180325 Drills … No, Not That Kind

In fencing when someone says “drill,” we all know what that means – boring stuff where lines of fencers poke at each other, some halfheartedly going through the motions, some working with determination to get better, some completely confused by the idea that an attack in 6th or 3rd is made in the outside line.  It is a form of training that requires the most awful of all awful things, correct execution of a sequence of actions to generate sufficient repetitions to make a difference whether or not you succeed on the piste against an opponent.  It has to be done the same way every time or you do not gain the desired training value.

This is not about that type of drill (although perhaps it should be).

This is about what the United States Army calls battle drills.  There is a formal Army definition of a battle drill.  There are various descriptions of battle drills, but the simple version is that a battle drill is a standard, well understood, highly trained response to a common tactical situation that can be instantly executed under the pressure of combat.

So what?  That is the Army.  We are a superior breed, we are fencers.  We don’t need no stinking drills (with apologies to the bandidos Hedley Lamar was recruiting in the classic Western Blazing Saddles).  We certainly don’t need them if they involve more of the drills described in the first paragraph above.

Well, actually you do.  At least you do if you want to be something other than a target.

There are situations, in practice bouts in the Salle, in pool bouts in competition, and in direct elimination bouts in competition, that require a standard response.  I am not talking about riposting indirect after a parry.  Rather, I am talking about tactical situations that, if not handled correctly, will result in loss of a touch, loss of a bout, failure to promote out of the pools to the direct elimination, loss in the first round of the direct elimination, loss in the semi-final or final.

There is a somewhat tongue in cheek definition of idiocy as doing the same unsuccessful thing time and time again and expecting a different result.  That is the active version – doing something does not result in a different, successful result.  However, there is another, equally true version – idiocy is failing to take steps to change the outcome time and time again and expecting that a different result will happen in your favor.  That is the passive version – not doing something different does not result in a different, successful result.

Two actual examples involving Salle Green fencers.  First the active version – an opponent who has our fencer down 1-4 continues the same action that resulted in the 4 touches after our fencer solves the problem … for 4 more times, resulting in our fencer winning 5-4.  “It worked before, it can’t have stopped working, all I have to do is do it one more time, and I win.”

The passive version – our fencer who lost 14-15 in the final of a Division III NAC.  When if he or she had used our standard tactical decision making drill between the halt and fence commands, the fencer replied “no, I just wanted to fence.”  Of course you did … you just did not realize that fencing involves maximizing your chance of winning.

What we know is that the stress of high pressure situations erodes the quality of our decisions.  We know that having trained responses we can use minimizes the time needed for decision making and clarifies our options.  We know that using a decision making process effectively starts the tactic before the command to execute and programs the action for faster and more effective execution.

What an on-the-strip drill (I have changed the term from battle drill for those readers who have sensitive natures) does for you is that it addresses these elements.  It organizes any decision making you may have to do, even if that decision is just recognizing that the situation demands a standard response.  Because we have recognized in advance that a specific type of situation needs a specific answer, it reduces the number of decisions we have to make, allowing drilling (the other kind) to automate the response.  And because we have learned to associate a word or idea with the execution, when we make the decision that the time is now to execute our drill, the thought itself starts the process and maximizes the speed and quality of execution.

So what are some situations that might require an on-the-strip drill?  There are two purely decision making situations that require a drill:

  • The period between halt and fence.
  • The one minute break in the direct elimination.

And there are a host of tactical situations in which a drill can make a difference:

  • Run stops – stopping a series of unanswered touches in direct elimination bouts or in team matches.
  • Unanswered touches – in pool bouts.
  • The first touch of the bout.
  • Inside the last 2 meters – for both fencers.
  • In the box for sabre fencers.
  • The last minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, 5 seconds – for both ahead and behind.

There are certainly other possibilities based on your bout plan and standard personal tactical doctrine.   The challenge is first to identify the situations that you face that you find most troubling and difficult to resolve.  Second, develop an approach to the those situations that you can execute under pressure.  Finally, drill (the boring kind) in every practice bout.  Drill when you fence visioning bouts.  Post an on-the-strip drill on your refrigerator and run through it, saying the steps out loud, every time before you open the door.  In other words, drill the drill, continually, repetition after repetition.  Just do it .. this is if you actually want to get better and to win?

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