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Skills, drills and equipment

April 2, 2012

With no port as our destination, no wind is favourable.

Training is to develop skills, often through drills, which sometimes require equipment. The priorities in training are skill, drill and then equipment. Here are some of the traps we can fall into when we: ignore their relative importance; are lacking in one of these three; or have too much of one of these three:

  1. Putting skill, drill, equipment in the wrong order

      • Over emphasising drill: Making orthodoxy or variations a fetish in a drill can be at the expense of gaining skill. Both these extremes share the belief that “knowing the steps” is the same as competence. We need to find a balance between orthodoxy and variation.

        • Too much orthodoxy: insistence on only doing a drill one way. When we fall into this trap we might use the appeal to authority fallacy to justifying ourselves. There can also be a complacency that mimicking the outer form of the orthodox drills will train skills. Stifling evolution of a drill can kill skills instead of preserving them.
        • Too many variations: Chasing variations can turn us into stamp collectors or “technique magpies”, where we constantly move from one shiny new variation to another without ever becoming competent at any of them. Changing drills too rapidly can lead to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” as untested ideas displace proven ones.

      • Over emphasising equipment: We should use the right tool for the task at hand. There is a trap of being a stickler for orthodoxy or a magpie when it comes to equipment.

        • Stickler for orthodox equipment: sticking rigidly to one type of equipment can tie us down to one way of training. The “dojo approved brand” can also be more expensive than other brands of the same quality.
        • Equipment magpie: exotic variations on equipment can be a expensive distraction.
  2. The practitioner lacks in one of the three areas

      • Lack of skill:

        • To train some skills we need a minimum ability in some base skill. If we find ourselves in this situation it may be better to do a drill that focuses on the base skill for a while. Learn to walk before you can run.
        • In some paired exercises it is the difference in skill between the two partners that matters. We can be so far behind our partner that we don’t gain anything from the drill. If we think we’re in this trap we should talk to our coach or training partner.

      • Lack of drill:

        • Not knowing the “steps of the dance” can hinder drill training. A little investment in learning the drill can speed up learning the skill as long we don’t fall into the “stamp collecting” trap mentioned above.
        • Poorly defined drills: it is possible to have useful free form drills with few rules. However, without a clear shared understanding of what the drill is there can be problems.

      • Lack of equipment:

        • There is a minimum level of equipment needed to train some drills effectively.

  3. Having too much in one of the three areas:

      • Too much skill:

        • The drill is aimed at a lower skill level, e.g. a sub 10 second sprinter would deteriorate if he trained like a 13 second runner. This is not to say that we should stop drilling fundamentals, but we should drill them appropriately.
        • We may have more skill than our drilling partner to the point where we gain little from the drill. In this case we could give ourselves some handicap to focus our training. We might also sacrifice our own short term training to help our drilling partner improve.
        • Sometimes other skills may mask our lack of skill in a drill. Imagine a boxer who is going to run with a training partner. At the start of the run they punch their partner knocking them out, they then walk the rest of the course! They get to the line before their partner, but they have not improved their running. 
      • Too much drill:

        • Drills that cover many skills may not teach them all well. Long complicated drills have a place as “reference material” but a focus on some skill is useful in training. For example, many karate katas are quite long, when training them we may try to focus on a particular skill through the whole kata or just train one section of the kata at a time.
        • “yellow belt paralysis”: Sometimes knowing that we have options stops us doing anything. This happens in the early part of our training where we have been introduced to several options but have not developed confidence or competence in any of them.
        • Sensei syndrome: spending so much time teaching and thinking about training that your own training suffers (a recurrence of yellow belt paralysis).

      • Too much equipment:

        • Too much protective gear: this can lead to acting quite differently to how we want to train ourselves to act
        • An excess of equipment can get in the way of training as we spend too long moving it around or getting changed.


It is possible to pay lip service to skill development, avoid most of the traps listed here and still not improve. To make sure that the desired skills are being developed we need an appropriate feedback mechanism.

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