A friend (thanks D!) was contemplating drills and said:
"I kinda think that the success of drills isn't really in "muscle memory"
(or whatever you'd like to call it) but in the idea that remembering
the drill gives the mind something to do to get it out of the way while
the body learns how it feels when effective and efficient principles are
He also said:
"... I just wonder if the process is
working for the reasons we assume it is working. Not remembering the
drill happens after a fair bit of proficiency in the drill, and I'm
wondering where that proficiency is coming from. And what part of you is doing the "remembering." I've
been doing a lot of play with learning drills and copying movement
while attempting to engage the parts of my brain that think in words as
little as possible, and it has been interesting."
I love it when people engage in training whilst playing with different aspects of mind, thought, etc. Actively engaging in your training can only help you to get better, faster, especially when there's a spirit of exploration and adventure into the 'unknown'.
I also think that a smart student can pretty much 'get anywhere from here'*, for however circuitous the road, they will get where they need to go.
But ... and you knew there was going to be one - Though repetitive drills may be well and good for training smooth techniques, working on alignment, and transitions in space, the piece that never gets trained in these type of drills is the decision whether to do it or not in the first place.
And it's this decision - whether it's the good one to make in that moment - that really requires the 'timelessness' training that 'remembering' never gives you.
Sorry, that probably made no sense .... try again..
If all the decisions are removed from a drill, you are never practicing seeing the action for what it is, and what might make sense to do in the geometry of the moment. You do the drill, you do the drill, you do the drill amazingly well ... but WHEN do you do it? If you can never find that moment, it will never happen.
This is why uncertainty HAS to be included as an element, especially for that non linear, thoughtless, stuff that is so important in owning a skill.
Free sparring does this, but often it's hard to find moments, or pull anything off when the field is so open. Therefore I like to start off with only 2 options, I've talked about it before. Left or right is an easy one, so is high or low? A bit harder is, now or not now? Create a situation where both are on the table, and take it from there.
Have your partner set the scene by moving in such a way as to create one or other option. If they do A, do X. if the do B, do Y. They don't tell you which one will happen, or when, but that's the game - to see the correct precursor to the smart idea. (From there you can get sneakier, lie, bait, set up and reverse ... but first make it a simple either/or).
I'll add a caveat. This is all a little easier from contact as most of the decisions happen because of tactile feedback from the opponent, though in general, the higher their skill level, the further ahead you have to play in the game of chess. But from a distance, like with swords, and before contact .... where possibly the MOST important decision needs to be made, you just can't trust to luck, you have to read or create the situation by your positioning and your body language.
You up your odds by controlling your opponent's options with footwork, and unpredictability (the ability to avoid being 'read'), but still, it is the moments when opportunity manifests that need to be seen and acted upon WITHOUT the conscious mind intervening, because by the time you have said "Oh, look, there's an opening"! It's already past. THIS is the moment that needs practicing, so the pattern slots neatly into the subconscious for use at a later time.
Train techniques repetitively by all means, get good at them, but if you are training ma-ai, insert the need for a decision to be made. You'll get to understand it all the more that way.
*From a funny story about asking for directions in rural Ireland, and the local saying "Oh, so your trying to get to Galway? Well you wouldn't want to be starting from here".