Sparring and Fighting

Keith Farrell and Yvain Rit fencing with longswords at TaurHEMAchia 2017. Photo by Andrea Boschetti, 2017.

This is a guest article by Duncan McEvoy. Duncan and I have had several discussions over the last year or so, on the topic of sparring and fighting, and how we think these elements fit into the ways that we each conceptualise HEMA and martial arts. Since Duncan has some different points of view to my own, I asked if he would be willing to write some of his thoughts for a guest article, so that the website can show another way of looking at HEMA. He kindly agreed, wrote this article, and sent it over to me for hosting on the site.

Do you spar in your club? If you do why do you do it? My guess is there will be some common answers like “it’s fun”, and “it helps me to prepare for competitions”, and “it helps me to pressure test ideas and techniques”, etc. Of course there will be many none standard answers too, maybe almost as many answers as there are people sparring out there. I’m certain they are all good answers as they are your answer, and whatever works for you … works.

So we all know what sparring is, what we use it for etc, but do we have any mis-conceptions that could be doing us more harm than good? Maybe, so it could be worth looking into sparring a little deeper and its relationship to learning how to fight. This is worth thinking about and looking into as one of the most common answers I see is along the lines of “it helps me become a better fighter”, or “it’s how I can pressure test myself to fight better”, or variations on that theme. Basically what we are saying is it’s a way to train to become a better fighter. So… Here is the question. Is that correct?

For the purposes of this article we are mostly looking at one on one encounters.


Of course any answer will very much depend on your own interpretation of ‘Sparring’ and ‘Fighting’. Dictionary definitions are not overly helpful (e.g. a lot of definitions for sparring seem obsessed with boxing), but some elements may help.

Spar, To Spar, Sparring:

  1. to fight using light blows, as in training
  2. an unaggressive fight
  3. to fight, especially with light blows
  4. make the motions of boxing without landing heavy blows, as a form of training.

Fight, To Fight, Fighting:

  1. a battle or combat.
  2. an angry argument or disagreement
  3. to engage in battle or in single combat
  4. to defeat, or destroy an adversary.

As you can see there are certain themes coming out of the dictionary definitions which are helpful to our investigation. So this combined with our own knowledge and experience may allow us to proceed.

Once again I will suggest there are many different ideas out there on what these two words mean so I’ll put forward two common enough definitions for each that we can work with. We are working within the realms of martial arts here so I think we can frame the definitions accordingly.

Sparring: To engage an opponent in a (simulated) violent but controlled and unaggressive encounter, using light and/or controlled strikes with many different aims or goals mutually agreed before the encounter begins.

Fighting: To engage an opponent in a physically violent way with the goal of controlling, hurting or killing the other person with little or no constraints on any action.

These are by no means ‘written in stone’ definitions, and I am sure many will have other ideas, but I feel they cover a lot of the basic ideas most people have when talking about these subjects while leaving enough open to individual interpretation.

So with that said is sparring a good way to prepare or train for fighting? Well, the short answer is no, or maybe more accurate,” no but can help get you some way towards it”. Why do I say this? Let me elaborate, (and I’ll try to summarise rather than go into too much great detail, we can go into detail on the comments, messages, further articles, etc., if folks wish to do so).

Context and reality

The basic problem is the context and the reality of the two scenarios. As you can see from the definitions put forward the two words have different meanings and are solutions to different needs and scenarios. (Not necessarily good solutions, that’s for you to decide, but solutions none the less).

Sparring tends to come from drills, forms, looking at manuscripts and trying to interpret or put under some pressure the ideas or training you have gained (it also comes from playing about and having fun too but we can take that as a given). In our context it tends to be done in a controlled environment, on nice clean flat floors, in comfortable training equipment, between two willing participants with an agreed code of conduct. The two, (or more), taking part normally have a plan of action or agreed conclusion. This could be trying to pressure test a technique or idea, or maybe hit an agreed body part, score points etc etc. All of this is done in a friendly way in the interests of learning and fun. (Let me just add I am firmly of the opinion that if anyone is sparring without such agreed conduct they are a potential danger to themselves and others and should probably be asked to leave).

Combat and or fighting is pretty much the opposite of what I describe above. I know almost all of you at this point will be saying to yourself something like “We already know this, it’s pretty obvious, what are you telling me for”, and of course you are correct, we all KNOW it, but do we understand it? Do we REALLY know what this means, and if we accept its almost the complete opposite of sparring, friendly competition etc. then why do so many of us also try to link the two together? That is a big topic in and of itself, but for most the link is there as it’s the best and safest way we test our skills and ideas. Therefore it makes sense for us to equate sparring and fighting in some way.

How is it different?

So the next question to answer is, how is it different? Another large topic and with many opinions so let me sum up some of my thoughts to try to convey some sense of why I say sparring is not really a good way to prepare for fighting.

Let me start by saying that one simple answer is that 95% or possibly more do not train to fight. Before there is an uproar let me explain my reasoning. Martial arts are pursued by many people for many reason but very few of these reasons involve learning how to fight in a no holds barred, constantly changing, extremely violent, a-symmetric context . Even those who think they do, (possibly including me here) in the full glare of harsh reality probably don’t. It’s not a criticism just an observation. As previously stated, bringing that mind set into most martial arts training scenarios will more than likely get you kicked out or possibly arrested.

