Expectations of a good training partner

A large part of the classes conducted at Stoccata (and most fencing clubs for that matter) rely on learning through partner drills. The following are the list of attributes I expect to find in an excellent drilling partner:

  • Understands they are a partner not an opponent
  • Performs each action correctly
  • Gives the right cues
  • Sticks to the drill
  • Looks for mistakes to help their partner
  • Drills at the right tempo for their partner
  • Communicates with their partner
  • Doesn’t try to beat the drill
  • Drills with control

Having a good partner in a can make or break your ability to learn, and conversely being a good drilling partner can help the both of you in the drill learn much faster. Let’s have a look at why these attributes are important, and why need to instil them as a habit in our drilling practices.

Understands they are a partner not an opponent

A partner drill is a cooperative exercise, where you work with your partner to learn the correct technical or tactical action the drill is designed to teach. All too often, people perform drills as if they are fights to be won, not exercises. The only way to win a drill is to perform it properly.

The key to this success is you need to be a partner not an opponent in the drill. If you don’t hold up your side of the drill so that your partner can perform the action correctly, how can you expect them to learn good technique? More importantly, how can you expect them to do the drill properly for you if you won’t reciprocate? If you work as a partnership you’ll find drilling much more rewarding and enjoyable because you’ll earn the benefits of that cooperation through becoming a better fencer. This really is the core attribute, the rest are details about how to be a cooperative drilling partner.

Performs each action correctly

Drills by their nature are repetitive which can become boring, especially if you’re the one getting hit in the drill. However, if you don’t perform your actions properly the drill will rapidly fall apart. Let’s look at a parry – riposte drill. You throw a cut at the head for the opponent to parry and then hit you on the riposte. However, if you throw a sloppy flat cut instead of the correct descending angle, or off target at say the arm, or one that falls short, your partner can’t parry this action and they actually learn nothing in the drill.

So what is the answer? When you are the attacker, throw the correct blow with correct technique. Use this time as an opportunity to practice correct cutting technique, with correct line, angle and technique. If you do the right action and your opponent gets hit they learn that they just made a mistake which can be corrected. If you flub your action, how are they supposed to learn what they did was wrong? Ancillary to this is making sure you drill from the right distance for the actions involved. Don’t be too far away where all your blows fall short, or too close where you don’t have the time and space to do the right actions.

The other thing to consider is that the human body learns through repetition. Each time you repeat an action you reinforce the neural pathway in the brain, speeding up the routine response, especially in the pressure situation of a fencing bout. However, if you repeatedly perform the action wrong, you set down the wrong neural pathway and in a pressure situation you will revert to this incorrect technique, which will usually mean you are going to get hit! Drill as if your life depended on it, and always use the correct technique.

Gives the right cues

A part of drilling is feeding cues to your partner to initiate an action from them. The success or failure of the drill can depend on whether you feed them the right cue or not. Lets look at an example from an Italian rapier drill for gaining the sword. The leading partner presents their point via an extension of the arm, inviting the defender to gain the sword in the correct line. For the purposes of the drill we present that tip around the hilt of the sword on the 4 diagonal lines no more than the width of your palm away from your partner’s sword hilt, and threatening to hit the body. If we do this the partner can easily make a proper gain of the sword, and hit with the appropriate thrust. However, if we do the gain off target, or too far away from the hilt, our partner learns to reach for the sword or to gain when they should have just hit with a direct thrust, all of which are bad habits. Bad habits come back to bite us hard in fencing bouts.

Again think cooperatively and think about the purpose of your action so that you can do it properly to maximise the learning process. In the case of the example above, I think of it as practice presenting the tip to invite my partner to gain my sword. If I practice that and get it right, I’m learning how to set them up for a killer attack via disengage!

Sticks to the drill

One of the most annoying things I can ever hear in a drill as a partner or instructor is “but in a real fight I’d do…” This sort of comment reveals that this person is trying to win the drill. A drill can have many different purposes, some obvious and some not so obvious. A drill can be teaching a technique, or a tactic, or it could just be an exercise to warm you up or increase flexibility, reaction speed or precision. The other one thing that really annoys me is the partner that never lets you hit them. If you always don’t hit your opponent, you never learn what it means to hit with correct technique, or the right distance for it and you never learn how much force you deliver! Come bouting time, what you find is when you do use the technique and you do actually hit, the blow takes their head off, or you sit there posing asking to be hit by a redouble. We encourage students to wear padding on mask and body during drills, not so that you don’t get hurt but so that your partner can learn proper technique and blow calibration without the fear of hurting you.

