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Teaching teachers, part 2: the individual lesson

Perhaps the single most useful insight I got from the BAF course alluded to earlier is the idea that in an individual lesson, the coach should create an environment in which the desired behaviour results in the student striking, and undesired behaviour results in the student being struck. This may seem obvious, and it’s one of those things I’ve sort of known for years, but it came into focus for me when one of the coaches on the course got cross with me for praising a student verbally when what he had done was not actually correct. That insight alone was worth the trip.

One of the refrains on Saturday’s class instruction seminar was that you don’t have to be technically superior to your students to run a good class. The refrain on Sunday was that coaching requires the highest levels of technical skill, because you have to be in sufficient control of the situation that you allow yourself to be hit when the student has done what you want, but whenever his action is undesired, it must fail and you must strike. This way the student learns very, very fast, as the environment he is in makes learning and improving absolutely natural.

We started out with a general warm-up, with the 10 minutes split between the three least experienced students- mostly so I could watch them in front of a whole class. Then I split them into pairs and had them run the following exercise: the “student” did one iteration of the cutting drill; the “coach” watched it and made one verbal correction. The student then repeated the drill, applying the correction. When everyone had taken both roles, I asked them if they found the corrections useful, and 12 out of 12 said they did. Which had us bowling nicely along the right track.

The next round was a little more advanced. Basically the same set-up, but this time the coach had to prescribe a specific exercise to be done, either solo or with the coach, to improve the cutting drill, with a second iteration of the cutting drill to see whether the coach’s prescription worked. Again, 12 out of 12.

That introduced the idea of targeting the content of a lesson to a specific need; the students then had to take one of our basic drills and improve their student’s execution of one step of it (e.g. Step 3 of second drill). They had to set it up so if the action was improving, the student succeeded, if not, then they failed. The trick being to adjust the difficulty level such that the student usually succeeded, but only by working at their upper limit.

We then looked at step one of a drill; in its basic form a simple attack from wide measure. The trick was to get it better and better, and faster and faster, by having the student beat the coach’s parry. The parry should be done such that it creates a closing window, that the attack should just sneak through (I borrowed this wholesale from Prof Bruce’s foil coaching- make the student quicker by giving them less time, in a natural setting).

This brought us on to the topic of how to use this kind of skill when just taking part in a normal class. The class had formed themselves into pairs of notable distinct skill level within each pair, and having noticed this I took advantage of it. I set the more experienced person the target of raising their partner’s skill level without actually giving them a formal lesson- just subtly modify what you do so that they naturally improve. (This is high level stuff, and not a basic requirement of the course, just a useful sidetrack.)

We then turned this on its head and looked at abuse of power: in the same pairs, the more experienced student had to use their skill advantage to make the drill a frustrating misery for their partner. Why, you may very well ask? Because more advanced students can fall into this behaviour without malice and by accident. By doing it deliberately, they bring it into consciousness and hence under control. This (very short) section of the class finished by the more advanced students giving their partners a solid technical lesson by way of apology.

We then mixed up the pairs so that the skill levels were about even, and I had each student in turn ask their coach for help with a specific difficulty (“I find the exchange of thrust hard from posta di donna”, for instance).

We then looked at the structure and planning of a 6-7 minute technical lesson. It goes like this:

1) identify or illustrate the problem (get the student to show you it, not describe it)

2) identify the cause of the problem (usually not what the student thinks it is!)

3) prescribe a specific drill or exercise

4) assess the results. If good, go to step 5, if not good go back to step 2.

5) increase the pressure under which the student performs the corrected action.

This lead us on to a discussion of the process of diagnosis, and I sent them all off to practice it. Before breaking for lunch, I asked them to think up questions to be answered in the afternoon session.

After lunch, the questions that made it into my notebook were:

1) How do you apply these skills in a basic class?

2) how do you do a finger-safe version of the punta falsa? (this from a student with a bleeding thumb)

3) how do you use your voice when coaching?

4) how do you use pair drills to improve guard positions?

5) what do you do with a resistant or frustrated student?

6) how can you react in time to a student’s error to give the necessary physical feedback?

7) how do you run a beginner’s course?

8) how do you help a student who is much stronger than you are?

