I find it helpful to divide the lessons I teach into two kinds of lesson: technical lessons and skills lessons. The same training session might even involve two parts, first one kind and then the other.
By separating how I think about these two kinds of lesson, I can set the scope and boundaries much more effectively. I can also help my students manage their expectations and can help them with their “buy in” to what I am teaching.
In this article, I would like to share some of my thoughts about teaching technical lessons and skills lessons.
Model: identify, isolate, integrate
I think this is one of the most important models for learning any martial art or physical skill. It is one that many instructors probably apply unconsciously, but it can be useful to think about it directly:
- Step 1: identify precisely what you need to work on
- Step 2: isolate that element, and work on it in detail until it improves
- Step 3: integrate it back into your general practice so that it starts to be successful along with everything else
If you never identify what you are going to work on, then your practice will be unfocused. I often hear students express frustration with being unable to make something work in sparring, and the task of the instructor is to identify what needs improvement. It might not be the most obvious thing!
If you never isolate anything for more specific training, then it’s really difficult to become better at ALL OF IT at the same time. It is much easier to make observable progress at one thing than it is to improve at everything all at the same time, so it makes much more sense to spend some training time on individual elements.
And if you never integrate details back into your overall practice, then your overall practice will never benefit from the detailed work. There needs to be some way to “bridge the gap” between drilling and sparring so that these do not become such radically different activities.
It often helps to tick all of these boxes in order when you want to work on and improve a particular skill or technique.
My definition of a technical lesson is one where I focus on some element of technique. It is usually more of a “deep dive” into technical details, to help people understand at a deeper level why something works the way it does, or how to use the body to create better results with an action.
It is important to teach some technical lessons so that people learn how to perform techniques correctly. Making the conscious decision to focus on details is important, because that helps to set and manage expectations. For example, if I tell my students the following:
“Ok, in the next few exercises, we are going to go into detail about the [technique], so that we can learn how to perform it more successfully. I’d like you to focus on improving each of these points we are about to discuss. Later, we’ll do some sparring to try to integrate it all into our practice, but for now, let’s work on these details.”
Then it sets the scene very effectively for my students. They know what we are about to do, why, and they also know that they will have the chance later to try to integrate it all.
It removes some of the pressure, because while we are working on details, we don’t need to “make it work in sparring”. We don’t need to “do it faster”. We don’t need to do a lot of things that cause us problems when trying to integrate it all “for real”. At this moment in time, we merely identify a detail that we want to work on, and then isolate it and work on it until we become better at it.
There doesn’t need to be much integration at this stage, although towards the end of the technical lesson, there should be elements of integration (such as decision-making exercises), so that the meat and value of the lesson is not lost.
Of course, this is just a quick introduction to the idea of what a technical lesson might entail, and is not thorough or extensive. I am trying to write with a word limit, to avoid being too wordy!
Skills lessons are quite different from technical lessons. While a technical lesson might pose the question of “precisely how do we do this thing?”, the skills lesson might pose the question of “how do we integrate all of these examples of a skill into our overall performance?”.
There can often be several different variations of a technique. Thinking about something as simple as “throwing a straight punch” or “cutting to the next opening”, there are lots of different ways to do this, depending on time, distance, angle, cover or lack thereof, etc. When thinking in such general terms, there is no “one true way” to perform the technique, there is just “the right way according to circumstance”.
The skills lesson is therefore largely about reading and understanding the situation, and learning how to apply the correct variation of any given technique according to the situation.
There can still be elements of identifying, isolating, and integrating things in these lessons. For example, you might identify the issue that students often have a problem finding the right opportunity to do a technique in sparring, and therefore you isolate the various situations where one might set up the technique, and then you integrate it back into sparring so that students can practise using this technique whenever an appropriate situation presents.
I would not say that skills lessons are softer or easier than technical lessons. Both are demanding, just differently. Both kinds of lessons are important: people have to be able to perform techniques effectively, but they also have to be able to select the right technique or variation for the situation.
People tend to have a preference one way or another for these lessons. Given the choice, I’d spend days obsessing over details, quite happily, and I would enjoy every minute! But I know that I also need to spend time working on the skills, to be able to put these technical details into practice at the right time, otherwise knowing all the details won’t mean anything when actually sparring.
Similarly, I know plenty of people who are great at finding the right moment to do things – but have such poor technical ability that their actions are pretty ineffective. That clearly shows an imbalance in favour of skills lessons over technical lessons.
There is a happy medium, and I believe quite firmly that this is where the best martial artists develop. If your students have plenty of opportunity to learn how to do techniques in detail, and also plenty of opportunity to learn how to apply techniques and variations in different situations, then you will have students who can display and perform their art very effectively indeed.
If you think about most of your club training sessions, do you think that the majority of time is spent on technical lessons or skills lessons, and is the balance one that helps people develop both their technical abilities and their more general skills?
If you would like to discuss this with me in more detail, I’m quite happy to offer coaching advice through online private tuition. Just get in touch through my website and I will be delighted to help.
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.