I really want to start sparring but there isn't a good HEMA instructor in my region, and it is at least a 3 hour drive to the closest club. I have done some dueling with LARP swords, as well as regular Olympic fencing, and I have someone I trust who does martial arts to practice with, but I'm afraid I’m more likely to hurt them (or myself) while sparring. What should I do?
Thanks so much for asking! I always encourage people to take the plunge and get into sword-fighting as soon as they can. We all
find ourselves doing it one way or another, so we might as well take initiative and practice it responsibly. ;) If you feel confident in your basic handling and have done some form of sword sport already as well as having a partner you trust, then I suggest you get going! I’m going to centre my advice around longswords and single-handed arming swords, since that is the most commonly practiced form of HEMA at the moment, but it could be adjusted for other forms as well.
First, I suggest you start sparring
with something very safe, such as a good foam sword, and always wear
safety glasses, or if you are using rigid and semi-rigid training weapons, wear a fencing mask. Regardless of how blunt or
soft the sword is, always treat any sword as though it were
sharp to build good habits.
Gun users will appreciate the
importance of always treating any weapon as though it were loaded. Likewise, any and all types of sword simulators should be handled with the same respect.
Above: There are many affordable beginner swords available. Durable and attractive foam swords are produced by Calimacil, which have some of the best handling characteristics that I have seen in a commercially-available foam sword. However if you do hope to train with a HEMA club soon, a good semi-rigid sword to start with is the Rawlings Synthetic, also widely-available and reasonably-priced.
In sparring, the places most at risk of injury are your hands, eyes and sensitive areas of the body such as genitals, as well as your spine. The simplest and most basic protection is safety glasses and leather gloves, as well as a firm vest or some other form of torso protection. However, at this stage of your training and without an instructor, no one should be striking with force enough to damage your partner.
Strikes dealt during novice sparring should not leave many bruises, although some scrapes and bruises from training are inevitable.
Real historical swordsmanship is relatively calm, intentional and extremely subtle,
nothing at all like the desperate flailing seen in almost all forms of
popular media and a lot of modern medieval sword sports. It can get heated at HEMA competitions, but there is still a measure of reserve in the top fencers. Even some of the most experienced sharp-sword fencers move with clarity before applying speed and force.
I’ll talk more about force a bit later on.
You don’t have to rock any science-lab goggles to save your eyeballs. Many slick, low-profile safety glasses are available for anywhere between USD$2-30, such as these
CrossFire Infinity Safety Glasses.
Once you have safe tools and some basic protection, establish clear
target zones and win conditions with your sparring partner. Targets always excluded for novices should be vulnerable areas such as the groin, breasts (if you can avoid striking them), face, spine, neck and hands*. These zones should be restricted until you
have had more experience with controlling your blows and regular coaching
from a fencing master. However, it is bad to cast shots that expose your hands, so once
you have developed control and trust with your partner, I encourage threatening exposed hands as a target,
but don’t connect with any force. In a real sword fight, the hands are the nearest and easiest place to connect, so you need to learn to cast the blade first.
If you really can’t help yourself and keep hitting at the restricted zones but you still want to sword-fight, then you need to spend a lot of time developing control with your training tool and a non-animate target, and purchase standard HEMA safety gear for when you and your partner spar.
Decide what is a strike and what is dangerous play, such as mutually stopping and breaking apart if you get into
grappling range before you have been taught how to grapple and fall. For me, I consider a strike good if it is a firm touch or impact with a sliding motion of two to three inches of the weapon over my body. The impact isn’t a light tap and it isn’t a hard thump either.To gauge the pressure needed, think about the force needed to cut cleanly through a tomato or a steak. Thrusting also does not need to be excessive. A decent thrust is one that can compress around two to five inches
into the opponent, although a good sparring partner will acknowledge
the thrust even if you have stopped before you deliver it.
Agree on the win conditions: whether you
are fencing to first strike, or if you allow returning shots from the
person struck before the other one can get out of range (which I like to do). Make sure you are both clear on all of these things, and
be honest with your partner about the results of their fencing.
If you or your
partner don’t immediately register the shots you’ve taken, it isn’t
necessarily because you are cheating- it’s just that it takes
practice to feel and acknowledge your own hits. It’s even harder when you have adrenaline and are getting used to new motor skills. Don’t stress if you or the other person aren’t acknowledging hits, build up to it slowly with each other, like everything else. Also aim for precision in your feedback. Letting each
other know exactly where the other weapon has struck helps you both know
what you did, and better calibrates how you use your body and sword.
