Sparring as Teaching

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Richard Marsden
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Sparring as Teaching

Postby Richard Marsden » Tue Mar 15, 2016 7:28 am

Sparring as Teaching

Every club or school has their own way of introducing students to sparring. That may be, right away, not for a long time, or for some - never. My own view, and that of the Phoenix Society, is that sparring is better sooner, rather than later, and many of the reasons why not to do it are not true. Leap into it!

My day job is that of a teacher. As of this post, 14 years and counting. When it comes to swordplay, I've been involved in 'sword stuff' for almost twenty years, and HEMAA for 9. One of the things I have learned is that doing and teaching are in of themselves the best teachers. Students need to utilize what they learn and they do not have to perfect it on the first attempt. So- what is doing?


YOU are going to learn.

A new student to the Phoenix Society, or a guest (you're all welcome to visit) are usually introduced into sparring as soon as possible. Sparring is a large part of the Phoenix Society, and it is the reason we produce, and have produced, excellent fighters when it comes to the tournament scene. Tournaments are not the end all be all, but they do show that under pressure, in a controlled environment, those participating can get their techniques to work against the unwilling. In the beginning, it was just John and I, but now there is Kyle, Cliff, Chris, Randy, Adam, ... and the list goes on and on. It has come to the point that students of my students are starting to perform well. We're doing something right.


Tournaments aside, sparring is used by the Phoenix Society to test themselves. The members spar on a regular basis and the instructors see dramatic improvements within the first one to three years. After that, we see less spikes, and a more gradual improvement. Students who are dedicated become competent within a year, and can become challenging within three. The Phoenix Society is fortunate that there is a club in Tucson, the Tucson Historical Fencing club, under Doug Bostic, that we can test ourselves against and vice-versa. Doug's guys show dramatic improvements each visit and our own members have to keep pace. At the High School, I am currently winding down a HEMA program after 10 years. In that decade, I saw first-hand how students coming to me as Freshmen would leave Senior year entirely competent. Some of them are still with me today, and some, like Randy Reyes, are already on the road to becoming teachers in their own right, with their own track record to be proud of. We're doing something right.

Techniques can be tested against the unwilling. Drills are great to learn the mechanics of something, but they can also lead to improper, or more likely, inefficient techniques. I've seen many clubs, in many parts of the world, and I have seen drills I know would not work against an unwilling opponent. Not because the techniques are inherently bad, but because the drill takes more time (tempo) than it should. Drills have a pre-determined winner (usually). They're supposed to. By themselves, they are not so bad, but without sparring of some sort, the drill is in a lifeless vacuum. Techniques need to be stress-tested, and sparring is an excellent way to do it.

Sparring is good for competition. Not into competition? Sparring is good for student development. Don't care about student development? Techniques are understood better in conjunction with sparring.

Sparring is good for you and good for the students.

Arguments against sparring are fine to have, but I'm far enough along my own HEMA career that most of them are simply not true.


Sparring is in a fake environment, so, nothing valid is learned.
This is the argument that believes the techniques are so precise and special, that they only work with sharps, at speed, to the death. Pretty hard-core, but also a poor way of teaching. A skilled teacher can get by on this, but a student will perpetually stay a student, unable to grasp exactly how the techniques work, because they never get to really use them. They are theoretically good at what they do.

Sparring is in a fake environment so it gives faulty results.
Similar to the above argument, but a better one. YES. It's true. Sparring can give faulty results. Sparring has rules. Sparring has fake swords. Sparring has protective equipment. Sparring has... you get the idea. All these artificial things do affect techniques. Rather than give up on sparring, instead focus on learning from it. Our students fight with synthetics and steel feders, and John and I will at times bust out with the mildly sharp blunts. There is a difference! We use that to teach from, and try to get students to use steel over synthetic as soon as they can, and to experiment with different types of gear so they can be as unarmored as possible, but still be safe. Drills are a fake environment, actually everything short of a real duel is a fake environment. That doesn't mean don't do it. Just be sensible. Someone who does awesome at sparring with a synthetic sword, but doesn't use the techniques, or something that even looks like the techniques, is not what we want! The teacher corrects the student in that situation.

Sparring teaches bad habits!
It can! Sparring under the eye of an instructor, or coached sparring, doesn't have this issue as much. Students all pick up bad habits, so do teachers. Having more than one teacher on hand helps correct the numerous things students do wrong. The Phoenix Society has a flock of instructors. Our students get corrections, often, and through sparring improve their faulty habits. They only lock in bad habits if we ALL do it, which in of itself is not a reason not to spar. Remember, anything can teach bad habits. A drill, a poor or incorrect explanation, a teacher, not just sparring can lead to bad habits.