This allowed me to couch the afternoon’s material in the terms most useful to the students present. We started with a finger-safe version of the punta falsa, as a base technical drill in which to practice other coaching skills too. The punta falsa is of course perfectly finger-safe as it is; but done incorrectly, it can lead to putting your left hand in the way of the player’s riposte. So I showed them how to teach that particular correction (emphasise parrying between your hands and then striking with the point, smoothing out the two steps until they are one again), and covered how to use your voice when coaching: use single words, to draw the student’s attention to specific details. E.g. “Parry.” Or “foot”. Avoid where possible “good”, “bad” type judgement statements, reserve that for praise at the end of the lesson. (Praise is useful, necessary even, but must always be sincere. Even if the student totally screwed up the lesson, find something to praise. And always, focus on their efforts not their accomplishments.)

Then we looked at helping a strong student to be precise, instead of relying on his natural advantage. This is technically challenging, as what you have to do is make their strength insufficient; not too hard sword against sword, but much more so when grappling. In essence, you need to give the student a reason to use correct technique, because insufficient accuracy leads to being hit.

(At this point in the class my phone rang (I had forgotten to turn it to silent), because my younger daughter had gone missing in a supermarket, and my wife, having called the police, called me. The fact that, statistically, it was vanishingly unlikely that anything really bad had happened did not actually help the rising panic, but I got that under control in a breath, halted the class, explained the situation in under 10 seconds, handed the class off to the senior student present, enlisted a driver (my wife had the car), and was out the door in under a minute. While we were backing out of the parking lot my phone went again to say the little monkey had been found, and so I went back to work after getting my heart rate back below 100 and doing a much-needed 20 push-ups, which are due if your phone rings in class.)

I then moved the class on to look at the problem of fixing guard positions in a pair drill. It’s pretty easy to work on them when you (the coach) are standing by with a helpful finger or useful suggestion, but sword in hand it can be a bit more challenging. We started with correcting a position at the beginning of a pair drill. Simply do not allow the drill to start until the position is better. Within a phrase, you have to find the reason why the position must improve- usually because if it stays as it is it cannot withstand the forces acting on it. So increase those forces such that the position fails until the student corrects it (making sure of course that they know why they are getting hit). To help with this we looked at setting up drills where the student’s line of strength in their position determined their success. Fairly basic for anyone with a grounding in grounding. So I set the more advanced students the challenge of setting up a drill such that the student had to get their lines of weakness right before their actions could work. This took more doing- apparently they had forgotten yielding actions (such as the colpo di villano).

Reaction times are a tougher nut to crack. Basically, if you can’t see the student’s error in time, you can’t give the lesson. So, either slow the lesson down, to give you more time, or learn to read the error earlier in the student’s action.

We then looked at giving a tactical lesson- improving the student’s choice of action, rather than the action itself. Adding a degree of freedom is of course the usual tool; in circumstance a, do this, in b, do that. The coach then sets up the circumstances such that they control when a or b occur.

This brought us on to Beginners, bless them. The rule of beginners is this:

Show it to them correctly a thousand times, and they will eventually get it. Show it to them wrong once, and they’ll copy it correctly first time.

Every action must be taught from the familiar: walking across the salle becomes passing steps; swinging the sword from shoulder to shoulder becomes striking; etc. We didn’t spend much time on this as it was a little off-topic. For further insights into running a beginners’ course, see my blog post series.

Then we studied how to use these coaching skills in a basic class (where you are not the teacher). In any pair arrangement either:

1) your skill > your partner’s; subtly tweak what you do to bring out their best.

2) your skill < your partner’s; ask for a (non verbal!) lesson on the drill in question. Or simply study how they do it.

3) your skill = your partner’s; play with the drill.

In all cases being careful not to disrupt the lesson.

We then came back to the beginning: the students paired up and watched each other do the cutting drill, making whatever correction seemed most necessary to them. This highlighted the spiral nature of training; you are always coming back to the beginning, just (if your training worked) at a higher level. Advanced technique is just basic technique done really well.

Then to finish off, they paired up again and gave each other 5 minute technical lessons.

All in all, an excellent day.

I'm currently working on a book about how to teach historical martial arts, but in the meantime, you can find more here:

How to get started teaching historical martial arts

How to teach left-handers

Teaching Teachers, part one: Class Instruction

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