We all have certain things that we like to rely on during sparring. It might be a technique, a concept, or a special trick – it might be something that you learned while studying this discipline, or something that you picked up by studying something else. Whatever it is that you rely on, it can be helpful to think about it and consider if it is genuinely helping you or if it is holding you back.
This article considers some of my recent thoughts about reliance (and really, “over-reliance”) on different things during sparring, and how we spend our training time to achieve the results in sparring that we hope to achieve.
Relying on complicated actions
It can be tempting to rely on more complicated actions to solve relatively simple problems during sparring. After all, the complicated actions may contain enough moving parts to achieve several things at once, which may seem quite efficient. However, if you are relying on a special technique to do several things at once, perhaps that is masking an underlying weakness?
For example, when fencing with the longsword, you might perform a simple Oberhaw descending cut at your opponent. Alternatively, you might do a slightly different variation of the technique, slinging your point in from further away, then moving your hilt smoothly upward towards the Ochs to cover your head against some kind of simultaneous hit or afterblow and to prepare to cut around if your opponent makes a parry.
Surely the more complicated action ticks more boxes at once and is therefore the superior choice?
Perhaps not. Sometimes it is, sure, but if this is your “go to” action every single time, it becomes predictable. It locks you in to making those motions, and locks you in to performing the cut around if your initial action fails – which it becomes more likely to do, since (often) your attention gradually goes more towards the lifting of the arms and less towards landing the initial hit properly.
Furthermore, a technique with more motions in more directions becomes less likely to hit with good structure and will typically be less able to cut through a target. It merely lands a touch before moving elsewhere.
Although it may seem that a complicated technique may solve many problems at once, in practice it often leads to locking yourself in to a specific sequence of actions that may not be as effective as they could be, and it can also lead to focusing on lots of swift handwork without paying much attention to the fundamentals of distance, timing, and picking the right opportunity.
Instead of needing to sling your point and go up with the hands and then cut around, perhaps all you really need to do is pick your moment a bit more carefully and land a single, good quality hit that catches your opponent with their guard down. No need for anything fancier or more complicated, just better handling of distance and timing and opportunity.
Relying on fundamentals
Of course, relying solely on the fundamental skills of distance, timing, and opportunity is equally problematic. Sometimes there are problems that are indeed best solved with something more complicated! For example, landing a hit on someone who has impeccable defensive skills is really quite difficult, and you may need to increase the complexity of what you are doing in order to gain some kind of advantage.
If you have an opponent who is also good at managing distance and timing, then simple attacks are probably going to be turned away quite easily. Maybe you need to start incorporating feints or other deceits. Maybe you need to bind and then work from there, or maybe you need to convince your opponent to attack you so that you have the chance to work in closer without the risk of covering the distance yourself.
Fundamentals are clearly still important, because managing your distance, timing, opportunity, body structure, and cutting mechanics is always important and will never go wrong. But if you rely on these things alone, without ever doing anything more complicated, you may come across problems that these tools struggle to solve by themselves.
Relying on anything
From this point of view, it is clear that relying on anything in particular to the exclusion of other skills is not the best strategy.
If you rely on basics to the exclusion of anything more complicated, then some problems will remain too difficult for you to solve. You may also find your partners predicting your actions or baiting you into traps due to your limited repertoire. You may also find that this game becomes more difficult as you become older, slow down, injure yourself, or for many other reasons.
If you rely on more complicated techniques to the exclusion of good management of your fundamentals, then you will end up doing lots of work with lots of effort for relatively little effectiveness, and you may find your partners running rings around you because they manage their fundamentals better.
Clearly, the solution is to have good fundamentals and also to have a healthy repertoire of more complicated actions, tricks, feints, and other tools that can solve specific problems. In other words, training in a healthy and well rounded way, following a system and supporting it with plenty of tricks for awkward situations.
Relying on well rounded training, knowing that your fundamentals can handle the majority of situations and that you have the right complicated actions to handle the rest, is a great way to conduct your fencing!
Think about how you do your sparring. Is there anything that you rely on to the exclusion of other things? Maybe you need to try to grow past this so that you have more tools in your toolbox. Or, alternatively, do you not really rely on anything, and just hope that you can react to the situation correctly as it unfolds? Maybe in that situation, you need to have a bit more of a plan, because reaction speeds dull with tiredness, injury, and age, and it is not really a good long-term game.
How much time in training do you spend working on your “go to” techniques rather than improving your repertoire in general? Or how little time do you spend on drilling and developing your techniques to the extent that you can rely on them even when under extreme pressure? Might there be a better way to do your training so that you can become a better fencer?
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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.