Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 3

In the last two posts I wrote about variable drills, and how & why they are important in learning how to “see” in a martial context (part 1 & part 2 here). What I’m advocating in these articles is that, if we are interested in developing functional skills in a reasonable time frame, we have to make space for variable drills in a our practice. This time -last one on this topic, for now – I want to talk about one particular aspect of this, which is working with failure and resistance.

In the “classical” model of practice we get a specific input and then perform a specific technique in response. The assumption generally is that everything will happen as intended. This is in part so that any failure is due to us doing things wrong rather than environmental variables, thereby supposedly isolating the development of technique. While that is fine for teaching certain aspects of technical skill, it should be clear that everything does not always go as planned, and we need to address that in our training.
There are a few different ways of doing this. Of course the simplest is to improve technical ability and/or physical power to be able to negate resistance and reduce the chances of failure. I’m not going to go into that one too much here, because it doesn’t fit the overall topic and discussing it – and the dysfunctional relationship a lot of the martial arts world has with it – is it’s own big can of worms. Just know it’s one approach, and getting better and stronger never hurts, but it should not be the only approach taken.

Assuming that we are not so incredibly awesome that we can do no wrong and just ignore any resistance, an important part in dealing with failure and resistance is being able to feel when it’s happening. Developing the skill to feel when a certain tactic or technique isn’t working is absolutely crucial, because it stops us from getting our asses kicked while we are desperately trying to make that one thing work. Once we know what it feels like when something works and when it does not, we have a cue to make us switch tactics. Also depending on what exactly is happening, we might switch to different things, and the better we are at reading the situation, the less we have to pause and re-orient, which would give the other guy more time to act.

Sense of touch is faster than sense of sight for this purpose, and in a physical confrontation that small difference in speed can make a considerable difference. This alone would be reason enough to develop the ability to tell by feel whether a technique is working or not. As we notice something isn’t working, we can adjust. It is my belief that we need variable, live-ish practice to be able to develop this skill to a viable degree with a reasonable time-frame.
Going deeper, with enough of the right type of practice, this can extend to being able to tell why something isn’t working, feeling exactly what has gone wrong. This in turn will give us more options for the response, as we can react to the specific problem.
These are different points in a progression, I am a firm believer in training skills that are applicable at the current skill level of a student. In this case, I think it is fairly pointless to teach a student 10 different ways to overcome resistance to a technique depending on exactly which way the opponent resists, while they do not even have the ability to differentiate between “it’s working/it’s not working”, let alone why. This can occasionally manifest in a truly comical manner, with tiny, largely irrelevant details as triggers for picking from an overly specific Rolodex of techniques, which only seems work when practising with people from the same school/style *insert gasp of surprise and shock here*.

So one approach to overcoming resistance is to practice switching to variations of a technique, or to a different technique altogether. There are different apporaches to this, with different strengths and weaknesses. One common one is: “I do a technique, it doesn’t work, I do a different variation/different technique as a result, and so on and so on”.
About a decade ago, I went to a couple of seminars with one particular teacher. The style was a form of Jiu-Jitsu, I cannot remember which one. This teacher was skilled, but notorious for putting together long chains of techniques during his seminars very quickly, to the point his own students couldn’t follow, and glossing over technical details. The method was exactly what I described above, you do one technique, then if it doesn’t work you do another, and so on. But there was one problem I realised even then, and it’s been one of my personal pet peeves ever since: There was never a reason for the original techniques to fail. So what ended up happening is that we put a lot of reps into half-assing techniques so that we could get to the next part of the chain. The reason this is a problem – aside from repeatedly practising doing techniques wrong – is that it does not in any way address feeling when something is or isn’t working! Instead you are running through a choreographed sequence of half-assery, while your partner stands there like a dummy, occasionally throwing you a new feed. The only redeeming feature of this training to me is that it can be quite fun, otherwise I find it a counterproductive waste of time.

When we did variation training at my old dojo, we implemented two important changes to the training method. First, in order for the technique to fail, there has to be a reason. That means either 1) nage messed up or 2) uke does something to stop it. We usually focused on 2), meaning for the drill nage does a technique, and uke does something to counter it (usually something simple, not some elaborate, beautiful countermove). This gives uke something to actively practice, teaches them how to counter certain techniques effectively, and allows nage to develop the feeling for what resistance feels like. If the variation we switch to is an appropriate one, the whole thing also ends up feeling more intuitive.
Related to that last point, the second thing we did is that our training is principles first. Note that I mean fundamental, underlying mechanical principles like “leverage”, or “this is how a joint works”, not jargony martial arts sayings that take a while to make sense. Having an understanding of these principles together with the ability to feel when something goes wrong creates a baseline of adaptable skills that allow for more variable training and the practice of improvisation.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that rather than turning resistance or failure training into a slightly more complicated version of choreographed practice, we need to be introducing variable, reasonable elements of resistance and progressively building the skills to deal with it. Developing the ability to “feel” what is going wrong using variable drilling is a crucial part of this process. One beautiful thing about it is that – while obviously essential for self-defence – it also enhances more traditional practice, because it allows us to understand where the different parts of our art fit in far better than just going through memorised motions does.

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