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tl;dr My boyfriend's friend Bill always goes too fast when sparring with me at longsword. How can I tell him that he should slow down or I will refuse to spar him in future?

Background

As a hobby, I do longsword fencing (it's all under the umbrella of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts)). I've been doing this for about a year and a half at this point, but I'm still not super confident. I have, however, accumulated enough gear that I am able to spar with people with proper protection.

I do this together with my boyfriend, who started doing this because of one of his best friends, let's call him Bill. Now, Bill used to do sport fencing and as such he's pretty confident. He's also been doing HEMA for a bit longer than I have and started sparring long before I got around to it. He and my boyfriend have also participated in some tournaments, at which the level of intensity can get pretty high and minor injuries such as bruises and very occasionally concussions can occur.

I have not started going to tournaments yet, and I'm pretty nervous about doing so. I prefer to spar at a lower level of intensity focusing on technique, as I can't really keep up with faster sparring at the moment due to my reaction times and perhaps partially due to my level of fitness. So, when I spar with people I ask them to go slow.

The problem is that Bill fights very aggressively, and tends to speed up even when you tell him to slow down. When he fights at a higher level of intensity, he can "beat" me easily just by being faster than I am. I find this frustrating, to such a level that one night when I sparred him I got angry, then nearly broke down in tears (although I kept this from him). He fought very aggressively that night, despite my boyfriend telling him to slow down.

A note that should be made is that Bill displays this problem even when sparring with other people. We do something called "slow sparring", which is done without full gear on and at half or a quarter of regular speed. When slow sparring Bill will start slow and then gradually speed up until he is told to slow down again. Rinse and repeat.

I could provide more examples, but hopefully that gets the point across.

Other Information

In our club, the emphasis is upon being comfortable. So if one person wants to be slower (be it in sparring, drills, etc.) and the other person faster, you go with the slower person's tempo.

My Goal

Though I wish I could change his behaviour with other people too, for now I would like to focus on how I can help myself to deal with him. In particular, I would like to impress upon him how he needs to put more effort into slowing down when I ask him to, and staying at that level of intensity. If he can't do that, I would like to respectfully decline to spar with him in future, at least until such a point as I can deal with his higher level of intensity. I would like to do this without hurting his feelings, but in a firm manner such that he doesn't try to argue with me about it.

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    Welcome! Can you give us some indication of how Bill has responded in the past to requests to slow down mid-session? Is he rude, begrudging, apologetic? Does it seem intentional or oblivious? How you should respond will depend on him. – Catija Mar 22 '18 at 0:26
  • @Catija he slows down briefly and then seems to forget completely, returning to his former level of intensity. I'm not sure he realises what he's doing is an issue to other people. – Lauraducky Mar 22 '18 at 0:31
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    He will sometimes apologise for doing things that are too intense, for instance he gave me a hard thrust in the face a while back which I told him was too hard and he apologised multiple times after that. – Lauraducky Mar 22 '18 at 0:32
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I have some limited experience with fencing with medieval weapons and a lot of experience with LARP-Style foam/fiberglass weapons. Even did some teaching there.

What I have experienced there leads me to believe that Bill usually zones in into such a spar so he is not rationally aware of his aggressiveness, but is in a kind of flow state. Keeping in control requires one to stay out of the zone, which may take away some of his fun and also may not be entirely in his control. As per your comments it seems that he is not aware this is a general problem.

I think the first thing is to make him aware that this is currently incompatible with the way you´d like to practice your hobby. This is without blame just matter-of-fact to lay the ground where to go from there.

I would recommend to have such a talk not while you are in a spar, but after training. If you makee room that his style of sparring is as valid as yours and it is just a matter of personal taste, you should be able to have a constructive conversation on how to make both of you happy. That may entail that Bill needs to find other sparring partners, or that you need to work on his control, but either is valid.

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If he asks you to spar: "Hey Bill, you've been really high intensity when we've been sparring recently, so I think I'd prefer a different partner until I'm training up for a tournament."

It sounds like you have been communicating what you need, but it's not enough for him to change his behavior. Declining would show you're serious and (more importantly) take you out of a situation where you feel unsafe(?) / that is not the way you want to spar.

If there's someone running it who's assigning you all to partners, you should ask them about it, specifically requesting not to be paired with Bill for a while because of this. It's not a hard request for them to fulfill, and they might be able to talk with Bill. (It would probably be their duty to make sure everyone acts safe and feels safe, but they may not see it that way.)

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    Additionally, this direct approach of telling Bill why you are not interested in sparring may make them realize how important this issue is to you – spiral succulent Mar 22 '18 at 0:32
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    Who spars who is pretty informal at my club, people just sort of ask others if they want to spar with them. We change sparring partners regularly, such that on any particular night you'll probably end up sparring everyone who is geared up. So I'm probably going to have to confront him directly – Lauraducky Mar 22 '18 at 0:35
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It sounds like others have tried to slow him down, but haven't been able to.