If you don’t
want to call your own hits and are feeling overwhelmingly that you want to win
during sparring, then you need to find another competitive outlet, because sparring only works when it is cooperative. Fencing “to
win” will escalate the sparring to a competition or a fight and results in injury (which is the point
of historical fencing, really), or it needs a third party
present to referee the success of the combatants. Until you are both
very experienced martial artists who can self-moderate, don’t spar to win unless there is someone present
to coach or marshal you.
The goal in
sparring isn’t winning. Save that energy for competition or getting out of a real fight. The goal in sparring is to develop your abilities
with a partner, learning how to move in control as you defend against or strike
an opponent and exiting the encounter safely without being struck.
when you’re in range. Talking takes your attention away from
your body and the weapons. It makes your fencing sloppy, inefficient
and potentially dangerous to both of you. If you both start to
chat, just discreetly move back out of range and reset your sword to
an obvious place to indicate you aren’t sparring at that moment*,
until you both stop talking about whatever it is.
fencers can get away with talking while sparring, but I strongly
advise against it whilst you are first starting out. If you are comfortable
with your sparring partner, it can be really easy to want to talk
during practice. Talking keeps you both relaxed and calm, but is a poor way to
*I personally put
the sword to my side, where the sheath would be, or hold it low and flat across the front of my body with both hands, seen below.
in range” goes for calling hits as well. You can verbally call hits, and many experienced fencers do, but I find that remaining non-verbal makes it easier to keep the flow and focus of the session. Instead, you can indicate hits by tapping the body part that was struck,
followed by a thumbs up to indicate if it was a particularly good
strike that you want to applaud. Verbally calling out shots can easily lead you both back to
chatting, which reduces the quality and safety of the sparring
session. Once you start to train with a club you might find that the culture around talking may be different, but this is what I recommend when you are away from an established training environment.
you need time out. It is completely and always okay to take the time you need
before you engage in sparring. I had an excellent Muay Thai coach for a while who
recognised when fighters were going to become aggressive a full five minutes
before they knew it themselves, and he would pull us off the floor long before we ever
got our tempers up. A hot head leads to injuries. Taking a moment or stopping altogether means you can learn and be a better partner, as well. “A moment” can be an
extra breath before stepping in range, a short water break, a five minute gap, or more, as long as you let your partner know how long you need. If you have
a good partner you will help each other, and part of that is knowing
when you shouldn’t be sparring.
feedback during breaks, not between exchanges and passes. Again, this
helps keep you focussed on the body and weapons, not words. If the feedback
is about something small such as “you were targetting my blade
instead of me”, then that kind of feedback between exchanges is reasonable,
but if it is going to lead to a longer conversation then I suggest keeping
it for a time when you both take a break. When in doubt about it, take a break. If you’re there to spar you will both be back trying out the results of the feedback soon enough.
A final thought: make sure the place you are training in is enclosed from wandering passersby/family members/college students/people walking their dogs. If you are visually exposed, make sure you can still limit how people approach you, such as positioning yourself on the far side of a row of park benches or behind a garden bed with a single path for access. Also be careful where you leave your gear, which will always draw interest. I suggest covering it with a blanket or towel even if you are right beside it when you spar. Most people lose a portion of their mental functions when they see sword fighters and their equipment in public, so you need to be smart about where you put yourself so they don’t constantly interrupt you to ask if you ever worked on Game of Thrones. (No, I haven’t.)
Overall, get out there and have
fun, breathe, help your partner and don’t be too hard on yourself as you learn and grow.
It was a great joy to model at premier concept design school Syn Studio today, demonstrating I:33’s 14th century European martial arts for artists who are training to go into Montréal’s vast video game industry.
Thanks so much to Salgood Sam for inviting me again!
This work is by the following artists (I’m not 100% sure of the order), Salgood Sam, Lydia Wong, Tatiana Tung Gerencer, Renée-Claude Dostie, and Dany DiSalvo.
“Martial artists must possess humility and selflessly serve others….
Bushido devoid of this spirit of humility is nothing more than
violence.” -Shihan Ōtake Risuke
He is the master of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu - Japan’s oldest and most traditional
sword school - considered the pinnacle of classic Japanese martial arts. It was founded in the Muromachi era (1336-1573). It is an amazing privilege that warriors can learn from centuries of unbroken Japanese tradition, and also that they have opened their doors to share with the rest of us.
