Introducing new students to sparring

Liverpool HEMA lesson
Alex and Marc performing an exercise during a lesson at Liverpool HEMA. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 13th February 2015. It has been modified a little for reposting here.

Most schools have a particular method for introducing new students to the exercise of sparring. The school will have chosen this method because it fits their circumstances and because, for whatever reason, the instructors believe the method makes sense.

I have experienced and heard of several methods, so this article will investigate a handful of methods and will hopefully stimulate some thought and discussion within schools about how to manage the issue.

Just dive in

One of the most popular methods is simply to let students “dive in” and have a go. This is often because the instructor finds it most convenient for lesson planning if there are no special circumstances and all participants are treated just the same in every single lesson. It might involve throwing some beginners in at the deep end from time to time, and many instructors believe that this is a good way to help people acclimatise to the exercise of sparring, rather than wasting time with other exercises building up to it.

One of the big advantages of this method is that an instructor does not need to have a system in place for recording who has passed the test to be allowed to spar, nor will he need a system by which to test people. He can just schedule sparring as part of the lesson plan as required, and students can have a go and learn something from it.

Another advantage is that with this method, people probably begin to start sparring earlier than with other methods, and become accustomed to it sooner. Of course, this can also be a disadvantage, because some people do need time to absorb the general lessons before they are able to put techniques or concepts into practice in sparring, so “diving in” early can cause quite a lot of distress or confusion for some people.

A further advantage is that if for any reason a class is somewhat depleted in numbers one evening, everyone can still participate in the sparring activity. If half the class are absent due to work, illness and random chance, and only six people are present, then asking two or three of the students to sit out because they are not yet “sparring approved” will make the class somewhat pointless. Letting everyone “dive in” and have a go will mean that even a depleted class can still train properly.

Of course, a major disadvantage is that many students are not really ready to start sparring until they have learned enough techniques, defences, and also self-confidence to give it a go.

Wait six months

Some clubs place a time restriction on sparring. I have heard some instructors say that they do not allow students to begin sparring until first they have completed one, three or six months of lessons. This is usually an attempt to ensure that students have trained the necessary basics before starting to spar in a more competitive and free environment, but I believe that time requirements have little place in martial arts.

The advantages are that the method does create a simple rule, and it does give people ample opportunity for learning the basics before trying to apply them in sparring.

The disadvantages, of course, are that it takes however long for people to have their first taste of sparring, and not everyone learns at the same speed: some people will learn and understand the basics in a couple of months, while others maybe require a year or more to gain the same competency.

Pass a test

Some clubs have a codified test that needs to be passed before students are allowed to begin sparring. Sometimes this test involves activities such as demonstrating power control and accuracy of targeting. Sometimes the test involves demonstration of basics, techniques and sequences that the club instructors believe are required to be able to spar at any reasonable level of competence.

One of the advantages of having a test is that students have something concrete to aim for, that they can train towards and achieve for themselves. If a student does not manage to pass the test (perhaps because the student strikes carelessly and hits too hard) then the test has a valuable role in holding that student back from sparring (and potentially damaging other students) until the problem can be addressed.

However, one of the downsides of having a test is that the club administrators need to have some system in place to record who has passed the test and who has not yet taken it. Furthermore, if a school is large and has several clubs or training evenings, then the test has to be administered at (potentially) several locations, on separate days, and has to be administered on a somewhat regular basis; it becomes much more time intensive and requires more effort from the club instructors and/or administrators, and may hinder the school’s training rather than help it.

Another consideration is what to do if someone fails the test. If only one or two people fail the test, will the instructor follow the rules and hold back these people form sparring until they can pass the test? Or will they be allowed to join in and spar anyway, rendering the test meaningless?

First sparring is with an instructor

Another common method is to let the students begin sparring whenever, without needing to pass a test or complete a length of study beforehand, but requiring that the student fights the first bout with an instructor. The rationale is usually that of safety: if anyone in the club should be able to keep themselves safe when fighting against a new student, it is probably the instructor; another point of view is that the instructor doesn’t want the new student to pose a danger to any other student until they have learned to spar safely.

Personally, I think this method is flawed. If a student is genuinely a danger to the rest of the class, then requiring the student’s first three minute bout to be against the instructor will do little to diminish the danger that the student poses to other people when he then picks his next opponents and begins to spar with the rest of the class. Furthermore, if the student is genuinely a danger to other people in the class, then something has gone very wrong at almost every stage in training!

