How to Help Your Drill Partner, Not Slow Their Learning


In many of our classes at Duello we have a section where students of all levels drill with one another, one-on-one. It’s a great opportunity for inexperienced students to gain from the physical knowledge of experienced partners, for members of the school to meet and connect with one another, and for technique to be tested against the myriad of slight variations one can experience between practitioners.

During the portion of class where we drill together, it is not uncommon for the experienced practitioner to offer something to their junior partner. For instance, one might give a tip about foot position, blade alignment, or overall mechanics. In general this seems helpful and encouraging, however, I think it’s important to approach these situations with some awareness.

Things To Keep In Mind During A Drill

Does this person want my help?

Each individual’s learning process tends to be slightly different. Some people like to get lots of help up front, understand all the factors and variables, and then try to process them into a whole action. Some people like to get moving and receive lots of coaching. Others like to spend time on their own, beating against the problem for a while and using their own solving skills before soliciting outside help.

If you give help when someone is not ready or willing to receive it, at best your energy is wasted, and at worst it can lead to some emotional consternation and slow the learning process. I recommend checking in with your partner. First find out what type of help they want or if they want help at all. Not only does this best apply your energy, it reaffirms your partner’s empowered role in their own learning.

Is this person able to receive my help?

If you are an experienced martial artist, you may not remember what it is like to be new. A technique that in your mind is a set sequence of actions, like a lunge or cut, is being managed as more than a dozen moving parts in the mind of the beginner. When you tell them to adjust their foot, you’re putting another part into their brain to be managed, and this can easily overwhelm the learning process.

Give beginners some time to bring unity to what they’re doing. There is lots of time for refinement. The best help you can often give is to simply reassure them that they’re on the right path and that they shouldn’t worry too much about small details just yet.

If your partner is past this early, awkward, stage, consider helping them contextually instead of verbally. Offer some meaningful testing within the exercise (without breaking the exercise of course). Good drills have the capacity to give constant feedback. As a partner you should be employing the mechanic of the drill to give consistent feedback; when the technique is right, your partner succeeds; when the technique is incorrect, it fails.

Is help the best thing right now?

Often the best thing we can do for someone new is to affirm what they’re doing right, rather than giving them too much information about what’s wrong. See if you can catch your partner succeeding and put your energy there. You’ll be amazed at how far a little positive energy can go.

devonboorman 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.