I'm too old!
Your students aren't. Not all sparring has to be at 100%. The closer to 100% power and speed the better, but our bodies will break down under such punishment. The Phoenix Society does not go at 100% all the time. Ok- some of them do, but I do not. My own body has not held up as well as I'd like, and I spar less than I used to, but I oversee sparring a lot more. I help others grow, which is my job and the job of a teacher. I know other instructors who are up there in years. They know their stuff. They have their students spar, and they watch, getting involved as needed to improve them.

If you're an older student, sparring is still something to consider, but with pacing. The Phoenix Society has several members who are 50+. They spar. They don't go 100% all the time, and they take breaks, but they do just fine, progress and learn. Well...some of them go 100% all the time, and are like freight-trains that can't be stopped- but not everyone can do that. Props to the 60+ year old who fought his Birthday Bearpit and said, "Bring me more."

I'm too young!
Ok, you got me here. Students who are under 15 I tend to only let spar in a very controlled environment if at all. If a kid is unable to pick up a sword, I tend to tell the parents 'he or she is not ready for us'.

The High School club for example pitted kids against kids, with adults only showing up to spar at less than 100%. Students still learned, but the young have to be watched out for. Besides- you don't want to get sued for breaking some kid's hand.

On the plus side, teenagers can pick up the techniques through sparring surprisingly quick. They lack the coordination of an adult, but they tend to have ever-increasing strength and speed and pick up things faster. They can become young HEMA athletes relatively quickly. It's also a great way for kids to get a workout and refine their motor skills.

Adults who spar children (anyone under 18) can scale. Sparring does not have to be at 100%. As a teacher, I often spar at 50% against a young student who is giving their all. The sparring focuses on just a few things. The last time I did this against a 15 year old, Chris and I noticed he was trying his best, but needed a bit more help. We stayed on just defense. We forced him to get much closer. We delivered only a few types of attacks, while encouraging him to try out more sophisticated techniques. Soon as he figured it out, we upped our game. The difference between the student's performance at the start of the day and the end, was night and day. This is actually normal for kids, most adults learn slower.

Students are not ready to spar.
Yes they are. Students can spar on day 1. Do they have to? No. But waiting weeks, months, years, is not how the Phoenix Society does things and we don't think it is good for students.

When it comes to teaching, or let's get fancy, when it comes to pedagogy, time and again DOING has demonstrated itself to be the best teacher. Say, model, do, is the method I and many teachers, academically and in HEMA, use to teach our students. Sparring isn't the only way to 'do', but it is a way.

Besides, it's fun. Let the kids play.


Richard Marsden

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David S. Hoornstra
Posts: 1
Joined: Tue Mar 15, 2016 10:04 am

Re: Sparring as Teaching

Postby David S. Hoornstra » Tue Mar 15, 2016 10:18 am

Nice article that covers the bases. We at the Ann Arbor Sword Club follow a similar philosophy. One wonders how one could teach tennis without a ball flying between courts with its inevitable variations. Such is sparring.
In my opinion, once you go from a single-hand weapon like modern foil with all its constraints to two hands (and potentially two feet) the subject becomes inexhaustible from a drill standpoint. There are too many variations to teach by drills alone no matter how well you do it.

Joe Munski
Posts: 5
Joined: Wed Jun 18, 2014 2:08 pm

Re: Sparring as Teaching

Postby Joe Munski » Wed Mar 16, 2016 11:58 am

David, Good to see you on the forums!

I would like to add to the argument for sparring:

Sparring is a marketing tool. It is flashy, is perceived as dangerous / edgy and is part of what differentiates HEMA from other organizations. In my experience, many fellow practitioners joined HEMA to be swordswomen / swordsmen. Hence why exhibition sparring is used at public events as a recruiting tool, because it taps into the passion of would be HEMA-ists. Aside from just bringing in recruits, sparring is used for student retention. I've attended classes at different groups; some of whom have recruits sparring immediately, others requiring lengthy periods of scholarship and drill before sparring, but most are somewhere in the middle (4-6 weeks of basic training, then low intensity sparring). All of the groups have a group of dedicated core students, but groups who introduced sparring earlier seemed to retain more of their newcomers.

Sparring is useful in our academic practice, but also useful as a tool to grow our organization because it is a distilled demonstration of our hard earned skills.

Scott Richardson
Posts: 7
Joined: Sat May 21, 2016 5:44 pm

Re: Sparring as Teaching

Postby Scott Richardson » Sun Jul 24, 2016 6:47 pm

We quite agree with this at our club. Our overall philosophy is to train up our brand-spanking-new folks to the point where they well understand the fundamentals in a theoretical way, then have them begin sparring. Folks who come to us with some experience can and do spar right away. We believe sparring is the greatest teacher and a whole lot of fun!
Scott Richardson, Chief Instructor
Black Wolf Historical Fencing Club

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