While sounding like a simple thing to define, sparring can have quite a few and very different goals and purposes that are sometimes hard to keep in sight in the heat of the sparring session. With experience this becomes easier to separate as you get accustomed to the intense situation and learn to handle it, but especially in the beginning it is easy to forget what you are actually doing, or mistaking it for or even wanting, it to be something else.
So what are these different goals and purposes of sparring then? Let's have a look at some of them.
This is the most basic, the default idea of sparring. It is simply trying to defeat your opponent. It is fun and relatively easy to get into. Consequently, you don't even have to study martial arts treatises to do it. Just get in there and hit the other guy. Through it you will learn to fight, at least in that particular setting under the particular rules you have set up and with the particular gear you are using.
Some do this in a desire to get as close to actual fighting as possible, within the legal limitations that society places upon us. This is also where a lot of conflicts in HEMA arises as passionate people argue about how to best approach this to make things martially and "street" valid , debating on rules, gear and how to restrict use of techniques from different centuries to avoid anachronism etc, etc.
In many cases though, this is mostly done for the excitement, the fun and the pleasure of hitting someone, and perhaps even getting hit a little.
Pressure testing is a hugely important part of validating all our interpretations and our own learning, and while actual combat would be ideal we naturally can't test our interpretations in actual combat and thus have to settle for sparring and tournament fighting. That naturally leads to artefacts coming from restrictions with rule sets and from the protective gear and sparring weapons used, but it gives us a better understanding provided that we keep those artefacts in mind and don't mistake this for actual pure combat.
Pressure testing can be done in different ways and at different levels of intensity. It can come from use of full force, although what full force with sharp weapons mean can and should be debated. It can come from minimal limitations in rules and it can come from using minimal protection or even from using actual "sharp" weapons.
This is of course close to the default definition of sparring as "fighting", but done more intentionally and with more distinct awareness. It is also bridging towards the next aspect of sparring, learning.
Here sparring is an arena for testing things you try to understand. Consequently your goal is not so much to defeat your opponent as it is to successfully land a technique you wish to master. It is also not so much about pressure testing and rather preceds that in the sense that you are still at early to mid stages of understanding how to apply the particular techniques in different contexts.
This is one of the most difficult applications of sparring and we easily slip into regular fighting as we try to learn in sparring, especially when we are new to either HEMA or with the particular weapon we are using, as we simply lack the skill or experience to handle ourselves properly in the sparring.
With this you need to study the technique beforehand and figure out under what conditions you can apply them, and through this learn to either identify them as they arise or learn to create them by manipulating your opponent to attack or defend in a particular manner. It is a highly intellectual exercise where you need to focus hard, but it is greatly rewarding as it builds experience in identifying or creating opportunities that can be exploited in particular ways.
Beauty & bliss
This is a rather particular type of sparring and works best with a partner that "fits" you in the way you both fence. Many of us have experienced having one or two such partners where everything just "clicks" and both your fencing just works smoothly and perfectly, and you get that beautiful, blissful and timeless moment of being in perfect chime with everything. It is like dancing jitterbug, like downhill skiing or improvising music. It is pure and wonderful art in its proper sense, based on experience, skill, knowledge and just perfect communication between two parties. For this to happen, a certain level of trust, openness and relaxedness needs to be felt by both parties.
This is not quite combat in the "lethal" works-against-anything, viking-vs-samurai sense that some seek, and it works the best within its own system, but make no mistake about it; you are both still trying to hit each other properly, and freely, and through it learning to become more dynamic with a partner that you just have a very good and noisefree line of communication to. It is good and if you can find it, then you are quite lucky.
With my own club, Gothenburg Free Fencers Guild, we have also defined two different types of quarterstaff sparring that can be used with all the goals & purposes described above while using "sharp" weapons and minimal protection; Sparring and Free Fencing.
Sparring is defined as follows: You are allowed to thrust at the body, and only to use light strikes at the body and head. Full powered strikes are only allowed to the opponent's staff. This isn't quite as limiting as it may sound as striking the opponent's staff to break up attacks or guards is quite a big part of the system we train.
In Free Fencing you are allowed to strike or thrust with full power towards any target, but you have to be in such control that you can break your attack in case your opponent is not able to protect him/herself. This of course takes a fair bit of experience with the weapon and is a quite scary experience even for those who have practiced quite a while, since you are after all, at times, striking full power with a sharp weapon against a body that is unprotected.
Both these approaches are good for learning the system and they enable you to experiment and teach you to apply all the techniques, even the most dangerous ones. And while designed for polearms in particular, they can easily be adapted to other weapons too.
Now it is, as already mentioned, easy to mix these various goals up in the heat of the moment, and thus unconsciously switching from one approach to another as you fight and get the adrenalin pumping. It is also what often happens with "slow fencing" which tends to end up not so slow, especially for beginners, as the ego drives you to fight faster and faster, and harder and harder, in order to "win".
It is also quite possible for the two fighters to fight with different goals in mind, which sometimes can lead to somewhat odd results. For example, if one fighter is aiming to win, he can restrict him/herself to using quite fundamental and effective techniques that have a high percentage of success. If, on the other hand, the other fighter is fighting with the goal of learning to apply some special techniques, it will mean he/she will take higher risks intentionally in order to learn, causing him/her to get hit more often in doing so. This can be disheartening for the one who is looking to learn something new while it can somewhat wrongly boost the confidence of the other, and it is important for both parties to see things for what they are and why the results of the bouts are what they are, not so much for the other to understand what happened, but for yourself so you can continue to develop as a fencer.
Much of this revolves around our egos and not letting them block us from learning so we can continue onwards on our journey of understanding these wonderful arts. It is not always so easy to do, but it is one of the greatest enemies we might face and thus hugely important to learn to handle.
Thank you for reading!
Gothenburg Free Fencers Guild