If I were you, I'd simply refuse to spar with him anymore. Talk about your feelings. No one can argue against your feelings.

"I'm sorry, but I don't feel comfortable sparring with you. You're just too fast and too strong. And I don't like doing it."

"Sorry, no. I'm not doing it."

"No, even when you're holding back. I don't enjoy doing it."

"Yes, I may never improve that way, but that's my decision."

"Nope."

"No thanks."

Repeat this, as many times as necessary (this is not an argument, you're not trying to convince him of anything. It's ok if he doesn't accept it).

This doesn't mean that you can't still be friends. It just means that you no longer want to spar with him. And yes, it might hurt his feelings for a little while. But don't let his feelings manipulate you into doing something that you're clearly not comfortable doing.

And whatever you do, don't try to change him (others have tried already and I suspect that any change may only be temporary), and don't get sucked up into an argument. So don't insult him, don't make it about his behavior, make it about your own feelings, don't expand the argument, and don't be afraid to repeat yourself.

And if he keeps on probing, just tell him. "I'm sorry. I've already told you this is not what I wanted. I don't feel comfortable sparring with you. My feelings are my feelings, and I certainly don't need to justify my feelings to you."

And yes, you could leave the door open for practicing for a competition (like someone else has suggested already), but I were you, I wouldn't do that. In my opinion, it's best to not leave doors open if you're having such a hard time telling him 'no' in the first place.

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You could go with,

Hey Bill, when I am sparring, I'm trying to develop consistency, awareness, and muscle memory, and thus I really need you to slow down so that I can best develop my fencing skills.

and then say,

Sparring at a more controlled pace ensures that I can develop good fencing habits, rather than resorting to bad techniques.

These statements highlight many of the benefits of sparring.

I think you'll have to repeat this to him a few times, though.

As far as him "not learning", this is going to be true of many athletes. For instance, when I talk to my high school coach, who has worked with famous NBA basketball players, he never really talks about their height, speed or jumping ability - he always notes that they were the best listeners. If you're friend Bill is not the best listener, perhaps accept this fact, and work on it with him by repeating things to him - and try to be a bit more patient. If possible, stop sparring the moment you feel it's going too fast, remind him to slow down, and remind him what the purpose of sparring is for.

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Bill doesn't seem to be in a 'coaching' role - sounds like he is also sparring for enjoyment and fencing at a slower tempo may be going against his natural style. So I don't think it's easy for him to change. Even if he initially agrees to go at your speed, he would probably always revert to his own comfortable way of sparring.

You need to talk to the person in charge and choose another person from the club who can match your tempo. You can be frank with Bill but make it about both of you rather than only about him. That is, you can say something like "Hey Bill, I know asking you to slow down is not fair for you but I really can't handle this speed, I think we should find other partners to spar with. Once I become faster at this, we can give it a go".

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    I agree that it's natural for him to want to go faster, but I also think that slowing down and fighting more technically we be beneficial for him as well. In general, there are some cases where you are expected to dial back your intensity-- such as more informal or local tournaments-- and at these events too, Bill has begun to get a reputation for being a bit of a "brute". – Lauraducky Mar 22 '18 at 3:48
  • Ok, then you may want to edit the original question mentioning that there are cases (as per the rules of this game) when he is expected to tone down so this is a problem with him that needs correction. My answer was based on my understanding from your post that people can spar at any intensity (as per the rules) and you couldn't match his intensity because of your fitness level/reaction time and so want him to go slower – svj Mar 22 '18 at 4:45
  • @Lauraducky Also, even if it would benefit him to have control and practice better and not be a "brute," I agree when Stephan Branczyk says you shouldn't try to change him; as svj points out, it's unlikely to work anyway. Natural consequences of his actions--people are unwilling to spar with him when he does not stay in control--may help him learn to stay in control, but it's not your responsibility (especially as a relative newcomer to the activity) to correct him. – cactus_pardner Mar 23 '18 at 4:15
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What's going on?

When Bill speeds up in order to win the spar, he is feeling great because he wins. But as you said, he has compromised fairness, equity, and good form to achieve that goal.

Clearly, Bill doesn't understand sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is more than a cultural norm, it's a civilization norm that has been present in Western society at least since the Hellenistic Olympics.

Here's a blog post about sportsmanship in fencing.

Here's a university article about sportsmanship.

Here's a blog post about sparring partners.

Next steps

Don't spar if you don't think it's safe to do so. I don't think you can avoid "hurting his feelings", but this is a person who doesn't mind "hurting your feelings" with a broadsword: you are not doing something wrong by protecting your pate.

You don't have to justify your decision to Bill, because after all, Bill doesn't respect you or your safety during sparring.

If you care about Bill, you will want him to learn sportsmanship and start respecting his opponents. Eventually, a poor sport will lose all of his or her sparring partners, and before that their skills will plateau prematurely because of their lack of respect.

Also, the sport will only continue if it's safe for the players. Unsafe sparring would be a great reason for regulators to shut down the practice... that would be bad for everybody.

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