Why You Should Practice at Practice

Spar to Practice, Not to Win

One of the biggest and most difficult changes I have attempted to make in the past couple years is to actually practice at practice rather than focus on winning. That’s hard to do in the typical SCA fencing practice, where people show up, gear up, get in some fighting, and go home. Occasionally there will be another fencer to work with, and maybe someone might even lead a few drills, but trying to get everyone to engage in a set of structured drills is largely swimming upstream.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it—we could all benefit from more drilling. It’s just that getting everyone to show up at the same time and spend two hours on a progression of drills at an SCA practice is a task that most of us (myself included) aren’t up to. After all, people come to the SCA to have fun. It’s not the same as paying for martial arts lessons—fencers come to practice to hang out with friends and play with swords.

I happen to get a lot of enjoyment out of drills, but I know that if I don’t get some helm time in by the end of practice, I feel antsy. Drills pay off in the long run, but they rarely provide the same kind of immediate satisfaction you get out of sparring. However, there is a way to focus your sparring to get both the gratification you want and the skill development you need.

Change Your Victory Conditions

First, when you show up to practice, show up with a plan. Lately my plan has been to see how I can go around my opponent’s sword instead of through it. I came to this plan because I realized (read, “my maestro said”) that I was relying too heavily on blade contact. That can be a problem, particularly when I face an opponent who won’t let me make blade contact.

To combat this tendency, I’ve started going into sparring matches with the goal of making as little unnecessary blade contact as possible. Rather than measure my success based solely on whether or not I hit my opponent, I now measure my success based on whether or not I was able to hit my opponent, without relying on blade contact.

That’s just the latest example of how I’ve used changing my victory conditions for sparring to build specific skills. However, this example illustrates a number of helpful points that make this approach work.

Break it Down

Imagine you live in an old house. The place is falling apart: the roof leaks, the basement floods, and it’s hard to imagine the carpets were ever a single color, let alone white. As you look around, it’s easy to recognized that this place needs a lot of work. However, “this place needs a lot of work” isn’t a terribly helpful plan.

It’s easy to make the same mistake about fencing. You may be able to recognize that your targeting sucks, your footwork is sloppy, and your posture is the reason you creak in the morning. While identifying each issue is an important first step, it’s not enough to fix your game.

First Things First

Going back to the house analogy, you’ll often find that these independent issues are more closely related than you might have thought. Sure, there may be a drainage problem in the basement and the carpets are going to have to go, but until you fix the roof, the rain is going to keep coming in. As far as fencing goes, the trick is figuring out exactly what you need to work on that will also do the most to fix (or begin to fix) other problems.

For example, your targeting may be off, your footwork may be sloppy, and your posture could stand to be better. If you start with your targeting, then you’re likely to focus on “correcting” your point control, using your hand and wrist to redirect the tip of your sword.

When trying to fix a number of purely mechanical issues, work from the core out and then from large to small structures. In this example, posture involves the hips and shoulders, footwork, starts at hips and thighs and goes down to the toes, and point control mostly involves the hand and wrist, with some (but surprisingly little) influence from the shoulders.

This may help a bit if you’re opponent poses for you in sword range, but it won’t get you very far against reasonably sensible fencers. To attack from deeper measure, you’ll need to ensure your footwork directs you where you want to go, Proper footwork is the product of correct posture, which points your lower body from the hips to your toes in the right direction. Fix the posture issue, and the feet follow. Fix the feet and your targeting will improve. Once you’ve done that, tweaking the rest is far easier.

Focus on the Details (working backwards)

Reductionism is the name of the game here, especially if the issues you need to address are as much mental as they are physical. Just as repairing a roof happens one row of tiles at a time, you can only improve broader aspects of your fencing by unpacking complicated problem and dealing with each simple underlying cause individually.

Breaking issues down into smaller and smaller parts will help uncover all of those elusive problems near the root cause. In my case, I started with the mental aspect, specifically, “I’m relying on physically pushing their sword around.” As I explored the physical effects of moving my blade excessively to engage my opponent’s, I realized that, “I do this thing with my sword at the end of my lunge that breaks my structure.” I further reduced this to, “This means I have to use more muscle in order to move my opponent’s blade, which is bad.”

Ultimately, the underlying problem is as much about the inefficiency of relying on muscular activity to control my opponent’s blade as it is about relying on pushing around my opponent’s weapon to create openings. Neither is more important than the other, since they contribute to a singe tactical problem. However, having a concrete mechanical problem to work on (making my strikes more efficient) is easier than simply trying not to push around my opponent’s blade. This leads me to the final point.

Set Achievable Goals

Just as it’s important to reduce problems both mechanically and tactically, it’s important to set tangible goals that let you make noticeable progress correcting them. Most importantly, you have to measure your success based on how well you’re correcting your problems, not based on your success against other fencers. Having something tangible to focus on, such as, “I’m going to go the next five passes without touching my opponent’s blade unless I’m attacking and at the very end of my lunge,” lets you win, even if you lose all five of those passes.

There will always be someone at your practice or who you regularly meet at events who’s straight up better than you, and your progress won’t even register when you face them if you judge it purely off measuring touches. That’s a good thing, since it keeps (or should keep) you motivated. What’s more, as you focus on correcting your problems, you will take a performance hit, since you’ll redirect your attention away from the things you already do well. That’s a necessary growing pain. Don’t worry, I guarantee the effort will pay off down the line.

The Bigger Picture

To recap, practice is for practicing, not just for trying to win. Realizing this isn’t an easy thing to do, as humans have a hardwired desire for the immediate success/gratification of winning. Regarding the other fencers at your practice as practice partners instead of opponents can help with this shift in mentality.

When you spar with the intention of long-term improvement, set tangible goals—win conditions you can focus on that day. Start by breaking down your problems into parts and prioritize the bigger problems that may help fix the smaller ones. Reduce everything to the smallest chunks possible and focus on them one at a time, laying down a foundation and building on it.

Swallow your pride and ask for help/feedback if you need it. Even fencers you can beat can help you spot what you’re doing wrong. More experience fencers can help you break down your problems. At the end of the day, if your goal is to go out and win at the event on Saturday, then the fastest way to get there is to truly practice at practice on Tuesday.

—edited by Phil Selman

Written by Arik Mendelevitz

Known in the SCA as Warder Raphael di Merisi, Arik has a great love for the art of the sword and specializes in the Italian rapier of Niceletto Giganti. From time to time, though, he can be seen playing with Pacheco's version of Destreza, Bolognese sidesword, or Fiore's art of grappling.