe here, move it an inch over that way. You can’t play that in a video.
GW: I don’t actually use technical corrections like that at all anymore. I used to, but I’ve moved entirely to if they need to stand in a particular way to do a particular thing, there’s a reason why it has to be that way. So what I do is I adjust the environment, so the only natural way for them to stand is that way, because that’s what’s going to enable them to do the thing they want to do. So for example, if I want somebody to lunge further, I move the target slightly farther away. I find because the bit of the brain that handles language is not the bit of the brain that handles movement. So I find that I get people to move a lot better, a lot quicker, if I don’t use any kind of verbal corrections at all.
SH: Okay. Now, that makes complete sense because our brain knows what it wants to do. Yeah, it’s I do that same technique, similar when I do instruction and training. It’s like if you’re doing something in a pull up, our natural inclination is to shrug our shoulders and muscle our way up when I’m like, don’t think about pulling yourself up. Think about bringing your elbows down to your side or other things like that. It’s like our brain knows what it wants to do. It’s like when we were kids, and this is particularly true with people with pronounced upper body strength, is they try to shoulder through everything. And that’s something that I’m sure you run into in sword work as well, is they are all shoulders and they’re not utilising their body mass or anything like that.
GW: So yeah, getting the hands properly connected to the feet is the goal.
SH: The pathways from hands to feet. Everything starts with the feet. You have to get those pathways together.
GW: I have a question for you, as a personal trainer, obviously you have a kind of a suite of exercises and training things that people can do, you know, push-ups and squats. And overhead presses with kettlebells and, arm band stuff and weight stuff and all that sort of thing. Are there two or three exercises that you wish your sword students already knew before they came to your classes? So two or three exercises from your personal training stuff that you wish they were practising before they came to the sword class. I know which mine would be, but let’s hear yours first.
SH: I would honestly have people do agility ladder until their feet fall off.
GW: What is agility ladder?
SH: So agility ladder is a little rope ladder you put on the floor and usually in different like sports, like football and stuff. But it’s basically you do different things where you move your feet in and out of the squares and you do it linearly and laterally. And it’s a bit like proprioception for connecting the brain to the feet. And you learn better posture and movement and you don’t end up just sticking in one place. But yeah, everyone should just go to Zumba class because not only would you have to work on footwork and movement in a tempo, but it will also work on your endurance and your cardiovascular too.
GW: I’ve been to a Zumba class once, some friends of my wife who do Zumba, there was a Zumba party held in this theatre in Helsinki and literally there were these professional Zumba people on the stage and it felt like a theatre, maybe it was a nightclub and everyone was getting up and doing the Zumba things and then they were going sitting down and having drinks. I just was up there, doing it for like 2 hours straight, because compared to fencing, it’s very low intensity. To me it felt like the same sort of physical intensity as walking, but it had all of that clever technical stuff in it. Like you have to move your feet like this and then you have to move your arms like this. It was great fun. Yeah, I would totally endorse your Zumba recommendation.
SH: And I don’t know what kind of music they were playing, but I’ve been to Latin Zumba classes and those are very high intensity. I couldn’t keep up with those ladies, they were they were going and yes, it’s very technical. So other than that, as far as training upper body, your core, your back and your shoulders by far are the muscle groups that I see need to be used. Battle rope exercises are really good for those because they work on your shoulders and your core, your back, and they’re fun. You could do all kinds of stuff with battle ropes, also kettlebell swings. I’m a big fan of functional stuff.
GW: I can’t do kettlebell swings. My lower back won’t take them.
SH: Are you squeezing your butt?
GW: I have had pretty high level professional instruction on the kettlebell swing. And at the end of it and I was doing it for a while and then my back went out again and the guy said, kettlebells swings are not you Guy, stop it.
SH: If they say don’t do it, don’t do it. But yeah. Kettlebells and lower back exercises. The trick with those is like you don’t really want to feel it in your lower back. You want to feel it more in your hamstrings and butt. And engaging your butt is extremely important for that. But Indian clubs are another one, working your forearm muscles are another good one because working your forearm muscles and developing those are going to help you avoid that fencers’ elbow from particularly sidesword and other single hand sword stuff.
GW: I actually have a free online course about looking after your arms because historical sword people tend to have absolutely zero knowledge of how to keep their wrists and elbows healthy. But yeah, there’s like just simple weight exercises and stretches and whatnot make all the difference.
SH: You don’t want to go high weight with it. You just get a pair of small dumbbells and just do it for like five minutes a day. It doesn’t take very much time.
GW: Yeah, I mean, the weights I use for my forearms are about three kilos each and that’s fairly heavy. Most of my students are using one or two.
SH: Yeah, I can do about 5 to 8 kilos on my dumbbell on my right arm. My left arm is not as developed. Any kind of a sword fight in my left arm is like I have very bad videogame lag. It’s like my brain sends the signal and it takes about 3 seconds for my left arm to do anything. But yeah, definitely my right arm is much more developed than my left when it comes to single sword. But yeah, being a personal trainer has helped me tremendously in sword instruction, in the nuances and the physicality of it particularly.
GW: And so I can guess, but why do you call yourself the Nerd Trainer?
SH: So when I decided to do this career change, I went out drinking with the with the girls as one does, and I was talking about it and we’re all very drunk. And then one of my friends goes, oh, you should call yourself the Nerd Trainer because you’re a nerd and you’re going to be training nerds. Mind you this is in the middle of Silicon Valley where pretty much me and all my friends are nerds. And of course, we’re like, oh, that’s a really good idea. So she takes my phone, she logs in and she makes my Facebook page for me right then and there on the spot. My Facebook, The Nerd Trainer, she gets a URL for me. She just sat there on my phone while we were all drunk and I woke up in the morning and I had social media and it’s like, okay, so it was a drunken decision. My professional name is a drunken decision. Yes.
GW: It seems to fit.
SH: It works out, I have a lot of people, they’re like, what? What is the nerd trainer? Who is the nerd trainer? Why? Why the nerd trainer? Then they meet me and they’re like, Oh, that’s why. You’re a huge nerd.
GW: And I guess it also makes it clear that nerds are welcome in your classes.
SH: Yeah. So one thing is, I try to be very open and make sure it’s a welcoming place for people of pretty much any kind of ilk. And I take care. And of course, I want to make sure if anybody has any injuries or any kind of issues or anything they have concerns about, I want to make sure I address them to make sure it’s a welcoming environment and they don’t feel intimidated or, you know, just outside. I take a lot of that I learnt from Steaphen Fick and the way he runs his classes where everyone is equal. We don’t have a master, like somebody tried to refer to me last year as a maestro or a master, and I was like, hang on here. No, no, no, please don’t call me that. That’s embarrassing because I’m definitely not that. You can call me an instructor. You can call me a coach. You can call me at many things, but a maestro, master, please don’t call me that. I am still very much a student.
