Interview with Luis Preto
By Alen Lovrič
I have trained with Luis Preto several times, and each of those times left me with much to think about regarding tactical approaches to HEMA, as well as the biomechanical aspect of it. That is hardly surprising, as Luis is one of the few people who have a formal education in sports sciences, focusing on martial arts. To top it off, he is also a teacher of Jogo do Pau, a Portuguese stick fighting art with many similarities to longsword fencing. As such, he was the perfect candidate to interview about HEMA, its direction, and its future.
To start off with, could you tell us about yourself?
My name is Luis Preto, and I am 36 years old. My undergrad is in physical education, and I have a couple of Masters in sport sciences, one in sports teaching methodologies and one in coaching sciences. I started practicing martial arts at the age of 9, and at the age of 18 I started with Jogo do Pau. I’ve also written a few books on how to teach Jogo do Pau and fencing arts in general, and recently I started putting together DVDs (a first one on how Jogo do Pau’s technique evolved as the art looked to tactically adapt to outnumbered combat and dueling, and a second DVD on combat tactics and its decision-making process). I focus on both one-on-one combat, as well as outnumbered combat, which supplements one-on-one combat quite nicely.
You’ve travelled extensively, and everywhere you have been, you have taught, giving you a much more global perspective on the state of HEMA. Where would you say HEMA in general is currently headed?
I might not be the best person to ask this, as lately I haven’t been to many HEMA events. But from what I have seen, it’s obvious that a significant part of HEMA is making a strong push towards competitiveness, which is good in that competitions help people set specific goals, which helps with the motivational aspect of training. Obviously, with the exception of Jogo do Pau, which is a living tradition, most of the fencing arts have been resurrected. As such, rules needed to be made, and these rules determine how the fighting will be done. With that, you always run the risk that you put together a rule set which does not resemble the art that you are trying to recreate. Even when the rules are good, it is still impossible to take into account all of the things that might happen in a real life-or-death situation. For example, a pre-emptive strike while the opponent is not ready is a very real possibility in an actual fight, but no rule set will or should include this. Due to this, I seem to have noticed a split happening between those who focus on manuals and those who focus on competition. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as both sides respect and work with each other – however, if they do not, a full split may occur.
On the topic of competition, I am not sure how familiar you are with the current rule sets. But, I am sure you know of the Afterblow rule (which states that a hit is invalid if the attacker receives a counter-hit within on tempo) as well as the Right of Way rule (which states that if there is a double hit, the point will be awarded to the fighter who started his attack first). What is your take on these two rules?
I am in favor of the Afterblow rule, but I have a different opinion on what an afterblow is. For example, in my experience with Jogo do Pau, I have never had anyone answer my strike with a strike of their own. Well, there are exceptions, such as when I am swinging very slowly and give the opportunity for my opponent to do a thrust. In that case, the thrust can overcome the strike. But without the body armor and at full speed, this is not easy nor safe to pull off, so I’ve never had anyone react with a strike of their own. When I take the initiative, the opponent engages in a defensive maneuver – a void, a parry, or a combination of both. If my opponent attempts to defend and gets hit, and then immediately responds with a strike, that is an afterblow; it comes after my blow, after all. Thus, since he threw his blow after me, I have a chance to defend it. But if he attacks into my attack, he is hoping to be the second to start and the first one to finish. In short, he is playing Russian roulette, which mostly equates to being suicidal, and not respecting my attack, something that does not happen with the threat of actual injury. Consequently, you have to rectify this with a rule that makes up for the change of combat dynamics brought about by the artificial use of a safety net (armor and / or adapted weapons).
And here comes the Right of Way Rule. The Right of Way is a rule that aims to punish those who would answer an attack with an attack, and neglect the defense. If there is no double hit, the Right of Way doesn’t apply. What is your stance on this rule?
Either you prohibit striking into a strike, or you punish it with the scoring system. Usually, when people spar, they want to win. So if the rules prevent reacting to a strike with a strike, or punish it, people won’t do it. If the rules allow for it, people will start abusing it, and in this case they will be adopting a behavior that is not martially sound. So if this rule is implemented, and fighters really strive to defend themselves, only then does the Afterblow rule start making sense, and it even does so by complementing the right of way rule quite nicely. It’s almost like a symbiotic partnership. Defense brings about (counter) attacks performed after a defensive maneuver, which are, in turn, defensible.
