It’s fun, but also a little sad to beat up a technically superior fighter. A few years ago a good friend of mine, Chris Moone, and I were talking fencing shop with another friend. Chris and I were both very experienced fighters and competitors. Our friend had an absolutely solid technical background, and some tournament fighting experience…not a lot, though.

Like all good fencing conversations, ours was with steel. We’d started with slow work. For whatever reason, Chris and I had decided to give our mutual friend some pointers on his fighting style. It wasn’t going well. Everytime we’d suggest something, our friend would disagree with us. The things we were suggesting were coming from our body of experience. The counter arguments our friend was using came from his background of solid technical drills and theoretical knowledge of Capo Ferro.

He was right in every suggestion he made. We would tell him to hold his hand a certain way, and he’d counter that it was more efficient to do it the way he did, due to perfectly logical, and correct reasons. He was completely winning the match on logic, and when we tried to prove our point in slow work, he’d show us the error of our ways, time and time again.

So, finally, we flat out told him we were going to kick his ass using all the wrong stuff. Masks went on. We took turns fighting him. And we royally kicked his ass. In defiance of all logic, and the rules of Capo Ferro. I should point out, in fairness, that I was one of the people that had taught him Capo Ferro in the first place…but he had put way more drill work into than I had. Regardless, we pounded on him, but didn’t really make our point very well. He still insisted that his method was superior, although he begrudgingly agreed that it seemed to work for us.

When you train to be a technical fighter, you have to watch out for this trap. Being a “bookish” fighter can be a dead-end. It’s not really a mystery, but more of a failure to drill correctly. Or more accurately, at a certain point, drilling some things is more efficiently done while sparring.

The main thing is measure. In order to first learn a skill or a tactic, it’s often the habit to teach it with a preset measure. Partner A stands still, partner B steps in and performs the technique. Doing drills this way gives you the most opportunity to fine-tune skill development. It also allows a lazy teacher the most opportunity to correct students. It’s a staple of martial arts worldwide…and often a reason that martial arts sucks for fighting training.

During sparring, when you step towards your opponent, they usually move in reaction. They will adjust their measure, their distance from you, in one way or another. Beginners tend to back up to a farther distance. Experienced fighters back up just enough to maintain the original distance. Good fighters sidestep, advance, or attack. Really good fighters might stay put because they have a trap set for you. High level fighters will often appear to not move at all, but will really be adjusting body position in order to effectively gain measure without moving the feet, or not moving them in a way that is apparent to you.

Good control of measure will also allow an opponent to control distance strategically, using their footwork to trick you into developing a movement pattern. They might trick you into overcommiting a step, mis-stepping, or stumbling. They can drive you back without you being aware of it, work you into a corner, or lull you into a tempo of their choosing.

You can develop drills to counter all these actions. I’ve developed and taught a series of them, and they resulted in tournament success. I don’t think it’s a good idea, though. The drills worked because they created habitual responses in competitors, and that sort of thing only works til people figure it out. Then you have to create a new series of drills, and to support that you really should have a modern sport training environment…and outlet. The swordplay world won’t have that level of competition for at least another decade, if not longer.

Drilling at that level isn’t really necessary, either. It is if you want to compete, but the majority of the WMA world right now isn’t interested in competing. Breaking the static drill mindset is necessary, but sparring alone will usually provide the benefit that is needed. Students should be aware that line drilling is only a portion of their training. They should see sparring as an equal training requirement…and they should see it as training, not competition. Sparring training for competition is another boat altogether.

Sparring should be about one third of a students training. The other two thirds should be split between drills and fitness. All of which can be broken down even farther into their own subcategories, but hey…some day I’ll write that book…