Three types of drills are frequently used by fencing masters in their lessons: the blocked, serial, and random drills. Each has advantages and applications that meet specific training needs. Each should be a part of your standard toolkit for your fencing lessons.
Blocked Drills are the first step in developing student proficiency in a specific fencing action. A blocked drill delivered by the master to a student consists of a series of cues that elicit the same technique in response. For example, the master opens the line of 6th by moving his blade to the inside line in invitation. The student extends with a straight thrust, lunges to hit, and then recovers, ready to execute the technique again. Blocked Drills can be used for offensive, defensive, and counteroffensive actions.
The advantage of the Blocked Drill is that it builds repetitions of the technique. This allows the student to develop smoothness in execution, improve accuracy, and build the ability to recognize the conditions under which the technique will be successful. These outcomes make it a favorite for the teaching lesson.
However, research indicates that overreliance on the Blocked Drill actually impedes development of skilled performance. As soon as the student has a basic understanding of the technique and can perform it generally within acceptable parameters, the use of Blocked Drills should be discontinued in favor of drill patterns (the Serial and Random Drills) that force the student to make choices as to which technique to execute. The requirement for decision making actually improves the performance of the alternative skills better than their use in separate Blocked Drills.
The Serial Drill increases the difficulty of the drill and introduces a very basic level of decision-making by the student. In this model the master provides cues that drive a sequence of techniques, always the same techniques, and always in the same order. For example, the master first opens the line of 6th by moving his blade to the inside line in invitation, and the student executes straight thrust with lunge in 6th. After the student recovers the master presses on the student’s blade from the engagement of 6th, and the student executes a disengage with lunge. Then the master repeats the sequence of attack by straight thrust, followed by attack by disengage.
The Serial Drill builds repetitions of more than one technique. Although two or three techniques appear to be a reasonable maximum for new skills, and more techniques clearly increases the difficulty, more experienced students working eyes open can execute larger numbers without undue difficulty. However, its major advantage is that it starts to develop very basic decision-making in the form of the recognition of a tactical pattern of actions by the master and the selection of the correct action, even if these are known to the student beforehand.
The final step up is the Random Drill. The Random Drill requires that the student recognize cues and select the correct response for each cue. The cues are presented in random order for the complete set of techniques that are being worked. If, for example, the master is working with the student on three simple attacks (straight thrust, disengage, and counterdisengage), these three skills might be presented in the following order: straight thrust, counterdisengage, disengage, counterdisengage, counterdisengage, straight thrust, disengage, straight thrust, etc.
The Random Drill introduces more complex decision-making. Now the student must decide which cue is being presented by the master, decide what action is appropriate for that cue, and initiate the action. Because the action is random, the student must continually observe the master’s action; this includes assessing any movement for whether or not it is a cue for tactical action. When the cue triggers a multiple part action, the student must fence eyes open to identify the following cues presented after the initial ones. This is much more demanding than the Serial Drill.
At each level the realism of the drill can be increased by introducing movement, with either the master or the student controlling the distance. Similarly the timing of actions can be altered along with the speed of delivery of the cue. All of these increase the difficulty of the drill, and make it more like bouting conditions.
These drills can stand alone, being used as a single component of the individual lesson. Thus the blocked drill is a required component of teaching lessons given by candidates for certification by the United States Fencing Coaches Association. However, they can also be used as an integrated teaching and training system. Short blocked drills delivered in sequence can be used as a lead-in for a serial drill using the same techniques and sequence, and the serial drill then can transition to a random drill.
Effective drills build technical proficiency, develop speed, and help build tactical decision-making skills. Build your competence in doing each of these drills, and choose the best drill for the student and the lesson. The result will be better fencers.