GW: But also the term “master” has been massively over emphasized, over thought about in the historical martial arts community because historically it just means teacher. Like when I went to school, the teachers there were called the masters or mistresses, because was just a word that was used for teachers. And it didn’t imply any sort of a supreme excellence or anything like that. It’s just, you go to university, you got a bachelor’s degree, you carry on, you get a master’s degree, you keep going, you get a Ph.D. and you keep going and maybe you got a professorship and it sort of goes up like that. So it isn’t really a thing.
SH: If you got a master’s degree in geology, you don’t go around going, I am the master of the rocks. I am the rock master.
GW: I am the rock master.
SH: I am the master of stones. But, yeah, and I think that kind of comes from like the whole Eastern martial arts kind of mythos and pop culture around it. It’s like, yeah, he is a great master. He has been studying all his life in a temple on top of the mountain and he knows all the secrets and can kill a man with his pinkie, that kind of thing. Bow to your sensei.
GW: It’s funny, the way I look at it, looking historically, Fiore dei Liberi, he certainly trained knights, but it was also like Niccolo d’Este was probably his patron, Niccolo d’Este being marquis of Ferrara at the time and Fiore being the son of a knight but not a knight himself. Or you have Salvatore Fabris, who is fencing master to the king of Denmark. I don’t think the King of Denmark was bowing to Maestro Fabris, do you?
SH: Oh, absolutely not. They were definitely in their employ. And in the manuscript, you can see they’re pandering to their employers.
GW: Right. Exactly. And 18th century military fencing, it would usually be a sergeant or non-commissioned officer of some kind who was training the officers in the fencing side of things. And again, who’s really in charge in that relationship?
SH: Between the sergeant and the soldiers?
GW: No, between the sergeant and the lieutenants and the captain?
SH: The Sergeant. The Sergeant.
GW: And so I think I think we sort of got a bit infected with the notion of martial arts teacher as sensei or shifu. And it’s completely unnecessary. It’s totally non-western I think, to treat it like that.
SH: Yeah. And my students, we hang out and we cut up and we’re all friends. And I think of myself more like as a leader of my club. Like, I take the time to study the manuscripts and go off and study, which is another thing I wanted to talk about. But I’m the one that spearheads the direction and goes out and learns everything and brings it back.
GW: They’re paying you for instruction, right?
SH: I haven’t made any money yet. Most of it goes to just buying loaner gear and swords.
GW: So your real income is coming from the personal training.
SH: Yeah, my money’s coming from the personal training. They do pay me. But again, it’s just to cover swords, so everybody will have a sword to use for people who don’t have any yet. Protection gear, the space, insurance, things like that.
GW: Yeah. Now, you said you want to talk about studying the manuscripts.
SH: Yeah. So one thing I’ve discovered since moving to Texas is I really took for granted living in an area where I had about four schools within an hour’s drive of where I lived. So other than studying with Steaphen, I could drive somewhere else and I could go practise with another school. Living here, it’s 5 hours for me to go to the closest place to practise. So it’s become increasingly more important for me to go to events or sword camps or just travel and visit other schools so I can go and practise. Because when you spend all your time teaching people, you don’t really get to practise too much.
GW: I do know exactly that because when I moved to Finland in 2001, mine was the only historical martial arts club in the country. I founded it as the only one in the whole of Finland. So I travelled a lot.
SH: Every time I get a chance, I try to go. In fact, ever since COVID regulations have let up, the only travelling I’ve done has been to try to catch up on my sword practise. So last year I went to California for two weeks and that was just swords. I went to different schools with another friend of mine who runs a club in South Texas. And all we did was sword research. All we did was go and practise with other schools on the West Coast for two weeks. And recently, like going to Austin or different places in Texas. I went to a sword camp last month where Martin Fabian was there. I was like, Oh my gosh. Everybody was there for his class. But, yeah. So any, any time you can travel to go learn from a different school or a different person or invite someone to your school to teach a class, it’s so, so useful. And it’s important for people who are new to it to realise that you are not the only authority.
GW: Bingo. When I started my school from the very beginning, we had at least four guest instructors a year. And that was part of the reason. I didn’t want my students to think that there was only one historical martial arts teacher and only one approach. So when I was travelling, most of what I was doing really was meeting other instructors and figuring out who I wanted to take back to Finland with me to teach a seminar. Yeah. Makes all the difference.
SH: It makes a huge difference. And it also encourages them to learn new skills and learn new studies. Because so many people will come in and be like, I only want to do longsword. And there’s lots of memes about that, people coming along and then they see sword and buckler and they’re like, Ooh. It’s obvious. It gives them a much broader scope of historical martial arts.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. What particular styles do you do?
SH: Well, I started with Fiore. I still focus on Fiore. And that’s what I teach my beginners, because I find it’s a lot easier to teach than some of the other longsword techniques. And it gives them a good foundation, particularly with footwork, teaching that’s the segno and things like that. The allegory. It’s easy for people to wrap their heads around. I know Meyer and other ones, they have that as well. But I learned Fiore so I teach Fiore. But I also study Marozzo, Vadi, I’ve worked with Fabris, working with Giganti, right now.
GW: Giganti. The English speakers pronounce it all differently, but the Italians all tend to agree on how it is pronounced.
SH: It’s a mixed bag over here. You never know what you’re going to get. Fabri, Fabris, Fabreeze, nobody knows.
GW: Most of my Italian friends would say Fabris. I’ll ask them. It’s not Fabreeze.
SH: Febreeze is a fabric spray.
GW: Shall we just ask him?
SH: Oh, how fancy.
GW: It’s very super fancy. Yeah. For the listeners, I just went and got my copy of the 1606, 400 year old.
SH: What does it smell like? Trying to smell.
GW: It smells like a dusty old book.
SH: Oh, it’s the best kind.
GW: Yeah, because it’s like 400 years old. Yes. Seeing as you’re a Fabris person, I thought you’d like that.
SH: Another thing I will completely nerd out over manuscripts, original manuscripts. Having been an art major, I look at it as like, Oh, especially Thibault.
GW: That’s a crazy book.
SH: But I did get to see an original Thibault at Brian Stokes.
GW: Oh, he’s got one, has he?
SH: Oh, yes. He’s a big collector of manuscripts and I got to look at those. But anyway, I digress.
GW: Okay. So how much of your curriculum is sort of borrowed from Steve and how much is original?