To master any activity, it has been calculated it takes about 10,000 hours of mindful diligent practice. The mindful diligent practice is the key. We must concentrate on getting and performing better, but if we go off drill we won’t be learning what the drill is supposed to teach. We are short cutting our learning experience time, and as a consequence stunting our growth as a fencer. Long term success as a fencer requires depth of technique and knowledge and doing all your drills properly is how we achieve that long term success goal.

Looks for mistakes to help their partner

How can we improve if we don’ know we are making a mistake? Providing feedback on mistakes to a partner is the fastest way to help them improve. As well as throwing all your actions correctly, look for why your partner is not succeeding. Typically it is poor footwork, body alignment or sword angle that are the main culprits. When they step, are they keeping knee in line with foot? Are they turning the hips throwing their body alignment out? On cuts look to make sure they cut at the right angle as this is usually the biggest mistake. Are they hunching their shoulder? This leads to short blows and stiff arm actions.

The other point about feedback is get the gross motor actions right first before you worry about the fine motor skills. Also, no more than 2 corrections per repetition otherwise the feedback will overwhelm and destroy the confidence of your partner. Don’t forget, you want your partner to do this for you when it’s your turn doing the drill. Remember what we said about cooperation?

Drills at the right tempo for their partner

If you can always throw a blow so fast that your partner never parries it, will they learn anything? Have you achieved anything beyond proving your superiority? Not really, as all you’ve done is taught your partner that you are a right bastard no one wants to drill with.

In any drill, we can do our bit so slowly that our partner always succeeds, or so fast they can never succeed or at a speed that challenges their ability forcing them to concentrate on using correct technique so that they can succeed. This last one is the tempo we should aim for in all our actions. We learn best when we are challenged, because this puts us into a mindful diligent practice mindset, which is the mindset where maximum learning occurs. If we go too slow they aren’t challenged and operate on reflex not in a learning condition. If we go to fast, they operate in panic and flinch reflex, again a non-learning condition. We want the learning mindset, and when we are there we can gradually increase the speed as they learn until they can drill the action at a proper bouting speed. The speed will come but we need to help them get there.

So during the drill, watch for your partner’s reactions. Is it a bored rote response, a thoughtful response or a flinch response? Adjust till you get the thoughtful response.

Communicates with their partner

In all of the attributes so far, notice how we need to work with our opponent? This all falls apart if we don’t communicate with our partner. If they go too fast, ask them to slow down. If you keep getting it wrong, ask for feedback. If you see the wrong action happening in a drill, tell your partner. The whole section about looking for mistakes relies on communication between partners. A silent unresponsive partner is nothing more than a flesh covered pell, which can help you improve, but will never help you get over the most obvious mistake. You’re there to cooperate, and that relies on communication.

Doesn’t try to beat the drill

The only way to win a drill is to do it right! We’ve all experienced the drilling partner who has to always be the one getting the hit, and how frustrating an experience that really is. Drills are not played for points, they are exercises you use to learn technique and tactics. I’ve already given numerous examples of how people can try to win drills, so I won’t repeat them here. You win the drill when both you and your partner can do the actions properly, with good tempo and control.

Drills with control

Nothing puts me off drilling faster than a partner who wails on me like I’m a pinata, or a tent peg to be driven into the ground. This sort of attitude shows a complete disrespect for your drilling partner and really is not acceptable. Your actions should not ever injure your opponent in a drill, and they should most definitely not get concussion because of your actions. Our aim in a drill is to improve the ability of both our partner and ourselves. This requires control of ourselves and our weapon so that we can both learn in a safe, cooperative controlled environment. The aspect people most forget is that to fence with correct actions, we must also fence with control otherwise all we’re doing is going through the motions with brute force.

So in summary, be the sort of training partner you expect to have facing you. Use your drilling time as a time for thoughtful, mindful diligent practice, and you will develop and progress far beyond what you thought you were capable of. Working together with your drilling partner you can both become the kick-ass fencers you want to be.