Challenging yourself to do it 'even better'

I had an interesting conversation with my student Dieter last night after class. Dieter is a Green Cord (first rank in our mastery program at Duello) who recently challenged and did not pass his test for Blue Cord (second rank). Not passing the Blue Cord test is not uncommon, our philosophy at the school is to give students the chance to attempt challenges that they may not yet be up for fully meeting. This gives students the chance to stretch themselves, learn about those challenges by doing them, and helps develop the ability to fail forward.

I have been inspired by Dieter's work since his exam. He has taken everything from the experience that I want to see a student take, and more. He is working hard in his classes to refine and improve his technique, particularly in the areas where he was challenged to improve. He is seeking me out and our other instructors to get as much time in after class to improve on his weak areas. Not only is he doing all these things, he is legitimately getting better because of his work.

It can be challenging to repeat a section of the curriculum that you have perhaps been over several times before. However the truth is that there is no fundamental that you cannot refine or within it find greater challenges. Sophisticated swordplay is after all the stringing together of fundamentals. The main challenge with repeating the same material more than once is boredom. Though you still have much to learn physically your mind is worn from being exposed to the same material and it begins to snooze then your learning slows and your form overall can begin to slide. To master any skill or face any great challenge requires that you learn to overcome this mental barrier to learning.

The task that I gave to Dieter to help him in this challenge was to ask both himself and his instructors "How can I do this exercise even better?" You want to find the bar for your current level and not only meet it but surpass it. What's the higher bar? Ask your instructor what they would expect of you if you were a rank above your current one? Is there another dimension you can add to the exercise to make it more challenging? And don't just rely on your instructor, there are many ways you can add more to an exercise:

Challenge can be added to drills in many ways:

1. Physical – doing an exercise at a great extension, deeper squat, or with weight. Making movements even smaller, smoother, and more precise. How tight can I make this disengage? How precise the target of this cut?

2. Speed – Can you do the desired drill but at a higher speed without losing its smoothness or accuracy? Keep in mind that speed should not advance without smoothness and precision – also note that you are not necessarily the best judge of whether this is true. Many of my students add speed too early and thus develop imperfect staccato technique – don't be this student.

3. Context – Most drills isolate a particular technique from its context or approach it in a single given context to make it easier to learn the motor control before the tactical control. Work with your instructor to put a technique into context or to change its context to challenge your mind and body to more fully learn and implement it. For example adding an approach into measure as part of a drill or a provocation on the part of your partner to prompt the beginning of the drill.

Learning is a partnership between you and your instructor. The more agency you can take in your education the faster and more fully you will learn and the more you can battle the demons of boredom. Next time you encounter a skill that has become an old hat, ask yourself or your instructor "How can I do this even better?"


Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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