The clip is from a full movie called ‘Art of the Japanese Sword’ by Empty Mind Films, that came out in 2010- available to watch on Youtube for under $5.
Thanks so much to Marc S. for sharing this with me!
Ten years ago, I had fun by stepping into the shoes of an inspirational Kiwi sword-wielder, and I dreamed of heroism and adventure.
Now, I make my own path.
Thank you for the reminder, Facebook memories!
Here is video 1/3 for the Kingsmen! The Kingsmen are my faction
in Weekend Warrior- an experiential live action event that will be
filmed, documentary style, and challenge you in a new form of
medieval-style outdoor adventure. For more, check out our Weekend Warrior Kickstarter!
Credits: CAST: Alexandre Lemay Camil Benoit Émilie Vallée-Manseau Gabrielle ‘Biquette’ Bergeron Genovefa Clerica Jérémie Hrycak Leclaire Marc C. Peter de Bracebrigde Samantha Swords
CREW: Director of Photography/Editor: Simon Gilberg Director/Producer//Production Management: Samantha Swords Production Assistant: Ariane Lafrenière Props Department: Peter de Bracebrigde and Genovefa Clerica Featured Props: Samantha Swords Drumming: Peter de Bracebrigde
THANKS TO: Conner Morgan Ben Cummings The Forge Studios Fell&Fair L'Auberge de Dragon Rouge La Ville de Montréal Ville de Québec Hostel International Québec VIA Rail Marie Brisbois Calimacil Marie Bellerose of L'Atelier des Cache-Mis Le Dogue du Montréal La Baronnie de l'Île du Dragon Dormant Charles of Syn Studio Gaffer Tape Zoe
ADDITIONAL THANKS: Jason VandenBerghe Lisa VandenBerge Jaydee Ruiz
Knights! Vikings! Samurai! The fantasy versions of these are battling it out right now on Ubisoft’s open beta for the PvP game ‘For Honor’!
I was involved with this game and though I may be biased, I think it is awesome and a lot of fun.
If you want to grab a cyber sword and join a faction, the open beta runs 9th-12th, and you can also watch the livestream (link below).
Great work to the whole team from Ubisoft Montreal!
In 1965, this amazing short sword was pulled from a scabbard in a coffin which was underwater in a tomb in
for most of its 2,500 year life. Whether by craftsmanship, metallurgical quality or the circumstances of preservation, this sword is still in phenomenal condition, and at time of discovery was untarnished and still sharp!
Who knows the Lord of the Rings? Yeah. Who knows the sword that cut the Ring…?
This is not that sword.
So, the first time anyone picks up an actual real steel sword, the look in their eyes, from small children to old ladies- there’s a certain magic about that moment.
These are the words of my friend Fran Terminiello. She’s a sword fighter in the UK. And like so many of us, she’s passionate about Historical European Martial Arts. Who knows that word? Yeah? A few of you?
Historical European Martial Arts are the martial arts of medieval Europe. Yes, they existed. They were very complicated, very beautiful, just as like the Asian martial arts are. And, unfortunately, they died out, which is why most of us don’t actually know about them these days. But for those of us who are completely crazy about swords, we have been recreating the arts from fighting manuals- books that were left from the people who actually studied in those ancient times.
And they were very good about leaving us lots of information. Not all the information that we needed, but just enough. So using our understanding of martial arts and working with the actual weapons, we’ve been able to recreate these arts. But when I was very young I didn’t know that they existed.
I was crazy about swords, from probably about this big. And I was introduced to swords the way most of us are, through the movies. I was a very small child and I saw Robin Hood, and Peter Pan, and all those squashbuckling kind of movies, which introduced me to heroism. And when I was four years old, my mum actually made me my first sword.
It wasn’t a beautiful steel sword- and I don’t think I would have known what to do with it anyway- it was a wooden sword, and it was small, and it was white, and my mum painted it, she put it out to dry…. and the next day, we came home to find that our home had been burnt to the ground.
I was four years old.
So I lived in Australia, and these things happen. Unfortunately fires- bushfires- are a really big part of that country, because it’s such a dry environment, and people really- you know, to live there, you’ve really got to be aware of your environment. And unfortunately, you know, when we came home and our home was burnt down it wasn’t that unusual.
