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Improving Line Drills in Martial Arts
Line drills are common in martial arts classes, but very unrealistic and create bad habits. A bird's eye view of a martial arts class doing line drills looks like:
Where A1 is Attacker 1 and D1 is Defender 1. Note that in a class size of 2n students we have n/2 pairs of As and Ds. The arrow represents an A moving toward a D, and then doing something, like punch, kick, etc. As that happens, D will defend. Typically As do this to their Ds several times in a row, alternating limbs (Left, Right, Left, Right, etc.), and then the As and Ds reverse roles. After this, often one side (say the Ds) stays in place while the other side (say the As) rotate. This drilling and followed by shuffling continues until the teacher is done with line drills for that class. This way people can practice with different body types and skill levels and so on.
OK, while this model of practice has some good elements, why does it need improvement? Simply put, it is flawed. I definitely learned that line drills were flawed in my short times in taekwondo and Okinawan karate. I'll note that American Kenpo had some of these flaws, but not all.
- Most attacks and defense are dictated. "Ok class, it is time to line up and practice a straight step-through punch to chest level with an outward middle block". This brings up the issue of, is your middle block really effective, or only effective with that type of unrealistic punching and that you know the attack in advance? And why are we wasting time practicing unrealistic punching, or anything else, anyway? You can really see the bad effects of this when students know the attack is coming this way, with this strength, to this location... but it arrives later than expected, and so they do a hesitant half-ass block before doing the "real" block a split-second later.
- Most attacks in line drills are weak. Weaker than 7 days fool! For example, in Okinawan karate, the kicks were extremely weak yet we'd block/parry them with a nagashi block. In real life, if someone was trying to chop my roots with a powerful kick, or drive the kick straight through me, you know, like a real kick?, this type of block, especially while hunched over and moving backward, would fail miserably. So in this case, you're not really practicing nagashi proper, which can be an effective parry, but nagashi as done against a wet noodle attack, which will always work. I believe students, and maybe even the senseis, tend to think of line drills like "warm ups". They are not. American Kenpo "running the line" drills certainly have more strength in them, but their flaw is that they tend to rush through them too fast.
- A and D mostly move linearly. While linear movement is OK at times, most often you'd want to off-angle, ie. move to the side as you parry with a strike from that point of cover and strength.
- D is typically moving backward. I believe a backward movement in response to A attacking is somewhat natural, at least for your first reaction, but engraining "someone attacks me, I move backward" in your muscle memory is not good. An A can simply steamroll you! Often in class during line drills, D can be literally pushed into the wall behind them! Why wouldn't D just move to the side?
- Sometimes D is just waiting for an attack. Why would you wait there? Oh yes, because it is prescribed attack/defend and it is linear. D naturally thinks "I have to wait for A to initiate the drill". However, in real life, one wouldn't wait until a punch is 90% thrown before doing a parry.
- Typically no weapons in line drills. An Okinawan karate sensei said that we learn weapons after becoming an advanced student. I highly and disrespectfully disagree. Will your attacker wait for you to be an advanced student before they attack you with a weapon? Probably not.
How to Improve
There are many ways to improve these type of drills.
- Break out of the line! Allow students to move around as they'd naturally do if they were attacked. One can move linearly and backward if they want, but only if the situation necessitates it. This will facilitate environmental awareness and realism.
- Put some heat on the attacks. We don't want to knock our teeth out (strength 10/10), but missing a block or doing it incorrectly should hurt (strength 4 to 6/10). Note that it is important to keep them as drills and not have them degrade into full-blown sparring.
- Randomize somewhat. Don't have As always alternate Left, Right, Left, Right, etc., but allow them to change it up when they feel like it.
- Vary the drills! One teacher quite simply did the same line drills, almost in the same order, each class. What is the point?
- It is OK to try a "traditional" block, say, but don't try to force it to fit your situation or body type if it does not fit. Have the students take note of what works and under what conditions. Simple!
- Incorporate weapons (let's call them "self defense tools") into line drills.
- Don't always do line drills at the start of class. They are not "warm-ups".
- Drill with plastic bottles and newspaper on the ground, outdoor on grass, with one limb "injured", etc. Think outside the traditional line drill box.
I hope these observations and suggestions help you in your self defense journey. Thanks for reading!
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