Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on variable drills and developing perceptional skill in training. In part 1 I talked about why variable drills are necessary for the development of those skills. This time I want to give some examples of what kind of things we can learn to “see” better.
I want to talk about two specific perceptional skills in this post:

  • Visually seeing range, distance and movement
  • Feeling position, movement and balance through touch

The first one, seeing range. This was one of the big themes at the sword seminar with Maija Soderholm. The reasons are simple: In the context of a sword duel, we need to know when we can reach a target, and when the opponent’s weapon can reach us. This is one of the most fundamental skills for that context, and a huge amount of the tactics of various weapon arts are absolutely based on understanding both our own and our opponents range very, very well. With sword styles, the nature of the weapon – sharp – means that being in range to be touched by the weapon is bad news. Probably my favourite drill of the seminar was a form of play both using and developing this skill. After learning basic cuts, blocks and footwork, we did light free play with a partner, the purpose being to not get hit, but also to learn when we need to block a strike and when it’s going to miss anyway so we don’t need to deal with it. Of course we got it wrong a fair bit (or I did anyway…), but that’s how you learn, and it really gets you better at this quite quickly – plus it’s a lot of fun.

For any art where “not being hit” is a big part of the tactics (like, I don’t know, Aikido…) realising what it takes for the opponent to be able to hit us is the first part of developing the skills to not have that happen. In order to do that we need to have a pretty decent understanding of range from the other side, which is one reason I tend to advocate including striking drills in our practice. It’s an area where many of us could use improvement. There are very popular “practical” aikido videos out there with shockingly bad ranging, and from the comments few people realise it.

With unarmed arts, touch is part of ranging, but there’s a bit more to it, power generation for example. Whether or not we can hit the target AND have an effect are both important there.
It’s not that complicated to begin to develop this skill. We can move around with a partner – in a pattern or freely, depending on the drill – and see at what relative distance we can touch the targets we want. One person begins to see what their range is, the other when they are in range. We need to do it with different body types, and repeat a fair bit in order to flesh out our understanding, but if we don’t get weird about it, it’s not complicated. When we’ve got a basic understanding of power generation (see point 3 further on), we can slow down and add that in. And, if we do padwork and are decent at it, include moving pad drills – carefully, don’t go full force, the injury potential does go up when the pads move.

Once we have developed some skill at seeing range and angle, it opens up options for our evasions and offlining. We’re no longer doing certain evasions because “that’s how the technique goes”, we’re doing them because we understand what puts us at risk of being hit and what does not. And, like with swordplay, we can start to use deception. If we’re clearly out of range, there is no reason to attempt a strike. But if we present an obvious target that appears to be open and reachable, then maybe we can draw something we want.
So that’s one thing to “see”. Another perceptional skill is developing our ability to feel what is going on by touch, so that when we have hands on the other person, we can know what is going on with their body. How they are positioned, where their weight is, how they are moving and so on. Touch is considerably faster than sight, and with a style like Aikido, we’re generally trying to get hands on as quickly as possible, and keep contact once we got it. For Aikido to have any chance of working, this skill is absolutely crucial, because the information it gets you is extremely helpful to “seeing” gifts that we can use in time to take advantage of them.

If you do any grappling or body manipulation art for long enough, you will get decent at this pretty much by default. Having said that, there are ways of speeding up the process, and especially if you are training for self-defence, you might not want to spend years doing something else just to develop this skill. In general, the more free play and the less strictly proscribed technique, the more this will develop. Having one partner move the other around, with the “rag-doll” being various levels of compliant is a great one, since one partner feels what they need to do to move a body, and the other learns how it feels when someone is applying force to move them. You eventually add stuff to it, using the force the mover is applying to throw them. Which will sometimes work, and sometimes not. Blindfolded drills, one-step or grappling are great for this. The simplest way to speed up the process is to draw attention to it. Start actively looking for this information in training, even when doing “classical” paired practice.

An example from last month: I was teaching a class at my old dojo. Was asked to do some self-defence basics, so we did that for a while, then I gave people a choice on which skill we would work on. They chose balance and balance breaking. So we went over some of the theory: base; centre of gravity; cone of balance. You break balance by moving the centre out of the cone. I demonstrated some of the ways of doing that and then we played with it. One of the cues was to practice feeling the point when the partner’s centre of gravity moves past the base. Didn’t take much for people to start picking up on it. And put it into practice in the training game we used (one-step, for those of you familiar with it).

It works pretty much the same for feeling movement, feeling where structure is strong and weak, where there are “empty” spaces we can use and so on. This becomes really important when dealing with resistance, which I wanted to write about as well, but this is getting long again, so there will be part 3. Next time I’ll talk about resistance. And rant about why I both love (when they’re done well) and detest (when they’re done badly) “failure” drills .

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