Drills are an important part of the learning process for students and it is important that teachers know what they are for, how they are constructed and their inner workings in order to get the greatest potential from them. This blog is about drills, sometimes called conventionals in sport fencing. It will address some of the issues associated with the construction and use of drills in a training situation. Whether you are a teacher or student of fencing, the information provided will hopefully provide you with some thinking points with regard to this most useful tool in fencing.
Before we can look at drills in any sort of detailed way it is important to examine the purpose of drills as a training tool. Drills are most useful for the practicing of skills which have been learnt in a lesson. By using this method the theory present and the isolated form of the skill or skills that have been taught can be seen together working both with and against other skills. This is essentially seeing the skill in a practical situation or in another way of thinking, seeing the technique in action against the movements of an opponent. Through the use of drills and their repetitive fashion muscle memory is also built designed to instill the skills in the muscles and subconscious of the student. In this way the student will know how to respond to the stimulus presented by the opponent by use of the skill learnt in the drill. This is important as it then frees the fencer's mind up in order to be thinking about what he will do against his opponent once the action has been completed.
Next it is important to look at drills specifically. In order to do this without detailing all examples of skills and their drills, more general terms will be used in the address of their purpose. In all cases a drill should highlight the importance of the skill being drilled, and it should also highlight the importance of the correct performance of that skill against an opponent. There needs to be a reason for the drill being performed, it needs to be more than just a mere repetition of a particular skill for no seen purpose. Purpose must be injected into the drill so that the student will understand what both the skill and the drill are designed to achieve. This purpose must be specific to the skill and also the drill rather than the general terms which have already been discussed in the previous paragraph. The next part of this is the actual design of the drill itself. This must relate directly to the skill being taught and must place the skill in a situation where it is the best option available. This design phase of the drill is important and must be thought about carefully in order for the drill to achieve its purpose.
In designing a drill the focus of the drill must be upon the specific drill being trained or learnt by the student. Without this focus the student will become confused about the purpose of both the drill and also the purpose of the skill. While in many cases the drill will involve the use of other skills, the focus must be on a specific skill. For a drill to be effective the other skills being used in the drill must be skills that the student already has in order that the drill is not sidetracked on to the attached skills rather than the particular focus skill of the drill. This is an element which is of great importance in the design and development of a drill. For example, if the drill involves the use of a particular footwork step along with a blade action, which is the focus of the drill, the footwork needs to be already known to the student in order for the drill to work. In many ways the drills will stack upon one another in a similar way that the skills will. With this in mind design the drill so that the focus is upon the new skill being learnt, and in a way that this is possible. The drill should actually end with the skill being learnt so that it is the last thing that the student does in the drill and thus it will become the most significant action in the drill. Use simple steps in the construction of the drill in order that there is little confusion with regard to the drill.
Speed is always a factor with regard to fencing and choosing the speed at which a drill should be performed is of great importance. The drill should always start by being performed slowly so that the skill is developed and examined in a very specific way. This will enable the student to focus on the technique of the skill rather than the result of the skill. The student should understand that the goal of the drill is the correct performance of the skill rather than whether or not they are able to hit their opponent. If the student is able to perform the skill and the drill correctly striking the opponent should come about as a result of the correct performance, if that is appropriate to the skill being learnt.
Drills, in most cases, should result with a full speed version of the drill being performed. This will enable the student to see the action in practice. This should only be done once they are able to perform the technique properly at slower speeds. Full speed drills are necessary for those drills where the skill will be use in a full combat situation. Without these drills the student will be able to perform the action slowly but will not be able to do the same at full speed, thus it can be seen that drills at full speed are necessary. There are times where the slow drill actually achieves its goal, this is most evidently seen in the physical demonstration of time. It is much easier to see tempos at slow speed than it is to see them at full speed. This form of drill is more aimed at the student understanding the concept behind what is happening more than the skills being used.
For drills to work properly and achieve their goals various things are required. First of all the students must have been taught the skills involved in the drill, and most importantly the skill being drilled. Next is that the participants in the drills must participate completely in the drill. This means following the drill according to what has been directed by the teacher. This means that the participants need to stick with the drill as it has been directed and sticking with the purpose of the drill. There should be very little deviation in the action of the drill, save those points where the participant is having trouble and needs help.
Deviations from the drill detract from the purpose and focus of the drill and make it less useful to the participants in the drill. Deviation in the drill should not be tolerated by the teacher and this is why the drills should be observed closely by the teacher of the class. Deviation such as countering the final action by one participant does not allow the skill being taught to be successfully completed and therefore learnt properly, this should be discouraged. This is especially the case where a counter is taught against the action in a later drill.
Changes in footwork should be avoided as well in order that the positions and distance are not changed for the drill. These elements can be added in later on, if it is appropriate to the skill being taught. Each participant must know their purpose in the drill in order for it to be able to be used successfully. In a parry and riposte drill the attacker should simply thrust and wait for the response. Their purpose in the drill is to thrust and be struck and nothing more. Only where the two participants in a drill are completing their participation in the drill completely will the drill be effective. With regards to this drills must be done at the correct distance and all actions must be completed with purpose. This enables the responding participant to also perform their actions properly against it.
Drills are a good accompaniment to bouting. There are really two forms of bouting, free bouting and structured bouting. Free bouting involves the two combatants engaging with no restriction on technique or target. Structured bouting applies specific restrictions to the bout in order that particular skill-sets may be the focus of the bout. These are most useful when accompanied by the drills which use the appropriate skills. Bouting should be used in order for the students to use the skills that they have learnt against an opponent. This is the prime time for the students to figure out where any problems in their use of the skill may be, and also different ways and times in which the skill may be applied. It is important that drills are accompanied by bouting in order that the students have the chance to test out their new skills against different opponents.
Drills are a most useful tool for teachers, if they are utilised properly. In order that this can happen it is also important that the drills are formed properly as well. This requires that the drills be designed with a purpose in mind. They need to be focusing on a single skill or skill-set in order to be effective and the participants need to fulfil their role in the drill and nothing more. Deviation from drills is a distraction which will detract from the drill and its purpose. In this each participant has a responsibility in their participation in the drill and this is of great importance. Think when you design or participate in drills exactly what your purpose is. You need to be considering what the drill is designed to teach and how this relates to the whole picture of fencing that you are learning.