The Flexible Value of Sparring

A concept that often gets discussed in my HEMA coach circles is “value above sparring” (VAS). The concept is that there should be measurable value added by non-sparring activities in your classes which makes it more useful for fencers than simply sparring for the same amount of time. This is an important measure to gauge the usefulness of your class. Here I am going to talk about sparring itself, why and how it is useful, and how its usefulness can vary. 

Something that I was reminded of when I started fencing modern sabre last year was that in modern Olympic fencing, there is no “free sparring”, you do bouts. You fence a bout with someone to 5 or 15, and when you are finished you find a new partner. This is in contrast to other sports that I have done such as judo, brazillian jiu-jutsu, and kendo, in which there is always a sparring portion where you find a partner and just go at it. Both sides know what scores and what doesn’t, but you are not going for a target score or doing a match, and there is no winner or loser at the end. We did sometimes do tournament match practice, but for the most part it was open format free practice. Both of these methods perform the same role in class, but have different focuses, so it got me thinking about what else “sparring” could be, what are the implications of each use, and how does this affect the VAS of your class.

First let’s define sparring, and talk about its place as a practice activity. I’m sure everyone has their own specific parameters on what sparring actually is, but in this case I will say “sparring” has two parameters: 1) it is “unrestricted,” – I say that with quotes because there are always restrictions for safety or culture, but generally it has the least amount of restriction tolerated by the club or group; 2) it is open ended – by this I mean no score is kept, and there is no specific goal beyond trying to land a touch, and any goals an individual might set for themselves. I call this a practice activity because it differs from the performance space for which we are practicing in longsword. 

What is the performance space? For most people it is a tournament. Tournament fencing differs from sparring in several ways, materially with structure, rules, and external feedback, and mentally with the level of stress, anxiety, and arousal involved. Not everyone will consider tournaments to be the performance space, some martially minded individuals might imagine a fight with sharp swords, though in their case I would hope that they never get to test their skills. For some casual fencers, sparring may be as close to the performance space as they get, or the performance space itself, since they may never go to a tournament. That is perfectly fine and I think it’s great that people find joy in fencing for its own sake, but for the sake of this article we will focus on tournaments as the performance space.

So sparring is not the performance space, it is a type of unstructured free practice restricted only by club culture and safety constraints. Then what is the value of sparring? At its most basic level, you are getting practice landing hits and avoiding getting hit against a resisting opponent. Beyond that, it is a sandbox in which you can do whatever you want. The benefit of a sandbox is your freedom to explore; you can work on or refine whatever aspect of your game you want. The drawback of a sandbox is that you need a sense of self direction. If you don’t know what to work on, or if you don’t try to work on anything at all, then sparring has a lower value than it would if you were focused on something specific. 

This is where other training activities come in. Other drills or games that you do during class should help give you direction by targeting specific skills and aspects of your game that you can work on during sparring. An activity that has good value above sparring should itself raise the value of sparring, creating a positive feedback loop. Activities with negative value above sparring could either be irrelevant to the performance space and not transfer at all, or possibly even make your sparring less valuable than it otherwise would have been by leading you to focus on irrelevant things. Even in this negative case, sparring will still be valuable, and will probably be the most valuable thing you do, it’ll just have a lower return on investment than it otherwise could have. In the case of a club with negative VAS activities that does sparring, it’s still possible for fencers to reach a high level of skill, but it will be the fencers who can make the best use of their sparring time who will rise. Fencers who can’t make good use of their sparring time will fall behind, and potentially become eternal beginners. 

What about if the fencer does no other activities at all, only sparring? What is the value of sparring in this case? This question is not easy to answer. My previous opinion before I started getting into games based ideas was that it is totally useless, because they haven’t learned any basics yet and people must be taught every little thing. However, this is easily disproved, there have been videos that people have posted on reddit and youtube of them fencing with no experience, just sparring with a friend, and they can develop decent movement and a good repertoire of actions. I think you can build a fencing foundation with only sparring, but the issue is you’ll likely plateau after a while, because you will fall into local maxima and have trouble finding a way forward. What I mean by “local maxima” is things that work against the people you specifically play against, but may not necessarily work in other environments. 

I do think that it is possible for someone to reach a high level and break through plateaus through just sparring, but they would have to be highly self-aware, able to self motivate, and capable of diagnosing specific parts of their game that they need to improve. Unfortunately, people who possess these skills are a rare exception, most people are not like that, which is where coaching and positive VAS activities come in. Intrinsic motivation will always help and is necessary for long term growth, but non-sparring activities and coaching advice can help you zero in on specific things to focus on. Deliberate practice is necessary for growth, if you are not focused on improving anything when you fence, it doesn’t matter how long you do it, you’ll never see major improvements. Think about driving a car, the amount of time someone spends driving does not relate to how good they are at it. People spend years driving every single day, and the quality of their driving does not change, because they are not deliberately trying to improve, they are going through the motions. 

Sparring offers a freedom of experimentation and from stress that you do not get from closer simulations of the performance space, such as practice bouts. During sparring, you set goals for your fencing that are separate from purely trying to beat your opponent. You may give up hits that you otherwise would have gotten, or get hit when you otherwise might not have, in order to try to improve at a specific skill. It’s still a good idea to do practice bouts. In a practice bout, you learn how you will act and what you will choose to do when your main goal is winning the match. You also learn that the environment is different when you have live judges giving you objective feedback (whether their calls are correct or not), and how the environment of the bout changes as the score changes. Both of these activities are important for our growth as fencers. They are part of a larger ecosystem of progression, which becomes a positive feedback loop if done well.