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Value Above Sparring

Especially when I was a newer instructor, I used to struggle with the question “am I actually helping my students improve?”. In the simplest analysis, I can just look at them over time and say “yeah, these folks are getting better at fencing, so I must be helping”. But there remains a nagging doubt about whether it’s possible that people are improving in spite of my teaching, instead of because of it.

The way I’ve started to approach this question is inspired a bit by the sports approach of analysing a player by “value above replacement”. This is the idea of evaluating what the impact of an ‘average’ player would be, and then comparing the impact of a specific player to that average. This is a really useful tool because it controls for the actual results of that player - it lets you focus on their overall impact compared to other potential members of the team.

Applying this directly to HEMA runs into the problem that you can’t just replace the instructor of a typical club with an ‘average’ alternative instructor. But what you can do is compare the impact of the instructor to the impact of no instructor. Imagine you’re sick one day, so you show up for class and say “right, everyone just spar and I’m going to take a nap in the corner”. Your students will probably still get a bit better, just from getting some extra fencing experience and practice.

This is the core concept of Value Above Sparring: how much extra improvement am I providing for my students over and above the improvement they would gain by just spending the same time fencing without my involvement? Strictly this is "Value Above Uncoached Sparring". Coached sparring is one of the simplest ways to get positive VAS. If I teach badly designed classes - too many techniques, no effective integration into fencing, no aliveness to the exercises - then I’m probably having a negative VAS. My students would be getting better faster if I wasn’t showing up and teaching the classes I’m teaching. By designing a good curriculum and writing well structured classes which integrate skills effectively, I can have a positive VAS.

Note that individual activities don’t have a VAS. A good example is ‘talking’. If you spend the entire 2hrs of a class giving a lecture, that’s almost certainly going to be less effective at teaching students to fence than just letting them have at it. But if you spend 2 minutes of every 15 minutes explaining the next sparring game, you can achieve much better results over just letting them spar without any input or guidance. The specific integration of an activity into the rest of your class schedule is important for evaluating its value.

This also doesn’t prescribe a single way to organise your club. A long programme building up specific skills See Composing a Coherent Course. can definitely have a positive VAS over the entire duration, even if halfway through the students are ‘behind’ what they would have achieved by just sparring for that time. You can take this concept and use it in a whole bunch of ways. It’s just one way to try and get a handle on whether you’re actually positively helping your students fence through your teaching, or whether your students are mostly getting better through chance.

In sum, a good evaluation tool for your classes is:

"Do my students get better from me teaching them than they would if they just spent their time fencing and I took a nap?"

I welcome questions, comments or feedback on this article. You can reach me by email:

tea at fechtlehre dot org