One of the reasons hands-on self-defense training can be challenging and intimidating is because at some point, you will need to use those skills against another human being. The relevant skills rarely exist in isolation because the entire point is that they will work to physically deter or stop an attacker. To do that, you’re going to have to touch someone at some point, and preferably not for the very first time against an actual attacker. Learning physical skills in theory or in solo practice often leaves you with an incomplete understanding of how to perform them, especially when someone else is trying to stop you. Failing to practice against another person means that not only will you not have an idea of how an opponent will really respond as you try to complete the move, but that you will not have the experience of getting assertively physical with someone who doesn’t want you to succeed. The trick is that to learn how to do that, you need to train with a partner who will help you succeed in early stages of learning a technique, then be able to scale their resistance so that you are progressively challenged and get an idea of how to struggle against someone who wants to win a fight at your expense. Since one of the best ways to find good training partners is to learn how to be one yourself, here are some things to look for and to work on:
Start by dropping your ego at the door. You are the student and there to learn, even if you have been exposed to the material before. Your role and your goal should not be to prove how much you know or how good you are at the thing. Instead, you should be looking to soak up as much as you can, whether in new skills or refinement of existing ones, and to help your fellow classmates do the same. You can’t do that unless you are willing to listen and to try what you are being instructed to do. It’s important, therefore, to not try to expand the lesson or try something different that you might have seen or learned somewhere else. If you are confused when working with your partner, try to figure out what was taught or ask the instructor. If you disagree with the way a skill is shown, raise the question with the instructor – respectfully and with genuine curiosity – instead of simply deciding to perform it another way. You risk your own and your partner’s safety and understanding if you go off on your own, so be humble about learning what is being presented to you.
In all parts of training, prioritize your partner’s physical and emotional safety. Yes, you are there to get something out of the class yourself. You deserve to have the full experience you paid for from an instructor. However, part of everyone benefiting from a class is everyone having the attitude of putting their training partners first. It becomes especially important when it comes to drilling movements with the other person, and increasing intensity to where you are trying to make them work harder to succeed. While a certain amount of failure is necessary in order to pinpoint where techniques may need additional refinement or effort, your goal should never be make it utterly impossible for them to perform the skill. When you are trying to “win” against your training partner, it should never be at the expense of injuring your partner. That includes paying attention to whether your partner is becoming overly emotionally upset for whatever reason, and either engaging the instructor or yourself stepping in to ensure that they can keep participating with full attention before you continue on.
Act appropriately with your training partner. In every class I’ve been in, there is an increasing comfort level over time with teasing and making fun of each other as we struggle to master the skills we are learning. However, it doesn’t and shouldn’t start that way with strangers, and certainly not with those who are new to the material. It’s scary, getting into this kind of training, and part of being welcoming is taking a gentle and kind measure of folks coming in the door, and treating them like we’d want ourselves or a loved one to be treated as a newcomer. Making inappropriate comments or jokes, touching in a way that goes beyond what is required, attempting to perform techniques that aren’t part of the lesson, being overly challenging or critical (even in a way intended to be funny) – all of those make the learning environment more difficult and unwelcome. Save it for after you’ve had a chance to bond and become friends. And if you do overstep, apologize and modify your behavior. Everyone deserves to be comfortable in class.
And finally, match how hard you’re going to what you’re directed to do and what your partner is capable of. If the instructor asks you to practice slowly and lightly with your partner, then the correct speed and effort is what your partner thinks is slow and light. Do not push harder than that until you are told to do so. If the instructor directs you to work at 50% or 75% intensity, then your goal should be to make your partner work at their 50% or 75%. More skilled, larger, or stronger students may have to gentle their resistance or slow down for a newer person, and that’s part of the process. They can spend the time perfecting their performance, and noting where they need to improve, rather than simply and mindlessly doing the thing at an intensity that is challenging for them and overwhelming for their partner. You will need to make adjustments with your partners to find where that is with each other, but by keeping this principle in mind, you will get there in a way that is both safe and productive for both of you.
There is a generosity that is required to train in a way where everyone is learning and improving, and that keeps everyone safe. By modeling that behavior, and demanding it of the folks you train with, we can all build and participate in hands-on self-defense training environments where we can be comfortable enough to focus on what we’re there to do: learning how to protect ourselves against the real enemies, who aren’t the folks in class with us.