A study group is a group of peers devoted to helping each other get better in a particular martial practice. If you don’t have an experienced and savvy instructor in your area, or you want to pursue learning something that is not offered by your group or school, or you simply want to get in more training time than is being offered, a study group is a great way to go.
Here are 10 steps that can help you get off on the right foot:
1. Create a Vision and Goals for Your Group
What do you want to achieve in your group? How will you know when you’re successful? What is the feeling that you want to have? You should be able to easily summarize the overarching goal of your group in a sentence or a bullet point or three. For example, check out the Carranza study group goals below.
Carranza Study Group Goals
- To develop a high level of martial practice in the system of Carranza.
- To work primarily from original sources and secondarily from modern interpretations.
- To offer a practice space for both beginners and experienced practitioners.
2. Create a Plan and Structure
You may not be leading a formal class but if you want to make the most of your time you should have a formal structure.
In a one-hour session I recommend:
- 10 minutes warm-up.
- 20 minutes drilling
- 20 minutes working on new material
- 10 minutes integration/sparring games/free-sparring.
And here is a sample two-hour session:
- 10 minutes warm-up
- 30 minutes drilling
- 30 minutes working on new material
- 20 minutes guided practice and integration
- 20 minutes sparring games/free-sparring
- 10 minutes cool-down
3. Be Welcoming But Not Undiscerning
Make the door open for anyone who can get on board with your goals and play by your rules. A clear structure allows you to welcome in others while maintaining a safe space that stays welcoming to those who are already part of your group.
4. Have a Source
You will reach far higher if you can stand on the shoulders of those who came before you. Whether you are working from an historical source or a modern one, find a source that aligns with your goals and gives you and your group a clear learning direction. Be aware that not all sources or teachers are created equal, do some research and find one that others can recommend for practitioners at the level of you and your group.
5. Facilitate, Don’t Teach
The goal of a study group is for everyone to learn together and grow together. If you’re the organizer, make sure that you keep your ego out of the picture and that you approach each session as an equal and a student along with the others in your group. Not only will this keep unnecessary conflict out of the picture, you will find that you can learn much faster when you allow yourself to work with everyone else, rather than trying to keep a station above your peers.
A great way to share the load and keep things on even footing is to take turns in the role of facilitator and session planner. This also makes the group much more resilient to changes in membership.
6. Have Rules of Comportment That Keep You and Others Safe and Align with your Goals
Even if your group is new and informal, safety is the most vital central focus for your long-term growth. Make sure you have rules for how everyone is expected to conduct themselves set down and agreed to before you pick up weapons or make contact with a partner.
What types of equipment will you be using? What are your safety rules for both drilling and sparring? How will you ensure that you and your training partners leave each practice session healthier than they came in? What level of intensity will you train at and how do you communicate that effectively between practitioners? Are you using equipment or speed to manage force?
7. Always Start On Time
Starting on time says to you and to others: "We’re here to make the most of our time together." It sets the tone for all dimensions of your group and represents a care and attention for detail that is essential to good martial practice.
8. Be Consistent
If you are going to practice every Tuesday afternoon, practice every Tuesday afternoon. Have a backup plan if the organizer or key holder is sick. Being consistent helps keep everyone accountable and it makes it far easier to stay on track for long-term development. If someone shows up only to find that session was cancelled it erodes their trust and makes it easier to make excuses not to show up: “Maybe the session won’t even be on today."
9. Find an All Weather Space (or Spaces)
An important key to staying consistent is having somewhere that allows you to practice regardless of the weather. Academie Duello started in an outdoor, covered, skating rink. It was cold in the winter but we coped. We could train rain or shine, and it was lit for the darker times of year.
10. Build a System for Integrating New Members
Once your group has been going for a while it can be intimidating for someone new to join, especially if there is not a defined route for them to do so. I recommend creating a formal beginner’s orientation program. Have it take place over 2-4 sessions and run parallel to your regular group, or just in advance. The orientation should:
- Introduce a new person to your vision, goals, and rules.
- Give them the fundamentals of your system (posture, stance, movement, and footwork).
- Orient them to your language (what are the technical and training terms you use in your group?).
- Teach them your foundational drills and exercises (they may practice them at a lower level but they can now join the main body of your practice).
Having a base of exercises whose level can be easily adapted to the skill level of a partner (i.e. Partner A is practicing an exercise at level 1 and Partner B can practice the same exercise but at level 5) makes it far easier to have varying levels of skill in your group.
I’m a big fan of group study. I love training on my own but training with others helps me stay on track, get inspired, and push myself further than I might otherwise. Even though I run a school I am still a member of two study groups where I train as a peer.
Academie Duello has a formal study group program to facilitate people in other places who want to train in our system. That program starts with a Level 1 Instructor Intensive designed to give a study group facilitator a good solid start as well as ongoing mentorship in the months that follow. Our next one is set for October 17th to 21st. You can learn more about it as details are announced here.
There are also many excellent online resources such as Guy Windsor’s syllabus project, our own Duello.TV, Wiktenauer (a HEMA Wiki project full of translations of historical sources). Also, Freelance Academy Press publishes dozens of books from historical and modern authors that can provide an excellent start for study.