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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Partner work: Equal responsibility, maximum benefit

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In pretty much all martial arts, students are expected to do partner exercises. These exercises may be in the form of drills, self defense practice, forms practice, calisthenics, academic work, etc.

As martial arts teachers, I'm sure you'get had this happen at least once (especially in kids classes) say "Grab a training partner!", and kids scramble to be with their best buddy, often running across the floor to get their favorite buddy even when there is another child standing right next to them. Or, maybe a duo ends up talking about what they fed their hamsters that day, instead of practicing the drill you gave them. These things can happen in adult classes as well.

Situations such as these are not necessarily a result of poor teaching. (when such situations happened at my school I often wondered what I was doing wrong). Instead, it might be simply that the participants do not understand the purpose of partner work.

So then, what is the purpose of partner work? Obviously, it is used to practice techniques against an "opponent". But it is more than that. As a student, when you work with a partner or small group, you have a wonderful opportunity to learn in a way different from solo training. Here are some things to consider:

1) You are responsible for your partner's learning.
Just because you might be better than your partner doesn't mean you should constantly remind them of that. Partners must share equal responsibility for each other's learning. Working with a partner doesn't mean doing your own thing while your partner happens to stand near you.

2) Challenge yourself while doing partner work.
If you are a higher rank working with a lower rank, this doesn't mean you can "lower your standards". Work at the lower ranks level, yes! But don't lower the standards of your own movement. Try your best to provide as best of an example as you can. If working on something very "simple" to you, then challenge yourself to execute as good of form and structure as you can.  If you are a lower rank working with an upper rank, try your best but don't over-think things or become over-critical of yourself. You are not "holding your partner back", he/she is learning just as much as you are. Try to bump your comfort zone up a notch when working with a higher rank, by maybe lowering your stance, trying to up your speed a tad bit, etc. etc.

3) Don't become impatient with each other.
This holds especially true with teachers who demonstrate things while using another student. When you, the teacher, demonstrate with a student, you are doing partner work! Maybe your demonstration partner might react to your strikes a bit differently than what you feel is "normal', or they might make a slight mistake that messes up your flow. You MUST be patient and remember that you too, were once in their shoes. Allow your partners to figure things out as you nudge them along with guidance if need be, and allow mistakes from your partner and most importantly, yourself.

4) Feedback and communication is important.
Many lower ranks assume that they should keep their mouths shut and blindly follow the senior student, if they happen to be working with a senior. Feedback is just as useful for those upper ranks as with lower ranks! If you're working on a joint lock and your partner isn't quite locking it in, go ahead and politely say that it doesn't feel locked in. After all, if you don't say anything, your partner will assume that they are doing it right when they are not. Learn to give positive feedback without becoming "preachy". Nothing is more annoying than partners who appear to talk about everything they know about a particular technique.

5) Regardless of seniority, remember that you and your partner are working toward the same goal.
Whether it is sparring, grappling, push hands, etc.....keep your Ego out of the partner work. Sure, you might be the same rank, but when you start thinking you're "better", there's the possibility that your actions will show it. Then what, all your partner will learn is that you think you're better, or uncontrolled, or impatient, etc.

6) Try to grab training partners of all types....don't stick with just one body type or your best buddy.
Challenge yourself! While its so much easier to work with your best buddy or someone your own height and body type, you will learn a lot by working with varied people. Grab the person standing right next to you. If you happen to be standing next to someone, and you take a look at them and walk away to be with your best buddy, you just showed a huge amount of disregard and disrespect to that person.


Remember, partner work is an activity that your teacher trusts you with. If you are not ready to work with a partner, you teacher will tell you. Don't take it personally if the teacher has you practicing basic maneuvers solo while everyone is practicing with a partner. As I said before, partner work is an activity that requires both people to be responsible for their partner's learning for that period of time. If your teacher needs you to practice your basics for a bit before allowing you to work with a partner, then know that your teacher is simply getting you ready for the other "fun stuff". 

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