Pretty much every HEMA club will engage in some kind of sparring or free play, and every club will have some form of etiquette that governs how people behave and how they handle situations that arise while sparring.
It is very easy to get used to how things are done in your club and to think that that might be “normal” or that that is simply “how it is done” across the board – but if you visit another club, or attend an event, you might quickly notice that other people seem to do things differently!
I think it can be worth thinking about the etiquette that your club has for sparring. Why do you think things are done that way, and what do those rules or behaviours achieve?
What do you do before the bout?
Do you just find yourself a partner and have at it? Or might it be better to have a quick word with your partner before you get started, to make sure you are on the same page about things?
I often like to have a quick word with my sparring partner before we get started. It’s a great opportunity to double check what protective gear people are (or are not!) wearing, and to make sure that we are on the same page about what sort of speed and intensity is appropriate for the bout. It’s also really helpful to mention any injuries or limitations, so that this sort of information is front and centre, to avoid any further damage or problems during the bout.
To be honest, this is one of the most important things that you can do to make the sparring bout safer and more productive. A quick chat, ten seconds or less, and you can be on your way with everyone playing the same game.
How do you begin?
I think it is healthy to begin the bout with a salute to your partner, to acknowledge that the bout is starting and to show some respect. However, before doing anything with the sword, I think it is most intelligent to put your fencing mask on your head if it is not already there!
I have seen some “near misses” over the years where people are not wearing masks, and move to start different salutes or handshakes, and unexpected a sword goes very close to someone’s face. It takes no effort at all to remove any risk from the equation: just put on your mask before you do ANYTHING with a sword, including the salute.
Once your mask is safely on your head, do a quick mental checklist to make sure you have all your other gear as well. Gloves? I have seen people forget to put these on after needing bare hands to secure the mask in place. Once you do your own checklist, take a quick look at your partner and make sure they are wearing mask and gloves. It’s not just their problem if they forget to put something on – you also have a responsibility for your training partners.
You only need to salute when you are sure that you are ready to begin and when you are happy that both you and your partner are properly equipped for the bout. Once you are ready, make your salute. Once you have both saluted, that is when you may begin – but not before both people have saluted.
In terms of the salute itself, I much prefer something simple. I raise my sword in front of my face, push it a little forward towards my partner, and then I go into whatever position I want to take first in the bout. No need to touch swords, no need to wave your sword about like some crazy Arnold Rimmer salute, no need to salute everyone else in the room. Just keep it short and to the point, indicate to your partner that you are now ready to begin, and then, when you have both indicated your readiness, you can begin.
How do you handle hits?
There are several different ways you might handle hits during a bout. You might be considering afterblows, or you might decide not to throw any. You might allow a second hit beyond the first, or you might expect to stop striking after the first hit lands. You might reset back to your initial starting positions, or you might just step back to gain some space before beginning again. You might give a full-blown salute to acknowledge a hit, you might acknowledge it informally, or you might not do anything to acknowledge it.
Different clubs have radically different ways of handling this, so it can be good to discuss this briefly before you begin.
In my club, we usually allow a friendly afterblow, but we expect both fencers to separate by a step or two, and for the person who was hit to acknowledge that that happened. Anything more than that (crazy salutes for example, or returning to starting positions) are broadly superfluous; however, it is important for us to mark that a hit happened, and therefore to finish that exchange and to allow a fresh exchange to begin anew.
How do you handle double hits? Again, different clubs will handle this differently. In my club, I would expect both fencers to acknowledge that they were hit, because that is precisely what happened.
Something that I particularly dislike is when people turn their back on their partner, trudging back to their starting point. It upsets me immensely as I feel that turning your back on someone during a fight is both dumb and disrespectful. If I had ever done that during any of my karate training, my instructors would (rightfully) have shouted at me, and my training partners would (rightfully) have felt put out and disrespected. In golf, you keep your eye on the ball until you see where it has landed. In archery, you keep your eye on the target until you see where your arrow lands. In fighting, you keep your eye on your opponent until the fight is definitely over.
Of course, some clubs see no problem with turning your back on your partner between exchanges. If that is the club etiquette, then so be it – I just don’t like it, and that’s my problem if I attend sparring sessions at clubs where this is acceptable. But in my club, I’ll tell you off if I see you do this.
It is crucially important to know what the etiquette is at the club or event you are attending, and to match your behaviour to the local rules. No club should need to change their rules to match what you usually do; the onus is entirely on you as the visitor to modify what you are doing to bring yourself in line with the local etiquette and rules.
How do you handle situations that make you uncomfortable?
What do you do in a situation where someone is acting dangerously, or hitting too hard, or generally making you feel uncomfortable?
