Approaching Sparring

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Approaching Sparring

Postby Grafenz » Wed Feb 22, 2017 9:24 am

Hello there.

I am in desperate need for some advice or, at the very least, a different opinion on the following matter.
It's related to how we approach sparring in our club.

First I would like to describe the situation I see myself in.

I have been training longsword fencing (Joachim Meyer) for roughly a year now. I am capable of performing many of the basic strikes and some more advanced techniques correctly (although not perfect by any means). However, we have almost only trained techniques with low intensity, without any protection gear and under perfect conditions. We have not done any sparring during this whole year. Therefore I have next to no experience when it comes to applying the techniques I practiced so far in sparring or in a chaotic environment.

On this basis I decided that I would like to test my abilities at a local competition. The competition takes place during this year's winter. I will have almost 2 years of training by that time, which is hopefully enough to not utterly fail and have some fun.
In order to prepare I have started training in my protection gear simply to get used to it. I do quite alot of weight training, and I was part of an atheltics club for several years. So speed, strength and endurance are no problem for me at all.
The next obvious step, in my opinion, would be to start getting into actual sparring and train at middle to high intensity with an opponent who does not simply let me perform my technique. In short, fighting against someone who would also like to not be hit and win.

I was delighted to hear that my instructors scheduled an extra training solely for sparring on a monthly basis (Sparring has not been part of the training for over a year). For me personally it was the first time to actually use my skills with the intent to really hit someone. At first I was very stiff, did not apply techniques correctly and simply made alot of mistakes. As expected for someone who is sparring for the very first time. As the training went I managed to pull off some techniques and got used to the situation. It felt that I became better with every passing minute.
At the end of the training something strange happened. The other members said that they also struggeled to apply techniques. At that time I thought this was odd, since they practiced their techniques for many years longer than I did. We talked about these impression for some minutes.

I concluded that this was only a necessary consequence of our training so far. Performing a beautiful Zwerchhau in a perfect enviroment is obviously different from sparring. Therefore our techniques did not initially work as we are used to. In order to reach a point at which we are able to pull off a good Zwerchhau in sparring, you would have to keep sparring with the intent to use a certain technique you want to get better at. I think simply getting into necessary protection gear during normal training and apply the technique at a higher intensity with the intent to hit your oponent, who is actively training to not get hit by you, will also be a big step forward.
However, my instructors and most other members reached a conclusion that is drastically different. According to them the techniques do not work at a higher intensity and that additional sparring and higher intensity within the normal training will not solve this problem. The newly scheduled sparring training has been reduced to a point where the time spend sparring per month is unlikely to exceed 10 minutes (I am not kidding with this one).
To be clear, we all want to become better at sparring.
However, I cannot believe that almost completely avoiding sparring will make anyone good at sparring.

Since I am not an instructor or an expert I cannot tell right from wrong on this is issue.

That's why I decided to ask on this forum for some advice or opinions.
Am I at least right on some points? Are there good arguments for those points to convince my friends in my club?
Perhaps I am wrong, but where?

Thank you already for your time to read through this whole mess. :)

PS: I hope I posted this in the correct forum section. :D

Joe Munski
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Re: Approaching Sparring

Postby Joe Munski » Mon Feb 27, 2017 8:41 am

Hello Grafenz,

It's up to the school to decide how much sparring or high-intensity freeplay to incorporate into the curriculum. I've visited schools that are 100% sparring after completing 6 weeks of basics and schools that do not permit student freeplay until 1.5+ years of training. There are pros and cons to both approaches in how it affects an individual's training, the school's retention of new students, and learning of the art.

Within my organization we identify three major tracks that a student can follow or switch between based on their personal preference: traditional, sport, or enthusiast. To define the extreme of each track is to say that a traditionalist focuses on scholarship of the manuals, sport focuses on athleticism/tournament techniques, and an enthusiast is a practitioner who follows along in class but does not desire to be a scholar or tournament fencer. We incorporate high-intensity freeplay in all three of these tracks because it forces application of the techniques learned from class drills, but the three tracks differ in how much freeplay occurs.

It sounds as if your school follows what I would call a Traditional / Scholarship route to learning HEMA. This is neither good nor bad, but it may not exactly fit your HEMA goals.

So to address one of your points, the failure of a technique during freeplay does not delegitimize that technique but instead shows a failure by the practitioner to appropriately apply or interpret the technique. Hence why fencing is an Art. My statement is based on the assumption that treatise were written by fencing Masters (read: Experts) who actually applied their martial skills, whereas we are just recreating it, and therefore the treatise are truth. If the Masters said a zwerchhau breaks vom tag, then it does.

To address your concern, if you are focused on preparing for a tournament then I believe sparring is important to practice. However, high intensity freeplay is different even from sparring. They both require control and confidence in your blade/body, but sparring requires the intent to land a good strike and the ability to recognize a good hit. In sparring you need to overcome your physical limitations by practicing in gear (as you mentioned), working through mental barriers/training scars of 'not hitting', not flinching when being attacked, and learning how to breath / control your excitement. Since we are all working through these physical issues, I tend to see a decrease in Artful fencing when transition from high intensity freeplay to sparring.

I hope this helps as a second point of view.


