Self-Defense Tip #29 — Learning fighting skills: Techniques and drills

Most self-defense books and videos, and even many seminars and classes, demonstrate fighting techniques and tactics (set-ups) but not the methods or drills for learning them. Few people realize that repeating a technique many times is not always the best way to learn a skill and make it usable. Why? Here is one reason: Doing the whole technique as many times as it takes to learn it well can put too much stress on your body or on your partner’s.
A good technique is easy on the body, but you may damage your joints before your technique is good enough for you to perform it many times comfortably. Another reason: Some crucial elements of a technique can be improved without completing the entire sequence, so you can learn quicker by doing many more repetitions of a partial skill.

There is a great difference between demonstrating techniques and demonstrating the right way to learn and practice them. Every technique, and even every aspect of a technique, has a correct method for teaching it and drills for practicing and perfecting it. As an example, consider many boxing drills involving punching empty air and light, soft targets to improve punching form (body position, fist path, coordination with footwork), the heavy bag to develop punching power, and focus mitt drills to enhance reaction time and combination speed. For grapplers there is a variety of drills involving slow fit-ins and slow throws for learning throwing mechanics, fast fit-ins solo and with a partner for smoothing out technique and developing speed and endurance, and series of fast throws for making throws instinctive and effective.

Within each of these categories of teaching methods and drills, there are logical progressions matching the learner’s experience, strengths, weaknesses, and needs. Instruction should build on the previously developed skills to promote effective and reliable fighting habits.

Drills can involve more than just repeating some or all components of a technique, although this may be appropriate—as you can see on the video Self-Defense: Tools of Attack—if techniques are very simple or require only a minor alteration of an already possessed skill, such as adding a weapon that fits with a well-mastered empty-hand technique. On the other hand, some very effective drills may not look like fighting techniques, yet they instill useful habits. For example, basketball dribbling drills teach grapplers how to move in a low stance while looking ahead and without hunching, and basketball passes instill the habit of catching softly, of breathing in on the catch or intercept, and of breathing out on the release.

Whether with a partner or solo, with or without equipment, similar to or different from the actual technique, drills must provide control points and also feedback if possible. They must instill proper form in the targeted components of a skill while not developing bad habits in other components.

Well-selected drills should be beneficial for many techniques, i.e., have a wide transfer. For example, the eight drills shown on the video Basic Instincts of Self-Defense instill habits that transfer to most of the techniques taught on that video—and that’s defenses against over 50 types of attacks. (You could do more specific drills for some of these techniques but these would be simply repetitions of an initial move of a given defense.)

No drill, no skill. Wrong drill, poor skill.

Article by Thomas Kurz, co-author of Basic Instincts of Self-Defense and author of Science of Sports Training, Stretching Scientifically, and Flexibility Express.

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