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The Kendo Kote Dilemma
Why Single Choice Cooperative Drills Don't Work
When I trained kendo, the two main attacks that we drilled were kote (right forearm strike) and men (head strike). The way we practiced our basic strikes with partners was through single choice cooperative drills, IE one side provides a chosen stimulus, and the other must react to the stimulus and execute the technique. For men, the common stimulus was the opponent’s shinai leaving the center line, which allows you to go straight in and hit the head. For kote, the stimulus was them pushing you slightly to the side, so you could rise above or drop below and strike their forearm.
On the surface level, this makes perfect sense - your opponent is opening the target and you hit it. However, once it comes to free sparring, things change a bit. Everyone was doing the same drills during practice, so they know how their opponent will react to each stimulus, and can exploit it. So a fencer may vacate the center on purpose in order to draw a men attack, which they will then be able to easily counter. The result is that the cooperative drill has now had the opposite effect - the stimulus that the student was supposed to learn as the best time to attack is actually the worst time to attack.
Of course over time, the student learns not to get got so easily, and that there are a lot more factors to take into consideration when deciding to attack than one simple stimulus. That is what fencing is all about. But this knowledge did not manifest as a result of the drill, but in spite of it.
This phenomenon is of course not limited only to the kendo kote and men situation, it is just the first place I personally noticed it. In reality this situation arises any time you practice a cooperative drill with one single choice.
A longsword example could be practicing a schillhaw against longpoint; one person stands in longpoint and allows the other to take their blade and stab with a schillhaw, repeat for a few reps. The instructor thinks they are teaching people to properly execute a schillhaw against longpoint, but what they are actually teaching people is that they can get their partner to throw a schillhaw by going into longpoint, which will then be trivially easy to counter.
Now you have a situation where the student can’t land the technique that they thought they were learning, which may cause them to cast doubt on their own abilities or the viability of the technique itself. This is obviously not desirable.
So what is the solution? As with all things in fencing, there is no one simple answer to this, though I will try to give a general answer and a specific one. In general, build failure conditions into your drill. The student needs to understand the tactical use of the technique, and importantly when not to use it.
Specifically, design a competitive drill (IE success conditions for both sides, rather than one side providing stimulus and the other executing the technique) where the target technique is one of several solutions. For example, one of my favorite drills is called Shouting Window: the defender stands in longpoint and the attacker stands in shoulder vom tag, the attacker must attack first, but the defender has priority in a double hit unless blade contact is established, in which case the attacker has priority. On the surface level this sets up the perfect situation for the squinter against longpoint, however the fencers will quickly realize that the defender is incentivized to disengage, and may also parry or counterattack, so the attacker needs to be careful and consider their options. Eventually, if the schillhaw is actually a good attack (which I believe it is), the opportunity to use it will arise (and from what I have observed having people do this drill, it does).
So after all that, one may wonder if single choice cooperative drills have any place at all in fencing training, and I would say the answer is yes. They can be used to isolate the specific mechanics of a movement that someone is having trouble with or wants to improve. For example, if someone is doing Shouting Window drill, maybe they see the opportunity for the schillhaw but are unable to physically execute it. In that case, taking them aside and doing reps of the movement (giving an external focus cue if necessary) may be helpful. It is important that after they do this, they get back to doing the varied or competitive drill that they were doing before, both for retention of the learned skill, and also context and application.
© Stephen Cheney, 2021. Posted with permission of the author.