Furthermore, if an instructor has to give an introductory bout to many students in one evening, then the instructor will begin to tire and will lose sharpness of technique and speed of defence, making the situation less safe for everyone involved, including the instructor. What are the ethical implications of mandating that a small group of important individuals within the club take additional risks?

This approach is sometimes coupled with the previous test-based method, whereby the instructor has a sparring match with a new student, and at the end, either approves the student for sparring with other students, or requires further training before the student can spar with anyone else.

Another issue with this method is the scalability. If there are many students but few instructors, then a lot of people are going to be sitting around without much to do while the instructor tries to get through the introductory fight with everyone. It is not an effective or efficient use of time or effort.

In some ways this method does make sense. A new student is probably going to enjoy his first sparring match more if he spars against a skilled and competent instructor than if he spars with another beginner who cannot demonstrate the system and its techniques very well. If the new students enjoy their first sparring bout, they are of course more likely to remain members and join the school.

Sparring begins in slow motion

Another method is that people can begin sparring whenever, without needing to pass a test and without waiting for a requisite period of time, but to begin the sparring in slow motion, only allowing the speed to increase as the weeks go by and the students develop more skill.

This is a method I have used in the past when I have had ten or twelve weeks to run an introductory course. It is not a foolproof method, and slow-motion sparring can be boring for many people; and, needless to say, it requires a significant amount of supervision by the instructor to ensure that everyone remains at the correct speed.

This method is very difficult to arrange if the instructor does not have the luxury of a dedicated course of study, with a definite start date and end date; if students are able to drop in whenever and begin their studies whenever, then this method is almost impossible to employ across a club.

Begin with games

A final method is to begin with sparring games, rather than full-blown, 50-50, random and chaotic sparring. Games can be simple, such as “you can only use these types of strike”, or “the goal of this game is to hit the head”, or suchlike.

This helps to ease students from structured and choreographed drilling towards the more chaotic environment of sparring, while keeping control of the practice and not leaving people to run wild with their imagination.

With this approach, it is quite possible to take beginners and have them engage in safe, controlled sparring within just a few weeks, because the sparring is then simply a development of the games, which are in turn simply a development of the pair drills, that are in fact just a development of solo drills. The progression of exercises can be very smooth and very effective.

General Points

Some general points to consider when choosing your club’s method:

– what if a skilled practitioner wants to join your club, should you allow this person to move straight into sparring? Or must this person obey the same rules as everyone else, and for how long will this skilled practitioner be held back from sparring until he or she becomes eligible to spar? What is the value of a rule if it can be broken easily?

– what if a guest instructor comes to give a lesson, and part of their planned lesson involves students sparring with each other? Do you prevent some people from participating in that part of the lesson and disrupt the plans of the guest instructor, or do you break your rules and let people go ahead and “dive in” without any prior experience of sparring?

– how are you going to administer your method consistently and fairly across your school both now and for the next few years? If your school has more than one club or training night, and more than one instructor, how can you ensure that the rules are followed consistently throughout the whole school?

– what are you trying to achieve with your method: safety, a comfortable grasp of the basics, something else? Might there be a more efficient or more effective way of achieving this goal?

– how scalable is your method? If your club was suddenly to experience a growth in numbers, perhaps doubling or tripling in size, would your method be able to cope with this, or would it place a tremendous strain on your ability to run lessons?

– if your club trains more than one discipline, do students need to pass your test or complete their three months of training in just the first system they study or in all the systems they study? If the latter, what if one of your instructors decides to try a new system, will instructors have to follow the same rules as the students?

– what if your students go to another club or to an event, where they have the opportunity to spar with each other? If they have been held back from sparring at your school because of your method, will this have a negative impact on their cross training or complementary training, and could this have a negative effect on how your school is viewed by the martial arts community?

Conclusions

Every club and instructor has their preferred method for introducing students to sparring, and has a point of view about whether or not students should be allowed to spar given the skills that they currently possess. This can even cause quite a lot of disagreement between instructors at the same club, as people do hold quite strong points of view on the subject.

These are just a handful of methods I have experienced or heard about, but there are plenty more.

How does your school handle beginners and sparring, and why? Have a think about what your club is trying to achieve with its chosen method, and either be satisfied that the method is right for your school, or identify problems and consider what other methods might achieve your goals better. If your club does not yet have a method or policy about introducing new students to sparring, should you perhaps choose one?

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.