Getting the Most from Mixed Experience Levels

We were all newbies once. We were all the person who worried that our lack of skill was holding others back in their practice. And in some cases maybe we did.

It is difficult to manage levels of challenge within a mixed level group. The needs of the experienced practitioner and those of the newcomer are quite different.

Mixing Old and New

Both need to focus on fundamentals. One of them is learning them for the first time and is very much in their head. The other is seeking to refine, challenge, and expand their practice.

The beginner might need lots of time to understand a technique, find its broad strokes, and fumble their way through it. The expert needs fine tuning and in-depth coaching; they need to be shown a small problem and then given the opportunity to get hundreds of high quality reps in to work that problem and condition the mechanics and responses they want.

The beginner benefits from an experienced partner for the consistency they bring. The expert also benefits from an experienced partner for the challenge and demand they can present. Yet in a mixed class there may not be enough experienced partners to go around, and newcomers need time and mentorship to build into the next generation.

So how do you manage this in your group? Here are a few ideas.

Focus on Partnering Skills Ahead of Martial Skills

Instead of having the beginner focus on the "agent" part in their practice. Have them focus on how to be the best drill partner. How do they give the best cues, apply the most appropriate challenge, and work on their own structure and mechanics while being the one who is providing the practice space for their partner.

This can be a really rewarding place to focus as it increases the usefulness of a new person to their peers quite quickly and the "giving" partner in most effective martial drills is typically applying a lot of really useful martial skills. You can read more in this post about the training triangle of safety, partner, and martial skills.

Use Your Drill Partner as They Are

Martial arts are about adaptation and working from where you are in powerful and effective ways. If your drill partner is not providing what you need, how can you meet them in what they can provide? Some of the most effective students I have are very good at identifying how they can challenge themselves within what is being offered. This can mean shifting your practice to something that is more inward looking like a focus on mechanics, power generation, or speed. It can also mean working in a more tactical capacity, i.e., being more immediately adaptable to the variations your partner is giving you.

The reality is that those you face in combat are rarely consistent either. The more you can learn to make use of your partner, whoever they are, the more effective practice time you will get. The main thing to avoid is sacrificing your own training reps to teach—leave that to the teacher, or to a specific time in your shared practice. Be selfish about your practice, because when you get better everyone will benefit.

Rotating or Mixing Levels

One way we have often run drills at Duello is to line everyone up in descending order of experience and then having the end of the line wrap around to form the first set of partners. In this way you pair up the most experienced practitioner with the least experienced. We then rotate after each drill. Because of the setup, the most experienced person's second partner is the second most experienced person. Gradually the newcomers are rotated until they are across from other's of similar experience but they've all had a moment with someone with more knowledge than them. This can strike a good balance between providing for newcomers (necessary for the health of any group) and giving experienced folk the time and opportunity to practice with one another.


Newcomers: Ask your partner "How can I be the best partner for you?"
Experts: Ask yourself (or your teacher) "How can I get the most from the partner across from me right now?"

Good training everyone!


A last note: There are a couple spaces left in our March Instructor Intensive from March 11-15 at our school in Vancouver, Canada. This is a week focused on excellence, teacher training, and martial wisdom. Come be a part.

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.
Read more from Devon Boorman.