This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th January 2017. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
One of the common problems faced by many practitioners of historical fencing is that while we know and have learned many cool techniques from our source materials, we may not be able to apply these difficult techniques in the heat of sparring. How can we work towards being able to apply all of our techniques at will, even when under pressure? It requires a little bit of thought and effort, and perhaps you need to change your typical sparring and training habits.
A common myth is that when you are placed under pressure, you “rise to the occasion”. That is rarely true for martial arts, where it is in fact much more correct that you “sink to the level of your training”. This means that if you practise poorly, then when placed under pressure (such as when sparring or when competing), you will perform poorly. If you only ever practise slowly, then you will not be able to perform under pressure at high speeds. If you only ever practise gentle touches, then you will not be able to deliver a meaningful blow when under pressure. If you only ever practise with a friendly, cooperative training partner, then you will struggle when sparring with someone who wants to “win” the fight.
However, it would be a mistake to jump straight to the other end of the spectrum, and to make everything as difficult or as “real” as possible, right from the very beginning. If all your training is done under huge stress, then you might learn to manage stress, but you may be missing many of the finer (and equally important) points that come from working on the technique in a more controlled and lower intensity environment.
Think about learning a language. Is it more useful to start off by learning a few key phrases and then practising them in controlled situation – for example, learning how to say “hello”, how to order a beer, and how to say “thank you”, then practising these simple phrases in an appropriate context? Or is it more useful to look at every word in the vocabulary (just like learning all the techniques in a fighting system) and then trying to apply all of them at once by writing a university level thesis in the new language (just like trying to apply all the techniques in an intense sparring match)? Clearly, the first option will be more successful for the vast majority of people.
Think about learning to swim. Is it more useful to begin in the shallow end of the pool, learning how to float and how to move yourself through the water without sinking and without breathing water into your lungs? Or is it more useful to dive straight into the deepest part of the pool and start racing your better-trained friends to see who can reach the other side most swiftly?
Think about learning to cook as a child or teenager. Is it more useful to begin by learning some simpler dishes and practising how to use appliances such as the oven for different purposes? Or is it more useful to begin learning to cook by preparing a four-course meal using new ingredients and unfamiliar kitchen equipment?
For one final example, think about learning to play a musical instrument. Is it more useful to begin by learning how to produce a sound on the instrument, where to place the fingers to create different notes, and how to play scales or chords or whatever basic exercises that are best suited for the instrument? Or is it most sensible to pick up your new instrument and launch straight into Mozart’s cadenzas, because you believe you will “rise to the occasion”?
Discussion of these examples
In all of these examples, it seems to be a ridiculous pairing of options; the first option in each example clearly involves starting with simpler exercises to learn the basics, before moving onto something more difficult, while the second option is clearly jumping into a very difficult application of a skill that clearly requires some learning and practice before there is any chance of success. These pairings have been deliberate, because something we see on a regular basis in the practice of HEMA is that people decide that they don’t really need to do much practice or drilling, and instead dive straight into sparring at a high speed and a high level of intensity. They believe that they will “rise to the occasion” and learn more from sparring than they possibly could learn in a controlled teaching environment. I have heard countless practitioners say that they learn more from sparring than they do from drilling, yet upon observing their sparring, they struggle to form a competent guard position, they struggle to step in balance, and they struggle to produce an attack that carries any meaningful threat.
This is not to say that sparring is bad. On the contrary, I believe sparring is one of the most important tools for development as a martial artist. However, I have written before that sparring is not necessarily the best way to become good at sparring, and also that people need to learn how to learn from play before they can learn the right lessons from sparring. Sparring is just one of the tools that we can use to become competent martial artists, but prioritising this tool over other exercises leads to a biased and non-holistic development, and practitioners end up stunted rather than accomplished.
Learning the basics
When learning the basics of how to perform techniques, and the situation/context in which they work best, it is best to reduce the complexity of the technique and environment as much as possible. The easier the technique and the less chaotic the environment, the better students will be able to learn the basics.
That is not to say that it is best to simplify the environment to the point where there is no opponent at all. While there are many benefits to solo drilling, learning to implement a technique in a sparring situation does require an opponent to give proper context to the actions, and so people need to acclimatise to performing techniques upon an opponent as swiftly as possible. However, at this early stage, opponents should act more like cooperative training partners, and allow their fellow students to learn how to do the exercise correctly, without adding any complications.
Developing the exercise
Once students understand the basics of an action, it is time to develop the exercise further. You can either add complexity, noise, or intensity. In other words, you can make the technique more complicated (“if he does this, respond this way; if he does that, respond that way”), you can make the environment more noisy or chaotic (adding random elements, perhaps starting from a less-than-ideal starting position, etc.), or you can make the same exercise more intense (faster, with more strength and effort, etc.) than before.
With each development of the exercise, you need to increase one and only one of these elements. The increase needs to be small and measured – you can’t go from learning the basics of swimming with the breast stroke directly to swimming across the English Channel, you develop by small and measured steps in order to increase a student’s capabilities.