If I feel the need to talk to my partner about something, perhaps to ask for a lower intensity or to remind them to pay attention to something they are supposed to be working on, then I’ll usually signal to show that I want to talk.
I tend to take my left hand off my sword and hold up my palm in the pretty universal “stop gesture”, while letting my sword point at the floor in an unthreatening fashion. Once my partner sees this and stops moving in a fighting fashion, I’ll beckon them in with my left hand, and step forward myself, making sure that my sword remains pointing unthreateningly at the ground. I’ll have a quick word, say what needs to be said, and then we can get back to the bout.
I would definitely prefer my students to talk to each other in the middle of a bout to work through an issue than for someone to keep acting unsafely and making the other person uncomfortable. I’d much rather that my students speak up and initiate a quick discussion than trying to push it down and “deal with” with the problem as matters potentially escalate.
And, if it’s simply not possible to resolve the situation or behaviour that is making you uncomfortable, just stop sparring with the person. Salute, step back, and finish the fight. You do not need to keep sparring with someone who is dangerous, ill-behaved, or otherwise problematic.
One final thought about this is that if I make a mistake in sparring, and do something that I think was not appropriate or was too risky or that might have made my partner uncomfortable, I will signal for a quick chat and will offer an apology. Sometimes even the best fencers or instructors can make a mistake or lose control of something! We lose nothing by offering a quick but genuine apology to show that mistakes like that were not intentional.
I tend to be much more forgiving in bouts if my partner apologises after hitting a bit too hard or after being a bit too enthusiastic. Of course, if they keep apologising for the same thing, then that’s not great, and I’ll maybe ask them to try harder or just ask for three more exchanges so that we can bring the bout to a close. But a genuine apology shows me that they aren’t just being a dick, and so I can be much more forgiving of the odd mistake or discomfort.
And offering such apologies myself when I make mistakes means that my partners will hopefully extend the same forgiveness to me when I’m not on top form.
How to you finish?
Bouts usually come to their conclusion in one of three ways: at the end of a specified length of time (the instructor shouts “halt!”), at the end of a specified number of exchanges (you simply finish after the 10th exchange, for example), or when you agree that you are just about finished. The first two options are nice and simple, but the third option, the rather open-ended fight, can be difficult to conclude.
In that situation, I usually signal my partner to show that I want to talk, then propose “three more exchanges?” That’s generally quite acceptable, although if my partner is struggling, they might counter with “whew, just one more please?” or something like that. I believe that it is only reasonable to stop at the soonest-requested point, rather than forcing someone to fight on beyond what they feel they can handle safely. And then we fight the agreed-upon number of exchanges, and finish.
When it is time to finish, I think it is best to step back and make space, then salute. The salute shows that you are finished the bout and it is again a mark of respect to your training partner, and it thanks them for their time and effort in the bout with you.
However, as with the salute at the beginning of the bout, keep your mask on for it! Again, I have seen far too many “near misses” where two fencers finish a bout, one starts to salute by lifting the sword up with the point forward, just as the other person takes off their mask and begins to step forward for a handshake. This doesn’t need to happen. Just keep your mask on until everything is complete.
So, in my club, we keep our masks on, step back, salute each other, and then take off the mask.
Under normal, non-pandemic conditions, it might be entirely appropriate to step forward at that stage (with swords pointing at the floor, or placed entirely upon the floor!) and shake hands (or touch fists in heavy gloves), or offer a hug to someone you know well.
This can be an ideal opportunity for a quick chat and debrief about what happened. I like to offer my partners one thing that I liked about their performance, and then I’ll ask them if they would like a piece of advice to work on for improvement. I won’t just start by telling them what to do better, because sometimes they will know it themselves and might not want to hear it. I find it most effective to say something genuine and honest about what I liked in their performance, and then to offer a piece of constructive criticism (but only if they wish to hear it).
Of course, you should probably move out of the sparring area if you are going to have a chat. It probably makes most sense to salute, take off masks, have that quick handshake or hug (or something Covid-appropriate), then move yourselves and your gear off to the side of the hall so that other people can get onto the sparring floor. Then you can have your chat without causing problems for anyone else.
This article describes how I like to see fights being conducted in terms of etiquette at my club. I hope the explanations help to show why I think this etiquette is a good set of rules to govern sparring at a club or at an event.
What is the etiquette at your club? Do you have any additional steps that aren’t described here, or do you handle some of these steps differently? Do you exclude some of these steps, and if so, why?
And perhaps the most interesting question: whatever your sparring etiquette is at your club, do you do it that way “just because”, or have you put some conscious thought into setting the etiquette to achieve specific goals?
I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on the matter!
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.