SH: When I first started, all of my curriculum was from Steaphen because I didn’t have my own. Over the years, I still draw quite a bit from his curriculum. I have made a few changes that suit my teaching style a little bit better. And one of the things I like to do is I’ll start off with a basic foundations drill that I have the entire class, which my classes nowadays are between eight and ten people. And I’ll kind of watch while one of my other senior students goes through the basic drill. And it could be anything from like doing cuts with footwork. And I’ll kind of observe everybody and see who needs to work on what. And I will divide everybody into smaller groups and put them with senior students, depending on what they need. The more advanced students will work with me and people who need to work on fundamentals a little bit more, I’ll have them work with senior students, and that way the senior students get to learn through teaching a little bit, because they have to think about what their corrections mean because the new students will be like, well, why do I need to do this? And then they’ll be like, oh crap, why do you need to do this? And they’ll be like, oh, yeah, I know why you need to do this. And so they learn through teaching. But that’s the beginner class. I also have an advanced class for those senior students, so they’re not stuck teaching the whole time. Obviously they want to progress as well. And a lot of times our advanced classes will draw on whatever fundamentals we were working on in a beginners class. Like in the beginners class, I was introducing tempo. And they would start from a static position and do the drill. And then the advanced I would have us work on that same thing where they would have to do it on the round, where they would be moving and try to match each other’s tempo. And I would give them goals like, you have to do this if you see them do that. So one person’s not just being a fendente bot, they’re actually working to get around that.
GW: A “fendente bot”. That is a great expression. A robot that produces fendentes in a regular pattern.
SH: No one wants the job of fendente bot and I’m like, you know what, you’d be the best damn fendente bot you ever were. You make fendentes awesome. There’s some fenstres in there, too, man.
GW: Now, I have here that you involve history channels Forged in Fire, Knife or Death competition. What was all that about?
SH: Well, my friend Ray Harrington, who lives in California, he was auditioning for the show and Steaphen Fick was, too, and a few other people in our little HEMA circle out there. And he contacted me, and he’s like, hey, they’re looking for women to be on the show. Would you be interested? Because I had done some cutting with Ray.
GW: What is it, for people who haven’t seen it, which includes me? What actually is the competition?
SH: The competition is an obstacle course of crazy things that you are required to cut, break, bash, stab and get to the end in order to progress to a harder obstacle course. And then you win money.
GW: Okay, now you say that, I think we’ve had a guest on before who’s done it. I’ll look it up, put it in the show notes. So basically, it’s like an obstacle course, which you get through with your sword.
SH: Yes. And the first season, they had people who did knife sports, like blade sports, where they would have the knives and they would go through. But the obstacles were like cut through barrels full of dirt. And so the second season and a little bit toward the some of the first, you’d see people, they opened it up to much bigger blades. So the second season, almost nobody had a regular knife. Everybody came in there with some kind of ginormous blade of some kind. I know several guys were there with longswords. Some people had falchions, and some people had like custom made choppers, lots of Kukris, you know, all these tools that they felt would be able to get through the crazy obstacles, and we didn’t see the course until we got there. And it was in summer in Georgia and it was really hot. But the course consisted of cutting where anything would cut through sugarcane stalks and then cut through three inch PVC pipe full of gravel and rocks.
GW: Oh my God. That would mess up your blade completely.
SH: Oh my God. I was so terrified. So going through the course, I’m looking at it. And I had practised because I watched season one and I said, okay, I have to be able to cut through fish, I have to cut through chicken, I have to cut through a block of ice. I have to cut through wood, I have to cut through PVC. So I set up an obstacle course in my backyard, ran through it, filmed it, sent it there, auditioned and I got approved. But I practise all this, and the type of sword that I got was the Morgan Bible.
GW: Good choice.
SH: It was made for me by Tom Kimber here in the U.S. And it’s very light. Actually, he asked me, he goes, do you want it heavier? Do you want it light? And I’m like, let’s go with let’s go light. So it weighs like maybe little less than 1.5 kilograms. It weighs under three pounds.
GW: That is pretty light. Is it two hand or a single hander?
SH: It is a two handed one. It’s a very long handle and the whole blade is not very long. I mean it’s well under a metre long, I would say it is probably…
GW: Tell me in inches.
SH: 28, 30 inches. But that’s what I went in with was that crazy thing. So I thought, I’m okay as long as I don’t have to pierce anything.
GW: That’s about 75 centimetres.
SH: Yeah. So as long as I don’t have to pierce anything, I should be good with the sword. But, yeah, I had to cut through. When I hit that first PVC pipe full of gravel, I could feel the scratching on my blade. I had to pay for this sword. This was not an inexpensive sword. So I’m thinking, please don’t break, please don’t break. It didn’t break. It went through everything. But you could feel the gravel scratching on the blade, breaking through the ice. I used the blunt edge. It goes through meat like nobody’s business.
GW: I mean, that’s what it was designed for.
SH: So I’m going to share a secret with you guys. This is something I did. The privilege of living in Texas, where everything is legal. So we have a problem with wild boars here, and they’re considered an invasive species. Well, I had a hunter friend of mine who cleared them off his property. He just shoots them. I asked him jokingly one day, I’m like, oh yeah, you should bring me one of those boars and I can test my chopper on it. And so he shows up one day with a freezer with a boar in it. Not a huge one. Maybe about a dog size boar. Decent sized dog sized boar. And this was a freshly shot boar. And I’m like, oh, man. What am I going to do with this boar? Well, there’s only one way to get rid of it.
GW: You’ve got to BBQ it. It’s Texas, you’ve got to BBQ it, right?
SH: You can’t eat the meat here because they feed on all kinds of weird trash and everything. So we aren’t supposed to eat the meat from a wild boar. I’m sure people do, because they’re like “government can’t tell me what to do”, but you’re not supposed to because it’s not supposed to be good for you. So I put on my hazmat gear pretty much and went in the backyard and attempt to decapitate it with the mac chopper. I could not be an executioner, I’ll tell you that. Getting it set up, alone, I was, like, shaking. And it’s not even alive. It’s dead, you know? And I’m like, Oh, man. But it’s still got the skin. I mean, it’s a full boar. And I’m like, Oh, man. And I did that. I lined it up, but I did that first chop in that sword. Oh, my God. That boar’s head. It’s neck was like about 12 inches, about a foot thick, and this chopper almost took it off in one hit. And I was just like, oh, my God. These swords, on a battlefield.
GW: Swords work.
