I feel that the best way to make an efficient practice is to have it split into three portions: Technique and Drills, Sparring, and Melee/War Practices. This is in addition to the time spent armouring up and padding down being used to discuss repairs or any other things people need help with. This setup gives plenty of time to work on hands-on fighting as well as time to work with fighters who need to practice specific aspects of fighting.
Technique and DrillsThe first chunk of fighter practice is a great time to work on drills and practice work. It’s a good opportunity for new fighters to learn the basic shots or combos, and for experienced fighters to warm up and keep building the muscle memory that they need to be highly successful. Personally, I would split this portion in two parts itself: a general technique or drill that the person running the practice wants to work on, and a portion where experienced fighters can help newer fighters with things they want to learn. In my experience, teaching is a great way to make sure you understand a topic, something I have seen incorporated into martial arts programs of all sorts. It gives the teacher a chance to see how the more experienced fighters are progressing as far as their understanding of things, and allows the one-on-one time to polish the newer fighters.
Examples of Drills
Bellatrix Fighting School-http://www.bellatrix.org/school/section07.htm
Footwork and Pell Drills from SCA Heavy Youtube Channel- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkJ7lvYvfPg&feature=youtu.be
Four Strike Drill at Southkeep’s Local Practice- https://www.facebook.com/groups/Southkeep/permalink/10157345943106902/
At my last practice, one of the senior fighters made the comment “Muscle memory is what your body defaults to when the tank is empty and you have nothing left to give”. This made a ton of sense to me. Drills, Katas, and Pell Work all fall into this category of teaching your body to know what to do even when your mind isn't caught up or you feel too tired to go on. Too often in the SCA I have noticed this is the part that gets ignored at practice. Everyone is excited to get in armour and play, but imagine going to a sports practice and just doing scrim
mages, or a dojo and just sparring. In any other martial art, practice of techniques is the lion's share of the training. It's important that we build this habit at our practices, to help prevent fighters from getting frustrated at plateaus in their skill, and also to continue to grow the overall skill level of the practice.
SparringHeavy combat in the SCA can be won as often by endurance as it can by skill, especially in situations where we are talking about a long tournament or war situation. One of the best ways to build endurance is by pushing your limits while in armour, which means participating in exercises like bear pits and round robins where you’ll end up fighting for a prolonged period of time. Sparring also gives everyone a chance to use the techniques they were practicing in the technique portion of the practice and see how they can best incorporate it into their fighting.
I recently had the opportunity to see a round robin training circle used as part of a practice, and I thought it was completely brilliant. Previously I’d thought bear pits were the best way to spar, since they gave everyone a chance to fight and build endurance. The round robin I think, does even better: in addition to everyone getting plenty of fights and limits being tested, it allows everyone in the circle to watch the fights. This means that the people watching have the opportunity to either catch a mistake the fighters are making or learn new things to incorporate into their own repertoire. It also helps to have people cheering you on when you feel you have nothing left to give. I would suggest keeping the circles no larger than 15; any bigger than that and it takes too long for everyone to get their fights in. If your practice space is large enough and you are fortunate enough to have 16+
Once the training circle is done, I would suggest a few more pickups for fun so that the people who still have gas can keep going. This also gives fighters the chance to ask for specific types of practice, such as allowing someone to just practice defense while being attacked, or try a style they don't normally use.
Melee/War TrainingThe final portion of practice is another piece I feel is often left out: war preparation. Tourney fighting is all well and good, but in my opinion the most fun you can have is going to war and fighting as a unit. Training the basic concepts at a local practice will dramatically improve your overall performance at war. Not only will it help you stay safe during the large battles, but it will allow you to make the most of your time there.
This portion of practice should also be split into two sections: a practice portion where you go over techniques or maneuver practice, and (if you have enough people) mock battles. I would say that the minimum you need for a decent mock battle would be six fighters, three per team. This allows you to practice small squad tactics and work on battlefield awareness and communication.
The practice portion can be used to teach how to lock up shields, or move as a unit. Ideally you would use everyone as one unit for this. That would allow the group to practice large unit movement. For testing shield locks, it’is a good idea to have the unit lock up and then one or two other fighters do pulse charges trying to break through. You can almost run this like a football drill:
4-6 shield men locked up
One fighter charges the line then takes his place in the formation.
One of the other fighters leaves the formation and charges
Repeat until tired or the line breaks.
This drill would also have the added benefit of showing fighters how to file in when there is a casualty by showing them how to move into new positions to keep the line going.
I have seen a wide variety of useful drills when it comes to melee practice, everything from linking back up when returning for resurrection point to how to react when the line gets split. The most important part with the first part of the practice is to teach the unit how to move together and how to respond to commands.
The second portion of melee practice involves splitting the unit into two parts and having a 20-30 minute resurrection battle. If there are fewer than 5 people per side, I feel it's better to do several https://ulfhedinnjourney.blogspot.com/2019/07/knattleikr-norse-ball-game.html), or anything else that gets fighters mobile and having fun. After the ‘boring’ marching drills, it's important to do something light to end practice. All of these games also build endurance since they involve a ton of motion and fighting.
Wrap up practice with conversation on the melee portion while padding down, give everyone the chance to discuss things they thought went well or things they want to improve on. This builds unit cohesion and with many eyes on the field it's easier to catch mistakes.
ConclusionAs always, let's be clear: these are just my ideas on how a practice could run to give a variety of training situations, and allow people to work on a range of skills each week. In addition to group practice, it is important to make sure that fighters are practicing by themselves on the pell or something similar. Some physical conditioning throughout the week is also good; like any sport, improving your physical fitness will improve your overall performance in heavy combat. I would also add that once a month or so it would be a good idea to get the whole group and travel to another group’s local practice. This gives everyone a chance to face off against other fighters and to see what other groups are doing.
Let me know what you all do at your practice, do you have any tips and tricks for new fighters trying to get things squared away? Let me know in the comments below!