Where to Start with Sparring

After their first night at sparring, a new student of mine engaged me in a conversation. She had enjoyed herself, but felt like she was flailing and a bit out of control. She thought perhaps she should return to simply doing drills for a while.
Sparring is one of the primary ends of our art. It should not be omitted. It’s fun, and it is the best environment to test technique. Now that does not mean that it is all there is to fencing, or that it is where you should spend all of your time. Here’s what I told her:
Spar, but don’t try to “practice” mechanics in sparring. Learn to be observant. Use it as a tool to understand what you need to work on in other forms of training. There is far too much going on in a fencing match to attempt to make any kind of mechanical correction on the fly. Those must come later in drilling, based on what you learned. Beyond being observant, enjoy yourself.
Fence slowly. Use slow speed fencing as your training and transition ground. This is the best and first place to take a technique from exercise to combat. Work at a speed that allows you to be observant and respond to your opponent instead of reacting. (See my post on scaling speed sparring for more on this topic)
Fence with objectives. When you’re new it’s not necessarily productive, or fun, to make winning your objective. Set yourself smaller tactical goals such as gaining control of your opponent’s weapon, or defending yourself as long as possible, or reaching a particular measure, or pulling off a particular technique. Simply challenging yourself psychologically, and celebrating that success, can be well worthy of sparring praise. See my post Three Types of Practice for ideas on how to use sparring effectively.
So get out there and fence! Fence for the joy of it, fence to learn, and fence because it’s what this art is about.

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My Thoughts on Sparring and Martial Arts

I was turned on by sparring right away. Win or lose, I loved the environment, I loved the contact, and being able to truly test my skills with a weapon that allowed me to practice a large percentage of its deadly techniques in a safe, non-injurious manner. Yet for all the rewards that sparring can offer it can also be a destructive force in one’s pursuit of a martial art.