Measuring Success: the Role of Freeplay & Competition in Training

IAS Schools employs a variety of models for freeplay (sparring).  The bridge between strict drills and complete freeplay is in the form of exercises with certain parameters in which actions are limited to specific techniques.  Such exercises can more or less limit the scope of possibilities, and are designed to focus the student’s attention on specific aspects of the art as applied in the fight.  Since any limitation introduced necessarily distorts the reality of the art’s application, conditions in these drills are usually changed frequently from more limitations to fewer, consistent with the student’s level of ability.

Sean Hayes (r) fighting Axel Petterson (l)
The author (left) fighting at Longpoint 2014.

It is important to understand that even freeplay has limitations placed on it.  The most obvious limitations are that we use blunt weapons and protective equipment, we play so as to minimize the possibility of injury, and our intent is not lethal – quite the opposite!  Safety is always our first priority.  The effect of all this is to remove the very natural fear one would have with sharp weapons and lethal intent, to remove the caution that fear would inspire, and to encourage behavior that is not consistent with a real fight.
Because of these considerations, students must:

  • Always fight with the utmost courtesy and respect towards your opponents, and always give them the benefit of the doubt when assessing actions and motivations.
  • Always strive to cultivate a “hit without being hit” mindset.  It’s not enough to strike a fraction of a second before your opponent; you must prevent your opponent striking within both the same and the following tempo in which you have struck.
  • Remember that being competitive is fine, but taken to extremes it damages the individual and poisons the atmosphere.  Always temper the competitive spirit with compassion: this makes it a much stronger tool for meeting the challenges of life.
  • Understand that freeplay is not the ultimate goal of practice, but merely another practice tool for gaining a deeper understanding of L’Arte dell’Armizare.
Borealis 2014 tournament
Author (in green) fighting at the Borealis 2014 tournament. I was captain of the team, which took first in a closely-fought contest between four teams.

Measuring Success in Freeplay
On the face of it, the person who gives more and receives fewer hits would seem to be the more successful fighter. There’s some truth to this, but it’s a limited truth: it applies best to a competitive mindset in a context where the chance of even minor injury is low, such as a sports competition. And to be fair, back in the heyday of Armizare, such competitions were frequently held (Fiore makes reference to them in his introduction to the art). But they were held in a context where the people knew that they would also use the art in deadly earnest, and Fiore makes this point as well:

I have always told my students who had to fight in the lists that doing so is far less dangerous than combat with sharp swords in a gambeson. With sharps and a gambeson, a single failed parry can be fatal , while in the lists a combatant wearing good armor can receive multiple hits and still go on to win the fight. Also, oftentimes none of the combatants dies because one will hold the other for ransom. This is why I always say that I’d sooner fight three contests in the lists than a single one with sharp swords, as I have described.

    -MS Ludwig XV 13, translation copyright Tom Leoni

Success in freeplay is best measured by objective assessment: how well do you apply the principles of the art taught in your lessons? Each technique taught contains a principle of martial arts that can be applied in freeplay – if the conditions are right, if the opponent’s actions are correct for the application of that principle, and if the student has made the correct strategic and tactical assessment. Because of this, application of principles in freeplay is a test of the student’s understanding, and a difficult test at that. With each session of freeplay, students should take careful note (literally – keep a notebook) of the following:

  • Strategic Context: their assessment of the capabilities of the opponent, correlated to an understanding of their own capabilities;
  • Strategic Choice: their selection of strategy, such as offensive, defensive, counter-offensive, or mixed;
  • Tactical Context: their assessment of the opponent’s strategic and tactical choices;
  • Tactical Choices: their selection of specific techniques to carry out the strategic choice.
  • End Results: the results of this process. Don’t be simplistic: “got hit” or “gave hit” aren’t as important as understanding how one got or gave a hit. What, specifically, made a set of choices succeed or fail? Was it calculated skill or did it involve a high degree of luck? The ability to answer to these questions honestly and accurately will directly affect your progress.
WMAW 2015 Deed of Arms
Author (left) fighting Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani (an expert in Historical Persian Martial Arts) at Western Martial Arts Workshop Armoured Deed of Arms 2015

Competition vs Freeplay
Training at IAS is focused practicing on the whole art of Armizare as we (to the best of our ability) believe it was applied 600 years ago. To that end we espouse a variety of training methodologies, including competition. But it’s important to have a clear understanding of how competition fits into a martial arts training paradigm that is focused on the art, rather than on the competitive sport application of the art. (For this dicussion, “competition” refers to a tournament-style environment where fencers/martial artists are pitted against each other, playing under the supervision of referees and judges, with points tracked and used to rank them in selecting winners of the tournament.)
Freeplay is a training tool. Competitive fencing or martial arts can be either a training tool or an end goal. As a training tool, competition provides a high pressure environment with multiple things to keep track of: rules, need to account for the skill – or lack thereof – of judges and referees, the need to track scores and statistics relative to other fighters to maximize chances for promotion to a good slot in the elimination bouts, assessing abilities of other fighters and devising appropriate strategies, conserving energy, and more. In general, competitive fighting in a tournament environment is (or can be) about hitting before getting hit, not hitting without getting hit.  (Some tournament rules account for “afterblows,” a priority-based method of ranking the efficacy of two blows within a short timeframe; the smart fighter is always aware of where her afterblow opportunity is and how it can affect scroing.) The dedicated sports competitor doesn’t have to be concerned with simulating a “real” fight: if competitive success is the goal, there is no simulation, because the competitor is in the chosen environment. The best competitive fencers and martial artists tend to be those who focus exclusively on the competitive environment, employing only those things which directly support the goal of scoring first and winning.
I should mention that in a “real” fight, an ability to take blows or even damage and keep fighting is a necessary skill, but relatively few competitive environments incorporate this and most HEMA specifically does not.
Our view is that competitive fencing and martial arts are best engaged in when the student has completed not merely the fundamentals but has achieved strong competence in intermediate level skills, such as strategic and tactical assessment and planning, and including extensive freeplay with school instructors, fellow students, and people from the wider HEMA community.

Tournament of the White Swan
The author fighting at the Tournament of the White Swan, Verona, Italy, in 2014. Photo credit: Daniella Franchi

To this end, students are given varying opportunities to exercise their skills – from antagonistic drills of varying complexity to formal “fight nights” and tournaments. Please use these opportunities judiciously, as a means to improving your understanding of the art, and remember to enjoy yourself and be safe.