Diagnosing a problem in sparring

Keith Farrell and Ciaran O'Sullivan
Keith Farrell and Ciaran O’Sullivan fencing with longswords at Edgebana. Photo by Thomas Naylor, 2016.

People often ask me for advice about how to diagnose a problem in sparring, and how to fix it once it has been identified. This can be a tricky thing to do at first, but with some practice and with a reasonably structured method, the process becomes much easier. This article will outline the method I use for diagnosing problems in my own sparring, and how I go about developing solutions.

If something is not working for me, or if I am simply feeling that I have no ability to perform in a certain fashion, then this is a problem. It could be a very specific problem, such as struggling to perform a Mutieren against someone who is very fast and never remains in the bind. Or it could be a more general problem, such as always getting hit along the right arm. It could be related to footwork, such as moving around perfectly well until the blades engage, then planting and trying to fight without any further steps. Or it could be a mental issue, perhaps defeating myself psychologically before the blades even touch.

Step 1: identify that there is a problem

This may seem obvious, but many people are perfectly happy carrying on and doing what they have always done, in the mistaken idea that they will become better just by doing more of what they are doing. By taking this point of view, they don’t really improve, or perhaps they do manage but improve only slowly, without filling in the important gaps in their performance.

If you acknowledge that you have a problem in sparring, then this means that you can begin to solve it.

Worked example: if I find that I come home regularly with bruises all along my right arm, I can assume that the problem is my partner for hitting too hard (an excuse), or I can assume that I have a problem and cannot defend myself well enough to prevent these bruises (and take responsibility). Therefore, I take responsibility and identify that there is a problem in my fencing.

Step 2: how/when does the problem come about?

Do some sparring, and if the problem occurs, then make a note of how and when it occurred. This gives you important information, because problems do not just exist in a vacuum, they always come about because of a combination of other factors. If you can discover what combination this is, then you can take steps to address it.

Worked example: during sparring, maybe I note that I can always defend against the first attack, wherever it targets, but I only sometimes manage to defend against the second attack in my opponent’s sequence. Therefore, because he normally attacks to my upper left and then strikes round to my right arm, the failure in defence often occurs in the same place, leading to bruises on the arm.

Step 3: what other factors are involved?

This may seem like a useful diagnosis so far, but it is not quite complete yet. After all, what is the solution to the problem of not covering your right arm? Parry better. Is this a useful, specific goal that can be met by training a specific exercise? Useful, but not specific, and difficult to train.

Therefore, we need to see what else may be a factor that leads to the problem. Examples would be:

  • What is the distance between us, and what should it be?
  • What timing is involved in the action, and what should it be?
  • Who has initiative?
  • Are actions dictated by patience or impatience?
  • Am I stationary or moving?
  • What am I actually trying to achieve?

Worked example: I realise that maybe I step with my first parry, which helps keep me at a safe distance for covering myself, but perhaps I become stationary and fail to move with the second parry, rendering me a sitting duck for my opponent to exploit.

Alternatively: perhaps I make my first parry and then race to make a riposte, without paying attention to the fact that my opponent is still attacking. Therefore, I try to take the initiative while he still feels that the initiative is his, and this means that I cause a double hit to happen, where he hits me on the right arm and gives me a bruise because I was too impatient to wait until it was safe to attack.

Alternatively: perhaps I try to make a parry and a riposte at the wrong distance, so my riposte usually misses and thus exposes my arm for him to snipe on his way out of the engagement.

Step 4: describe EXACTLY what the problem is

Don’t be shy, be precise. What is your problem, according to the diagnosis performed above?

Worked example: I get hit a lot on the right arm, because although I am good at parrying his first action, I am then too impatient and rush to make my own attack back at him while he is still attacking me and while he still has the initiative, and therefore I get hit on the right arm.

If you can give this diagnosis to your instructor, it will be really easy to design and implement an exercise to help you fix the problem!

Step 5: make a drill to train that skill

This would be your instructor’s role, but if you don’t have your instructor nearby, you can do this step yourself quite easily.

Every exercise should be training ONE primary outcome. For your purposes, the primary outcome should be the skill necessary to solve your problem. You know the situation and the confluence of factors that leads to the problem occurring, so set up the drill to follow along those lines. There’s little use if the exercise is wildly different, because the problem occurs in this specific situation in sparring. So, think of an exercise that creates that specific situation, that gives you the chance to do several repetitions of the situation, and improve your skills at dealing with it.

Worked example: taking the diagnosis above, I need to stop being so impatient after my opponent’s first strike, and I need to hold back my riposte until I see that he no longer has the initiative and has stopped attacking me. Therefore, my opponent has to attack me, between one and seven times, and has to withdraw by three steps when he decides he has finished his attacks. I must defend myself successfully against these attacks, but to “win” the exercise, I must land my riposte on him before he can complete his three steps back. If I become passively defensive, I lose the opportunity to hit with my riposte, so I have to remain engaged and prepared to deliver the riposte, just holding it back until I perceive that he has stopped attacking.

The exercise should be specific, in that it must create the specific situation that results in the problem occurring in sparring, but it must also have a specific goal that you must achieve in order to “win” the exercise or for it to count as “successful”. If you have heard of “SMART” goal-setting for business or personal efficiency before, do this. If you haven’t heard of “SMART” goal-setting, go and read a couple of online articles about it, and it will help you immensely.

An open-ended exercise with the goal of “learn to parry better” where you just have to parry as much as you can before you get hit is a terrible exercise. You can’t “win” the exercise, it is almost impossible to be “successful”, and therefore it almost always ends in failure. To turn it into a useful exercise, the goal needs to be specific. “Defend yourself successfully against three / four / eight attacks” is a specific goal that is relatively simple to achieve; “defend yourself for as long as you can, but the exercise ends whenever you get hit OR whenever you manage to land a counter-attack on your attacker” is also a specific goal that can lead to a “win” for the fencer, that is also a very useful skill for fencing.

Step 6: re-integrate into sparring

Once you have trained your solution to the problem, you need to integrate it back into your sparring, otherwise you will not contextualise the solution and it won’t become part of your typical sparring performance. Take the opportunity to do some sparring, recognise whenever the situation occurs where you would normally suffer the problem, and do your very best to implement the solution you have practised. It may not come easily, and it may not fall into place quickly, but with some effort and discipline you will be able to make it work.


As I have written before, sparring is not always the best way to become better at sparring, because sometimes you need to stop sparring and use some other kind of exercise to fix a problem. Identify the problem, work out when and why it occurs, see if there are any other factors at play, become able to articulate your problem very precisely, then device and practise an exercise or a set of exercises to fix the problem. Then, when you integrate it back into your sparring, you will find that your problem is solved and that your sparring performance will improve.



Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.