The stress and pressures involved when someone is trying to cause you real harm or death is vastly different to training and sparring. This concept cannot be over exaggerated, the difference is worlds apart. For example it has been observed that very fit and well trained martial artists can and do loose their breath and go into panic mode under the pressure of real threats. Even verbal encounters (the more likely scenario in our society), can panic anyone (Including our well trained martial artist) causing them to loose breath and any sense of focus through stress. Under these types of conditions most will go into defence mode, covering up etc. rather than attack. Even if our trained martial artist manages to fight back or strike pre-emptively in fear for his life there is often a second shock moment when a well-trained technique or response fails to work, or even more of a shock moment when it seems to work and the other person fails to stop and keeps attacking. This type of shock can alter skills and/or mind-set dramatically and in a very detrimental way.

Almost no training we do today whether it be mental preparation, stress management, top martial arts training, fitness training or sparring will prepare us for the pain, both received and given, the noise, the intensity, the ferocity, the stress and the thousands of other environmental and contextual considerations involved in a real and horrific violent encounter.

A good friend of mine who worked as a doorman and trained doormen for many years also ran a full contact martial arts sparing club for over 10 years to help his training, train others and of course have fun. He attracted many martial arts practitioners, teachers and champions. Many of the members wanted to work the doors with him and he observed over the years that skill level and accomplishments in the training hall held almost no relevance when working on the doors of night clubs etc. 70 to 80 percent of them could not hack the job at all, some did ok for a while but at most only about 10% actually took to the job and could do it. He worked with a tournament world champion who got destroyed by joe public with obviously little or no training. The detailed reasons for this are many and can be gone into elsewhere. So why bring this up? Simple. It’s a little more than anecdotal single incident evidence as these observations where gathered over a period of 10 years, and it shows that even working in a relatively calm atmosphere of a night club door (relative to some of the time periods and scenarios we study), it is often far too much for even extremely experienced martial artists to cope with. In this context it shows the often inherent weaknesses in ‘dojo/salle’ training when taken out of that context.

We all know that training on a nice clean flat floor, in comfortable clothing and/or protection, in a friendly environment etc, is just not the same as fighting in a hostile environment against people who’s sole intent is to hurt and/or kill you. It never can be, but I think very few of us truly understand how big that gap in our knowledge and experience truly is.

So does this mean sparring and training are useless and those involved in it are delusional? Of course not. As stated previously most people do not actually train to fight in this manner and context, that’s just not why they are doing it. Of those who do, or try to, then their training must move beyond the normal drill hall context and into the type of hostile environment talked about previously.

If you want to truly learn if you can fight and if so how, then at some point you have to fight. No holds barred, aggressive, no rules, fighting and you have to do it over and over again. As this is not an option for most (or at least not a desirable option), what can we do?

Some things that can help in training

Here are a few ideas, not an exhaustive list, just some things that help me in my training.

First and foremost, no matter how you train, keep these ideas and experiences we have talked about foremost in your mind, let it colour how you observe and interpret all of your studies, build these types of scenarios into your training, your drilling and your sparring, question everything you do, question the manuscripts and your teaching with this sort of context constantly in mind, question your assumptions and test everything in as many ways as you can.

Next, keep it simple. Simple works, simple will be remembered and simple can become automatic responses to a given stimuli. If your ideas are becoming too complex they are probably too contextual, too specific, and while interesting will not help too much when framing your training within this violent context.

Train and fight freestyle, mix up your weapons and styles, fight any way you can to gain a desired result, train and spar with folks outside of your style and martial art. Test yourself in increasingly difficult and hostile environments and context. This has to be done within reason of course, we must still stay safe and us weekend warriors still have to go to work on Monday, but as much as you can drive these ideas into your training.

Train and spar in different environments. E.g., in a doorway, on a stair case, in a corridor, on a field, on a hill, in the rain, in hot sun etc. Try to change your environment and see how it affects your training and your fighting.

Continuous sparring/fighting. Spar with no end goal, no agreed upon results, just keep going no matter what happens. Again be safe but keep going, don’t stop for as long as you can and as long as it makes sense. See what happens within this context.

Train with 100% commitment and intent to your attack. This does not mean go at your opponent like an animal it means mentally be fully focused and fully committed BUT, and this is vital, have the ability to change your mind. Train changing your mind. Ask for responses or action from your training partner to force you to change your mind quickly. Do this often; this is a vital skill which is often the point that fails folks in a real hostile encounter (sometimes in sparring and competitions too).

Give a lot of time to the study of principles like balance, time, sense of distance, controlling the space, body mechanics etc. These are key to any fighting and are the building blocks all fighters work with and within. This can be easily incorporated into your interpretation of manuscripts for HEMA. It can be easy to loose focus on such things as the fascination with the history etc. draw you in.


So to sum up, while sparring can be counter productive when learning how to fight, this is mostly born out of having the wrong idea and mind-set about it. If used correctly it can help get you further along the desired path. It is also fun, stress reliving and builds confidence like almost nothing else. Does sparring teach you how to fight? No definitely not. ….. BUT…. CAN it HELP you get closer to becoming a competent fighter? Yes it can if, like any other tool, it is used correctly.

End thought…… I often hear the argument that the skills we are studying are not relevant to the modern day and cannot be used to help keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. A typical comment is along the lines of “We won’t be carrying swords around will we so we are never likely to use these skills in anger”. For me this is totally wrong as the skills learnt can and will help you protect yourself and your loved ones in many different context. After all what were many of these skills and ideas being trained and used for in the first place. Many of the principles, ideas and skills being trained are very relevant at any time in history and are just as relevant today as they were back then, it all depends on how you approach it and think about it. The skills and experiences I have been exposed to through the nearly 20 years of studying and teaching HEMA are very much relevant to me, and have got/kept me out a few sticky situations down the years.

Thanks and credits go to my Father, Steve Tappin and the late great John Waller, without whose knowledge, teachings, wisdom and generosity none of this nonsense would be possible 😉