10 simple tips for improving HEMA sparring

Shamelessly inspired by this article:

1. Game

I agree that relaxation is important. Being tense means you're thinking about being tense and not smiting the other guy. One of the simplest ways I've found to do this is to play more. This means treating sword fighting more like a game than a serious life and death situation because the only thing in danger in our pretend sword poking is our egos. Here are a whole bunch of games to help induce a relaxed mindset.

2. Train fast and get faster

Not many sword fighting sources have ponderous complex actions but rather lots of simple actions done at the correct time and measure very, very fast. Want to be fast? Then recognise that what you are doing now is actually slow and do specific drills to improve your explosive speed. Just try this and see what I mean:

  • Throw a glove in the air and do as many cuts as you can before it falls. Go as fast as you can while maintaining good body mechanics. If you're loosing good mechanics than slow it down a notch. This is your current max speed.
  • Work at this for a week
  • You'll find your number of cuts with good mechanics has increased in the same period of time
  • You'll realise that your original speed was actually slow and this is your new normal speed
  • This will be more immediately useful to you as a fencer than most "slow play" exercises I can think of.

3. Block your opponent

It's simple: if you don't want to be hit then always ensure that your sword is between you and your opponent. They're holding the sword that way because they want to hit you from there so don't let them. Be a dick about it and don't "give" them openings, always place your sword blocking the line your opponent is threatening. Don't have a "neutral" fall back position, have your position always be blocking their sword. This means that they will either have to feint (and give you a tempo to attack them) or change position to strike a new opening (and give you a tempo to attack them).

4. Stick your point in their face

If given the choice of position to hold, choose a point forward position and ensure your point is sticking towards their face. This is because a thrust using just the hand/arm is just about the fastest action you can perform and if you are blocking (as above) and opponent is kind enough to give you measure and a thrusting line, you will hit them. Of course, this doesn't mean leaving your sword hanging out there so they can bind it, you can pull the hand back to your head or knee to make them work to reach it.

5. Learn body mechanics

Don't look at the eyes, the hand, the hips, or the shoulders. Look at everything and learn in a fraction of a second what it means. This is largely the point of the postures or guard positions from the sources, to learn a concise summary of what is best/likely to happen from someone holding those positions. Also, learn when body mechanics are important. For example, how that person is holding themselves in long measure (i.e. able to reach you with a step) is huge. Everything prior to this is likely misdirection but this very specific moment will tell you what they intend to do next. While they might be holding a low guard out of measure if they gather into a high guard the second they move into long measure then you don't want to be caught holding a preparation for a low guard.

6. Know your principles

Body mechanics, time, measure. Read his intentions from his body mechanics, pick your tempo which determines your where you need to be.

7. Recognise the True and False Arts

The True Art is about surviving at all cost in a real fight. You will block your opponents body mechanics, withdraw from any exchange they initiate and only take an opening when you have it for certain using the simplest, fastest and most reliable of actions. Which is kind of boring in a sparring match, let's be honest. The false art is about upping the risk to yourself by trying to encourage your opponent to attack into your prepared positions with openings, trying to turn the initiative against them, deploying fancy multi-stage actions and feinting liberally. This is more fun but more likely to kill yourself. Be able to switch between the two depending on whether you are sparring for fun or for more serious purposes.

8. Actually hit the other guy

A key difference I see in new fencers that denotes success are between those that learn to actually hit the other guys and those never actually hit the other person. It's something instilled in most of us from an early age: you don't hit other people. Watch your training. When drilling or completing exercises are you actually hitting the other guy? If not then modify your training to do this. Two things you can do about this I find. Firstly get accurate so that you're always hitting somewhere that your comfortable hitting, i.e. mask, torso etc. Secondly not hitting the other guy often stems from a lack of willingness to step into measure, often people cut at long measure in the hope their opponent will step into measure for them. Practice stepping from long measure, into measure with the cut and then immediately stepping out to long measure again.

9. Be on the balls of your feet

Want to ensure your legs are bent? Go on the balls of your feet.
Want to move more explosively? Go on the balls of your feet.
Want to move smoothly? Go on the balls of your feet.
etc etc

10. Own Long Measure

This is the place you should live but holding to this position without thought will get you beat up more surely than anything. Many people take this measure position without thinking and this is where they do their thinking. You are one tempo from getting hit at this point. A half tempo if your opponent has noticed your habit and gathers in preparation to you assuming this measure. Often you'll assume the same "thinking" guard position. This means your opponent knows your measure and likely body mechanics. You're practically gifting him a free hit. Break the habit by forming another habit of assuming your normal position then taking a couple of small steps backward. Now you have two tempos to think. If your opponent is the type to automatically step forwards to make long measure then you know they will be stepping forward, which gives you a time to attack.

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