SH: Yeah, swords work. Imagine that. But testing it on actual, like big flesh with the skin. I was cutting a butcher chicken or slice of loin or a fish. It’s already been skinned and everything. But an animal that had been dead like a week, with the bone. And it went through the bone. So I could just imagine it gives you a really real visceral appreciation and respect for these weapons. To feel how it feels going through flesh and bone and skin like that. I didn’t film it. That was I felt like that would be in poor taste.
GW: I think you were right not to.
SH: But, yeah, I didn’t. That was definitely an experience. Not one I necessarily say everyone needs to do. I don’t ever recommend that. Yeah, I don’t recommend it. Take it for me. It’s rather nerve wracking and evidently if you, in the past, anyone using weapons like that for war, it’s intense. It’s mind blowing that that was the case where they would just wade through and hack people up with that kind of sword.
GW: And yeah, you can take limbs off with it.
SH: Oh, absolutely. It’s my self-defence sword.
GW: Now, I would like I would like you to send me a photograph of it so I can put a photograph of it in the show notes so everyone can see it. Because it sounds like a hell of a sword. So how did you do in the competition?
SH: I did OK. Like I said, I had practised on all these things, but the last obstacle was nylon straps that had been pulled tight that we were supposed to cut through. And instantly my brain was like, oh, no, I didn’t practise against that. And I don’t know how tight they are. And so I went through everything, got through all the obstacles, cut through all the meat, no problem. Got through the ice, got through the two by four. Got through the bamboo.
GW: You got through a two by four? You’re not supposed to chop two by fours with swords.
SH: You’re not. And that’s the thing. You’re really not.
GW: Axes, maybe. Axes, yes, swords, no.
SH: And my particular falchion does not do it. It is so light and so fine and so sharp. It just gets stuck in the wood. So some guys, they did a lot better than me on that, but I did eventually get through the two by four. But yeah, it took me a while, but I finally got to those stupid nylon straps and I’m like, huh, okay, it’s the last thing I could do and I cut it at too sharp an angle and my sword bounced right off. And in retrospect, I lay awake at night now thinking I should have just muscled through it. I should have just done a horizontal cut and just muscled through it. I shouldn’t have tried to be technical. And the funniest thing is that when they announced me on the show, they ask you, what is your background? What kind of martial arts have you done? And I took Kendo for three glorious months in San Francisco, and I put that on there and the whole time and I put my longsword and HEMA and everything else, you know, X amount of years doing longsword, three months doing Kendo. And they only talked about my Kendo.
GW: Well of course that’s what they recognize.
SF: Yeah. Bill Goldberg was there like, “I could see that stance and I see that Kendo at work.” Yeah. I’m like, oh well okay, whatever.
GW: So hang on, you only got one cut at the nylon?
SH: Oh yeah, yeah. One cut. You get towards the last ones, the meat and the nylon straps. You were only given one try. So the meat I got through easily but yeah those nylon straps, I bounced right off.
GW: So you didn’t get through the next round.
SH: It was so much fun. No, I didn’t. I wouldn’t have got to the next round anyway because they go by time spent and that two by four and ice took a lot of time out.
GW: Took an hour.
SH: So I wouldn’t have made it to the next round anyway. But I really wanted to finish and I was disappointed and kicking myself in the butt because I didn’t, because of that stupid angle of my cut. I’m like, I should have just took it. But it was extremely fun. We would all meet later in the trailer. All we wanted to do was just run the course again. It was like we were like kids on a playground. We’re like, I just want to do it again. I want to do it again because I have an idea, try this one. If I’d done this better or I’d done this differently, you know, I could do that.
GW: What was the most effective sword for that kind of thing?
SH: My other choice was going to be a Kukri.
GW: I was thinking Kukri.
SH: In fact, one of the other contestants, Lady Sensei, Gerry Chisolm, she’s a martial artist on the East Coast and runs the Women’s Martial Arts Network. She went on there with a huge kukri and she performed very well. She got an injury while she was on there. She did something to her hand. I think she got hit. But the kukris, that was my first choice. And then I had a couple of people talk to me and Tom really wanted to make a mac chopper. And so I agreed to his discretion on the blade. And we did a mac chopper. And it worked really well. It did work really well.
GW: But that two by four, I’m thinking you would have done a lot better with a kukri for the mass distribution.
SH: I would have done a lot better. The curvature of the blade curving in on the mac.
GW: It’s more like an axe.
SH: Yeah. A kukri would have worked better, but, you know, I still got there, and it just took me a little longer. So but it was really, really fun. And I met some cool people and actually got called back for a blades giving thing they wanted to do that year for Thanksgiving where they just did like little bumps of us doing stuff. But the ones I picked to perform, like the little stunts were the hardest ones. So I’m like, I want to try to hit the apples coming high speed down a ramp and catch them with a knife. I think I got one. Even Tam, Lu Tam got up there and I think he got one. And then I tried some other crazy one cutting through bamboo. And the bamboo they used was dry. My first try, my knife actually bounced off the dry bamboo because I wanted to get a cut and then double cut up, as it fell.
GW: With dry bamboo?
SH: It was dry bamboo. It was like cornstalks or something, but it was dry.
GW: Could anybody do that? Did anybody succeed?
SH: I was the only one who attempted it. But long story short, since I failed because I picked the hardest ones, they didn’t put any of the shots of me trying in the little bumpers for blade giving. I got a free trip to New York and they paid me. So I don’t care.
GW: Fair enough. Wow. Yeah, it does sound like they’re trying to wreck your blade because bamboo’s got these silica crystals in it, which will the hell out of your plate anyway, even when it’s wet.
SH: Yeah. Luckily, Dave Baker was there, and so he was able to loan me some different blades because the blades I brought were a little too big. He’s like, I got a knife for you. So I was able to use one of his knives something.
GW: So I guess you’re not allowed to resharpen them during the during these events.
SH: They allow you to sharpen before. In fact, funny story. Kenneth Tucker, who was on my show, he went to go sharpen his sword and they have one of those bell grinders with a belt on it. And he had an Oakeshott style longsword and the sword cut the belt and the belt flew off and cut his leg open.
SH: And we didn’t know where Ken went. We’re like, did they kick Ken off the show? We didn’t know where Ken went. We don’t know where he is, and he’s this big, jolly guy, and he had on a kilt and a big beard, and he was just cutting jokes the whole time. Really great guy. And we’re like, we hope we didn’t get him. Well, he shows up about halfway through and it lifts his kilt and there’s this huge bandage on the interior of his thigh and he tells us what happened. He’s like, yeah, they had to run me over to the first aid tent and I had to sign all these waivers. So we’re like, did you do that with the sword? He was like, the belt flew off and it sliced my leg open. So, yeah, we had to go get that fixed before he could compete.