You come from a sports sciences background. But, for HEMA this is not the norm, as many of us who train do not have a background associated with the theory of sport. Do you think this might be a problem for HEMA in the future?
Well, within HEMA one needs to take into account that people needed to recreate the techniques. They needed to figure out the “ABC”s of the art – what to teach. Personally, coming from a duly systematized living tradition, I failed to understand this for a long time, and tried to convey information which comes only later in the development of such arts: how to teach.
However, though I am currently releasing a study item still related to the what-to-teach paradigm (DVD on tactical decision making), I do believe the time has come for HEMA to build on its foundation, thus looking more actively into strategies pertaining how to teach in an effective and efficient manner.
This is, however, not a problem specific to HEMA. In former Soviet and communist countries, sport was used as a political tool. So, a very conscious decision was made by those governments to extensively fund professional coaches and research into sports sciences. But, outside of these countries, sport is mostly seen as a leisure activity. And, as such, there is insufficient funding for sports to be professionalized.
On top of that, there is also the need for coaches to be proficient and knowledgeable in pedagogy, but first and foremost, in the specifics of their sport – meaning techniques and tactics. Thus, sports coaching is mostly performed by former athletes turned coaches, but often without any additional scientific and pedagogical knowledge. Most of these athletes-turned-coaches of course mean well, but due to the lack of funding can’t reach their full coaching potential. This is the case with all sports. Even in soccer, coaches are mostly passionate former athletes, who often do not have any formal education in sports sciences or pedagogy. There are even examples of incredible athletes who attempted to coach and failed, such as Magic Johnson or Maradona, who could not translate their athletic prowess into coaching. This is because the main skill a coach needs is not to demonstrate skills, but to identify what is keeping his athletes from mastering a certain technique or tactic, and develop ways to get them to master it anyway. This involves movement analysis, various corrective strategies, and a lot of creativity. With HEMA, you also have to take into account that people needed to recreate the techniques. They needed to figure out the “ABC”s of the art. But now the time has come to build on that. So the question of how to do it has now been answered, and the question that awaits is how to teach HEMA as effectively as possible.
Traditionally, HEMA has been very closed to the influence of other sports, although this has slowly started to change. How much do you think other sports and martial arts have to offer to HEMA? For instance, Sports Fencing, Kendo or even Judo and Karate?
This is quite the complex question. Any sport always has something to teach – sometimes in a positive and sometimes in a negative way. You can look at how other sports organize their training, competitions, how they train their judges and coaches…. Regarding HEMA in particular, I believe several things could be useful. One is the training of judges, another is strength and conditioning training. It is very useful and valid to see what other sports are doing, and try to figure out if different combat arts can come together for the same purpose (such as that of putting together comprehensive coaching clinics). With strength training, conditioning and pedagogy, we can say that the wheel has already been invented. So why should you limit either clinics or your own research to one single combat sport? To preserve some kind of tribal feeling pertaining to the origin of knowledge, such as East vs. West? This is beyond my comprehension.
Since you are an expert on training methodologies, do you think that creating a scientific basis on how to teach HEMA is the next step we should take in developing it?
Yes. It’s the trainees that make the art, it’s the trainee’s level which determines at what level the art is, and their level is mostly determined by instructors’ training options / methodologies. When one embraces the idea that there are no bad students, the search for knowledge becomes relentless, corrective strategies become way more creative and to the point, and everyone ends up feeling better about the training process and its outcome, trainees and instructors alike. So once you know what you teach and how the art works, it is only logical to pass that knowledge on so that the training concepts can keep on improving through the flow of knowledge.
The last question is a little bit lighter: what is your favorite thing about HEMA?
I always found the human element to be great. Everyone is very friendly, very nice and very enthusiastic. I have always felt that the people in HEMA have a very strong, healthy human element to it.
About the author:
Alen Lovrič found his passion for swords some ten years ago, seven of which have been dedicated to training HEMA. Of course, since swords never come alone, he also started doing research into various related topics, educating himself slowly in fields such as sports sciences, metallurgy and sword properties.