ARMA Editorial

"To Spar or Not to Spar?"…that is the question

The mimic fight, and sweat with spear and sword:
And through the discipline such nurture yields,
Shall flourish as the flower of martial fields.

- Ludovico Ariosto, 1523

By J. Clements

I have occasionally encountered the view that training in Renaissance fencing historically involved no form of free-play or mock combat –what we would now commonly refer to as sparring (a term every reasonable person understands the meaning of).  I’ve also sometimes even encountered the belief (prominent among some traditional Asian stylists) that in real martial arts sparring has no value or place in the preparation of warriors for personal combat.  In modern sport fencing it is also standard to restrict students from any form of bouting for a considerable length of time until they have acquired the necessary foundational form. This bouting is always conducted within a tightly controlled framework of permissible actions that directs the play far from its original martial purpose and thus exclusively into the realm of sport.

Not only do I disagree with these perspectives, our research within Renaissance martial arts has revealed considerable evidence from the 12th to 17th centuries for several forms of mock combat used in Europe as earnest self-defense training, battlefield rehearsal, ritual display, and sporting contest (I document a wealth of this information in one of my forthcoming books).  From tournaments to prize playing to bouting a few veneys and impromptu scrimmaging, the evidence is substantial -and this activity involved substantial contact not merely pulled blows or surface touches. In fact, examination of the methods by which this kind of “contact-sparring” was pursued (its equipment, safety rules, intent, techniques, etc.) is a main area of our studies.

But, what struck me was how it’s been argued by some martial artists (and even a few historical fencing practitioners) that bouts of mock combat play somehow would not properly prepare an individual for the realities and necessities of lethal armed combat; and further, that such training could only be achieved by performing set patterns of movements and prearranged drills. I’ve always disagreed with this claim and have always maintained the value of loose play (a view which, as I indicated, we’ve discovered is born out by a wide range of historical European sources).

Here we essentially have an argument which follows a line of reasoning that says: In order to prepare for the exigency of actual combat, you above all need to learn and practice formal exercises in a set pattern. In other words, two students, the first saying to the second, “When you are ready I will make this specific attack and you will counter with that specific defense” and the second student responding, “Yes, you make that specific attack and I will defend with this specific counter.”  Where as, by contrast, in free-play each of the students essentially says one to another: “I’m not going to let you know exactly when or where or how, or even if, I’m going to attack or defend, so get yourself ready.”

Now I ask, in all honestly, which one of the above scenarios most resembles the actualities of real fighting?  Which is going to be better for teaching a fighter to spontaneously respond reflexively to any tactical possibility?  If a student only follows the first method and another student combines both methods, who is going to be the better prepared for the unknowns of violent combat? 

I also have noted that one argument against utilizing safe mock-combat with weapons as a tool for study is that it is not “real enough.” This argument however begs the question, “Isn’t it more realistic than just performing structured movements and drills?” [to such anti-sparring advocates, we might also ask, “If it were made even more realistic would you then participate in it as a valid means of training?”].  Some object to free-play as not being beneficial for learning how to fight because actions and techniques do indeed behave differently under full effort and power than under the generally softer controlled conditions of safe play. In earnest fighting, the commitment and urgency behind strikes may not be as easily defended or warded as they can be in mock combat.  Yet, ironically, one of the very values of playing is to help build a fighter’s awareness of their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It permits them to explore their capabilities and extend their capacity to read an opponent’s intentions and actions –with fewer restrictions than drilling set movements.  

But because rules designed to permit students to safely practice-fight must inherently create boundaries that limit freedom of action, some martial artists feel skill developed in this way builds artificial confidence.  The fighter, they argue, only learns to “play fight”. This would be true if free-play were used alone, but when combined with serious drills and exercises designed to realistically teach proper form and correct execution of actions, free-play then becomes very effective in developing a student’s skill. Historically, guidelines for what was or wasn’t acceptable were always a part of mock combat. After all, it is not hard to imagine that armed men living in a violent age might resort to real fighting if they were either injured or embarrassed by loss in a practice bout. So, things had to be conducted with some degree of structure and formality (not that this alleviated all the risk). Besides, it would be hard to learn if every student was going around causing real wounds on their practice partners.

