I often hear questions about how to design drills and exercises for a HEMA club. Sometimes it comes during discussions in person at events, or sometimes in discussion threads online, but it is quite a common question. There are many instructors who feel a need to expand the number of drills and exercises they know and use at their club, and who feel that it would be helpful to be better at designing and coming up with new drills.
I have had discussions with people whose main motivation for attending events was simply to watch or participate in as many lessons as possible in order to “steal” as many drill ideas as they could, for taking home to their club!
Personally, I find it incredibly easy to develop or design new drills and exercises for teaching HEMA, and this is largely down to having more than 20 years of experience practising martial arts. I have developed quite a large repertoire of ideas and exercises in this time! I would like to share some of this experience with people who might find it helpful.
What is a drill?
A couple of quick definitions to get us started: to my mind, an “exercise” is anything we do to practise a skill, and a “drill” is often just another word for “exercise”, although to my mind a “drill” tends to be a bit more choreographed with discrete and defined steps and objectives. Other exercises may be more open-ended (such as a sparring game within parameters) and I might not use the word “drill” to refer to these.
Drills (and therefore exercises) may be solo, or may involve a pair of participants, or may even involve groups of participants.
Typically, the practice of most martial arts will involve spending time working through drills and exercises to learn new skills and to improve existing skills. You need to do the repetitions to gain the skill and the drills provide the training structure for you to do those repetitions.
Why not just do sparring?
If the purpose of your martial art is to engage in sparring, then why not just do more of that? Why bother with drills?
Well, my first answer will come in the form of a question: how good are you at sparring at the moment, and can you think of any individual skill that you would like to get better at so that you could be better at sparring?
If you can think of even a single skill that you would like to get better at, then there is a good reason to do some drilling. Improving at physical skills is often called “skill acquisition” and there are several different models and scientifically-supported methods to do this, and these often begin with training the skill in “isolation”. That means reducing the complexity so that you can focus on doing precisely that thing, precisely the way that it is supposed to be done, without worrying too much about distractions. Then you “integrate” the skill, by making the situation more complicated and more realistic until it becomes something you can rely upon even under the stress of sparring.
If you just do sparring, then you have to think about defending yourself, you have to think about hitting the other person, you have to think about your footwork, you have to think about your edge alignment so that every hit lands correctly (otherwise it’s a rubbish hit, and see my video about cutting mechanics for a demonstration of why this is the case), you have to manage your breathing and your stamina, you have to have spatial awareness so that you don’t walk into walls or other practitioners, you have to focus on the things you want to get better at while also doing everything else correctly and at the right time…
That sounds pretty difficult. I think it is pretty difficult. I can’t do it perfectly when I am sparring, and that’s why I give myself permission to make my life a little bit easier by reducing the complexity of the situation while I try to improve one of my skills. By reducing the complexity and not “just sparring”, I create an exercise with defined goals and objectives and with scope for developing it further so that it starts to feed back into my sparring.
So how do we design these drills to help us improve at a skill?
Designing a drill
This really does not need to be rocket science. It may feel like it at first, when every drill appears to be different, but quite quickly you can begin to notice some commonalities between the drills that you do.
Decide what you want to achieve
Every exercise needs an objective. Otherwise, what’s the point? What are you trying to achieve? When you play chess or Monopoly, what are you trying to achieve? When you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, what are you trying to achieve? When you get in the car to go to work, what are you trying to achieve?
When you play chess or Monopoly, the goal is to win the game according to the rules – but precisely how you do that doesn’t matter, as long as your skills are sufficient.
When you go to the kitchen to prepare dinner, you are trying to achieve an edible, tasty, nutritional meal. It doesn’t matter precisely what it is, or precisely how you cook it, as long as the outcome is achieved.
When you get in the car to go to work, you are trying to arrive at work safely and on time. It doesn’t really matter which route you take as long as you drive safely and leave enough time to get there before your shift starts.
When you design an exercise, what is your goal? What is the outcome you want to achieve?
