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From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part I)

Bill Grandy, Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing

Men practicing in a fencing hall from Joachim Meyer’s 1570 fencing treatise. (Figures in foreground have been highlighted for clarity.)

So you’re a student of Historical European Martial Arts. You’ve read your historical fencing treatises dozens of times. Your guards are perfect, and you’ve practiced your attacks and counters so often that you could do them asleep. Despite all of your practice, though, as soon as free fencing occurs you find yourself leaping all over the place, unable to properly strike with the appropriate footwork when you need to, and always forgetting to close the line when striking so that you receive double kills regularly. The core, basic actions you’ve practiced so often seem to rarely happen in the way you’ve drilled them, and you result to frantic flailing in the hopes of just landing that one touch where you were lucky enough not to be hit. “But I’ve drilled so much”, you tell yourself. “I guess real fighting must look completely different than drills.” Unfortunately, this hypothetical situation is all too common an attitude when it comes to the gap between practicing drills and entering non-choreographed free-fencing. If any of it feels familiar, then perhaps you should start questioning how you drill, not what you drill.

The first thing to understand about drills is that there are several forms of drills. Some are meant to practice form, others to practice tactics or timing. Some are static and others are more dynamic. This article will look at applying certain drills to whatever style you practice to help make the transition between drills and free play. The drills listed here should be applicable to almost any system and weapon, from German wrestling to English Quarterstaff, though modifications will be necessary to adapt them to particular weapons. It should be noted that we are assuming that the practitioners are at the stage where they have at least a general understanding of their art form. Therefore these drills are aimed at the intermediate level practitioner and above.

Mirror Fencing/Shadow Boxing

An easy way to start introducing a more dynamic use of techniques is the use of Mirror Fencing (in unarmed arts it is typically called Shadowboxing). Here a person fights an imaginary opponent using proper form. While this is a simple drill, it requires the student to have a good understanding of the techniques of an art. To start, one should practice certain maneuvers in sequences. Go through the motions of various techniques, but attempt to connect one technique into another where it logically fits. This could be practicing making attacks from one guard to another, or this could mean going through certain plays and having them branch off into other plays at certain points. This drill can be done in either a relaxed or intense speed, but either way it helps trigger the synapses to help your actions flow from one move to another fluidly. The goal is simply to learn how to “connect the dots” without stopping to think in between actions. As you do this, sometimes visualize that you have struck down your opponent, and another comes up from behind you that you suddenly have to deal with.

Here is a video showing Mirror Fencing with a range of different weapons:

One important aspect of this drill is visualization. There is popular case study that is often cited (though admittedly, it is unverified) about an American POW who spends years imprisoned and passes his time away by visualizing playing golf. By the time he is freed and returns to his beloved pastime, his golf score has shot through the roof despite not having touched a club during his captivity. Perhaps this is an urban legend, perhaps not, but the underlying message is certainly valuable– By visualizing your goal, you force your brain to internalize actions so that it can more readily respond when adding physical stimulus. This drill is also nice to add into one’s warm up routine, as it helps put a person into the right frame of mind for training.

Response Drills

A Response Drill, as the name implies, is a partner drill to train proper responses to certain actions. These are sometimes referred to as Tactical Drills or Option Drills. Two partners, Fencers A and B, will face each other, where one leads with an action and the other responds. For example, Fencer B is the leader and gives a signal for Fencer A to attack (usually by moving to give an opening, but sometimes by initiating an attack that must be countered). Fencer A must make the appropriate attack based on the signal, and Fencer B has certain predetermined reactions which will randomly be used. Fencer A must deal with them appropriately. Let’s use the single hand sword as the weapon for this example.

Fencer A and B face each other in measure. Fencer A is the leader of this drill, and signals for Fencer B to attack by lowering the point of his sword. Fencer B is required to attack the head with a diagonal strike from above. Fencer A gives one of two options: To parry the attack (without a riposte or any kind of counter), or to stand still and be hit. Fencer A’s initial attack should be done with the intent to hit on the first action, but if A’s attack is met with opposition then he should be able to take off to attack the opposite side.

The reason why Fencer B has the option to do nothing is to force Fencer A to always make the initial attack a real attack. Too often in drills the attacker, who knows the defender will make a parry, will attack the weapon without thinking about it, and this becomes a habit that plays out in non-choreographed fencing.

When Fencer B gets to the point where the drilled responses become second nature, Fencer A will include additional defenses that the two agree on. (for example, Fencer A will make parries that have no pressure which Fencer B should press through; Fencer A will parry, and when B responds, Fencer A will pass back with a second parry so that Fencer A must make an additional attack; etc) Fencer B must be able to defeat these defenses with the appropriate techniques and timing despite never knowing exactly which defense Fencer A will use. This drill should also eventually be trained by starting the fencers out of measure, where Fencer B must approach into measure first.

It is important that both fencers understand exactly what Fencer A’s options are, and that Fencer A only does these predetermined actions. Doing otherwise is confusing for Fencer B, hampering his learning.

Here is a video demonstration:

The drill is applicable to a variety of fighting styles, even unarmed combat:

Mobility Drills

A mobility drill is exactly the same thing as a response drill but with more active footwork. Once a fencer is competent with a particular response drill, he should add mobility to the drill.

The kind of mobility that you add will be dependent on the style of weapon. For example, point weapons such as with Italian rapier or French smallsword will tend to use more linear footwork, whereas wrestling may use more lateral and circular footwork.

Let’s use the rapier in our example here. Fencer A and B are starting with a Response Drill. In this drill, Fencer B is leading without adding the mobility portion yet. They begin where Fencer B has closed off the line to the inside. Fencer B gives an invitation to the inside to signal that his partner should attack, and Fencer A makes a lunge to the torso. Fencer B either 1) allows himself to be hit, or 2) makes a parry-riposte. If B uses option 2, then Fencer A must recover and parry the riposte, following up with his own riposte.

