The problem with drills

It’s fun, but also a little sad to beat up a technically superior fighter. A few years ago a good friend of mine, Chris Moone, and I were talking fencing shop with another friend. Chris and I were both very experienced fighters and competitors. Our friend had an absolutely solid technical background, and some tournament fighting experience…not a lot, though.

Like all good fencing conversations, ours was with steel. We’d started with slow work. For whatever reason, Chris and I had decided to give our mutual friend some pointers on his fighting style. It wasn’t going well. Everytime we’d suggest something, our friend would disagree with us. The things we were suggesting were coming from our body of experience. The counter arguments our friend was using came from his background of solid technical drills and theoretical knowledge of Capo Ferro.

He was right in every suggestion he made. We would tell him to hold his hand a certain way, and he’d counter that it was more efficient to do it the way he did, due to perfectly logical, and correct reasons. He was completely winning the match on logic, and when we tried to prove our point in slow work, he’d show us the error of our ways, time and time again.

So, finally, we flat out told him we were going to kick his ass using all the wrong stuff. Masks went on. We took turns fighting him. And we royally kicked his ass. In defiance of all logic, and the rules of Capo Ferro. I should point out, in fairness, that I was one of the people that had taught him Capo Ferro in the first place…but he had put way more drill work into than I had. Regardless, we pounded on him, but didn’t really make our point very well. He still insisted that his method was superior, although he begrudgingly agreed that it seemed to work for us.

When you train to be a technical fighter, you have to watch out for this trap. Being a “bookish” fighter can be a dead-end. It’s not really a mystery, but more of a failure to drill correctly. Or more accurately, at a certain point, drilling some things is more efficiently done while sparring.

The main thing is measure. In order to first learn a skill or a tactic, it’s often the habit to teach it with a preset measure. Partner A stands still, partner B steps in and performs the technique. Doing drills this way gives you the most opportunity to fine-tune skill development. It also allows a lazy teacher the most opportunity to correct students. It’s a staple of martial arts worldwide…and often a reason that martial arts sucks for fighting training.

During sparring, when you step towards your opponent, they usually move in reaction. They will adjust their measure, their distance from you, in one way or another. Beginners tend to back up to a farther distance. Experienced fighters back up just enough to maintain the original distance. Good fighters sidestep, advance, or attack. Really good fighters might stay put because they have a trap set for you. High level fighters will often appear to not move at all, but will really be adjusting body position in order to effectively gain measure without moving the feet, or not moving them in a way that is apparent to you.

Good control of measure will also allow an opponent to control distance strategically, using their footwork to trick you into developing a movement pattern. They might trick you into overcommiting a step, mis-stepping, or stumbling. They can drive you back without you being aware of it, work you into a corner, or lull you into a tempo of their choosing.

You can develop drills to counter all these actions. I’ve developed and taught a series of them, and they resulted in tournament success. I don’t think it’s a good idea, though. The drills worked because they created habitual responses in competitors, and that sort of thing only works til people figure it out. Then you have to create a new series of drills, and to support that you really should have a modern sport training environment…and outlet. The swordplay world won’t have that level of competition for at least another decade, if not longer.

Drilling at that level isn’t really necessary, either. It is if you want to compete, but the majority of the WMA world right now isn’t interested in competing. Breaking the static drill mindset is necessary, but sparring alone will usually provide the benefit that is needed. Students should be aware that line drilling is only a portion of their training. They should see sparring as an equal training requirement…and they should see it as training, not competition. Sparring training for competition is another boat altogether.

Sparring should be about one third of a students training. The other two thirds should be split between drills and fitness. All of which can be broken down even farther into their own subcategories, but hey…some day I’ll write that book…

7 thoughts on “The problem with drills

  1. Tao

    Yes. One reason I stalled in the Academie was that sparring just disappeared among most students. It just became drills which sucked. Also, sparring with appropriate leveled fighters (as good or preferably better) should be a larger portion of your sparring work if you want to advance.

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      Yeah, that was one of my frustrations as well. My entire approach to martial arts was just a bad fit overall, and it left me feeling unable to grow as a teacher or practitioner. It took some hard years after for me to overcome that!

      Better fighters teach you what you need to drill on. Lesser fighters give you a chance to drill and polish your best techniques in a fight situation. Fighters at your own level give you a chance to develop new strategies, and understand your own game better.

  2. Joshua Spencer

    One of the most important things I think I was ever taught it that the whole weapon can be used, not just a blade. The ability to improvise is paramount to any sort of combat art. Something I try may not come out of a book, doesn’t make it wrong, just different, and as the saying goes, if it its stupid and it works its not stupid at all.

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      I do enjoy doing slow work with students, and reminding them with a gentle tap from a foot or hand, that the blade isn’t the only weapon they need to be paying attention too…

  3. Jeff

    You’re brave! This is a discussion I’ve had many times, but a subject I’ve been hesitant to adress on my blog even though I wanted to. The bottom line to any martial art is “does it work outside of the salle?” This isn’t an issue with competitive martial arts, since they can just find an open competition and square off against different practitioners and styles. For classical fencing schools, each teaching a different slice of history, and featuring masters with varying levels of expertise (and a few with personal axes to grind), it’s a big grey area when it comes to how much SKILL ever trickles down to the student. For example, even if one tried to learn modern fencing from a book, it’s questionable whether they’d end up with anything that really resembled modern fencing the way it’s actually done. So how much more wiggle room is there with arts that have not seen the light of day for 300 years or more?

    As for drills, if the student can’t apply them to their fencing or sparring, then what’s the point? Too much drilling can actually be bad for your fencing.

    I don’t claim to have any particular insight, except for my own, based on 30 years of experience, but if I were to say one thing it would be: “stop talking!” There’s way too much discussion, intellectualizing and studying (I know it’s fun, but it can get in the way of developing a skill). Those should only be used to suppliment a live art.

    1. David R. Packer Post author

      One of the reasons I left Academie Duello was that I could not find a clear way to tell if I was actually teaching anything or not. Sure, the students were doing the work and improving, but…that’s not really teaching is it? Better and better ways of rote passage of knowledge is self-defeating at a certain point. I felt like I was simply holding the hands of students and regurgitating material into them.

      We did a lot of challenge bouts…more than once we had entire competition teams of modern fencers show up to our open fight nights, to see what the school was all about. I enjoyed those bouts. I suck at tournaments, but I always came ahead in challenges, whether it was modern fencers, kung fu fighters, or even the one ninja…

      But I never, even with years of teaching some students, felt that I had a student who could take my place in a challenge match. Which meant, to me, that I was failing as a teacher. It took me another few years after that to find my own method to truly teach, and now I feel like I finally have two real students. I’d be nervous if they fought a challenge bout for me, but…I’d let them take my place.

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