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The Triumvirate: Why Do We Fight?

Updated: Jul 28, 2018

The author's tournament longsword

Whatever the weapon and whatever the system, Swordwind's practice of HEMA is founded on three core types of training: sparring, cutting, and historical technique. Today, we're going to look at the first of those.

For purposes of this article, "sparring" is non-choreographed fencing: unlike in a drill, neither fencer's movements are known in advance, and neither fencer has been chosen in advance to win. It can be slow and almost meditative or too fast for conscious thought, so long as it isn't predetermined.

It is this element of the unknown that makes sparring so critical. It forces us to prove that we can apply the movements we have learned in drills at the right time in the right manner, without advance warning ... or, more often, lets us know that we haven't actually internalized those movements as well as we thought we had. It is a calibration, a way to measure our progress.

It's also an invitation to see different facets of our progress as fencers. When we fail to apply a particular technique or principle in sparring, that failure provides data. What actually failed? Perhaps we executed the movements incorrectly under stress. Perhaps we responded too hurriedly or too late. Perhaps the situation didn't call for what we think it did ... or perhaps it called for a particular response, and we didn't see that. Sparring lets us think about our techniques and principles in ways that we would never have to consider if we practiced through predetermined drills alone.

And then, of course, there's the emotional element. Sparring isn't fighting - we aren't using real weapons, after all, and we aren't actually trying to injure each other - but it can provoke many of the same emotional responses: anxiety, stress, fear, anger, aggression, self-doubt. It also often provokes physical responses. Some fencers can't stop crying when they spar, even when they're having a great time. Me, I get the shakes so badly that sometimes I can barely put one foot in front of the other, let alone fight. Happens every time I step into a ring. I'm not reliving past trauma or anything like that. It's just my body.

This element of sparring isn't necessarily pleasant, but it is valuable. Part of any martial art is facing our thoughts, feelings, and our bodies and gaining mastery over them. I can't learn to be brave if I'm never afraid. I can't learn to operate under the effects of adrenaline if I never feel them. As Syrio Forel says, "Trouble is the perfect time for training. When you are dancing in the meadow with your dolls and kittens ... this is not when fighting happens."

Now that we've laid all that out, it's time for a confession: I don't actually like sparring. I don't hate it, and I'm not bad at it (I've earned a couple of medals doing it, both within and without the Piedmont Historical Fencing League) ... but it's not something that especially excites me. I certainly don't consider it the most important form of practice, or the highest goal to which a fencer can aspire.

I find that this surprises a lot of folks. Sparring is a big part of what draws people to HEMA, after all: we use steel swords! We actually hit each other with them! For many people, "full contact" sparring with steel weapons makes their sword fighting fantasies seem real. Some people just like fighting, and are happy to have a safe, consensual environment in which to hit their friends.

Me? The fact that the person I'm hitting is my friend is one of the main reasons I don't look forward to sparring.

If you're one of the folks who really loves sparring, that's great. Plenty of fencers consider this their favorite form of practice. You're allowed to have favorites! But if you're like me and the idea of swinging a steel bar at someone (or having them swing one at you) fills you with dread, I'm here to tell you that that's okay too.

How can that be? Why do I continue to spar if it doesn't fill me with joy? After all, isn't fencing supposed to be fun?

Yes. Absolutely. But it's also a skill, and acquiring skills requires practice. Playing music is supposed to be fun, but that doesn't let musicians off the hook from practicing their scales. Dance is supposed to be fun, but ballerinas still spend hours at the barre. Team sports are supposed to be fun, too, but your coach is still going to make you run sprints until your lungs are on fire. Sometimes - most of the time - acquiring the skills we want requires doing things we wouldn't otherwise do.

Sparring is like that for me. I want to know how to sword fight. That's why I fence. It just so happens that I can't acquire that skill without sparring.

So I continue to spar: fast, slow, competitively, and just between friends. I get the shakes, and I hate them. I feel all the negative emotions sparring brings up in me. And I do it anyway, because the only path to the swordsman I want to be goes through this activity.

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