1 February 2019

All Things Drill - The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Prethoughts: I was a bit stuck writing this post. The first draft was almost ready, and then an acquaintance of mine got into my head about this subject being a hard one to write about, and I hit a block. Maybe that's a good thing, since after that I learned about the changes into our curriculum and got some fresh perspective. Turns out our club is moving away from knowing whole drills and instead focusing on training isolated sequences from them. I agree with our club's head teacher's sentiment behind that: that drills are just a complicated way to put together a collection of responses to attacks, and the more important part are indeed the pieces of the drill - the sequences, and even more important, the individual techniques.

First off, some vocabulary I'll be using, so we know what we are talking about. A drill here is a two-person exercise, where the movements of each participant are scripted. Other names for drills in other languages I've heard are futari geiko and pariharjoitus. A sequence consist of three parts: an attack, a reaction, and a response. Drills consist of multiple sequences performed in a predetermined order. A technique is any of the three parts of a sequence.

Snapshots from a drill of ours, performed by Yours Truly and a sempai.
Let's Get to It

As I've lead on, drills have become a somewhat controversial subject in our club. Our club's head teacher wants to drop some drills from our curriculum altogether, and focus on teaching the sequences of the remaining drills. This has raised some questions about the importance of drills. How should we practice drills? Should we do them at all? Which drills should we keep and which ones abandon? What is the point of knowing any specific drill? Should those be tested in belt exams? Is there a point to drills at all?

Here I try to explore the strengths and weaknesses of drills. What are they good for, and what are they not good for. As I'm mostly just a beginner and "don't know shit", I base my opinions on my own limited experience and the wise, guiding words of my sempais and senseis (who, for the most part, also still claim to "not know shit").

The Purpose of a Drill

In a way, drills are kata for two people. It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: no drill is (hopefully) ever designed to be an answer to a single attack. As I've been taught, drills are usually a collection of answers to certain types of attacks. The answers are sometimes consecutive, and sometimes alternative, meaning that a sequence in a drill can contain multiple alternative solutions to an attack, depending on the details of the attack. For example, a sequence can have two answers to the same attack following each other that have the same mechanics but differ in the distance needed for execution. In a drill, this is usually solved with compliant resistance or, for example, having the longer-distance response lead to a similar position from the initial attack, followed by the shorter-range response.

In a real self defence situation it is very, very unlikely to answer with a full sequence of some drill, even if it doesn't contain alternative answers. A single technique in a drill can be useful when you find yourself in a position similar to the situation in the drill. The purpose of martial arts training is, as I see it, to condition the body to respond the right way to an attack without having to think about it, with maximal control of the opponent and optimal power generation. Knowing a choreography designed to summarize some answers to some attacks isn't exactly the most crucial point in either self defence or sport context, but having drilled a certain answer to a certain attack into your backbone is sure to help.

Why not just drill only the isolated techniques, then? Why the need for drills at all?

I've heard many answers to that one, and some are of the opinion that drills are indeed not needed. I agree to some degree - I don't think they are a necessary OR sufficient exercise. Mostly, any one form of practice isn't necessary (or sufficient) to become adequately adept at self defence or combat sports. Drills are just a tool to use when learning concepts, just like any other form of practice. However, I came to the conclusion that, when it comes to tools, drills are a very good one, when taught in the right context and the right mind set. And there is one thing that drills do better than any other tools I know of, which I'll get to shortly.

So, what are drills good for?

Some people are pro drilling, of course. The most frequent reasoning for pro-drilling stance I've heard has to do with pragmatism: when you want to train various techniques, it saves time to have them in some form that flows, so you don't have to stop and start again all the time. I can see the point of that, somewhat, but it does sometimes sound like a cop out. It also brings into question the length of drills. Short drills of, say, three or four sequences built coherently seem to make sense. You get a lot of repetition on some exercises that make sense together. What about longer drills, then? Who wants to drill five, eight, or more different responses to different attacks at the same time? Can anyone have the concentration to get anything useful out of that, and if so, wouldn't it still be more useful to have shorter drills?

Here's another pic from a drill with a
different sempai. Pay no attention to
the useless blocking. Instead, look
at our beautiful dojo!
It seems to me that with more experience, the appreciation for longer drills grows. It wasn't very apparent in my early training. We were taught drills that had sequences and even techniques we hadn't encountered yet, at least in that form. The unfamiliarity of the techniques and the sequences made the drilling seem more like grinding. Now, after some years of training, I've finally started to get something more substantial out of the drills I've been practicing for a long time, and I can see where that appreciation comes from: from knowing the isolated techniques and sequences. When the sequences themselves became more familiar and automatic, training them in a drill form actually started to feel rewarding. You might guess that I don't see drills as a good way to learn new technique - and you would be right. I think that learning the technique should come first, every time.

Given that the techniques and the sequences are already familiar, though, there is one thing that drills are great for, and for which I don't know of any good substitute: transitions from position to position.

A good drill flows. Like a stream. The people doing it know exactly what the other person is going to do next. They can adjust and hone their responses in a semi-hectic environment with little risk of injury. Both partners get something out of it, when they can play with the timing, distance and level of contact in a familiar environment. This is a great way to learn and train the mechanics of your own body, and to learn how the opponent can move within the basic laws of nature, like gravity and inertia. These things quickly become second nature when learned in an environment that emphasizes them well, making it natural, like the flow of water. For a drill to flow like this, it needs to have logical transitions.

