Wash, Rinse, Repeat – The importance of drilling

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Drills can be boring; drills can be monotonous; drills take a lot of time. I get it. Drills are not exciting. Whenever I am leading drills, there is always one student that asks if he can do something else. No one enjoys drills but they are essential to learning martial arts. One of my favorite quotes from the famous internet philosopher “Unknown” is “Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.” This says it in a nutshell. If you want to be great, you have to practice and practice means drilling.

Using sparring as an example, there are some people that say they don’t need to drill if they spar a lot. The results that I see from those fighters are stagnant, tried and true techniques that become predictable and ineffective as these fighters fight more advanced fighters. Their technical skills plateau.

To master a technique, you need to break it down to its component parts. A good example of this is the poor execution of a front leg side kick. What I often see is the morphing of a front leg round house kick and a side kick. The chamber leads to a sloppy combination of a snap and thrust kick with the result of kicks that slide off of the opponent. To address this poor technique I lead drills of the “two-step sidekick”.

Step one – chambering the kick and establishing proper body position and posture

Step two – fully extending the kick and returning to the stance

This is a very basic drill and people find it boring, but it works. It takes time and repetition but it works.

As an instructor, it is important to observe the students, identify the areas for improvement and then develop drills to help the students improve. Returning to the sidekick example, another instructor was telling the students that they just needed to be faster with their kicks if they wanted to hit their opponents. That direction did not help the students. The problem was technique not speed. This frustrated the kids since they worked harder but saw no results. When watching the sparring, I identified the issue in several students. I chose one of the higher belts making the error and asked him to execute the kick on me. Upon completing the observation, I was able to sketch out the remedy and execute it.

The results were not immediate. Drills do not offer a quick fix. Inertia is a hard force to conquer and it takes time. It is especially hard when you only drill in class. A friend of mine, Sabunim Alberto Torres was teaching a class of adults. One of my classmates asked how we were supposed to master techniques if we didn’t drill them every class. His response was “What you do at home is your own business.” meaning that you can’t expect to get better if you only practice in class. Sabunim Torres said this several years ago but it stuck with me. You may not have room at home to perform a whole kata, or spar or practice your bo form, but you do have room to drill. Drills need to be practiced often for them to work. That means that you can’t wait for Saturday’s class to drill. You need to take responsibility for your training if you expect to improve.

To drill effectively:
1. Identify the specific area that needs work. It does not matter if it relates to sparring, kata or weapons, to improve you need to identify the weak points. Your teacher should be able to help you with this.
2. Confirm proper technique. Work with your teacher on this. They have the experience to guide you in your drill design.
3. Execute your drills often.
4. Review the results with your teacher.
5. Make adjustments as needed.
6. See step 1.

Always keep a white belt mentality. I don’t care if your belt has more stripes than an American flag, drills help improve technique. Different styles call drilling by different names and some styles make an art out of drilling. No matter what discipline you follow, adding drills to your curriculum will help you master your technique.

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