Every now and then we must look back at what we are teaching and what it is based upon. In some cases this may not be as pretty a picture as what we may like it to be but it still must be done. The question remains especially for us looking into the fields of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) are we really practicing what we set out to? Are we really teaching what we are studying? Are we teaching a system or merely tips and tricks?
A system is has a foundation based on the principles of fence. This means that the actions make sense according to the rules of Time and Distance. It means that what we are teaching, when performed purely according to these rules will work. This system does not have to be based in any one "School" or based on the works of any one "Master". Indeed, what I teach is based upon the works of several theorists from at least two different "Schools". What needs to be present are the principles upon which the actions are based upon and these need to be based on the principles of fence.
A system has essential mechanics. These are foundation mechanics which every student knows and every student must learn to progress through to the next stage. The progression of the students must be based upon the training method which is set in place. Each one of the lessons should build upon some part of the lessons which came before it. Every student should progress through these lessons in some form or another. At the end of these lessons, indeed part way through some of these lessons there should be a system of evaluation of progression. You should be able to evaluate the students and see where they are in their progression to see what they have learnt and what they need to re-learn. This does not need to be formal, but some sort of recognition of the student is always a boon to them.
A system has a set of attacks and also responses to those attacks. Too often attacks are taught and there are no responses taught to defend against those attacks leaving fencers with the idea that there is no response. There is always some way to respond to every action of an opponent. These attacks and their responses need to be based upon fencing theory to ensure that they are correct and ensure the safety of the fencer. There should also be a generalised solutions to situations based on fencing theory to answer general questions of attack and response, and these too need to based in fencing theory. From these generalised solutions there should also be specific techniques and specific solutions to specific techniques based on fencing theory.
These are the elements of a system. A person who teaches the principles of fencing to their students gives them the ability to extrapolate from what they have been taught to learn more. A person who teaches a system gives their student the ability to learn another system due to the foundation knowledge that they have given them based on the theory and principles which have been taught. A person who teaches tips and tricks, gives another some neat ways to answer a couple of attacks here and there but no foundation, and a much shorter road.