When Fencer A is ready, Fencer B adds mobility. What this means is that he will advance and retreat while Fencer A keeps the distance. At any point, Fencer B signals for A to attack by giving an invitation to the inside.

For other weapons you may have Fencer B move around in more of a walking type of step. If drilling this for unarmed combat, one way to do it is to have the fighters begin at the arm clinch as they move around the mat.

Note that just like with a response drill, the leader must give a signal for his partner to act. In the video below, the leader for both the spear and rapier drill signals Fencer A to attack by making an invitation, and in the grappling portion the leader signals by making an attack that Fencer B must respond to.

The Step Drills (Passive and Active)

This is a drill that can be done in multiple variations. The first version is what I refer to as the Passive Step Drill. In this version, Fencer A and Fencer B stand in distance and in any proper guard or position. Fencer A begins an attack that logically makes sense based on Fencer B’s stance. Fencer A, however, will freeze right before the action should finish. Fencer B then has time to think about a counterattack, which is then performed. The two fencers each take turns, working with each other to come up with logical counters that fit within their system. If a move does not fit well, then it should be redone. This drill must be cooperative. It is not intended to drill timing or reaction, but rather to develop creativity within the rules of the system being practiced. The fencers are not trying to compete against each other in this drill, but rather to challenge themselves to come up with proper responses to different drills without the same level of pressure from full out free play.

An example of the Passive Step Drill with longswords:

Part two of this is the Active Step Drill. This drill is meant to be done at speed, so protective gear is a must. Fencers A and B once again stand in guard while in distance. Fencer A makes an attack, and Fencer B simply receives it. They reset, and Fencer A repeats this multiple times until he is absolutely certain that he can do this every single time without any variation. When he is ready, he let’s Fencer B know. Fencer B must come up with a logical counterattack, which will be step 2. The two will practice this until it can be performed as precisely as possible while at full speed. Once Fencer B is comfortable that this counterattack can be repeated perfectly, then Fencer A must come up with a counter to the counter. They will begin with Fencer A’s step 1, then Fencer B’s step 2, and Fencer A must come up with step 3. Once again, they must practice this repeatedly until they are at the point where every step is crisp and performed with accurate timing at full speed. From here Fencer B will come up with step 4, etc. This will be repeated until the two fencers are unable to come up with anymore steps (usually because the amount of time between counters will have become too small to effectively work). Note that each step must be performed with the intent to be the final step (even though each partner knows that the other intends to counter).

Let’s use the longsword to demonstrate this. Fencer A makes a downward stroke to Fencer B’s head. This is done at a moderate speed at first, but repeated until it can be done exactly the same at full speed every time. This is step 1. When it is Fencer B’s turn, he decides to use a downwards counter-cut, closing the line while stepping out to the side. This is step 2, and the two fencers repeat this until it is perfect. Fencer A must truly attempt to hit Fencer B, without changing step 1, and Fencer B must do step 2 perfectly to ensure that step 1 does not succeed. When Fencer B has decided that he is ready, Fencer A decides that the best counter in this particular case is yield to the pressure and take off to the other side. So Fencer A cuts to the head (step 1), Fencer B begins to counter-cut (step 2), but Fencer B immediately strikes to the opposite side (step 3). Note that Fencer A should have had every intent to win with step 1, but because he saw step 2 being implemented, he was ready with step 3. Once again this is repeated until the action can be done perfectly every single time. From there, Fencer B must counter this, and so forth.

Naturally, like all of the above drills, this can be used with any weapon style. For instance, here is a video example demonstrating it with the poleax:

This drill can be modified to add additional variables. For instance, the Fencers can start one step out of measure, and Fencer B is required to make one step into measure while giving an opening so that Fencer A must attack in tempo to a logical area. This helps drill the idea of proper distance and timing, and even allows the drill to make more use of invitations as a method of provocation, since Fencer B can plan ahead with what opening he gives. Another modification to the drill would be to require that a certain technique must be used by one of the fencers within a certain amount of steps (for example, Fencer A is required to close to grappling distance within four steps), or that a certain area of the body is off-limits to the one fencer but not the other, etc.

The Active Step Drill trains several things. First, like its little brother, the Passive Step Drill, it helps train creativity within the rules of the art. It also introduces a low level of antagonistic play, as each step is intended to win. It drills timing, and even forces fencers to repeat actions to perfection to help commit them to muscle memory. Further, it trains fencers to be able to utilize a dynamic set of actions at full speed.

Okay… so now what?

Well, now you put it into free play. “But wait,” you say, “I still feel like there’s more gap left between the drills and the free play that we haven’t yet covered!” You’re right… and that’s where you’ll need to wait for Part II, where we look at variations of free play, as well as fencing “games” that draw out different tactics and aspects. Stay tuned!

Note: Part II can be found here.

Special thanks go to Jonathon Gordon and Tim Hall, who didn’t mind being filmed for the videos of this article!

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3 comments on “From Drills to Free Play: Putting Practice into Practice (Part I)

  1. Is there a convenient downloadable/printer-friendly version of this (no videos is all right)? I’d like to be able to bring up this subject in my practice group, since I think everyone in there would like the ideas presented here.

  2. Unfortunately, as far as I know, a printer-friendly version of this theme is not available. I know the WordPress engineers are working on it, but so far, I’m afraid I can’t help you, except to point you to this site: http://www.printfriendly.com/.

    Hope it helps!

  3. […] Part I of this article we explored a few variations of drills to help develop both tactical proficiency as well as […]

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