t’s sparring day. You’ve been working on zwerchau in class for a month now and all the drills make sense. You can counter an oberhau, break vom tag, and even do the counter-zwerch play perfectly; it’s time to pull it out in sparring! So you gear up, swing the sword a few times, and get to it and… nothing works. You can barely throw an oberhau today, let alone trying out the new zwerchau you’ve been working on. So what happened?
Usually, at this point, there is a litany of excuses: There’s denial (“I had a bad night” or “my gear gets in the way”) or are more honest with yourself (“I just blanked, nothing worked” or “I guess I wasn’t ready to try that”), you’re not going to get to the root of the problem: you’re (probably) training wrong.
Going From Drills to Sparring
One of the biggest struggles I’ve had with running my own school, and honestly, even in my own training, is finding ways of taking drills from a simple learnable level to a space where they can be used in sparring. There is a lot of nuance that needs to be trained and developed but to my knowledge, not a lot of concrete development of these methods. A close parallel in my mind is found in wrestling or judo and how they learn techniques. However, beyond a lot of repetition (and I mean a lot) a lot of the advice seems to boil down to picking one or two techniques to get really good at and applying them everywhere. While this is great in a competitive sense, and could even be made to apply to sword fighting, it’s not going to help you learn the Art.
I have another approach, and while not perfect, I want to share what I have been working through in practices and where I hope to take it. It is worth noting that a lot of what I am doing is building off the ideas of The Four Stages of Competence. Hopefully, as a community, we can build an effective method of applying these concepts and create a better method of teaching and learning.
Step 0: Solo Drill - Gross mechanics and motions
Before we even start with a drill, we need to make sure that a gross motion is learned. This could mean verifying that the correct part of the sword is hitting the target (e.g. true edge or long edge), that structure is solid, that any movement is done in a valid stance, etc. These are easiest to hone without an active drilling partner, and safer, as well, since uncoordinated people making strange motions for the first time tend to flail a lot.
It is important to note that we aren’t trying to train the perfect motion at this step, only that things are in the right general area - a lot of the fine-tuning will be easier, and make more sense if there is opposition, resistance, or a target. For example, you can practice winding all day, but if you don’t have something to press and move against, you will struggle to learn the proper mechanics and never find a feeling for when to successfully apply the technique.
Step 1: Co-operative Drilling - Timing and Execution
This is where a majority of class time is spent, working with partners in a controlled and predictable manner. The focus here is safely learning how to do something while being given the proper cues to start the technique. A general breakdown will have an “Actor” and a “Patient” - the Actor will be the first to move/attack, not inherently the one who wins the drill. The Patient is the one that reacts to the Actor’s actions.
As skill and comfort with the technique grow, we can start adding more intensity to it, either through some combination of speed and power. This gives the drillers a chance to test structure and form beyond just “are you doing the right movements?” It also helps iron out any pauses in motion and excessive actions, as the increased speed makes it more likely for things to fail. It should go without saying that as you increase the intensity, increase the amount of gear you are wearing.
Generally speaking, there are a lot of artifacts introduced in this style of drilling. One of the biggest problems is that we’re taking something that is analog and making it digital; that is to say that we are taking motions that should be smooth and unbroken and artificially defining steps and break points to ensure the technique is being done at the proper time. This allows us to practice them safely and focus on technique instead of reaction time and speed. Even as we increase the intensity, the drill is still very artificial. The Actor is moving in a prescribed way and not reacting at all to what the Patient is doing. While this makes for much easier training, it will not transfer over into free-play and sparring.
Step 2: Non-cooperative Drilling - Adding Stress and Pressure
As I just mentioned, one of the biggest problems with a co-operative drill is that the Actor stops attacking (we’ll assume a simple one-time counteraction for simplicity). A cut is thrown, and as long as you make sure you don’t accidentally hit your drilling partner, you sort of hang out and let them do their thing. Now you get to try to hit them anyway.
This style of drilling is nuanced and difficult to explain, so I’ve broken it down into degrees of non-compliance (currently only two; and they are more like a gradient scale than a hard switch). In the levels I describe below, intensity can ramp up or down based on gear and training goals, don’t think of these as being tied to levels of intensity as well. Instead, we are changing the goals of the Actor, slowly giving them more autonomy, and letting them create a more organic fight situation.
Level 1: Try to hit them / Try to avoid getting hit
Instead of being a robotic pell, the Actor should use their one motion of attack to be as effective as they can. If the drill calls for the defender to leap off line and change angles or void a cut, the Level 1 Noncompliance is to simply track them as they move. If instead the Patient is supposed to beat their attack away, try to disengage or get around it. The first level of non-compliance is doing what you can in the single attack (or provoking) action you have made.
The easiest way to demonstrate this is with a zwerchau - and often this is something people do instinctively in what should be a full compliance drill. With a good zwerchau, the cut should catch the attackers cut and strike the in the head in one action. A fully compliant partner should be getting hit in the head every time - or at least their partner should be able to and showing restraint by not doing it. Instead, the attacker turns and follows the blade and avoids getting hit. This is a very low-level of non-compliance, but starts affecting the drill - instead of (almost) getting hit, there is now a bind that has been created.
Level 2: Regaining the Fight
Here, we are taking it to the next level. Assuming there has been a successful interruption of the Patient’s technique, the Actor then takes a second action to continue the offense. The Patient then needs to address this reaction as well. And I will be the first to admit that this isn’t anything new or novel - there are plenty of plays that are several intentions deep. However, the difference here is that we are no longer training a single line; after the first move, Actor can do whatever they want in reaction to where they find themselves. The Patient must then read this and adapt to the new situation, which could quite possibly be different every time.