There was a question that maybe it was bush rats. Now, I love rats, as you know, so I don’t hold it against them if it were.
My mum also loved animals, and the thing is… I didn’t live in a normal house. I lived on a campsite. My mum had actually bought a campsite from the YMCA, and so when I say that, ‘our home burnt down’, it was actually my mum’s apartment and the main barn, and my little cabin was fine. My little cabin with its four-year-old treasures.
But my mum unfortunately lost everything that day. And to anyone who’s experienced losing everything, it’s quite devastating. Especially the animals, so all of my mum’s animals were killed, except for her horse, and I was fine.
So they said it was possibly bush rats, but there was a question maybe, possibly, the electrical heater had been left on, and I might have left my dressing gown on it.
Now I can tell you this, if you have a small child in your life, don’t ever, ever, let them think something like that is their fault. My mum didn’t, but the question was there. So you can imagine growing up with that kind of question mark in your mind, it just- it can create so much guilt. So much responsibility for someone so young.
And my mum was a professional psychologist, which meant that I got really good at 'being fine’. You know? (laughs) I learnt how to get on with things and I also convinced myself that I was fine, for a really long time.
And I was anyway a really strange kid. I was one of those kids that… (whispers knowingly) they’re kind of weird. You don’t really know how to talk to them… (normal voice) …because they’re always doing something weird like… turning… the… rubbish pile into a dragon…. or something, you know, just one of those weird kids that’s always in their own little world.
And that, honestly, was how I dealt with my reality, was by creating fantasy worlds. I was extremely creative; I was very artistic, you know, I had stories that I was building all the time, and that was how I dealt with things. I was really escaping. And that’s such a good coping strategy for a while. And if you are a creative person, it’s a wonderful way to turn trauma into something that you can use to understand your world.
I have to turn my page, excuse me.
Do you also know the TV series, the Dollhouse? Does anyone know it? The director is Joss Whedon, who’s also known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Avengers…. That guy.
So he created this great TV series called, 'the Dollhouse’. And there’s this great quote from it that goes, “When you see someone running incredibly fast, you have to ask yourself, are they running from something, or are they running to something?” And the quote continues, “the answer is always both. Achievement is always balanced by fault, by a lack. You see someone that’s a high achiever, and they’re overcompensating.”
Now I don’t completely think that everyone who achieves is overcompensating- I just think it’s the majority of us.
So that quote really rings true for me, because I spent most of my life trying to run basically, from what had happened. Trying to pretend to be okay. But the thing that really cut through my fantasy- you know, the adventure and heroism of my fantasy worlds- was the sword. Because everyone can relate to a sword, right?
I mean, it’s at the centre of all our mythology, it’s this, epic kind of heroic symbol, and it’s something that’s attached to a very real martial arts form.
So when found out that actually European Martial Arts existed, I was still very much a fantasy-loving geek who was into 'Lord of the Rings’, and just wanted to be dressing up all the time, but I also wanted to learn everything I could about this beautiful weapon.
So I did.
And something interesting happened. Because the thing about martial arts, is it forces you to move. It forces you to be present, in your body. So even though the sword was my tool, I realised something really interesting- I was the sword. The sword was me.
And- I think that having a weapons-based martial art is a great way to get people to learn to fight because you can focus outside of your body, but eventually you have to be able to bring it back into yourself. You have to be able to read a situation, you have to be sensing the amount of force that’s in something.
What you don’t usually see in the movies is pressure. When swords bind like this, they’re pushing on each other. The amount of force- if I push too hard, it’s going to leave this one moving. So in movies, you see a lot of this. That kind of thing, right? Looks really familiar.
Rah! I’m going to smash you, I’m going to smash you, I’m going to smash you…!
Actually, you don’t want to do that in a real fight, because the moment you step away- dead. So you want to control the other person in a fight, you want to use the sword to move. You’re moving them, and you’re moving yourself as well.
And the thing about a sword fight, is that when you’re too close to use a sword, you’re going to use your body. You’re going to use the sword in unusual ways. It’s a weapon. You can use any side of it.
You can use the pommel, you can use the hilt. It’s this wonderful versatile thing, and there’s a reason it was so popular for thousands of years.
So learning all this really taught me how to be present. Which was something that a person growing up and surviving trauma has trouble learning. It’s like a disconnect that’s there to keep you safe. You know?
If you’ve lived through trauma, and you’re reliving that trauma every day, it can disable you. So you have to disconnect because that’s your survival.