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Re: Approaching Sparring

Postby KeithFarrell » Mon Feb 27, 2017 11:25 am

I have written a few blog articles on the subject, I hope they may be helpful:

Sparring: not always the best training method to become better at sparring

Learning to apply a difficult technique in sparring

Making Mutieren work in sparring

The third article is a case study of the second, so those two should be read together.
-- Keith Farrell --
Academy of Historical Arts: website Facebook blog
Fallen Rook Publishing: website Facebook

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Re: Approaching Sparring

Postby Grafenz » Mon Feb 27, 2017 1:32 pm

Thanks for giving your opinion. It was, indeed, helpful.

Whether my club suits me well is not really my main concern here. In Germany, at least in my region, you cannot be picky when it comes to HEMA clubs.
I also don't intend to judge anyone training for reasons that differ from my own. It is very desireable to have many people praticipate in HEMA.
I merely tried to describe the way our club has done things so far to put my specific problem into a wider context.

My main concern is finding out what exactly the reason is for our failure in applying techniques at higher intensities and how we can fix that.

I agree with you that the techniques cannot be at fault. The masters are called masters for a reason.
That leaves us with two options. Either our interpretation of the technique is wrong or we have not trained it enough.

I watched alot of different youtube videos showing their interpretation of techniques. Almost none of them contradict our interpretation. They are mostly the same. Therefore, the problem is not our interpretations.

Thus, we have to conclude that we did not train the techniques enough, or perhaps not the right way.

Remember, our goal is to fix the problem we have in our club. Making techniques work in sparring is the goal.
(I say sparring because I lack a better word to describe it. I mean anything that involves people in some safety gear who try to actually hit eachother with moderate to high speed/force.)

My instructors and many members believe we are simply not ready to get into any kind of sparring yet and that we should train the way we are used to until we are "ready". Some of our members have been training for 10 years and are still not ready...
They also argued that sparring will only make you slightly better at sparring according to their experience.

This totally contradicts what I have experienced.
The other day, I trained the Zwerchhau in a sparring like enviroment. And then my Zwerchhau somehow worked in real sparring against my friends in our club. I tried the same with the Krumphau, and it worked again. From where I stood before this was not just a "slight" improvement.
I think, in order to apply techniques outside the perfect situations, in which we have trained so far, we have to raise the intensity step by step and allow for the training partner to do something that is not ideal for my technique to work. For techniques that we are already familiar with this should work perfectly fine. For new stuff, we still have to do the low intensity first though.

Is there a mistake in my reasoning here? Am I missing something?
Last edited by Grafenz on Wed Mar 01, 2017 1:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Approaching Sparring

Postby Grafenz » Mon Feb 27, 2017 1:59 pm

KeithFarrell wrote:I have written a few blog articles on the subject, I hope they may be helpful:

Sparring: not always the best training method to become better at sparring

Learning to apply a difficult technique in sparring

Making Mutieren work in sparring

The third article is a case study of the second, so those two should be read together.

I did read your articles like a day after I opened this thread.
Together with a friend, we put the methods you describe into practice and had some great results so far. Thank you very much. :)

Your articles seem to conditionally agree with my view on this matter.
(I have to say that by sparring I mean anything that involves people fighting with moderate to high speed/force without letting your training partner get away with everything. I am not a native english speaker, I lack a better word for what I intend to say.)

Tea Kew
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Location: Cambridge, UK

Re: Approaching Sparring

Postby Tea Kew » Tue Feb 28, 2017 11:50 am

The way I tend to think of this sort of thing is in terms of two dials: choreography and compliance. Each can be set at a variety of settings. I'll illustrate this for the moment with the example of using a zwerhaw to counter an oberhaw.

A simple technique drill might be fully choreographed and fully compliant: I know exactly when my partner's oberhaw will come, and they make sure my zwerhaw successfully breaks it. There's no chance that they will just throw their cut as hard and fast as possible, or that they'll throw a different cut to counter my zwerhaw.

In a tournament, the situation is entirely unchoreographed and wholly non-compliant. I have no idea when my opponent is going to deliver an oberhaw, and it will come as hard and fast as they can muster. Obviously, it's very hard to just go from fully choreographed compliant practice, to unchoreographed non-compliant sparring.

This is where it's valuable to use other exercises, adjusting one or the other variable along the range. So to work on using the zwerhaw in tournament sparring, I might spend some time working on other drills:

In one, the situation is still choreographed, but it is noncompliant. Here my partner will attack me with an oberhaw - but I don't know when, and they'll try to hit me in the face with it. I have to execute the zwerhaw correctly to protect myself.

In another, the situation is still relatively compliant, but is less choreographed. My partner will attack with reasonable speed, and with a choice of perhaps two or three actions - one of which should be countered by the zwerhaw, another of which should be (for example) countered by the krumphaw. My job is then to recognise which action they're using as fast as possible, in order to counter it.

In a third, the situation is wholly unchoreographed, but very compliant. My partner will use any attack they feel like, feints and combinations and so on, but acting at a much lower intensity, so I can learn to read what's going on and recognise the situations where they employ the oberhaw and I can use my zwerhaw to counter it.

None of these are sufficient training methods by themself. However, the combination allows me to become confident in applying the zwerhaw at high levels of force, and familiar with using it in varied situations - and therefore able to use it when in a tournament.

Once you understand how to manipulate these two dials, you can adjust your training games pretty much arbitrarily, to help work on whichever aspect of a technique or play is currently being an issue for you.

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