Following on the previous example, once the bind has been made, the Actor is free to do whatever they prefer: they can grapple, throw a cut, attempt a disarm, etc. The Patient must recognize this reaction and work from there to remain safe and ideally win the exchange. By neither partner having a set path, there is a lot of extra stress on the part of the Patient. They must read an attack and react as it happens.
Step 3: Free Play - Take it to the Sandbox
I’ve written about it in the past (and may again here at some point), about my take on Free Play and how it should be used. Short version is, it isn’t sparring and you aren’t trying to win. When you have Open Mat time and choose to spar, think of it as Free Play instead. Sparring is about winning, which is counter to the idea of learning and training.
When working on a technique or concept during Free Play, there are a couple routes you can take. The first, most obviously, is to ask your partner to work with you. Tell your partner what you want to work on, and if necessary, what you’d like them to do to facilitate that. This way you are guaranteed to get opportunities to practice the technique you want. The other option is to set goals for yourself and see if you can create situations on a completely unknowing partner. Perhaps surprisingly, the latter is not significantly more difficult than the other, nor is it significantly more effective as a training tool. In both instances, you are being given constant pressure and simulus to react to, and never know when the opportunity will show up. With that in mind, I generally recommend telling your partner what you are hoping for as opposed to trying to make it happen on your own. Of course there is always the risk of the training partner subconsciously avoiding what you are trying to set up, but if your concern is that your training partner is willfully preventing you from practicing what you’d like, you have bigger problems than whatever technique you didn’t get to work on. Of course, there is a difference between wanting to work on ringen am schwert (something that is fairly easy to set up, even without help) and waiting for your opponent to throw a rising cut from the left (depending on the weapon, I might not throw one of these in an entire night). So communicate your desire and intentions, after all, this is training, not competition.
Something to keep in mind during these attempts is that you are probably going to lose your exchanges, a lot. So change your win condition. You ‘win’ not by hitting the other person, but by identifying when you could have used your technique. Or by attempting it at the right time, whether or not it is successful, or even if it hits. By changing your reference point while you are working and drilling (this is still drilling, remember? Not sparring) it becomes a much more enjoyable undertaking, even if you are getting hit in the face every time.
The other side of this is how to be a good partner in Free Play. If your partner comes up to you and says “I want to do some ringen am schwert” don’t try and run away from every bind. Let them close in (or close in yourself) and force the issue. But don’t do it every time. If you let them charge in every time a bind happens, you’re denying them the opportunity to make something happen at the right time. This isn’t an easy balance to strike, so feel free to discuss with your partner afterward how they felt. If it was too easy, or too difficult, and scale things from there.
Step 4: Sparring - Let Your Body Take Over
Training in Free Play is a very different thing than Sparring is. In Free Play you are very consciously deciding to throw a Zwerchau “whenever it presents itself”. While it doesn’t mean it is the only cut you are doing, it should be used more often than you normally would, either as an experiment to “see what happens” or because you are focusing and thinking about it. In sparring, thinking is just about the worst thing you can do.
I am a big believer of what I call Empty Mind Fighting. When I fight, I try to not think about anything, and just let my body react the way I’ve been training. I don’t think “OK, first I’m throwing a right oberhau, and then if they bind….” Instead it’s more along the lines of “I’m going to walk up and hit them” and then I sort of see what happens. I find that it helps me stay loose and relaxed, and when I am in this headspace, I never have to “stop and change gears”. I will admit that this is not the easiest mindset to just step into. If you fall into that camp, give yourself a plan, but a much smaller one. Think instead “I’m going to close with a right side oberhau” or even, I’m going to move to the “left when I attack”. This is hopefully enough of a plan to get an engagement started, but not enough of one where you start to get bogged down in the details, especially when things don’t match up.
So how does this relate to classes and training and HEMA?
While I won’t swear by it, a lot of people I talk to seem to go from Step 1 (Co-operative Drilling) to Step 4 (Sparring), missing valuable touchstone points in between. People will spend weeks and months at Step 1, trying to get it perfect. When they jump to Step 4, and it doesn’t work, they get frustrated, but diligently go back to Step 1 again. There needs to be focus on these intermediary steps, letting the body recognize and analyze these positions in a controlled manner. By breaking down training in this way, by slowly adding stress instead of dumping it all on at once, you are better able to internalize new techniques instead of flailing around and trying to make it work.
So next time you get frustrated when you can’t pull off techniques, take a hard and honest look at what you’re doing. Figure out what your failure point is and then see how you can fix it. Were you overwhelmed by the sudden intensity of your opponent’s attacks? Make sure you practicing your drills at different levels of intensity. Are you lost in the flurry of motion, unable to see what is going on? Start adding some drilling with various levels of non-compliance to them. Add stress to your practice so that when stress occurs in the fight it isn’t a foreign feeling.
As with all things, this is meant to be a guideline, and is by no means something that is set in stone. Maybe there should be a third level of non-compliance in the drills; maybe you hate the idea of telling your partner how to fence in Free Play. The sad truth is that nothing in life is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, I can’t tell you what is right for you. Instead, I will say offer this final piece that I tell all my students:
This is what works for me. This is how I do things. Be aware that all I am offering you is a framework, only you can decide what goes on it. Take these drill concepts as tools, but make your them your own.