Having just gotten back from VISS (which was awesome), I think that the next couple of posts here will be pretty heavily inspired by some takeaways I had. Not everything came right out of a class or a specific discussion; rather, a lot of things just kind of coalesced over the course of the weekend, and I get to talk about them here.
Rather than get technique-specific (or even more weird and esoteric) out of the gate, I want to start in with my thoughts on Best Practices For Drilling!
What struck me over the time I spent at the conference was how wonderfully collaborative it was. While a number of individuals there can be absolutely competition-minded (I'm certainly one of them), the atmosphere at VISS was one of communal learning. One of the places where this came out most was in paired drilling. There's a lot that we can learn from the WMA community, and the work they do in paired drills is right up there, and I'm gonna share what I learned here.
Out of the gate, there was an emphasis on referring to the people doing the drill as "partners." You didn't have an opponent in your drill, you had a partner. This is a small change, to be sure, but I really think that it carries some really massive connotations. You aren't working against the person doing a drill with you, you're working with them, together, and trying to help each other out. No matter who gets struck at the end of the drill, you're both working and learning, regardless of relative skill levels.
There were some other, really concrete things that I took away, that I need to keep in mind for my own personal practice and teaching:
Being a good drill partner means that it's contingent on you to perform your techniques accurately and well. If you are delivering an attack, it must be an honest attack - on target, and able to strike your partner if they don't do something about it. There's a tendency in partnered drills to really let this slide - you assume the parry that your partner is supposed to do, so you don't make it a real attack that would actually land. This obviously doesn't help your partner learn to perform the correct counters, but it also teaches you to launch bad attacks. Nothing good comes of this.
On the same token, be sure to keep building up correct steps in the play that you're drilling. One thing that can really help this by working it out step by step from the beginning, and not jumping straight to the finished form. I don't mean doing the whole completed play slowly (though that's also good, and I'll touch on that later!) but rather building it up from the ground. For example, start with the most basic movement - generally, one fencer making an attack and striking the other. Do that. Do it well. Understand how the drill is starting. Then add the response to that. Do it a couple times. Then add the final counter to that defense. This way, you know that the whole drill is being based on solid techniques, and you have a better understanding of how all of them fit together, and why you might perform those actions in a real bout. This is a really good thing to do when you're just learning a drill, and is worth doing for multiple practice sessions in a row. Even when the drill is old hat, running through the buildup to self-check is a good call.
Related to this, you need to work on performing the technique correctly and accurately as prescribed by the drill. For some people there's a real desire to work outside the script, generally while saying, "Well, I can do this instead" or "I think this works better." Both of those might be true! You may prefer other techniques or you might feel like you get better results with them. That's fine, but it's also not what you're working on. Take the opportunity to work on a new thing for you, and remember that you're not helping your partner learn what they're setting out to learn if you're not giving them the correct techniques to work against.
Remember that even if you're the person being struck in the end, there's a lot that you're learning in the drill - don't just be a passive recipient of the final blow. The drill is still an opportunity to practice using the techniques that you're supposed to be using, but more than that, it's an opportunity to see how they work out. You get to see how a technique you're using looks and feels when it's countered; this is invaluable in a real fight, because you quickly learn when to bail to plan B, rather than press home a failed attempt at an attack. On the other hand, if your partner isn't sticking their end, you get to see how your technique feels when it works!
On that note, be sure to test your partner on occasion. You want to let them become familiar with the movements of the drill relatively unopposed, but you need to be sure to actually give them a good simulation of what they'll be up against. If they're supposed to find your blade as you attack, gain it, and strike you, and they perform a terrible gaining? Continue with your attack and hit them in the face! Don't do a counter to what your partner is doing, but just continue to perform your action if they can't stop you. Performing the correct technique poorly doesn't help anyone, but you need to be sure to have both of you troubleshoot why that happened. Don't leave your partner to figure it out on their own, but work together to fix it so that they can hit you like the drill calls for. Don't be a jerk about testing them - when there's a wide gap in skill levels this happens sometimes, and it can get really frustrating. Don't make it too easy, but keep pushing them to do it well, and you can work on your detail work and observation.
Drills are, in a lot of ways, performed in an "all things created equal" situation. You want to be sure that you're practicing them at the same speed as the slower partner. This ensures that it's the real technique being worked on, and not just throwing lots of speed all over the place. You can speed up the techniques as you get used to performing them properly. If they start to fall apart at all, slow it back down a bit. Work at the same speed all the time. Similarly, if there's a height or reach discrepancy, you can usually work around it without changing the core of the drill. One person may start a bit closer (for instance, if a drill calls for the attacker to start at misura larga, then they determine their misura larga) but the core sequence of the drill should be unaffected.
Finally, when drills offer the possibility of a choice, there's nothing wrong with deciding to limit the available options for a specific runthrough. It's amazing how much more complicated your decision tree becomes when you move from two choices to three, and that kind of added stress can distract from performing the techniques by a shocking amount. If in a drill one fencer can respond with, say, a push back, doing nothing, or a cavazione - and each of those requires its own response - it is absolutely fine to decide that for this set, that fencer can only choose between pushing back or a cavazione for the time being.
So that's that! The weekend was full of a lot of paired work, and over three days, all of this was my takeaway. I had the pleasure of working with a number of great partners of all kinds of skill levels, and being able to work with each other to help each other improve made such a difference in what I was able to take away from just one weekend of time.