Running a sparring group.

We have a weekly sparring group. On the face of it we turn up, warm up, kit up and spar but there is actually a (little) bit more to it than that and this post will examine some of the things that go into running a regular sparring group.

What is a sparring group?

Roughly six local HEMA practitioners come together in a village community center and spar, we don’t have a member who always acts as an instructor, no formal class is presented and we simply spar against each other in no particular order, no particular pressure to use a specific weapon, it is basically a bit of “whatever you are having yourself” style practice. Recently we have stuck to fighting against someone with the same weapon as you, so Longsword Vs Longsword, Sabre Vs Sabre etc. There’s no reason for this other than convenience and we certainly don’t rule out mixed weapon bouts.

How does it work?

By and large the members provide their own equipment, certainly in the case of masks and gloves. We do have a stock of assorted PPE for use by members but a leaning toward minimal padding and accompanying maturity when it comes to hard hitting means we don’t usually need too much extra kit. Weapons, we have in abundance and include steel longswords and sabres and an assortment of synthetics to suit most tastes. The sessions run for two hours roughly, we only have enough space for two bouts at a time and we drift towards the local when we are finished.

Pooling group equipment like this means that there a fair amount of choice in weapons and makes sure no-one gets bored of always swinging a longsword. Sharing is caring, but from the very outset we promote the respect of someone-else’s  property and that having your own is better if you want to use it regularly. We have talked about bringing in a weekly donation for “kit hire” for the less decked out members which would go to the owner in the event of breakage during a loan out.

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What a beautiful rack of weapons!

Bouts aren’t timed, there are no referees, we start in opposing corners and return there after each point is scored. Bouts continue in a totally free-form way, acknowledging any hits, until one person calls “three more lives?” and from then on scores are kept. This structure allows each fighter to get warmed up with the weapon before they have to start worrying too much about the competitive aspects. Doubles count as a life off each fighter and a fighter is allowed to refuse a point if they feel they didn’t land it well. We absolutely believe in the honour system when it comes to opponents landing hits on you. Sometimes the opponents might rule out hands/forearms as valid targets to get better quality scoring. I am a great believer in the benefits of competition but not everyone does and even I find that not keeping score to begin with means you are willing to try out new techniques, discuss quality of execution with an opponent and enjoy the fight in a more relaxed way.

Occasionally there is some teaching but we allow the need for instruction to emerge naturally from the activities we engage in. If a member wants to try a system they are unfamiliar with all they have to do is ask whoever owns that particular sword to show them a little bit. We tend to bring stuff we know a little about and so can demonstrate the basics to someone else quite quickly. If you know a lot about it then you tell them a lot if not they can go read more about it and next week try out what they have learned.

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Me teaching some aspiring fencers back in 2015, I may well have found my natural level…

The responsibility for development is put into the hands of the members themselves through practice, solo drills and study. Sparring bouts are often interrupted by one fighter asking the other “what did you do just then? Show me that a bit slower, I want to try that it.” or by the scorer of the last point saying “well, if you had parried like…this…instead, I probably wouldn’t have hit you just then.” We are all in it together after all so why not learn from each other.

As most of us have only a limited amount of time to take about swords the rest of the week there is a tendency for the pair(s) that aren’t actually fighting to descend into discussion of the finer points of equipment choice and that can distract from the core activity of the group. We want to do as much sparring as possible and not get sucked into chatting about swords/gear and techniques when we have a pile of equipment sat there waiting to be used. One of the members has developed a lovely phrase which he trots out when we drift too far; “that’s pub talk!” he reminds us and inevitably we do remember to return to the topic later on.

Why run a sparring group?

We run a free-sparring session for several reasons; to take the pressure off any one individual to prepare a formal class, to break down the distinctions between ‘instructors’ and ‘students’ and to get more  of practice ‘real’ fights as opposed to more structured drills or practice ‘games’ that serve the purpose of building technical skill but, for me, lack the variety and challenge of sparring. We have created a ‘culture’ within our group and the members enforce and challenge that culture amongst themselves; this flat hierarchy suits me on a number of philosophical levels, but that’s not the focus of this blog. To summarise our ‘culture’ is:

  • Minimal padding and therefore practice control and restraint during sparring
  • Individual responsibility for your own safety and others in the group
  • Concede points when you get hit
  • Share your skills and the fruits of your study with the group
  • Ask the owner before you use any equipment but if you are asked be generous
  • Don’t let the chat swamp the sword fighting

Now, we have never got around to creating a constitution or anything and the above list will always be subject to change based upon the needs of the members who attend. These points are just what the group culture looked like to me on Monday night.

Using a sparring group structure as opposed to a formal class means that no single member has to do all the leg work, any member can promote their own interests as they share what they have learnt, members practice in a manner which more closely matches ‘real’ fight situations and is given greater opportunity to employ what they have been drilling in drier settings. I enjoy my sparring group and if you are used to more formal structure I can only recommend it to you .

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3 thoughts on “Running a sparring group.

  1. Very nice James. Sounds like a good training system live action there’s no substitute for it…and gives you a chance to work out kinks in strategies and attacks etc.

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  2. Sounds like good craic. Sparring for me is ideally a little more focussed on specific actions like “stuck in a bind? Disengage and cut to the hands as you leave measure” so there may be a theme to the session and you try some loose play to see if you can plug it in then. Just sparring is also good to ‘see what happens’ but I worry too much ‘random stuff’ may just lead to more ‘random stuff’. I like the idea at least that I come away from class having felt I learnt something or at least am progressing towards it.

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    1. I agree, and avoiding that drift into more randomness is something we often struggle with. We want to improve by practising specific techniques and purely ‘free’ sparring doesn’t contribute much to that.

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