GW: Yeah. For sharpening swords, I wouldn’t use any of those. I mean, when you’re when you’re making a blade you would use a big belt and everything for grinding and whatnot, but for the actual sharpening of a sword, I’d want to be doing it with a diamond stone by hand.
SH: Yeah. I’ve got $300 worth of different sharpening implements, all ranging from diamond to porcelain to all kinds of files.
GW: Yeah. I’m a massive sharpening geek. I mean, I used to be a cabinet maker, so I start sharpening at about 1200 grit and go up to about 10,000. For a lot of cabinet work that’s necessary.
SH: Do you have your strop and everything?
GW: Yeah, of course. Absolutely. You got to. But I don’t do it with swords because the sword doesn’t need that level of polish on the edges. But when you want a piece of steel to go through some really tough old oak and take off a just a beautiful, thin shaving, then it needs to be ridiculously sharp.
SH: You know what? I have a question for you Guy. And you may have answered this in another podcast or one of your books, but when we sharpen our swords nowadays, we generally do it for cutting through tatami and stuff, so we make them very, very sharp. And then we talk about, well, how sharp were they back in when they were in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance. Because the first thing a student tells me when I tell them to put their sword on their shoulder, go to half sword, they’re like, “Well, I’ll cut my hand.” And then you have to explain that, well, the sharpness then isn’t like that. So how sharp does the sword need to be effective and do what you needed to do on an actual battlefield?
GW: Well, okay. Sharpness is always specific to purpose. So I sharpen my sword I’m going to use for cutting tatami differently to the sword I use armoured combat, differently to a rapier, for instance. So generally this business about gripping blades and whatnot, it’s everyone’s like, oh, you can’t do that, you’ll cut yourself. And so I take a sword and I cut through something with it, and then I grab it by the middle and stab it really hard into something. And they’re like, Oh! Oh, you didn’t cut your hand.
SH: Yeah, there’s a way to do that.
GW: Yeah, and it’s not difficult. You just grab it.
SH: No, it’s not.
GW: You just have to grab it properly and not whack the edge into your hand, because then it will chop you. It’s certainly true that modern steel is more consistent than the medieval steel. And it’s true that we are able to polish it up to higher levels of sharpness than they were they were probably able to do. But there are tales of feats of arms done with a sword where the sword would have to be really, really sharp. So, for example, Don Pero Niño, the Portuguese knight in the, I want to say the early 14th century, but I’ll need to check the dates. One of his famous feats was the royal barge was going down the river in Spain. I think it was the Guadalquivir, I’m not sure, I’ll look it up. And these fishermen had strung a rope that in the sort of biography written about Pero Niño, where the Chronicles of Pero Niño where this was written. It says it was the thickness of a man’s thigh. I think that was probably an exaggeration because that is one very thick rope. Anyway, so this rope is strung across the river and it’s going to sweep the barge, which will then probably capsize, therefore everyone is going to die. And Pero Niño runs down to the end of the barge, so the prow, pulls out his sword and with one stroke cuts this rope in two and the rope separates and the barge goes through and the king is saved, hurrah. For that to be even vaguely plausible, that sword has to be really properly sharp.
SH: That’s a Mythbusters episode right there.
GW: Yeah. I think we’d have a hard time finding someone who is that good at cutting in that sort of high pressure environment.
SH: There is there’s a lot of nitpicking. We can go in on that. Like what was the rope made of? What was the tautness? Was it wet, was it dry?
GW: I would say the rope was certainly wet. Because they would have to have taken it across the river, in the river. And then pulled it tight which pulled out of the river. So the rope was wet. That helps. It must have been made out of natural fibres like hemp, probably. Something like that. It had to be because. Well, the only alternative back then would be either silk, which would be ridiculously expensive and fishermen can’t possibly afford a silk rope like that.
SH: You wouldn’t have a silk rope like that.
GW: Or possibly out of some sort of animal fibre or something. That would be pointless. I mean, no one would ever do it. So logically, it has to be made out of something like hemp. It must have been wet because you wouldn’t have kept it dry. If it’s been there for a while, it might have dried out. So it could be dry, but it would certainly have been wet recently.
SH: And if we look at the size of average men’s thighs during that time period.
GW: Yeah. I’d say maybe like ten inches across, something like that.
SH: Yeah. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. We’ll go ten.
GW: That would take me many, many blows.
SH: But do we have any reference? Do we have pictures that show the ropes that size?
GW: No. Well, and there may be such things, but there would be no illustrations that would be reliable for that sort of detail, because you draw the rope as thick as you want it to be in the picture. It’s not a technical diagram.
SH: Someone’s going to have a video where they’re going to go through and do all the research for us. I have recreated the rope using the techniques of the time and now I’m going to cut through it, while moving, using the mass of the barge behind me to help cut the rope.
GW: Yeah. Sharpness has basically two components, right? It’s the angle at which the facets of the edge come together. For some reason I’m blanking on the technical term. The bevel. And the level of polish. Assuming that the bevels actually meet at an edge, which they often don’t the way some people sharpen. So it’s the angle at which they meet and the degree to which they meet, so do they actually truly meet, or is that some kind of ridge in the middle, which there shouldn’t be? And then the level of polish on that. And I would say that is hugely dependent on the design of the sword. So if you have a sword with a wide flat blade, the bevels are going to be coming together at a pretty acute angle. On something like a rapier the bevels are going to be at a much deeper angle. So much more obtuse so you have a lot more metal behind the edge, so it’s more of a kind of chopper and less of a slicer. So think about the difference between a logging axe seen edge on and a sort of knife that you’d use to fillet a fish. So those angles, they really matter and they vary enormously from sword to sword. So how sharp they would have been determined partly by that angle and the degree of polish and whether those edges meet, where the bevels come together.
SH: So sharpness is determined by context.
GW: Well, I mean, sharpness, it can be kind of absolute. I mean, you can talk about how many molecules of steel are at the edge and what shape those are. Basically how much surface area the edge has and therefore how much the pressure is intensified, because sharpness works by concentrating force into a very narrow space, right? So basically is getting the number of atoms that the force is being distributed through into the target as few as possible. That’s how you get it sharper. But also the crystal structure of the blade, of the steel itself, makes a big difference to the kind of edge you’re going to get. Because there are some sorts of steel where no matter how sharp you try and get it, the crystals won’t polish down any further and they kind of break off. So if you look at it, if you magnify it enormously it’s like a rocky road of boulders, whereas a different kind of steel sharpened to the same degree with the same polish might look much more like a pitched roof. That’s a really good book on sharpening. And it’s by a guy called Rod Hock in California. Primarily he makes woodworking blades. The Perfect Edge, it’s called and it’s absolutely brilliant. Anyone interested in sharpening, one of the things he has, is he has photographs of edges taken under a microscope. So you can see what these edges look like depending on what grits they’ve been sharpened with. It’s fascinating. But medieval people shaved, so they could get steel razor sharp. By definition, razor sharp. So how sharp they got their sword would really depend on how sharp they wanted it. And that would depend on what they wanted it for.