What does the “student” need to do to achieve this?
Once you have decided on the outcome, you need to work out what the “student” (the person who is trying to complete the exercise successfully and improve their skills) has to do in order to achieve that outcome. This may require a bit more specificity than setting the outcome, which can be pretty vague. Several different exercises may achieve the same outcome but in different ways.
For example, if the outcome is “to improve at headhunting – hitting the head without getting hit”, then one way of achieving that it to hit the head after making a good parry. Another option is to hit the head after making a good feint. Another option is to hit the head with a specific footwork. Another option is to hit the head at the same time as making the defence. These all achieve the same objective (hitting the head without getting hit), but it should be clear that each of these options could be a separate exercise.
It helps to think in terms of “stimulus” and “response”. We can thank Pavlov and his dogs for this idea: upon receiving a stimulus, we make some kind of response. When designing a drill, the final response to the final stimulus should be what achieves the objective.
So now the thought process for designing the exercise is as follows:
- What do I want to achieve?
- Specifically, for this exercise, how should that be achieved?
What does the “coach” need to do for the “student” to learn this?
If you are doing a solo drill, where people work by themselves to link motions together, those two steps might be all you need to complete the design of the drill. However, if you are doing a pair drill to practise a skill with a partner, there is another element that needs your attention: what does the partner need to do?
Most good drills will tend to specify exactly what the “coach” needs to do in order to let the “student” achieve the objective. If the coach does random things, then how will the student be able to complete the drill successfully? (Don’t get me wrong, you can build random things into the drill, it doesn’t have to be so incredibly simple all the time – but that’s part of developing the drill over time, and the first iteration of any drill should probably be quite simple and quite well-specified so that everyone learns or improves at the fundamental steps of the exercise.)
Again, if we think of Pavlov and his dogs, the response is for the dogs to salivate – but there has to be a stimulus for that to happen, in this case the bell ringing. The response follows the stimulus, but a different stimulus may elicit a different response. Perhaps switching off the lights led Pavlov’s dogs to decide to go to sleep. A particular stimulus leads to a particular response, a particular response follows a particular stimulus.
So what does the coach need to do in order for it to make sense for the student to do the thing that leads to successful completion of the exercise? This is an important part of the design process for good drills. If you just say “oh, the attacker does something, anything, and then the defender does this cool thing and wins the exercise” then it is going to be quite confusing for the beginners in your class or for the people who struggle to find the right moment to do that particular thing! You need to be more specific: “the attacker does this specific thing, and so the defender does this specific thing to defeat it”.
To take the examples from earlier, about hitting the head with getting hit:
- If the response to achieve the goal is to hit the head after making a good parry, then the coach needs to give the student an attack that can be parried, allow the student to make the head strike after the parry.
- If the response to achieve the goal is to hit the head after making a good feint, then the coach needs to stand in guard to allow the student to make a feint. The coach then needs to respond to the feint if it is believable, allowing the student to come out of the feint and make the head strike.
- If the response to achieve the goal is to hit the head with a specific footwork, then the coach needs to offer a stimulus where doing that footwork allows the student to reach a more advantageous place via the footwork so that the head strike can be done with ease and safety.
- If the response to achieve the goal is to hit the head at the same time as making the defence, then the coach needs to make the right kind of attack to allow the student to perform the specific action that both creates the defence and hits the head.
So now the thought process for designing the exercise is as follows:
- What do I want to achieve?
- Specifically, for this exercise, how should that be achieved?
- So that that response makes sense, what specific stimulus needs to be given?
Once you get into the habit of thinking about drills according to this structure, it becomes really easy to make new drills on the fly! It no longer really matters precisely how you saw this drill happen on a YouTube video, or if you remember exactly how I taught this other drill at an event you attended, or whatever. Just set your objective, decide what response should achieve that objective, and then decide what stimulus makes that response make sense. Voila. Your drill is ready.
