Monday, March 30, 2015

Best Practices for Drilling (The first of a series of VISS takeaway posts!)

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.


  1. One of the things I learned in the Destreza class is there is an "instructor" role and a "student" role. It is just as important for the person playing the instructor role to give the proper cues as it is for the student to execute on the response. And in good drilling, the partners switch off roles. I found it reinforced the skill from both sides and made the overall understanding stronger.

    1. From what I know, the specific Instructor/Student roles are a particular thing in Destreza; other traditions are just "the fencer" and "the other fencer" or "Agente" and "Patiente."

      Regardless, proper cues are important.

  2. "Well, I can do this instead" or "I think this works better." is right up there with "Well, what if my opponent does this instead to get around it?" as things that annoy me..

    ...especially if the "I think this works better" comes from someone not involved the direct teaching or drill application.

    1. Totally agreed. Usually my answer to all of those is "Great, but this action is the one we're drilling right now."

      Amusingly, once you have a really great command of the material, the answer can shift towards, "Yes, and that's a different play. That's Plate XX, but right now we're working on Plate YY."

      Both are great responses for different people, though. ;)

    2. I really like the phrase "Other plays from from here," as being one with lots of applications.

      In SCA combat, I often say "Other plays flow from here" when what I mean is, "This is where we're meant to do things to each other that are illegal under this ruleset."

      In partnered drills, I use "Other plays flow from here" as a way of acknowledging that it's possible to take this situation to a different resolution. But, like you say, what we're working on right now is what we should be working on right now.

      Sometimes, in partner drills, I use "Other plays flow from here" from just the other perspective: if one or both partners have set the scenario in a way other than prescribed (your sword is on the other side, or the angle is steeper, or you've put pressure on the blade), then what you've done is to create a scenario in which a different play *would* be appropriate. Inasmuch as we've committed, right now, to working on a particular play, be sure to set the table, as it were, appropriately to feed into this play (sword on this side, with this angle, and no pressure on the blade, for example).

      This last is, I think, worth unpacking for people-- because often, when the "but I could do this" game is most appealing is when the intended play isn't set up well (and thus isn't really working well).

    3. Unsurprisingly, "other plays flow from here" is basically your catchphrase in my head.

      You make a great point about how beginning a play somewhat differently, even unintentionally so, can lead to a need to take different actions to resolve it. That's absolutely worth keeping in mind.

  3. I want to cry... this is sooo totally how drills should be. In the SCA I find the hardest part is getting people to "let" others hit them. Everyone thinks that letting someone hit them in practice makes them learn to let people hit them in competition. :-( it's the hardest part to get people to do... and then the part about testing your partner... i only ever get to this in my 1 on 1's.. because if i let the partners do it, they will all try to "outsmart" or "outfight" their partners... it's happens without fail. I attribute it to the lack of cultural knowledge that practice is practice and competition is competition... in the SCA we view it all as the same thing which is our second biggest loss to increasing skill at a quicker pace. Our first being people only getting to train/practice at typically 1 practice a week for only 2-4 hours a week. :-( Takes a long time to build muscle memory if that's all you are doing about it. :-(

    1. Yeah, no joke. I mean, I feel like I learned so much in three days (though I need more drill time to really get those skills ingrained) in no small part to Good Drills and Good Partners.

      The rapier community (and maybe heavy, but I can't speak for them) doesn't instill good drilling habits and culture. Partly this is due to just never really having had them, and partly this is due to people wanting to get straight to free-bouting (because that's where the fun is, right?) and just not wanting to develop good foundations.

      My small experience with Eastern martial arts was like this; there was no great desire to push right to sparring. We all wanted to develop the techniques and get them down pat. Since we weren't a school that cared about tournaments, there wasn't any real air of competition among us. (It also helped that most all the students were already friends anyway, we gamed together, all that.) We wanted to help each other get better. It was collaborative. It's very different from rapier practices, where it's all about getting people right into sparring, because funtimes means more people coming back. Which is fair, but it doesn't do much for skill.

      That's not to say that we shouldn't have a desire to compete. Compitition is how we test ourselves, and prove ourselves. There's nothing wrong at all with wanting to win. (Despite what a lot of people feel. You *can* be a highly competitive and driven person without being an asshole.) But training and drills are about helping everyone improve.

      Seriously though, think about the times you've seen people drill, and think about how both the drilling people and the instructors refer to the other person. I bet that most of the time the word "opponent" is used. Think about the connotations of that. To borrow a phrase, words matter. The connotations of "partner" are very, very different, and I think that matters a lot.

      Finally, I agree with you that nothing will get me pissed off more than a partner trying to outfight, outspeed, or not do the prescribed motions with their partner so that "they can win" or any other thing, like Remy mentions above. You're not helping them learn, and you're also not helping yourself learn either. You test them, make sure they can get the action correct (and hit them if they don't), you don't try and *beat* them.

      ....I guess I have a lot of angry feelings and opinions about this, huh?

    2. I think that hit it on the head. The training this weekend reminded me a lot of my Judo classes. Partners, not opponents. Sparring happened between/after classes. Class was for learning and perfecting technique. And in SCA time, I think it was about the equivalent of 7-8 weekly practices in 3 days.

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    4. Hey, Capt. Donovan of the Company of St. Jude-- welcome aboard!

      By which I mean, you have just perfectly exemplified an important attitude that is central to what the Company is all about: being a better fencer comes by means of being a more systemic, thoughtful, deliberative fencer. Build your fencing on a ground of solid principles, and your success in competition will be inevitable.

    5. Hey, thanks!

      I've got another post half-written about the relationship between tempo and measure, but I need to poke at it a bit more before it's posted. Right now it's more or less at the stage of "they're related, duh" and I know there's more there, I just need to tease it into words.

  4. Edward said exactly this at the melee practice last fall: "Remember what you're drilling!"

    As I read these comments I see a Central, Southern and now a Northern marshal all agreeing that more and better drills is what we need! Let's do it. At practice tonight, a dedicated space for drills and drilling. And drills to do all practice, for me and others. Thanks for the inspiration, Donovan!

    1. My entire practice is drills from start to finish every week except the occasional sparing or invasion nights... it's been this way for near 3 years... and will continuing to be for as long as i've got anything to say about it. IF you get people thru the door and you offer to teach them something and give them purpose and make it fun they aren't going to ask "why can't i fuck around like those other people" because they won't ever see those other people, they will think this is the way it should be. If you are in charge of the practice then JUST DO IT!!!! :-)

    2. That's basically what's gonna be happening on Thursday. :D

  5. Also, I would really like to go *with* you to some of these kinds of events. The shared knowledge and experience we (MANY of us!) could bring back to our community would be valuable.