But you also have to move on because the fear will eat you alive. And the thing that is very real for me is fear. I always am afraid. It’s like the Hulk, you know? (deep voice) “I’m always angry- that’s my secret. I’m Bruce Banner.”
(normal voice) I am always afraid. But you know, being always afraid means you have an opportunity to always be brave. Because if you’re not afraid of something, and you don’t have that fear in place, you never really know what it is you need to overcome.
I’ve learnt that fear is like a guide. If I’m afraid of doing something it means it’s very important. And I can avoid it… (laughs) I’m very good at avoiding things- but I have learnt that if I do that for too long it stunts me. I’m going to be unhappy. So I’ve learnt to embrace challenge.
Now- it doesn’t mean I’ve got it completely right, but I’ve started a conversation with my fear that I find very useful. So instead of thinking of fear as this thing that is like this overwhelming black darkness that’s going to eat you alive and it’s a demon around every corner, no- not at all.
See my fear is actually a very small child. Or at least, this is how I think of it. It’s more than one child, it’s a small me that’s been hurt throughout my life. All that pain, all that fear- it’s become a little person. So it’s like a group of little people who are really scared.
And if I try and ignore my fear … well, it’s like a kid, you know? They’re going to feel hurt, and they’re going to be more and more insistant on wanting to understand the thing that they’re afraid of, or trying to get your attention, like, “Oh no, don’t do that thing! I know it’s going to be bad, I know it’s going to be bad! I know it’s going to be bad!”
And it will get stronger, and stronger, and stronger the more you push it away. So you can’t do that. Or I can’t, anyway.
I’ve had to change my tactics. It’s like dealing with a hydra, you know, you push one away and another head just comes up.
So instead, I have to take the little kids, all those little fears, and I have to look at the thing that they’re afraid of. And I have to go, “Okay. I see that thing. I see what it is. I understand that there’s a risk there. How can we deal with this risk?”
So you have to actually look at the thing you’re afraid of and do it anyway. But you have to do it in a way that acknowledges that you’re afraid.
So since I changed that conversation with myself, the story around my fear, its really helped. Because it means that I can see myself as a hero overcoming things, but instead of making my fear the monster, I see the challenge as the monster. The challenge of the thing.
You know, if you ever go out into the mountains- think of Lord of the Rings, okay, trekking across Middle Earth… so many mountains, so many unknown places…. The fear is going to that place, because you don’t know what’s going to be there. You could get hurt. You could lose everything. And in Lord of the Rings they do have a great deal of loss. But they keep going, even though they’re afraid. And being able to frame your life as a story, having that narrative, it’s a powerful tool for courage.
I need to change my page again, excuse me.
So the thing is, if I’m afraid, and I can overcome it, I know you can too. You have to make a decision, every single day. You have to decide, am I going to follow the thing I love, which gives me strength, gives me confidence, or am I going to hide and let that thing, that thing that I can’t quite look at or deal with, am I going to let that rule my life?
And it’s a decision, guys. It’s a decision to be a hero. And I promise you, once you create a practice of being a hero, one day, you’ll wake up, and you will be that person.
Help us get back Bill’s gear!
Stolen from Cambridge MA, 20th July 2016
To the thieves who steal medieval gear, you are really, really
stupid. When do you think you can wear or sell high quality kit without
people noticing?This is a small community that is everywhere, and we look after each
other. Give it back, and get armour or swords the way the rest of us do-
through hard work.
Please share if you feel the same way.
Anyone going into pawn shops and finding armour like this in the coming weeks, please pay attention to whether it looks like it was from a museum. Bill’s gear was top quality and very distinctive.
Below from Bill,
“Just when you think it cannot go any worse. Right now I’m crushed. I was in Cambridge today. When I went to leave, I noticed that my car (and several others) were broken into. The motherf**s took half my armour, and my ammo box of tools
I’ve lost: All of my leg armour All of my arm armour Two different gorgets Two different set of gauntlets A set of sollerets A handmade brayette A pair of period shoes.
A bunch of tools, including two hammers, four set of needle nose pliers
in various sizes, good shears, scissors, two different punches for
leather, a punch for steel/metal, a bunch of various other tools for my
armour, leather belts, buckles, straps, rivets etc in a .50 Caliber
Here is a picture of the arms and legs. They are quite unique.
