Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 1

Having some thoughts on training sparked by last month. I had a busy October. Several seminars, as student and instructor. Briefly, what I’ve been up to: 5 days IDC/Infighting/Scenario Training with Rory Miller in Germany; teaching a 2 day self-defence course for university students in Scotland; 2 days Visayan Corto Kadena Escrima with Maija Soderholm in England; teaching one class at my old dojo in Cyprus. I’ll write more on the specifics later. Some common threads running through the classes, and some thoughts I want to put down.

When we talk self-defence, or even in traditional martial arts, we talk about awareness a lot. Awareness can mean different things to different people, but fundamentally it means having the ability to both perceive and understand what is going on, and – if it is to be useful – the ability to act on it. In one context, this means what is going on around us in our daily lives, to avoid unpleasant or dangerous situations. In another it means spotting opportunities. But it also applies to the physical training itself.
Mostly drawing on the stuff we did with Maija here. Everything we train to do in a confrontation works under certain circumstances (OK, that’s a lie. There’s plenty of stuff that will never ever work, when I say “everything” I mean everything decent). Timing, distance, momentum, position etc. have to be right. A tangent: Right not perfect. The more robust a technique, the more wriggle room. The more anti-fragile the concepts it’s based on, the better it adapts under chaos. But that’s a separate issue and a separate post for later.

So, everything works under certain circumstances. The principle of using gifts, incidentally the martial aspect of the “Aiki” concept, is based on this. Gifts can be many things, body position, distance, limb position, timing, momentum. What I can do in a fight, every technique, has certain criteria of these things that make it work. Gifts are mostly the other person doing as much of the work to get to that point as possible. Many techniques that look complicated out of context are only complicated because it takes a lot of work to get to the right position from neutral. Neutral is not what we’re interested in if we’re training for application. Stuff happens in fights, the other guy is going to be doing bad things to us, and these in turn create the circumstances that make certain things easier to do.

The first step to being able to do the right thing under the right circumstances is being able to recognise the right circumstances when they occur. It should be really obvious, but in order to develop that particular skill, it needs to be practised. In order to practice finding the right circumstances, there has to be some level of variability in the drill. There has to be a degree of change in the circumstances, so that we can learn to recognise the right ones when they occur, and the wrong ones when we try and fail.
In a lot of, let’s call it “classical” practice, the circumstances are handed to you. Your partner or uke does the exact thing that you need for the technique to work, in the exact same way, every time. While you can get really good at some aspects of technique this way – although it’s not ideal for learning, more on that in a bit – you absolutely do not learn how to see opportunities. Oh, sure, there is some minor aspect of timing, but as anyone used to more variable practice will tell you, it’s not remotely the same thing as a fight or even sparring. And this can create more problems, because there are plenty of people – often with decently high rank – who have exquisite timing in the very particular circumstances of a particular pre-set attack, and are convinced that this means they have exquisite timing in all circumstances. That is very rarely how it works, specific closes-system skills in timing do no not carry over particularly well to open systems and chaotic circumstances, largely because the related skills of recognising opportunities and decision making are underdeveloped.

This is one of the reasons I think having drills and training games as part of our practice is really helpful. If we introduce drills where the circumstances are changing dynamically, success starts to require good decision making. Good decision making starts to require recognising opportunities. This starts to develop the ability to “see”. I’ll illustrate with an example. We can practice throws by going through a number of different techniques in response to specific attacks. This is classical practice, and has it’s place. We can also use dynamic drills to practice “seeing” the time and place for throws. “French Randori”, Judo style sparring, responding to feeds from moving pendulum footwork, throwing from random committed attacks and so forth. There’s a huge variety. I’m not a big fan of using only one single drill, because all of them have safety flaws and tend to be good for slightly different things, and I’ve sometimes seen people throw a single drill like this in training on rare occasions to “tick the box”, which really isn’t the point. In my opinion open practice like this should be done every class.

There are good reasons for it from a motor learning point of view as well. There is considerable evidence to suggest doing practice like this that includes variable inputs and decision making speeds up learning considerably compared to simple repetition. It increases practical skill acquisition as well, because the goal shifts from doing something right to doing it well. Because things get a bit messier in these drills a lot of the time, it becomes less about the aesthetics, and more about the essential mechanics, about whether something worked or not. On that, one of the limiting factors to introducing variable practice is that it increases the rate of failure considerably, even for experienced people. The worst hit tend to be people with a lot of skill in the classical methods but little experience with variable practice. This increased failure rate is not actually a problem, unless we’ve internalised that we should never fail – there’s no cost to failure in training. In fact it increases the rate of learning quite a bit. According to some research in fact, being successful in practice all the time results in a learning rate close to zero. So the problem is entirely one of ego and training culture. That’s a whole different can of worms, not going to get into it now, just be aware of it.

There are other points I want to make and some I want to expand on a bit more, but I think that’s enough for one post. As you can tell I’m a big fan of variable practice and dynamic drills, and I think they should have a central place in our training. They help accelerate learning, make training more fun and are absolutely crucial for developing perception and decision making skills for physical conflict.

3 thoughts on “Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 1”

  1. Boom! Nailed it as far as I’m concerned.

    Would it be fair to say that being aware of the safety flaws, assumptions and necessarily contrived success criteria (because no-one has a training game in which success ends with your partner broken at your feet) keeps things honest and constructive? It seems easy for the features used to make an activity into a viable practice to become implicit truths and end up as the technical basis and defining features of an entire system!


    1. Thanks Rob!
      I think you’re spot on with your observation about the goals and flaws. It’s really important to recognise why we do something, and what the limitations are. It’s very easy to fall in love with games and drills.
      Hmm, now I wonder: How many systems that exist these days are the end point of that particular process?


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