How to Get People to Drill

In an online conversation with members of Academie Duello’s instructor training program this past weekend, an interesting question came up, one that I encounter on a regular basis: How do I make the other people in my group drill and do exercises?

The short answer is that you don’t “make” them do anything. Their training is their business. Trying to push people in one direction often sends them in the other. The long answer is that you can have some positive influence if you understand better what might be blocking them. With a bit of empathy you may find an effective strategy to bring a few of them on board and increase your overall quality of practice.

What is Drilling?

For this article I’m using this term “drill” to mean any kind of abstraction from the performance environment of your martial art for the purpose of restricting degrees of freedom to focus on improvement in a specific area. This includes going through a solitary martial form, practicing a parrying exercise with a partner, practicing a sparring game, doing slow or directed sparring, etc. I’m not including the process of learning new skills in a class. It’s important to recognize that sparring itself is a kind of drill or abstraction from true combat. But, for most of us, sparring in some form is the end of the road (this is a good thing—I prefer living and not killing people).

Why Drill? Why not just spar?

There is no professional sporting environment where the athletes train only through recreating the full performance environment. MMA fighters do not prepare for matches just by sparring a lot. Great golfers don’t just play all 18 holes at a time. Professional athletes, and motivated amateurs, have periodized training schedules that move between part-drills (highly restricted training of a specific skill), whole-drills (training that includes a larger piece of the performance environment with a focus on bringing in a bit more chaos while still targeting specific skill areas), and practice performance (recreating the competitive environment, generally done for analysis and to better inform part- and whole-drilling).

At its simplest, the reason to drill is that if you target a specific weak area (or area that can be optimized) you can make targeted improvements and get many more repetitions of those improvements (thus more quickly conditioning them) than you could if you left it up to the random occurrence of the target skill in the performance environment.

Performance athletes want to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The more they can target those weak areas specifically, the faster they will improve in them by not wasting time on areas that don’t need attention.

So, to someone who is resistant to drilling I might ask “Do you want to improve, or do you simply want to have fun?” If your goal is fun, and you’re happy with your ability to get that through sparring as it stands now, there is little motivation to do anything different. In fact pursuing excellence is often frustrating, challenging, and uncomfortable. For many, those qualities are the opposite of fun.

No negative judgment here. It is perfectly reasonable to want to just have fun doing something at the level you’re at. Not everything you do has to be about improvement and there are tons of benefits, beyond fun, to be gained from just going out and doing an activity without worrying about getting specifically better. And, some improvements can be made in this way as well, especially if you have good sparring partners.

However, if you do want to improve, or improve more quickly, the way to do it is through some kind of drilling program that incorporates different kinds of drilling along with sparring.

Why People Don’t Drill

There are some who want to improve but are still resistant to drilling. Here are some of the common barriers:

Drilling Feels Constricting

It requires mental discipline to stay within a particular box. Doing the same activity over and over again can feel boring or frustrating (especially if you are having a hard time hitting your marks). For many, doing a uniform exercise can feel counter to their desire to find their own expression of their art.

Drills Target Vulnerabilities

I chose this wording specifically. For some, especially for those who may have achieved some success naturally or intuitively, a drill can bring more failure than someone is psychologically prepared for. When you target a weak area, there’s going to be a lot of failure before success, perhaps much more than someone deals with on a typical sparring day.

Drilling Requires Investment

Most exercises require that you learn some parameters of the exercise itself. This requires some investment before the rewards of the exercise start to pay off. If you haven’t stuck with drills long enough, or the drills were poorly designed, you may have a negative experience with the amount of time you invested to learn a drill vs the actual worth you got from doing it.

Drills Don’t Make Sense

Many people don’t understand how the drill itself targets relevant skills. It’s important to understand how a particular drill fits into the continuum of the whole practice. In fact, I’ve seen many poorly designed drills that don’t. Be aware of this and recognize not all drilling is created equal.

Drilling is Too Easy, Too Low Intensity

Sometimes the feeling of drilling being boring or constricting is simply that the drills have not been challenging enough. Even when someone is failing at a particular drill (or you clearly see room for them to improve) many need a higher level of intensity and difficulty to really get “turned on”. It can be useful for some to be allowed to dive off the deep-end and try some really hard drills. This can engage them and often create a motivation for more specific drills.

Understanding what might be holding your group back can help you have some empathy for your training partners and will give you a sense of how you might strategically bring them on board.

Encouraging Practice

Invite, Don’t Coerce

Ask for your training partners help in your own improvement, versus telling them what they should be doing. Many people will be happy to help you drill, provided there is a specific time boundary and you have a clear program in mind. If drills have felt like a waste of time to your training partners in the past, make sure you don’t explicitly waste their time with dithering or figuring out what you’re going to do.

This approach can often be some kind of trade: You help me with my drills, and I’ll help you in your area of focus. If someone is a direct witness and helper to your improvement it will often do more to convince them of the efficacy of drilling than any other argument you could present.

Setup a requirement for failure

Make an explicit commitment to drilling at a difficulty level that has about a 30% failure rate. Adjust the difficulty (through adjusting complexity or speed) for each party so it is appropriate to their level that day. If everyone is failing and aiming for a certain level of challenge, it helps mitigate the feeling of individual vulnerability that comes with it.

Set Your Intensity Level

If your training partners aren’t getting enough challenge or physical intensity out of drills, you’re just not drilling effectively. You can make drills significantly harder than sparring by using a timer, requiring certain numbers of reps, and integrating things like calisthenics or jumping rope. Simple exercises can actually become quite challenging if you first put your body under some cardiovascular stress (like sprinting around the block) before you do them. This also helps you target a specific skill while your body is in a physical state that is closer to the performance environment (or perhaps more intense).

Drill on a Continuum: Don’t Forget to Spar

Don’t just do one type of drilling. Target a specific skill, then do a more complex tactical drill that mixes that skills with one or two others, then allow for movement and more degrees of variance in the cues, then integrate that into directed sparring, and then use free sparring to measure progress and look for new weaknesses to target.

Make Improvement a Topic of Conversation

Take time with your group to talk about your individual goals and needs. Get more comfortable with talking about weak areas and with asking each other for help. Some groups get so caught up on posturing and competing within their own ranks that they shut down the vulnerability required to improve together.

Have Fun

Sometimes an improvement focused environment can become too serious. Make sure that you give yourself some explicitly free time to just enjoy the process. Whether that is doing drills that you are good at (thus you can witness and savor the improvements you’ve made) or allowing yourself to have fun sparring or competing to just feel your body and play the game. It’s healthy to relax sometime and take stock of your gains.

I’d love to hear from readers. How have you helped bring drilling and a focus on improvement into your group?

Good training everyone!