Learning how to learn from play

Daria Izdebska and Keith Farrell fencing with the longsword. Photo by Daria Izdebska, 2017.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 6th May 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

In martial arts, broadly speaking, there are two types of training exercise: those where you have a specific goal to accomplish, and those where you do not.

It is my belief that exercises without a specific and achievable goal are only useful for experienced practitioners who have already learned how to learn from play. For beginners who have not yet learned this skill, all exercises must have a well-defined goal to strive towards.

Exercises with specific goals

To give an example of an exercise with a specific goal: both participants stand in guard, then the first participant makes an attack. The second participant makes a parry and immediately makes a riposte aimed at his partner’s head.

It is very simple to see if the student has been successful or not. If the parry fails, or if the riposte does not hit the head, then the student has not achieved his goal and has not performed the exercise correctly. However, if he makes a competent parry and then lands the riposte to his partner’s head, then he has been successful with the exercise.

A beginner can self-diagnose major errors quite easily with this kind of exercise. He may think such thoughts as “dammit, I got hit, my parry failed”, or “oops, I missed my strike to his head”, or even “bah, I was off balance and couldn’t reach him”. Over a period of fifty repetitions, a beginner can self-diagnose slightly more detailed problems and correct things like accuracy, his balance, the positioning of his parry, and suchlike. He may not be able to fine-tune details such as precise coordination of the body (e.g. “you need to do THIS with your hand, supported by THAT with the arm and shoulder, in turn supported by THIS with the hips”), but he will be able to improve his performance over time.

This allows a lesson full of beginners to self-diagnose the largest problems in their performance and try to self-correct these errors, while the instructor goes around the class to provide solutions to more complicated problems.

Most lessons for beginners will tend to involve solo or paired drills with a specific goal in mind, and this is a very good thing, because this is all that beginners can cope with until they acquire some additional learning skills.

Exercises without specific goals

To give an example of an exercise without a specific goal: two students extend their swords, staffs or hands towards each other so that they touch. The students then play with this position, sometimes pushing a little, sometimes yielding, in order to learn about feeling pressure.

While this may be interesting and helpful for more advanced practitioners, who can play like this and learn something from the game, it is a pointless exercise if the students do not yet possess fine control of their weapon or arm. If the only options are “no strength” and “all the strength”, with little or no gradation in between, then the exercise will not be useful. Before this kind of exercise can be beneficial, students must have learned a reasonable amount of control over their body and weapon.

Even then, if students do not understand the point of the exercise, they will have difficulty learning from it. A remedy is to ensure that the instructor explains the point of each exercise, so that students grasp its relevance and value. After all, what does playing with skipping ropes have to do with boxing? Perhaps nothing obvious comes to mind; but skipping trains the legs and footwork to be light, coordinated, fast, and explosive – the benefits of these skills need no further explanation.

Likewise, if the student does not understand how to learn from the exercise, then it will also be futile. Returning to the example of touching hands or weapon, giving or yielding pressure, and learning to feel – if the student only has “no strength” and “all the strength” responses to the situation, he will become frustrated that he either overpowers his opponent or gets overpowered himself, without anything interesting happening. He will not know how to learn from the exercise until he first learns to apply a variety of levels of strength in different directions or planes of motion.

For a more personal example, I used to do a lot of grappling when I practised karate. A common exercise would be to enter into a standard grip with a partner, and then push and pull each other “to see what happens”. I was terrible at grappling; I was good at technical solo practices like kata and kihon, and had some skill at sparring, but I did not understand grappling. As a result, whenever we performed this exercise “to see what happened”, I became frustrated and learned very little, because I did not know how to use the exercise to benefit my skills and understanding.

In a similar fashion, people often gain very little benefit from free sparring, until they understand both what they are trying to achieve and how to achieve it. If people are told “don’t be hit”, but have not been taught any defensive techniques, then the exercise is rather pointless and stressful!

Advanced practitioners

Someone who has more experience of the martial art in question, who has participated in more training sessions and knows more techniques, and who knows more of the theory behind why things are done as they are, will be much better placed to learn from open-ended exercises.

If you watch two instructors “play” with each other, in whatever fashion, it is a fascinating thing to see. They are maybe not so competitive, other than in a friendly and enjoyable fashion, and they try to perform techniques or actions that they might not otherwise attempt under more pressure. The “rules” of the game may change during the course of the game, and both instructors will be able to adapt to this, or to develop the “rules” further. At the end of “playing” with each other, both instructors will tend to be smiling, and will have learned something to improve their skills or understanding.

This is because advanced practitioners have an intrinsic understanding of what they are trying to achieve. They will have their own goals in mind, and as they “play”, they will work towards achieving these goals.

For example, I could play a simple game with any other instructor in my school, simply trying to land a touch with the palm of the hands anywhere on the body. This does not seem very relevant to longsword fencing at first glance – but I would be looking to improve my skills at judging distance, range and timing. I would be looking to work out intelligent strategies to make it safe and sensible to attack the legs. I would be learning how to set up feints, working on improving my fluency with second and even third intention actions. By the end of the game, my colleague and I may have made several touches each, and perhaps we even landed a couple of friendly slaps to inject a bit more fun and danger to the game, but we would both have been working on achieving the goals we had set for ourselves before and during the game.

For advanced practitioners, open-ended exercises without a specific goal can be valuable, as it allows the practitioners to set their own goals and work towards achieving them int he most appropriate fashion. Advanced practitioners will be able to set their own goals, to self-diagnose problems, and to coach themselves to improve their performance to achieve those goals, and so this kind of exercise can be helpful at this level of skill.

Inexperienced practitioners

Until students learn how to set their own goals, how to self-diagnose errors, and how to coach themselves to achieve those goals, they require input from an instructor rather than relying on their ability to coordinate their own training. Therefore, the instructor must provide specific goals that the students must try to achieve.

The goals could be explicit, and the exercise could be set up to achieve a specific goal. Alternatively, the goal can be implicit within the exercise; for example, in the very first exercise described above (an attack met by a parry and riposte to the head), students don’t always need to be told that the goal is to stay safe and counter-attack to the head. That goal should be fairly obvious within that kind of exercise.

Nonetheless, it is good practice for the instructor always to reiterate what the goal is supposed to be in any given training exercise, so that all participants are working to achieve the correct goal.


Beginners should not be given too much freedom in their practice until they have learned enough from drilling and exercising to be able to set sensible goals for themselves, and until they have learned enough to be able to achieve those goals. Until beginners have learned how to learn in play, their training should remain structured and specific.

Advanced practitioners can learn from exercises without specific goals, but they do so by setting their own goals. The goal could be as simple as “improve my feeling of pressure”, but advanced practitioners will know what they need to do to achieve that, and will be able to process the information and learning they receive from the exercise.

Everyone, at all stages in their development, will benefit from structured training with specific goals. However, only those individuals who have learned how to learn will be able to benefit from unstructured practice.

Take-away point for instructors: unless you are describing an unstructured exercise for advanced practitioners, make it clear which partner will lead the exercise (don’t leave it up to beginners to work out when they should sometimes lead and sometimes follow), and also make it clear what the goal of the exercise should be. This way, your students will have more success learning the skills you want them to learn from your lessons.