Knowing when NOT to win

Keith Farrell and John McCann
Keith demonstrating a technique with John McCann during a longsword lesson. Photo by Philippa Ramsay-Bagg, 2012.

When we are sparring, and certainly when we compete, we want to apply our skills successfully and we want to “win” the fight. This is only reasonable, and it is also the purpose of many sparring exercises, where learning the skill involves learning to utilise it in a fashion that leads to success – in other words, “winning”.

However, there may sometimes be situations where trying to “win” is not the right thing to do. This article will seek to examine a few of these situations, in an effort to provoke thought and discussion about the ethics and practice of martial arts.

It is probably necessary to emphasise that while certain strategies are appropriate in a real-life, life-or-death situation, different strategies are more appropriate (and perhaps even more legal…) while training with people in the salle or at an event. Therefore, when I talk about “in a fight” in this article, I mean a training bout between two fencers in the training hall or at an event.

When it could be dangerous for your partner

There may well be a situation where “winning” the fight and landing that hit would compromise the safety of your partner. It is my opinion that we have a responsibility to our training partners, and that we should not attempt to cause harm to anyone with whom we practise. Therefore, perhaps sometimes deciding not to “win” would be the more ethical option.

For example, you might be able to “win” by using prior knowledge: if you know that your partner has a dodgy leg, you might strike it hard, early in the fight, with the purpose of doing some real damage to render him less able to move and fight back. This will certainly give you the advantage and a higher chance of “winning”, and it may even satisfy advice from self-defence books or from martial arts instructors who talk about being “street lethal” or suchlike, but it is certainly a very Cobra Kai kind of strategy. [For people who are even less well-versed in popular film culture than I am, Cobra Kai were the bad guys in the original Karate Kid film, and they used dubious strategies in order to “win” at all costs.] I certainly do not approve of this strategy, and I would take a very harsh line with any of my students who prioritised “winning” over the health of their training partners.

If you have a chance to “win” a fight in the training hall by doing something to compromise the health of your training partner, then behave yourself, be a decent person, and restrain yourself. You can always try again, and have another opportunity to “win” by a display of better skill at a later date.

When it could be dangerous for you

It is neck-in-neck, you are almost out of time, and you really want to win the fight. Your training partner is doing an excellent job of slipping just out of distance every time you think you have him, and the frustration is mounting. With just a few seconds left on the clock, you really want to land one final hit in order to secure the “win”, and you know that if you just reach out a little further, just take a slightly bigger step, then you can score the touch. You explode forward, strain yourself to reach as far as you can, lean a bit too far, go over on your ankle, and end up on the floor in severe pain, thinking that you have broken your ankle or at least torn something critical.

Or maybe your ankle is fine, but your knee blows out, and you realise that you have torn your ligaments and may not walk properly again. Or maybe your legs are fine, but you feel a ripping sensation in your chest and shoulder, and all of a sudden it really hurts to hold your sword.

Is it worth damaging yourself just to score one more point? Is it worth exchanging a “win” right now for six months of pain while you wait for an ankle to heal? Is it worth going home to your friends or family to say that you can now no longer participate properly in family life, in work, or any planned activities, but that it’s alright because you did manage to beat one of the other guys at the club?

Of course, this all seems ridiculous, yet so many people take ridiculous chances at their own expense whenever they compete, and even just when they spar in the club. For club instructors, it is important to notice when your students are taking these chances, and then offer coaching to correct the problem. For students, it’s important to begin to realise when YOU are taking chances at your own expense, and to begin to prioritise your longevity over the short term victory.

I recently wrote an article about training for the long term, in which I discuss my thoughts on this matter in more detail.

When it could be dangerous for the environment

When I say environment, I’m not necessarily meaning the global environment with trees and sea creatures and suchlike. Rather, I mean the more local and immediate environment. Is it worth pushing someone out of the ring if they stumble backward into a crowd of spectators? Is it worth leaping to the side to get a new angle on your partner, but smacking the wall with your sword as you perform your technique? If you are borrowing equipment, is it reasonable to act in such a fashion that the equipment you are borrowing is damaged?

I have seen this on countless occasions, at club-level training sessions, at local, national and international events. I have seen it in HEMA, in karate, in football and in tennis, and in life in general, where people try to get ahead in some fashion without due regard for the world around them.

Often, people become blinkered when they start fighting, and end up with tunnel vision. People often lose their awareness of the surroundings and of the consequence of their actions, and concentrate only on delivering one more hit onto their opponent. This can lead quite easily to an increased risk for the local environment, and the people and equipment nearby.

It is understandable when beginners have poor situational awareness in a fight. After all, beginners are just in the process of learning, and situational awareness is most certainly a skill that must be learned. It is important for club instructors to help students develop situational awareness as swiftly as possible if individuals lack this skill.


These are just three situations where it might not be worth trying to “win” a fight, but instead, where it might be best to allow the point to go unscored, the hit to go unlanded, the strike to go unthrown. Maybe it means “losing” a fight, maybe it means accepting a “draw”, or maybe it just means not “winning” by as large a margin as you might have liked.

If you have the control of yourself and your weapon to be able to both strike and NOT strike at will, then you will be a more skilful martial artist as a result. If you understand that sometimes it is just not worth performing an action, because someone (you, or your opponent, or someone else nearby) or something (the equipment, the wall, the window, something else nearby) might be at risk of damage, then you will be able to fight in a more careful and considerate fashion.

This is not to say that anyone should attempt to “lose” every fight, nor that people should not strive to “win”. “Winning” a fight is clearly a better situation than “losing”, and performing techniques with success is clearly better than performing techniques that do not work. However, real skill comes at taking victory in the salle by exercising such control of yourself, your weapon, your opponent, and indeed the entire situation, that there is no other option but that you will “win”. If there is no other possible result because you have exercised such complete control and mastery of the situation that your training partner cannot hit you at all, but that you can strike at will, then you are clearly the superior fencer and the superior martial artist.

In the fencing salle, perhaps what matters most is the development of skill, of control and of mastery of yourself and everything around you. And perhaps that means sometimes knowing when not to “win”.