GW: I would say that’s a very long answer to your question.
SH: No, I enjoyed that. That trip down the rabbit hole. It was enjoyable. I got a book out of it and a story. I forgot, whose podcast is this? Am I asking you questions?
GW: Well, you know, every now and then I do get people on to interview me, to turn the tables because it’s kind of fun. Okay. Let’s turn the spotlight back to you. What is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
SH: Oh, gosh. Selling everything and just moving to Europe and the U.K. and just studying swords over there. I’ve played with that idea so many times. I’m still playing with that idea.
GW: What’s stopping you?
SH: Man, I own a house. And mostly it’s just money and the time to create the money. I’m hoping that if my gym and sword school do a little bit better and COVID, COVID threw my plans off for two years, I remember me and a friend of mine were planning to go to Edinburgh in 2020 and just kick around up there and do some sword work at the McBain Institute. Yeah, I think.
GW: No, it’s the Macdonald Academy of Arms, I think you probably mean.
SH: Yeah, the Macdonald Academy of Arms because they have a big McBain event. But I want to get up there and they’ve got a couple of other different sword schools. But I enjoy Edinburgh. It’s one of my favourite cities.
GW: I lived there for five years, so I know exactly what you speak of.
SH: I was talking about going for like three months or so and just, you know, getting a small apartment and splitting costs and just studying history and doing sword work and studying up there. And, you know, just wherever else I can go, I want to go to Italy and study. And just anybody who’d take me.
GW: You’ve got to go to Italy. You’ve got to go to Italy.
SH: Literally just couch surf, sword study. And I had cats, senior cats. They sadly passed this year but you know.
GW: Well that’s sad but also liberating.
SH: It is, it is, but yeah. It’s just mostly making sure that my affairs here are taken care of while I’m gone. Because going for two weeks or a month, really, to me isn’t enough time. I’d much rather spend three or five years doing it. Obviously I’ve devoted a lot to sword study.
GW: So what you need then is a source of passive income that will keep paying you money independent of your location.
SH: Yes. So that’s something that I’ve been trying to get going. Obviously, I’m two years behind now because of COVID, but something I’ve been trying to get going in the works where I can have passive income at least enough to get by. I don’t need fancy accommodations or anything, you know, obviously I’m like, “Can I sleep on your couch?” But just enough to make sure everything’s taken care of.
GW: Well, can I recommend books and online courses? I moved to Britain in 2016 for family reasons and we were only able to do that because I was no longer dependent on showing up and teaching every day. And the reason I was no longer dependent on the showing up and teaching every day is because I had books that were making enough money that we could actually live on. Not live on it in very fine style. But we could live on it well enough. And then the online courses came after that. And that is an even better than the books in that regard.
SH: So that has been something that has crossed my mind. I have to admit, I have a bit of imposter syndrome. Like a lot of people do. And I’ll come up with a good idea. And for some reason I’ll talk myself out. Like the same reason people ask me to come to events to teach, and I’ll just be like, oh, I don’t really have anything to add to that subject that other people are already doing or I’ll be like, I don’t wanna teach. I teach all the time. I just want to take classes. Or it’s one of those things where it’s one of those wonderful ideas that seem great, and then you just slowly talk yourself out of it and I’ll admit I’m guilty of that.
GW: It is really common. Well, yeah. I mean, the imposter syndrome thing is it’s ubiquitous and it’s super common. And basically you have a choice between imposter syndrome and Dunning Kruger syndrome. So either you know your stuff well enough that you know you don’t know everything and therefore you have imposter syndrome or, you know so little that you think you know everything and therefore erring on the side of Dunning Kruger. No one has a perfect evaluation of their own level, I think. And a bit of imposter syndrome is better for your students than Dunning Kruger. Because if you have an imposter syndrome, you will check your references, you will go for extra training. You will have the stimulus to get better. So a little bit of imposter syndrome is actually useful. But when it gets to the point where people are inviting you to events, which presumably means that cover your expenses and you say, no, no, no, I’ll just sign up to the classes. And so you have to pay your own way. That’s silly, honestly, because that’s quite a lot of money that that you could not have to spend, which you could then spend on things like trips to Europe or equipment for your salle or Facebook ads for this beginners course you’re running or whatever. I’ve actually written a blog post about it and I should probably put a link in the show notes because that has my organised thoughts about it.
SH: Oh, that would be brilliant.
GW: But I think the real trick to it is you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Which is actually the title of the very dodgy self-help book, which has that one good idea in it and the rest of it is tosh. About which one of my favourite singers on the planet, Hazel O’Connor did a song about basically the idea in the book, feel the fear. Basically it comes down to bravery, boldness, which is a martial trait. Here’s the mental hack that I used. As a teacher, you have to model right behaviour to your students. Yes? Okay. Would you want your students to be fearful or bold in that situation? Probably bold.
SF: For sure.
GW: Therefore, as a teacher, you have a duty to your students to be bold in that situation. In the same way. I mean, there’ll be situations where you have a duty to your students to model fearfulness. So, for example, if somebody pulls a knife and asks for my wallet, I’m just going to hand over my wallet. And if I get a chance, just run away.
SH: Yes, thank you.
GW: Because that is what I would want my students to do in that situation. So it’s not like, oh, you’ve always got to be bold because you’re a martial arts teacher. In this situation, in this specific opportunity, what is the correct thing to model to my students? For me, that means it doesn’t actually matter if I’m afraid.
SH: That’s a good brain hack, because now it’s not just you. You’re putting other people you care about in the equation, it’s like, I have to set a good example. It’s not just me I’m responsible for. That’s a good mind hack for a lot of things.
GW: And if in doubt, you can always call Steaphen and say, Steaphen I’ve been invited to this such and such an event. Do you think I should go and teach or am I not good enough? And you know Steaphen is going to say, oh, for God’s sake, Skye, come on.
SH: Why did you even call me?
GW: But it can be useful to get permission from an authority.
SH: Yeah, it is. Because it’s the daddy can I? I need the mentor.
GW: And eventually that’s part of Steaphen’s long term job as your instructor is to provide that as necessary. So that you can develop as you should. I’m volunteering my friend Steaphen’s time here. But I know he would agree with me that if you’re faced with that kind of decision, call him and ask him? And he’s certainly going to say do it, but he’ll actually say do it. And then it’s not you going, oh, I’m so fucking good at this and I’m so wonderful and I can do this teaching thing at this event. Steaphen said I was ready to teach at this event. So that’s what I’m going to do.
