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Better Drilling.

"I see techniques as illustrations of the real learning, principles. Students must understand the principle of what they do. I find techniques can be dangerous as the student can obsess about getting that one thing right and never understand the application." Rob Runacres

Over the years if there's one thing I've not done as much as I should and that is drilling. I should define what I think "drilling" is, as it's a common term and therefore probably understood differently. To my mind to drill means "to practice something." Simple right? However, I'd say that drilling tends to be as understood as practising a specific move or technique by rote, but that is only the most fundamental understanding.

For many people I'm sure, including myself at many times, their training has only had two modes: rote learning (solo drill and isolated specific techniques) and completely free-form sparring. But the most important thing to my mind is that as soon as you get a suitable pool of partners you should move away from the rote aspect and towards an increasingly contextual form of practice.

As the excellent Rob Runacres quote above outlines: it's all about the practical application. So, a key thing around constructing "next level" drills is around context: the closer you can get it to the practical end result you are looking for, with the least compromise, the better that practice. So, in my mind it is all about:
  1. Starting simple so you can focus on what you are learning then building complexity until you reach the real thing.
  2. Limit your compromises to only the necessary to achieve point 1. 
Here are a few thoughts from my experience around doing this.

Firstly, limit the number of your inputs not the intensity of your inputs. What do I mean? By inputs I mean "things you have to think about" and to give some examples:
  • who can act 
  • the number and/or type of blade actions, 
  • the number and/or types of steps
  • the timings you can use etc.
By intensity, I largely mean the speed. But also this means the commitment as well. So beyond trying the movement out a few times to get the hang of it, don't go slow and don't build in cooperation. Instead just alter the inputs so you have less information to process and thus make the focus on the learning more pronounced. The reason for this is that in my experience the practical application, i.e. sparring, is never ever done with any speed limitation or cooperation (besides a slight moderation for safety) therefore there is zero value in spending much timing learning within these constraints. However, there are times when you find yourself in situations with limited inputs, i.e. you are constrained by space and thus cannot step, so there could ultimately be value in this.

To build a drill on this basis you'd firstly identify the learning you want, then sensibly remove inputs to minimally compromise the end result but also allow you to focus on this learning. Then as you practice and as you increase in competence you expand the drill by adding back in more inputs.

For example, let's say you want to work on parrying a cut. The most constrained drill example would be:
  • stand a long measure with the need for the agent to take one step forward (which is always the same step)
  • the "agent" is predetermined
  • the agent's action is predetermined mechanically, 
  • The number of actions is limited, 
  • The timings used is limited
  • When the drill ends 
Therefore literally all you need to think is "parry" and even with all the above constraints you can, with good speed, get a fairly good idea if your parry would be sufficient to protect you against a simple strike in your eventual purpose. Then you start removing the constraints:
  • Use of different footwork
  • Initiation from different measure
  • Who initiates the action 
  • The "agents" action can vary on different lines
  • There can be more and more actions
  • The capability for different timings can be added
  • Afterblows, counter-attacks, feints etc


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