Sports in general are an interesting place to look at the science of superstition. We’ve all heard of it, athletes who wear the same set of garments without washing them, demand certain seats on planes every time they travel, or have a modest little activity or lucky charm they embrace each time they get ready for a game. We laugh a bit, and dismiss it as silliness, but there’s actually some science behind the mentality that these things create.
In some cases, it seems that these rituals become a form of psychological warmup routine. Engaging in these comforting behaviors puts the athletes into a proper mindset for the upcoming game. They’re not necessarily consciously doing so, and they don’t necessarily believe that their lucky charms DO help them win games – but psychologically these behaviors help reduce the heart rate and get the performer more comfortable so that they can perform consistently and safely. Whether this is something that should be encouraged or discouraged I leave to sociologists, psychologists, and various sports teams. What this all has to do with HEMA on the other hand is something that I believe is worth looking at.
Consider a tradition that exists in Kron, and many other HEMA groups – the salute. In Kron, before every fight, we salute one another with our swords, then touch blades before taking up our positions. The reasoning for this is simple – routine allows people to become comfortable, so we always do things the same way. Further, it is a public signal of respect for the other fencer, a way of saying “I acknowledge you as my opponent and fellow student, and salute your participation in this fight.”
But when you really get down to it, isn’t it a superstition? My respect for my fellow fencers is an internal thing. If I don’t salute them, will it really mean the fight is less respectful? On one level no, but on another level it very well may be. If I don’t follow the rules we’ve all agreed to, my opponent could well get stressed out. What does he think of me now that I haven’t saluted him? Is he more nervous about other rules I may not observe?
It’s an interesting question. We all have our rituals that do not necessarily directly impact the way our techniques would play out, but do them anyway because of various psychological reasons.
War cries come into this as well. Consider the Haka, a war dance performed by the All Blacks football team. It stems from a native ritual in which tribes would perform these war dances leading up to a fight, to psych themselves up and intimidate the opponent. There’s really no actual reason for it in modern football, but the All Blacks do it all the same because they want to channel the idea of the warrior ethos, and psych out their opponents, and maybe just have the fans get excited and have a good time. I have no idea how much it works for their success rate in various games they play, but I know they perform it faithfully and truly.
So what rituals do your fencing groups observe that might be considered superstitious? I’m talking of any behavior or activity that doesn’t directly impact the situation at hand, but is considered important for reasons of tradition and ‘because it’s what we do.’
My personal opinion is that these kinds of things are awesome, and I’m very much a skeptic. I do not believe in anything paranormal whatsoever – we have the real world, and real world things are what we should focus on. But before every single fencing fight I go into, I recite my personal motto to myself, put my equipment on in a very specific way, and make sure to properly observe the salute protocols. Why? Because these rituals comfort me and get me into the mindset of the fight, even if they genuinely will have no measurable effect on the result of the fight. I could well lose if I perform a perfect warm up ritual or salute, and I might win every time I disregard them all. That isn’t the point – the point is connecting myself to the HEMA ethos, and making myself feel very much more a part of things.
Feel free to share, and again I apologize for the dearth of postings lately.
Kron Martial Arts