I stabbed this one guy in the face maybe fourteen times. It was the same technique, over and over. He’d line up his shot on me, aiming at an opening he saw, and charge in. I’d twist my body just a little, roll my sword palm up as I extended it, and wham…Right into his face. In frustration he would speed up, trying to get his shot in before my counter attack. Because he kept going faster, my shot to his face just kept hitting harder and harder.

Eventually I called the bout off because I was getting physically sick. At least one of my shots had caused a concussion on my opponent, and all he had done was angrily shake it off and try to come in even faster. I don’t have it in me to lay that kind of hurt on someone…not in what is supposed to be a sport.

I can hurt people. I can do it accidentally, and I can do it intentionally. When its called for, it’s a thing you do, you deal with the aftermath. When it’s accidental, it sucks. You feel like crap unless you are a sociopath. Most people feel like I do. Humans are cooperative creatures and we find killing and hurting each other extremely difficult, despite what media might tell you. For some reason no one ever wants to report on good cops, nice people, things just going the way they should for everyone…it’s the rare things that attract attention.

In unarmed combat sport, hurting someone has strange gentlemanly rules to it. Punching each other in the face is fun. At worst, it’s a dominance game. Instead of having the biggest peacock feathers, we knock someone out. We don’t really, in our hearts, want to hurt them. We just want to establish our place in the pecking order. Fighters revel in taking more punishment than the other guy, almost as much as they revel in dishing it out.

But break someone’s arm? Gasps all around. Hit someone who’s unconscious, or unable to defend themselves? Hey hey, none of that now. Someone might get hurt. Go back to punching each other in the face. Let’s not be savages, here… It seems strange to non-fighters, who can only imagine a punch in the face as being a life-altering experience. When people like me get walloped in the face, our first reaction is usually a grin…it’s playtime!

With swordplay it’s different. We don’t use sharp swords, but we do use steel swords. There is no escaping the fact that hitting someone with a piece of steel is not a safe thing. Ever. There is always risk. Every organization that does steel fighting has some set of rules in place to alleviate that risk. On one extreme we have full steel armour and weapons that probably won’t kill the other guy. On the other extreme we have…don’t touch the other guy. Some groups use foam or other weapon simulators. Most try to find a balance between armouring up and allowing freedom of movement.

In order to achieve this balance, they rely on one important factor: Cooperation. Each fighter that participates agrees to be complicit in an implied agreement of safe performance. Which is to say, they agree to try not to hurt each other. And in this agreement lies the key to landing yourself lots of wins without needing a lot of technical skill.

Bluntly, if you want to win, care less about hurting your opponent. If the other guy is constrained by his desire to be careful while fighting, and all you care about it hitting him before he hits you…who do you think is going to win the fight? I’m not talking about speed here, either, but intent to hurt. You need to be deceptive to your intent as well. Adopt guards and mannerisms that disguise what you are about to do. Be prepared to ignore shots, too. As much as you can, plan to hit your opponent more than once, especially if they hit you at the same time as your first shot. Immediately strike them back. Confusion is your friend. People will doubt themselves if you are bold enough. Be quick with an apology if you get caught, no one will want to believe you are intentionally cheating the system. When they do start to catch on over time, you can throw in the “martially sound” straw man argument, and make everyone feel inferior for not using your approach, carefully putting aside the fact that you are playing a different game altogether.

Of course, eventually people will react. They will get frustrated and angry, but your bullying will shame them into keeping quiet. They will react the way people do, by trying to mimic your actions. And what do you do once they’ve peed into their own pool, and you aren’t winning as much anymore? Rest on your laurels. Be smug about your successes, and stay out of the pool. Leave behind a group that batters and bruises each other and doesn’t even know why, except that it’s the way things are.

It’s not, of course, a guaranteed way to win. A correctly trained fighter will see what you are doing, and shift from a balanced play of equals to a defensive game. This will capitalize on your over-commitment, and allow him to move into close play if the rules allow it. Expect to receive pommel, elbow, and knee strikes until he figures out your timing and reach…and then the real pain will arrive. He’s able to do this because he is no longer playing a sport, but fighting a martial art. He’s stepping up a level above you, by responding to your intent to hurt with an intent to kill. Lucky for you the weapons aren’t sharp.

All of the above, by the way, completely sucks for your average fighter. Way before that crap happens they just start to hate sparring, hate training, and wonder why they are bothering. Who the hell wants to spend time getting hurt and frustrated doing something you thought was going to be fun and challenging? No one wants to pay money to be bullied. No one wants to give up something they started to love because they are being shamed into feeling weak when they complain about being hurt.

Bruises and pain are a part of learning swordplay. You have to trust your gut about things. Getting hit hard from time to time should have an honest feeling to it. It’s supposed to be like getting caught in the rain with friends…you feel a little foolish but you just laugh it off because you are all in it together. If your instinct is anger or blame…something is wrong. What is supposed to be a supportive system has turned abusive.

Swordplay is a beautiful and complex art. It takes serious dedication to get good at it, and it becomes a part of your life. Respect that. Only allow good things into your life. Sometimes it’s gruelling, sometimes painful, sometimes frustrating…but it should always put a smile on your face. There is a secret Society of Fencers out there, people who only know joy in their fencing and permit nothing to spoil that. You never know when you might join them…