Bridging the gap between drills and sparring
If you think of a continuum, a horizontal line, with “simple, choreographed, clinical, cooperative, low intensity” exercises (including solo drills and simple stimulus/response exercises) at the left and “complicated, unchoreographed, chaotic, uncooperative, high intensity” exercises (including sparring and tournament fencing) on the right, then any drill will fall somewhere on the line between these two extremes.
Exercises at the very left of this continuum are ideal for beginners and for people who are struggling to make something work.
Exercises at the very right of this continuum might be fun, but they are only really useful to the people who have sufficient skill to be able to perform well and to learn the correct lessons from each repetition, and who can keep themselves safe at that high level of intensity.
Most of our practice should be somewhere between these extremes. This is how we “bridge the gap” between drilling and sparring. Have you ever had the experience where you have tried to do something in sparring that you learned in class, but you just couldn’t make it work in sparring? That’s because you didn’t bridge the gap. You learned something in a safe, simple environment, and jumped straight to another environment that was too complicated for you to integrate this skill.
At Liverpool HEMA, the club I run on a weekly basis, our lessons always start with a simple warm up that not-so-coincidentally tends to involve solo drills at the very left side of the continuum: safe, simple, choreographed drills with sword in hand to get people moving and to introduce the theme for the session.
We then go from solo drills to pair drills, putting these simple skills into a bit more context by doing them upon another person. We keep it simple, low intensity, and strictly choreographed, because now there are the additional complications of doing it with a partner, managing the distance and timing, and making sure that the targeting is correct.
We then develop the exercise by making it slightly more difficult with each iteration. Maybe we add steps, so the “student” is doing more before achieving the objective. Maybe we allow the “coach” to make things a bit more complicated for the student. Maybe we introduce an element of decision making. Maybe we speed it up and work at a higher intensity while demanding that the precision and correctness remains high.
Slowly, over the whole session, we bridge the gap between drilling and sparring, with our exercises moving increasingly rightward on the continuum, away from “simple, choreographed, cooperative, low intensity” and more toward “complicated, less choreographed and more free-flowing, less cooperative and with the coach attempting to make the student’s life more difficult, somewhat higher intensity but without losing the correctness”.
Sometimes we end up “sparring”, sometimes we don’t. But our final exercise at the end of the session will be the most complicated thing we have done during the session and will be the closest to “sparring” that we have come, because we are coming closer to emulating that environment as we move away from the simple introductory drills at the start of the session.
At our club, because we focus on “bridging the gap” without just jumping ahead and doing lots of sparring, many of our members are able to apply their skills during sparring bouts, because we have trained those skills with relevant exercises in an environment that has become similar enough to “sparring” that it is no great difficulty to make it all work. We would not be able to achieve that so reliably if we just did “more sparring” and spent more time at the extreme ends of the continuum without bothering to spend enough time in the middle to “bridge the gap”.
Drills don’t need to be complicated. They don’t need to be rocket science, and you don’t need to remember every drill you have ever practised. Certainly, I have forgotten more drills that I have practised than I remember, and I just make up new drills whenever I need to teach something.
I rarely re-use a drill in precisely the same fashion, because while it may have been useful with precisely that design that one time, it may not be useful or relevant any more in that particular fashion. As my students develop their skills, or present different issues that we need to work around, I modify the drill to make it relevant.
I decide what I want to achieve. I decide how I want the student to achieve it (the response to achieve the objective). I decide what the coach needs to do to provide the stimulus for that response to make sense. Done! Now I explain it to the class and send them to practise it for a while.
I start my lessons at the simple end of the continuum because that is the best way to get beginners and more advanced students alike to start a training session before they are fuly warmed up, and then I develop the exercises to move them across the continuum towards the other side, so that we are putting these skills into better and more relevant context.
At the end of my lessons, I don’t necessarily remember what the individual drills were, because that is not important. I remember what we have been trying to achieve and how we bridged the gap to improve our skills at achieving it, because that IS important.
How do you bridge the gap between drilling and sparring? How do you design drills and exercises to achieve this?
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.