Hey all, Julian Schuetze here on behalf of the Collective. During my studies for my degree in coaching, I learned the value of using games to teach skills. Recently, I've been using this approach in training at HCC and have been thrilled with the positive results. That's why I'm writing this article – to share the benefits of gamification and why it's such an effective learning tool.
To begin, let's talk about task categories. There are several, but for our purposes, we'll focus on two: open/closed and opposed/unopposed. It's helpful to think of these categories as a grid:
Open opposed | Closed opposed
Open unopposed | Closed unopposed
Let's talk about the two main task categories: Open/Closed and Opposed/Unopposed. Open/Closed refers to how specific or open-ended the task is. For example, sparring is an open task because it involves many variables and multiple ways to solve tactical problems. On the other hand, a legshot drill is a closed task because it focuses on one specific tactical problem.
Opposed/Unopposed is a simpler concept. It refers to whether you have opposition to your ability to solve the tactical problem. For instance, if you're practicing a leg strike, are you doing it against an opponent who is resisting your attempts, or is someone just feeding you shots to practice?
It's crucial to structure your training within these parameters because someone will perform better in an Open/Opposed task if they regularly train in an Open/Opposed environment. To illustrate this point, have you ever seen a student drill the basics for a few weeks, only to feel lost during their first sparring session? This is often because their drilling was done in a (usually) Closed/Unopposed setting.
For example, in a Closed/Unopposed drill, someone feeds you a head strike, where you block and counter to the legs. You do this 15 times, then switch roles. This seems like it would do a decent job at teaching you how to perform a leg-shot, right? But, what if your opponent during sparring doesn't just feed you a dumb head shot and sit there while you counter to the legs? What if your opponent has good footwork? What if they just throw afterblows no matter what you do? What is the tactical problem they are presenting, that makes you recognize that a leg strike is the solution? The problem with the closed/unopposed drill is that it provides no context, and you get 0 practice actually implementing it against someone in sparring.
As a result, transitioning to an Open/Opposed task can be a challenge. It's only after more sparring practice that they get better, because now they're practicing solving an Open/Opposed tactical problem during an Open/Opposed task.
So, what does this mean for your club? My suggestion is to start with Open/Opposed tasks and refine from there. This is where games come in.
Games can be both open/closed, but they must always be opposed. There should be a win condition for both sides, so your training partner is motivated to win and will try to prevent you from winning. This is similar to the conditions of a fencing match. The open/closed nature of a game has different uses:
In both scenarios, the closed/opposed game is ideal for developing the fundamental mechanical skill of performing a leg strike, particularly for a newer class. On the other hand, the open/opposed game is better for encouraging students to practice incorporating the leg shot into their applicable strategies during sparring. Engaging in either game will make students more proficient at leg strikes compared to static drilling where one person practices leg shots for a specific number of repetitions before rotating. The games force students to learn how to hit someone in the leg who is actively trying to avoid getting hit, thereby forcing them to develop strategies on how to do so.
I have become fully convinced of the effectiveness of starting with open/closed opposed games and almost completely skipping drilling. For instance, in a recent two-hour lesson with a group that had no prior HEMA experience or very limited martial arts experience, I gave them zero instruction. I simply handed them foam swords and introduced them to their first game:
I gave them their next game:
I did not teach them how to do any of this; I simply instructed them to begin. Within 15 minutes, they had realized that attempting to swing at their opponents' swords made it difficult to execute a swift counterattack or avoid getting hit entirely. As a result, they learned to roll into position and avoid overextending themselves.
I introduced them to several other games like this one. After approximately an hour of training, I had them engage in freeplay (sparring with reduced intensity). They circled, retreated when blocking, utilized measure, executed counterattacks, and, for the most part, appeared quite skilled. These individuals demonstrated significant improvement after just one hour of training, surpassing the progress I have seen in individuals who have sparred for the first time after several weeks of static drilling. This has been a replicateable experience for me.
It is important to note that I am not merely informing them of the game's regulations and then observing from the sidelines while they play for 15 minutes before presenting the next game. As a coach, my role remains highly active, including:
To be clear, I do believe that static drills have their place in training. However, when students attend my training sessions, I feel that their time is best spent on activities that they cannot do on their own at home. This includes training with a diverse range of partners and receiving feedback from a coach.
On the other hand, practicing a specific technique repeatedly to get a better feel for it, such as the Zwerchau, can often be done at home without the need for a partner or coach. While there is value in this kind of solo practice, I believe that it is important to prioritize activities that cannot be replicated in a home environment.
Finally, I'll recite a quote from one of my professors when I first learned about gamification: "There's no one on this planet who likes to play games more than grown-ass adults".
In the future, I plan to write more articles about gamification in HEMA training. For those interested in learning more about games for HEMA, including a game archive that I hope to contribute to, I highly recommend checking out GD4H.org. This is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in HEMA, and I believe it will only continue to grow in importance and popularity over time.
I've been asked several times now how to actually implement gamification in a lesson plan, and how to structure a class. Check out my follow-up article here: Skill Aquisition via Gamification - Implementation & Lesson Planning
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We acknowledge that The Historical Combat Collective operates on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Kwikwetlem, Sto:lo and Songhees First Nations Peoples. We are grateful to have the opportunity to gather, work, and train on this land.