Additionally, some martial artists may object to free-play on the grounds that to conduct it with enough intensity, too much protective equipment must be employed, which invariably modifies the activity too much. The more body protection one adopts in mock combat for safety, the less concern one might have for the risks of being injured by blows, which would then affect motivations of how the combatants perform.  However, this is a factor even in real combat, where protective armor does indeed give one more confidence for facing particular conditions. So, the argument that free-play is distorting because it's “not real” runs counter to the very nature of the exercise as a tool for learning in the first place. It would be hard to imagine learning to wrestle without actually wrestling, or learning to box without actually boxing. And each of these activities, even when conducted as sport, can have a corresponding real-world lethal self-defense application. So it was with historical fencing.  The learning of fighting arts in Medieval and Renaissance Europe involved practice fighting.

Historically, whatever combative system a person was studying, if that system had real combat value it would be discovered soon enough when the person actually had to fight. The only way to test this before hand was to engage in some sort of play combat ("sparring"). Otherwise, the skills needed for violent encounters (adversarial counter-timing, controlling distance and initiative, deceiving and not being deceived, etc.) would be missing and you might have someone who could dance around very prettily, but not really fight.

It would seem such an incredibly natural thing to do, for two people practicing fencing, to say to one another, "Ok, we've done a lot of drilling in basic actions and exercising in delivering techniques and counter-techniques, let's try our hand a little at putting it all together and test ourselves." How else do you possibly prepare yourself to actually fight unless you first gauge in this way your own speed, strength, caution, and courage? What better way for students to test one another than to say, "Try to hit me" or "Defend yourself from my blows"?

I can understand however, if a martial artist wanted to avoid free-play because they were just not very good at it, that it might lead them to disavow its usefulness as a means of learning if they did not “do well”. After all, it could certainly be disconcerting for anyone, whether a senior instructor or a novice student, to be “out fought” in mock battle by someone they deemed to have noticeably inferior ability or training. After more than two and a half decades doing all manner of armed free-play, I myself occasionally encounter those who by youthful speed and enthusiasm alone are able to make good contact on me as many as one out of three times. Reasonably, considering my substantial skills and experience they should not be able to hit me even one out of ten times. Given that, this is just free-play and does not contain the level of apprehension or hesitation or anywhere near the emotional content and angst that we understand occurs in real life and death combat, I can hardly find such outcomes disturbing. I am confident knowing I could fight far harder with lethal intent and attitude precisely because of my superior technical know-how and conditioning, which allows me to put such encounters into proper context. Besides, the results of free-play vary significantly depending upon the equipment and rules played under. That’s why in Renaissance martial arts we try to do such a variety of it. Free play is indeed “pretend” fighting because that's how historically they safely prepared for the real thing.

No one is suggesting that a student should not first learn proper fundamental form and basic core movements before engaging in mock-combat as a training tool. Just that, armed free-play is, by its function, self-instructing.  For the beginning student it is more a matter of learning how to do it safely with freedom of action more than how to do it “properly” according to a proscribed “style.” If it’s intended as a tool for martial training, then free-play should never be just a mere game of speed tag or a sport of scoring points. [In fact, we feel so strongly about avoiding this that we work actively to warn practitioners to avoid these problems.]

Granted there are some movements which reasonably must be suitably modified for safety (such as breaking joints or striking to the eyes and throat), but if something does not work in free-play how can we argue it would then work in real fighting? Now understandably, the more any martial art is made into a game or sport revolving around artificial rules and restrictive conditions, the less concern there is for the brutality and earnest application of lethal technique.  The gulf between edged-weapon theory and practical reality is never wider than when historical fighting skills of life and death are transformed into rule-enshrined competitive sports surrounded by formal protocols and contrived etiquettes. Only "play-fighting" can certainly engender bad habits and a lack of appreciation for the inherent violence of real fighting.

Of course, the very same flaw can be said of ritualistic exercises and the inflexible pre-programmed approach to training. But, unlike the latter, the more realistically free-play is conducted, the more it sharpens reflexes, develops perception, teaches adversarial counter-timing, explores spontaneous tactics, conveys the skill of deceiving without being deceived, and lets the student try things that end up with them either getting whacked or not, but in the process not being maimed or killed.  That sounds like quite a benefit from such a simple and obvious activity.


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