How to Win in a Partner Drill (Even When You are on the Losing End.)

by Pamela Muir

The title is misleading. We know nobody wins or loses in a partner drill. You are both equals, taking turns as to whom gets the last action. Yet, sometimes it can feel counter productive to your own improvement to be the one taking the hit. With a change in mindset, you can take this as an opportunity to convert your loss in the drill to a gain in your training.

We will start with terminology. In this article, instead of winners and losers, let us talk about Givers and Receivers. The Giver would be the one that would deliver the last blow or action, in the ideal form of the drill. The Receiver is the one who accepts that final action. I freely admit that in practice I cannot resist injecting humor, so if I am the Receiver I might call myself the victim, practice dummy, or pincushion. However, to boost the mental image of improving your own skills, Receiver is a more positive title.

The Receiver’s chief responsibility is to be a good partner. Be polite and courteous to your partner. Do not perform actions outside of the drill. Match your speed to your partner’s, speeding up or slowing down as needed. Give verbal feedback when appropriate. Treat your partner the way you would like to be treated. Remember it is your turn next.

The Receiver is also responsible for performing the actions cleanly and correctly. This is not only good for the Giver, this is where the Receiver can benefit.

Take a simple rapier parry-riposte drill. The Receiver attacks to an open line, the Giver parries and ripostes, landing a thrust on the Receiver. On the surface, it appears that only the Giver is getting any quality practice out of this drill, but let us look deeper and we can see where the Receiver has an equal opportunity for skill improvement.

The Receiver performs an attack. Right there is a whole lot of opportunity for practice. The Receiver must identify the open line. The arm must extend first, the rest of the body follows. At the completion of the lunge, the front foot should be pointed directly forward, the front knee should be bent, but not extended over the toes, and the back leg is straight. Then comes the recovery, pushing off with the front foot and recovering into a proper guard position. If you concentrate on all those actions, even if you accept a hit at the end, you have spent quality time practicing your attack.

The above is probably obvious, and reads a bit like preaching to the choir. When your job as the Receiver is to perform a correct action even though it will be countered, of course you are working on your own skill sets. It is when the Receiver’s job is to deliberately make an incorrect or sloppy action that it can be more of a challenge to see how the Receiver can benefit from the drill.

As an example, in a longsword drill, suppose the Receiver’s job is to be a Büffel, a brute force dependent fencer, so that the Giver can practice a Schielhau, a specific strike which effectively stops a brute force attack from above. In this drill, the Receiver must not perform a smooth and correct attack, else we would not have a Büffel.

So, how can the Receiver still learn from this drill? At least three techniques come to mind, observation, visualization, and persistence.

Observe your partner. As you perform the drill, watch and feel the Giver’s action. When was it effective and when was it not? What was the difference? Was it in the timing or the mechanics? Take those observations and apply them to your own practice.

Visualization techniques are known to work when it comes to improving a physical skill set. By practicing in your mind, you get some of the same benefits as you do in physical practice. Even though you are deliberately performing an incorrect action, as you do so, visualize a smooth and correct attack. Separate your mind from the motion of the body. As you are performing the action that needs to be done for the drill, picture in your head how you would make the attack if your job was not to be a Büffel. This is easier than it sounds. It is similar to stewing on some problem and finding you have driven three blocks without remembering how you got there. Your body has performed the actions that you wanted it to do and your brain was working elsewhere. (Please note, I am not advocating daydreaming and driving.) Visualization will help you avoid training a sloppy technique into memory.

Finally, employ persistence. When the drill is over, your job is not yet complete. At the end of the class, find a quiet corner of the salle, or when you get home find a secluded corner of the backyard, and practice, practice, practice. Do solo drills in order to enforce the correct actions and erase from your physical memory the incorrect action. Let the correct form of attack be your personal conclusion to the drill.

With the right mindset, your time is never wasted during a partner drill. Whether you are the Giver or the Receiver, this is your time to improve your techniques. I call that winning.