On Sparring

Sparring, along with interpretation, drills, and test cutting makes up one of the most crucial parts of learning martial arts.  It is something that every martial artist should do regularly, and once you have mastered the execution of your technique set nearly every training session should contain some sparring.  It is one of the best tests of how well you have learned the art you have set out to learn, and how successful your interpretation is.  If you can keep your cool, see the situations as they develop naturally, choose the correct techniques to apply for those situations, and if, when you execute them, you end up making them work the way the manual tells you they should, then you will know that you have made progress.  Sparring will tell you if you have learned your techniques correctly, because you will be able to apply them as well in sparring as in your drills.  Sparring can teach you to apply the theories of distance, timing, courage, strategy, initiative, and footwork perhaps better than any other training method.  Sparring also tests your creativity and capacity to apply techniques in the odd situations that invariably crop up.
Having said that, sparring can also become counterproductive, especially in swordplay.  I have learned through hard experience that it takes a great deal of practice and drilling to apply techniques properly in hard sparring, and that sparring before that training has sunk in can actually impede a fighter’s ability to apply a technique.
I claim that good sparring by advanced students will look like they are simply executing drills.  I know this will become controversial, but bear with me.  Sparring by advanced students should look choreographed because they will have, in fact, practiced each technique and variation twenty thousand times.  I claim that if your sparring doesn’t look largely like your technique training then either you have not truly mastered your techniques, or your technique training is unrealistic and has gaps that need to be filled.
I also wish to emphasize that cutting technique, which is essential to good strikes, cannot be learned or tested in sparring.  It is learned by swinging a real sword and listening for its whistle.  It is tested by attempting to cut properly resistant targets such as pork and tatami mats.  Some people I have met are excellent in sparring, and deficient in cutting technique, which means that if they were to attempt to fight for real with a sword it is very possible that a blow of theirs which would look clean in sparring would do comparatively little damage in a real fight.  I believe that ancient warriors probably learned good cutting technique to a fairly high level, and probably before they did a great deal of sparring.
Individual techniques are, of course, best learned with drills practiced until they are perfect and instinctive.  Drills can also be used to teach distance and timing, and when done well at an advanced level should present just as much of a challenge as a sparring match.  In fact I believe that the line between drills and sparring should become thinner as you progress through the teachings of Ringeck and Liechtenauer.
For the above reasons I believe that a serious student should not engage in sparring for fun or sport until they can employ a complete set of techniques competently.  This doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have finished an entire three year training program, but, in Ringeck’s style at least, a student should for example have mastered all of the Zornhau and its variations so that they can respond well to virtually any attack before they begin sparring.  If you begin to spar a lot before you have learned your techniques properly you will develop bad habits that will make it hard to apply those techniques.
I wish to re-emphasize that if you or your training partners spar without respect for the weapon, if you or they accept double hits and after-blows in order to get hits in, then there is something wrong with your or their mindset in approaching sparring.  Winning must be a secondary goal when you spar with your training partners.  You must see yourself first as a student, learning the things that sparring teaches.  Focusing on winning at the expense of learning leads to injuries and the adoption of habits that would be bad with real weapons.  Sparring therefore requires absolute honesty about your art, intentions, and what happened in each match.
The value of sparring also changes a great deal depending on the context and rule-set employed.  Most sparring is simply done one-on-one, with similar weapons, to the first “good” hit, in a manner which most closely approximates a duel.  Sparring can, however, simulate asymmetric situations with different weapons, different numbers of opponents on each side, and different situations, such as sitting down, being attacked from behind with a weapon sheathed, or simply emphasizing different target areas, etc…. One popular historical tournament rule set was to fight until a set number of blows had been struck.  Varying sparring rules and situations can make your sparring much more valuable.