So, perhaps you begin by showing someone how to perform a descending strike towards an opponent’s head. Then, perhaps, you increase the distance slightly to resemble sparring distance (changing one variable: distance).
Then, perhaps, you allow the opponent to move around, and the student must maintain distance in order to be able to strike at the appropriate moment (changing one variable: movement).
Then perhaps you add the rule that the opponent covers their head, and provides a cue by uncovering their head, and the student must react to this cue with their strike (changing one variable: choice of timing).
Then perhaps you give the opponent permission to parry some strikes, in which case the student must be able to strike around to the other side of the head (changing one variable: now reacting to two possible stimuli (parry or no parry), instead of just the one).
Then perhaps you want both the student and the opponent to up the intensity just a little (changing one variable: intensity).
But what if you want to start teaching the action as a follow-up to a feint? Well, if you want to add this kind of complexity to the action, you may need to drop back the intensity and the noise of the exercise, so that students can focus on how to do the more complicated action. Then, once they have understood this, you can start developing the intensity and noise again.
Of course, this is a very brief summary of quite a complex issue, and it merely skims the surface. However, I hope the gist is clear, that students have to begin with simple exercises that then increase in complexity through a structured course of developments.
Integrating the technique into sparring
A technique will not just magically appear in sparring once you have trained it a few times. You have to take responsibility of your practice, which means you have to intend to use the action in sparring. Earlier I said that “sparring is just one of the tools” we can use for training, which means that it is just like solo and paired drilling in that it requires conscious thought and attentive effort for you to make use of it constructively. That means that you have to have a goal in mind, that you want to achieve, while you are sparring. The goal could be something vague like “defend better than usual” or “move the feet more than usual”, but it can also be more specific, such as “use this particular technique whenever I get the opportunity”.
Of course, remembering the example of learning swimming, you can’t learn the breast stroke and then immediately use it to swim the English Channel. You have to start by learning the stroke, developing the rhythm and mechanics to use it to swim a single length of the pool, and then develop the strength and stamina to swim several lengths of the pool. As you get better at the technique, the activity can become more difficult; the reverse of that statement is that while you are still at the earlier stages of learning the technique, the activity has to be easier in order to allow you to perform the technique with your still low level of skill. Better skill will come in time, but if you don’t learn how to implement a technique in a simple environment, there is even less chance that you will be able to apply it in a more complicated sparring environment.
So, reduce the complexity of the sparring. How can you do that? Set parameters or rules on the exercise. Not every single sparring match has to emulate the final rounds of a Swordfish tournament. You can mandate slow motion, or light contact. You can place a limit on the number or types of techniques used by one or both fencers. You can give both fencers a goal to achieve, or give a separate goal to each fencer. You can change the rules so that the sparring match is not just two fencers beating on each other – you can help your students learn how to apply their new technique by making the environment more suitable to applying that particular technique.
Once people begin to learn how and when to apply the technique in a simple, low intensity sparring match, success is close. There are just a few more developments that are required.
Develop the sparring exercises
Treat the sparring just like any other exercise: every bout is just an exercise, with a set of rules, designed to achieve a specific goal. Training a technique with a partner in a drilling situation is just the same: it is an exercise, with a set of rules, designed to achieve a specific goal. The only real difference between drilling and sparring is that drilling tends to be less random in the grand scheme of things, while sparring tends to be somewhat more chaotic.
So, once students have learned to apply the technique in slow sparring, or sparring that is parameterised and restricted in some fashion, begin to reduce the parameters, and gradually let the intensity creep up. This is an important step in making sure that the students can apply their technique even when under pressure, and they still need help to reach this level of skill. If the sparring becomes too chaotic or too intense, and if the students can no longer apply the technique successfully, then it is time to dial down the intensity and add a few more parameters again, so that the students can practise in an environment where it is possible for them to apply the technique successfully.
Troubleshoot any specific problems
If students are having trouble applying the technique in certain situations, then you might have to stop sparring for a while and make some drills and exercises to address the specific problem. If a student can do the technique perfectly when the opponent has his right foot forward, but fails when the opponent is left foot forwards, then it is time to go back to drilling and to practise doing the technique against an opponent who is left foot forward – making sure, of course, go start off as simple as necessary, and then to develop the exercise step by step until the student is able to perform the skill at a much higher level of complexity and intensity. Then you can integrate the newly-improved skill back into parameterised sparring, and then develop sparring as an exercise, as before.
It is quite unreasonable to expect techniques to work successfully in sparring if you do not provide the correct environment for them to succeed. Simply sparring fast and hard, and expecting to develop all of your skills and techniques in this fashion, is very naive. Almost all of the scientific research in learning theory and sports science from the last 50 years points to a considered and structured development of exercises as the best way for people to learn skills, and almost none of the science suggests that just diving in and sparring a lot will provide better results.
What one thing can you do in your next sparring matches to try to improve your current ability to perform more difficult techniques?
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 teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.