In all the good drills ('good' being measured as the amount of enjoyment I get from doing them) that I've done, an important point is the transition from one position to another. It is one thing to know the first sequence of techniques and the second sequence of techniques in isolation, and another completely to be able to handle the transition from the former to the latter so that it makes sense. It is a technique on its own, and can't be drilled without at least the end of the first sequence and the start of the second sequence. And who likes doing pair exercises that only have the transition without any action? Raise your hand now! Yea, I didn't think so. Also, it would be very hard to tie that back together with the actual techniques if only trained in isolation.

Another thing that drills have to offer is a bit operant. In Honbu, the person who graduates us - judges our belt exams - is Finland's koryu uchinadi head teacher Ante Brännbacka (kyoshi, 6th dan), who doesn't regularly teach in our dojo. This, of course, doesn't apply to all dojos and clubs, since some actually have the graduating teacher teach there, who already knows the level of the graduating students. But in situations like ours, drills are a quick way for the graduator to assess the level of overall competence in a belt exam. The belt exams already take forever, without drills they would take, uh, foreverer (forevest?).

So, to summarize: I like the idea of short drills for beginners, and long drills for the more advanced. I like the idea of drills being taught only after all the techniques and sequences are familiar to the student. For everyone, the most important thing drills have to offer are the transitions from one situation to another.

Drills in the Context of Other Tools

I already wrote about drills being a great way to vary the attacker's intensity, speed, and whatnot in a controlled environment, but I don't think that's quite enough for a real pressure test. The best pressure test is a reality simulator where the attacker applies force and speed without the defender knowing what the attack will be. In a word, sparring.

Why not just have sparring instead of drills, then? Don't get me wrong, I love sparring, and getting to sparr is the top reason I do martial arts. Drills are no substitute for sparring, but neither is sparring a substitute for drills. Sparring is not the way to learn specific positions. To learn specific positions (to use in sparring) you have to train specific positions - at least this seems to be a well accepted belief in the BJJ community where I train - and that is exactly what drills are for. Without positional exercises, free sparring is a very slow way to learn anything. This I have learned - and am still learning - the hard way.

This is where I think drills come in handy during every part of the journey along the river of any martial art. The controlled environment of a drill - everyone knows what's coming next - makes it possible to attack with force, to respond with intention, and to learn to transition from a technique to another when the first attempt fails. Sure, the transitions too are scripted, but for me at least it really drove home that not every defence is effective. In the words of William Faulkner, you must kill your darlings if they are standing in the way of ultimately better solutions. Both in writing and self defence, commitment is needed, but overcommitment can lead to a majestic failure. It seems necessary to teach transitioning, and I think that drills are the perfect vessel of getting used to that - again, in a nice, controlled environment, where your failure is scripted.

What Else Drills Can Be

Most of the stuff I've said thus far is something I've also heard older martial artists say. But for me, drills have also been a tool to learn to read your opponent. Not in the big picture way, as in what they are going to do, but how, when, and with what intensity. I've found that without the clutter of free sparring, it is easier to learn to focus on those things in the middle of something happening. It is easier to build some kind of sense about what kinds of variations are possible in the techniques. It is, at least to me, silent, implicit information that is hard to verbalise, and even harder to consciously practice - at least as of now.

The last thing I like about drills is purely aesthetic. It is a pleasing thing to watch a drill being performed by people who know the drill and each other very well. It is beautiful. It also feels good to perform a well practiced drill with someone with whom you've trained a lot and whose movements you know. There's this certain feeling in coordinated movement that I haven't found anywhere else, and I'm not sure I will. It has nothing (well, very little) to do with martial ability, it just feels nice. It is the same feeling with singing, dancing, and sports with choreography, but with violence - and, for me, everything is better with violence. It is connectedness in a level that words can't reach.


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4 September 2018

On Change

The theme of change has been on my mind a lot lately. Some things have started, others have ended, some are FUBAR and others are evolving into a new level of absolute greatness. This puts me on a reflective mood, so I’m going to kick off this whole blog thing by commemorating my three short years of martial arts with three short musings about change, from the perspective of early training.

This also doubles as an introduction piece, since from this you can get a pretty good sense of who I am as a martial artist/violence enthusiast. It probably doesn’t offer much substance beyond human interest, though.

“That’s a Lot”


And welcome to a brand new blog!

Here is the brief origin story of this blog: As both of my readers probably know, when I was a fresh orange belt in 2016 I started a blog called Kiai 101 for my karate club, to address some common questions that people coming to the basic course often have about training, etiquette, or the operations of my karate club in general. I felt that my position as a newcomer to karate gave me the required naiveté to “see” those questions and understand the level that they should be answered on, to best benefit the people just starting out on this never ending quest. From what I have heard, I didn’t completely fail!

Two years have passed, and Kiai 101 has served its purpose very well, and it will continue to serve it as long as needed. I won’t stop updating it with stuff that clearly belongs there - this isn’t a goodbye to the old! However, I have found that I’ve started to experience random streams of thought and questions that I want to flesh out and dump somewhere. Kiai 101 is not the place for them. This is. Maybe this will also be an opportunity for me to develop as a writer, who knows. Anyway, I’m still just starting out, so just like Kiai 101, this blog isn’t going to be a technical manual on how to best do karate, or any other martial art I might pick up.

This is just another stream.