I now have no real armour, I cannot fight Friday night. I can no longer do demos. I can no longer sell my art to others in the way I usually do.”
Hi Samantha, I would like to ask for a method of practising more on reading the opponent and being slower. I feel like my skill in this is very unstable and escapes me sometimes. I feel like rushing is what I do most of the time, which usually ends up with me being dead.
Thanks for asking! This is a big subject. It is the result of what happens when people wear protective gear and lose fear of the blade, which makes it easy to become reckless when fighting. It is extremely hard to defend against an opponent who is reckless because they don’t hold back, but if you are smart in a real fight, then you will preserve some caution- especially with sharp blades. I don’t think that it’s your skill that varies, just the circumstances that you are learning in.
I think that you need a partner who wants to learn the same way, who is trying to develop the feeling in the blade. If one opponent moves faster then the other will follow so you really need to have someone who can agree to not try to “win” or try to be the fastest during a drill. You have to agree to move at the same speed, keep the bind until you have manipulated the other to a place that is safer for you. The goal is for you to learn together and not by taking advantage of the other in the relative safety of the drill.
This is all in aid of developing ‘fühlen’, or ‘feeling’ in the fight.
Below: Half of the page from manuscript i:33 folio 20v, showing two fencers bound.
What I demonstrate when I teach is all centred on fencing from the bind. The historical treatises largely recommend binding and control, rather than rushing in. However the way that most of the modern sword-combat sports world* are fighting is the opposite, unfortunately. There is very little binding, even though it’s shown all the time in the fight books.
*Just what I mean: the wider international community of medieval sword-centred combat sports fighters, which comes in over a dozen forms and identities.
When fighting, if a person’s goal is to strike the other, they will rush in and be reckless. If their goal is to defend themselves from attack, they will be more conservative and efficient.
I think that part of the problem causing “rushing in” is that in modern competitive sword combat, we generally seek to score points in a hurry to win a bout.
If we changed the rules to be that we started with hit points and had to preserve them, it would make for more careful fencing. There would still need to be motivation for both parties to fight, but the focus would shift and reflect the more cautious approach seen in historical swordsmanship. The key is to still have a healthy fear of the other person’s blade. Then you learn how to be safe against the danger.
It’s the same as working with any hazardous equipment. In my industry, there are so many of these that we use all the time. For example, the table saw is a pretty devastating tool but you don’t replace it with a blunted or plastic version, or wear a lot of protection to work with it. Bulky clothes or thick gloves actually get in the way, and create more of a hazard than working with just a pair of earmuffs and safety glasses.
Instead, you just accept the potentially-fatal dangers of the tool and learn to work with it carefully, in a controlled, precise and mindful way.
Below: Carving polystyrene-foam into organic stone steps as a scenic sculptor for the film industry. I’m wearing chaps because the chainsaw can potentially kick-back, although since this is fine-detail work, the material is much softer than what I usually work with and less of a hazard. Note the fencing stance for stability, and the rotation of my body to agree with the angle of the cut.
I am not advocating an irresponsible approach to training with swords, rather to appreciate the full hazard they present and then learn to handle it.
What I’m talking about refers to historical swordsmanship in the context of self-defence, but there are many, many modern sword combat sports that exist that have already put safety factors in place to protect their athletes.
Not everyone can be good at sword sports. But anyone can be good at at fencing for self-defence.
I have experienced this kind of approach in more than a few sword clubs around the world. To see video examples of it in action you can check out Roland Warzecha/DIMICATOR’s YouTube channel,
showing the active practice of swordsmanship using sharp steel and
shields that as closely as possibly follow the specifications of museum
Lastly, a philosophy that may help prevent rushing in:
You have to control your space, the circle (or sphere) around your body. This is the distance around you that you or your weapon can reach. Anything that is inside it is your space.
So when your opponent comes into that space, they can be in your control. You are allowing them in. It’s the same for them- they are allowing you into their space. You just need to help them to make a mistake. Then once they make a mistake you can control them. Unless you also make a mistake, then you are both equal again. The best thing is to be efficient and make fewer mistakes than your opponent.
You can let someone into your space to trick them, or if you already have a better angle and they will struggle to defend. But it needs to be a clear decision to allow them that close to you.
If you practice understanding your circle (with and without a
sword), and think about what you allow to come into it, it will give you
an advantage when you practice with a partner. However, there is a lot you can do to improve your reflexes and self control for combat, explained in length by many other martial arts practitioners.