SH: Oh, if I fail, I’ll be like, Steaphen, why did you let me do that?
GW: Exactly. And if you completely screw up your class, the whole thing is an absolute disaster and you shouldn’t have even gone. You have somebody else to blame. But we know it’s going to be absolutely fine. And you’ll really enjoy it.
SH: Oh, yeah. And every time I go and do a class it turns out great. Everyone enjoys it. It’s just me being hypercritical. But again, as you pointed out, it’s better to be on that end of the spectrum than the other, where you’re absolutely not critical of yourself and you roll in there, giving everyone your bad instructor giving bad information. And I’ve been to a couple of classes where that was the case.
GW: Yeah, for sure. Only a couple? You’ve done well.
SH: I’m not going to name names.
GW: No, no, don’t name names. I would edit it out if you named names. It’s not that kind of show.
SH: Skye did it, it wasn’t me.
GW: All right. So my last question. Somebody gives you $1,000,000 or so to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money? And don’t say I would spend it on a giant trip to Europe, because you can’t. You have got to spend it on historical martial arts.
SH: No, no, it’s for the community.
GW: Although several of my guests have said, well, I’d pay off my mortgage, it’s like that isn’t really what I was asking, but OK, fine. All right.
SH: Well, unfortunately, $1,000,000 doesn’t go as far as it used to.
GW: That’s all right. You can have $10 million. $100 million. It’s imaginary money.
SH: What I would actually do is start a fund for people to have resources to either travel or teach.
GW: That’s a popular choice.
SH: But that would that’s the only thing I could think of that would be an overall improvement for the community, particularly in places where everybody is spread out very far, like the U.S. or Australia, where everyone’s very spread out. It’s hard to travel. You have to cross landmasses and oceans and it’s expensive and there’s a lot of resources. It takes a lot of time. But having a fund available for people to apply for, to either go travel and either teach or travel and take time and learn and basically just do sword study. And that fund would pay for whatever expenses they need and also to kind of take care of stuff back home. But not for people to be like go off in frat party in Paris or wherever, but to do legitimate study and have sponsors by different schools. So you would work it out with a sponsor at a different school and they would approve you to come and study for this amount of time and then you would apply for this scholarship or whatever. And then they would fund that.
GW: That’s a really good idea. I mean, having my school in Helsinki for a long time, one of the advantages of having a full time space is that people would come from literally all over, I mean, from Chile, Singapore and Australia and even Sweden, which is right next door and Russia and wherever else. It was having the salle, although legally you couldn’t legally stay there. It was an industrial building, you’re not supposed to stay there. We had a kitchen and a bathroom and a shower and what not. And if after I left, some students stayed to clear up and then they were still that the next day, because obviously they come in from the hotel they must have been staying at. It’s not my business if they are here early. But it just meant that there were no accommodation costs, so they didn’t have that to worry about and they could be eating out of supermarkets rather than eating out of restaurants because they had a kitchen. And there’s a washing machine so they could do their laundry. And it lowered the barrier enough that really they had to take care of was the flights and grocery money. It made a big difference. So having a fund like that would have would have been really helpful. So I think I’m going to give you the money.
SH: It’s also having the accountability for the money and the sponsorship from different places would help with visas and stuff as well, because every country has different rules for people coming in and out and staying for certain periods of time. And if you were particularly devout in a particular range of study, you may need to be required to stay longer than what a normal visa would require if you just came to visit for instance. And so you can work out an education one or even a working visa or something like that if you can work with the government to get that kind of stuff. So obviously there would be hoops to jump through for this kind of fund, but it would be something that would be beneficial for people who really, really want to increase their knowledge base and increase their experience, for whatever reason, whether they’re just a diehard student and have no desire to run their own salle or people like me who I want to gain the experience so that I can not only enrich myself, but enrich my students.
GW: I would prioritise the fund for people who would be taking that knowledge back and transmitting it to others. Because if you teach one person who keeps it to themselves, then all that energy is gone into one place and stopped there. But if you teach one person who then goes and teaches ten more, who then can teach ten more, and so on, you get this spread. The benefit is spread. So I think that’s a more efficient use of the money.
SH: And I’ve met some people who are very, very devout. They’re very invested. They’re very involved in this. And they live in places where like my friend Eddie Lopez, who runs a club in and around in South Texas, and he is extremely isolated. It’s on the very bottom of Texas, right next to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico. And he is even more remote than I am. And he doesn’t make a lot of money. He doesn’t have a lot of resources at his disposal. But he is extremely invested and he spends all his money buying stuff for his little club and trying to find stuff for him. And he would be the type of person that would benefit from this, someone with limited resources who is extremely isolated. It’s not easy for him to drive to Austin or a large city because it’s still a ten hour drive for him.
GW: Yeah. Which, even by American standards, that’s a long drive.
SH: That is a long drive. 10 hours. You know, 4 hours is usually within reason. But 10 hours is a very easy drive for people who live in very isolated parts of the U.S. And there’s a lot of people here and in Australia and other places where we all have long drives. I don’t want the Aussies to get mad because like we got to drive really far too. But where they would be able to have people help them to get those resources so they can go and grow their knowledge base.
GW: When you were discussing this, I thought, quite a few people have had a similar notion. I just had a thought. I should probably put together a how to improve historical martial arts with $1,000,000 list. All of the best ideas that my guests have had. Because, you know, there is money out there. I don’t happen to have a spare 10 million just to lend you for this or give you for this.
SH: Check the sofa cushions.
GW: Yeah, yeah. Check the pockets of the trousers hanging up in the wardrobe. Yeah, there’s probably a couple of million in the back pocket. So we really need to actually to put together a list of these ideas that guests have had, because then people might start acting on them.
SH: Maybe. The HEMA community is kind of like herding cats. I have discovered. We’re very individualistic and come together for fun times and fights and then go in separate ways. You know, even getting people to stand in a circle, we more end up with a potato shape. “Right, now, we form potato. And salute.” But we would need some kind of very centralized…
GW: We wouldn’t need a governing body.
SH: I don’t want a governing body. We’re cats.
GW: Yeah. Governing bodies are horrible.
SH: I know, but we need a whole central pillar, where we can meet. And I’ll spray it, mark it with our territory like cats and leave.
GW: Something like a fund. If there was this chunk of money. And it’s a fund that has been set up. Whoever sets up the fund and sets the rules and creates the hoops that need to be jumped through and whatnot. Then it’s up to them to say what those rules are. And the fact that the historical martial arts community is largely made up of lots of separate cats, which do not like running in the same direction. Very true. But if you have something of sufficient gravity, people will come to it.
SH: If you started a fund where everybody bought in with a membership and paid dues, then as a member you would be able to apply to use those dues and travel. And also schools could become members.
GW: Yes. But the problem with that is, is that then the funds will go to the people who are rich enough to afford the dues.
SH: That is true.
GW: Yeah. So I would be I’d be more inclined to, one idea I’ve had that I haven’t figured out how to execute it properly, but it’s going to happen eventually. On my online courses, I have a monthly membership thing that people can just join for a monthly membership fee and that gives them access to all of my courses. And I’ve been thinking of taking a month of that income and using it to finance a trip to teach a seminar somewhere they couldn’t possibly afford me under normal circumstances. So what that would do is it would pay all of my expenses. It wouldn’t obviously pay my salary or anything. There’s not that much money coming in, but it would pay my expenses for the event, and if it’s structured just right, I thought it would be good to sort of tie into some kind of charity community thing there. Let’s say there’s $2,000 there and the flights and whatnot are maybe $1400. So there’s $600 left and that club would then give that money to some local charity that maybe a homeless shelter or something like that. And so the club becomes better tied into its local community and that maybe help make connections for it there. So it’s not just, Guy flies in, teaches a seminar, goes home again, but there’s hopefully some kind of long term … But I haven’t figured out how to do it.
SH: It’s a tricky thing.
GW: Yeah, it needs to be totally transparent. It needs to work in terms of helping the people it’s supposed to help. And it also needs to not bankrupt me.
SH: Yeah, we kind of discussed that a little bit before I moved to Texas of a scholarship where people could chip in for a scholarship and then people would apply for the scholarship, and you just treat it like a scholarship through whatever school or organisation or whatever sponsored it. Then people who need it can apply. Just like you could apply for regular scholarship.
GW: Yeah, but there has to be an application method. There has to be a process.
SH: There’s got to be a committee.
GW: I actually have my committee already. I’ve talked to some of my colleagues and friends and they’ve said, yeah, yeah, we’ll do that. So the committee side of thing, that’s sorted out. I have to figure out the process.
SH: The hard bit is deciding who makes the decisions.
GW: Yeah. Obviously, it can’t be me.
SH: Well, no. No one wants that responsibility.
GW: No, no, no, not for the responsibility. Because then it’s impossible to get away from the Guy playing favourites.
SH: Yeah. The favouritism. It mustn’t be the person who donated the money. It needs to be a neutral person who has no ties with the money.
GW: And who will deploy it for what they think is the best use for the long term good of the art.
SH: Well if there was something like that, how many applicants do you think would apply?
GW: I’ve no idea.
SH: Me either.
GW: I was thinking of maybe doing it once a year.
SH: Once a year would be good. Like a yearly apply for the Have Sword Will Travel scholarship.
GW: That’s a good thing to call it. Now. I do know from experience I’ve triggered off a train of thought and there’s a significant risk that we’re going to spend the next half an hour of me kind of going, ah, yeah. And these half sentences will come out and it’ll be an absolutely terrible podcast episode for that last chunk.
SH: Edit it out. Nobody needs to know about that. Maybe someone will watch the podcast and be like, I’m down for the sponsoring that scholarship.
GW: Well, maybe, maybe. Yeah, yeah. One thing we haven’t covered is how do people find you and your school?
SH: I do most of my advertising on social media and word of mouth too, because a lot of the communities here are people who are interested in swords because there’s only about maybe 150,000 people in this area. Immediate area. So people who are interested in sword work are usually interested in similar things like gaming or history, history enactments, things like that. But I have a social media presence as well. And every once in a while, like if I do event like May the fourth, we did a lightsaber thing in the park downtown and I did a little Facebook event of May the fourth, Bring Your Lightsabers and everything. And this was the second year we did it and we had like 30 people show up. And some of these guys were from the 501st, you know, the Stormtrooper re-enactors. I didn’t even know we had stormtroopers in. And I made contacts because now he’s like, we need to do a big event next year where we can have a lot of people with lightsabers and more stormtroopers, because there is a community here, as isolated as it is, of people who are interested in swords. So as soon as you kind of tap into that vein of interest and groups, word of mouth spreads pretty quickly. So once you spend your initial advertising on that demographic.
GW: There isn’t a lot of competition. You’re not in competition with a million other groups and a million other clubs.
SH: No. We’re the only fencing school in like, gosh, I couldn’t tell you how many square miles. Within a three hour or five hour drive circle around us.
GW: Wow. That’s pretty big.
SH: Yeah. And there’s no other weapons. I mean, other than firearms and some archery, there’s no blade weapon type stuff. And so we got a lot of people who come in. We did have this one guy we affectionately called Scary Terry, who came from a kendo background, and he was an older gentleman with a chip on his shoulder and he just would not stop hitting us. But most of the people we get are very cool. We were just like, “We got you Terry”, and he just wouldn’t stop. But, yeah, since I do kind of have a monopoly and use the sword school, which is just my moniker, we just ended up with. We originally started with Steaphen’s, Davenriche Sword School, but to everyone we’re just the sword school because we’re the only one around. But I try to do other events as well, like we do the lightsaber thing. I, we were doing a Celtic Fair here until they cancelled it, forever, because they weren’t getting enough people. Yeah, but I’ve been trying to work with other groups here to kind of do events that cater more to people who like the historical re-enactment. They’re interested in medieval renaissance and the kind of circles that would be interested in learning historical fencing in this area, of which there’s quite a few people. It’s just nobody knows about it. It’s like a big secret nobody knows about.
GW: Well, maybe this podcast will just blast it out to everyone.
SH: Because they’ll be listening in their big old trucks in the field. “Shit, I didn’t know about that.”
GW: Actually, what I was actually asking was listeners to the podcast. If they want to find you online, where should they go?
SH: Oh, you have to ask me specifically. We do have a website. It’s theswordschool.org.
GW: Okay. Yeah, because I’ve got swordschool.com, swordschool.net and swordschool.org and I’ve had those since 2000.
SH: I mean I’m pretty sure it’s org but I’ll double check.
GW: So you’re The Sword School?
SH: I’m pretty sure it’s dot org.
GW: So people can find you there and sign up for classes.
SH: But yeah, they could find it on there or they could just search for us on Facebook, which if they put Sword School, Midland, Texas, we’re the only ones that’s going to come up.
GW: Fair enough. Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Skye. It’s been lovely to meet you.
SH: Thank you very much, Guy, I had a very good time.