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When martial artists refer to “timing”, they are usually discussing anticipatory skills. Anticipation is the ability to predict outcomes of an action (largely external, for our purposes), plan an appropriate response, and initiate it with the correct timing relative to the external action. Numerous studies have shown that superior anticipation timing is indeed what sets expert practitioners apart from novice practitioners in a given activity. The person who can successfully anticipate the outcome of an opponent’s actions before they are completed, and then formulate and initiate a plan of their own response with the appropriate timing will be able to effectively counter an attack. But the important distinction in quoting this information is the context in which it is applicable. Two people facing each other for a match or duel-type fight have the following advantages:

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In Random Training Note #6 , I noted that:

Evasion is: Perception + Agility.

To elaborate further, perception is cognitive processing of sensory input, and is crucial to both attack and defensive skills. Fast and accurate perception depends upon having a large vocabulary of relevant experiences for cognitive processes to compare to incoming sensory input. This perceptive processing may be consciously directed or below conscious thought. We have multiple systems of sensory input, yet much of martial arts training relies on only the visual realm. This may be fine for the optimal, controlled conditions of the average dojo/club etc. However, surprise attacks, or those involving multiple people will likely present other types of sensory input, such as tactile contact or acting on “bad feelings” about a situation or person. Visual perception will not help against threats that cannot be seen or on conditions that prevent clear sight. Learning to perceive and act upon these is a critical skill for fighting and self-defense.

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It’s important to keep your eyes on a partner or opponent as you duck under a strike (see RTN 2 for more on ducking). If you bend too far forward at the waist and round the back, eye contact is lost, peripheral vision is diminished and the head is at greater exposure to being kneed from below or struck from above.  A rounded back also inhibits the gluteal muscles, which are vital for driving forwards or stabilizing against pressure from the front.  Keeping the eyes up means that the back will be closer to 45 degrees, and slightly extended as opposed to rounded.

If you or a student has a hard time keeping the eyes on the other person while ducking, this is a sign of weakness/imbalance in the muscles of the neck and upper and lower back. If you notice that someone starts to bend at the waist and round the back after a few reps of a ducking exercise, have him slow down the pace and decrease reps so that he can maintain eye contact and keep the back more upright, and begin him on a program to increase the strength of the neck and back. Asking training partners to tap the back of the head when it is exposed can provide a good physical cue that the eyes are dropping. Several exercises can help to improve strength and performance in these areas:


  • Isometric neck strengthening and stabilization exercises. Standing or sitting with good posture, press your palm into your head with moderate pressure and keep the position of your head from changing. Do this against the forehead, temples, rear of the skull, under the chin and at angles.  Hold for 20-30 seconds, 1-2 sets each direction. Incorporate 3-5 days per week. Use a mirror to ensure that you are not excessively protruding or retracting the chin throughout.

Upper and Lower Back

  • Floor Cobras. Start with 3 sets of 3 repetitions 3-5 days per week.
  • Ball Cobras. As the Floor Cobras can be done with stability and control, begin incorporating 3 sets of 3 repetitions 3 days per week.
  • Back Extensions. Depending on how easy these are, incorporate 3 sets of 5-15, 3 days per week. Don’t swing- stop for a second at the top and at the bottom.
  • Pull ups. Grip an overhead bar at shoulder width or slightly wider. Contract glutes and abs, squeeze the shoulder blades together, and pull your chin to the bar. Avoid  jack knifing or bouncing to achieve the pull. If these are difficult or impossible for you, try squeezing the shoulder blades together so that your feet are lifted from the floor and hold for 20-30 seconds, or as long as you can maintain good form. As this improves, use a bench or jump up to get to chin height and hang in the top position for as long as good form can be maintained- shoot for 20 seconds. Lower yourself with as much control as possible, repeat. Start with low reps per set, increase as this improves, begin adding in full pull ups once you are capable. Some gyms have assisted pull up machines which can be helpful as well. Incorporate 3 days per week.
  • And as always, stretch the hip flexors before conditioning and class time. If these muscles are tight and dominant, they will encourage excessive forward lean at the waist.

*As with everything else described on this blog, these suggestions assume that you are in good shape and do not have any back problems that would make these exercises unsafe. If you’re not sure, consult your doctor and enlist the services of a  qualified fitness professional.

The terms “stress” and “fear” are often conflated when martial artists begin talking about real-world encounters and training experiences. The physiological and cognitive effects of both are different, and the methods for dealing with both are different. And they will be different across different people; one person’s stress might be another person’s trigger for a panic attack, something that puts one person into a full blown fear response might be moderately stressful to someone else.

Stress and fear are different:

We can retain rational thinking, higher cognitive functions and perform complex skills under stress. We can learn to control the effects of stress and become habituated to working under it’s effects.

Fear can override rational thinking, short-circuit higher cognitive functions and make even basic skills unreliable. We can not learn to reliably control the effects of fear.

Moderate to extreme stress may be encountered frequently in the training environment. The vast majority of people will never experience true fear in the training environment. Do not mistake controlled stress with uncontrolled fear.

Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence is strongly recommended for useful observations and suggestions on recognizing and dealing with the effects of both.

Experiencing the failure of a technique is just as important as experiencing success of the technique. When failure is experienced, take the time to explore contingency options.

In the dojo, people often unintentionally  manufacture success by creating optimal conditions for a technique- certain distancing, against a certain attack in a certain way, or unconscious complicity on the attacker’s part. Be aware of this tendency. Sometimes this is necessary in the initial stages of teaching or learning new techniques.  Be up front about this fact with students and with yourself. Know when to take the “training wheels” off.


The Missouri and Virginia TKRI clubs have lately been working with unexpected attacks from the rear and sides at extremely close range:

The goal of this series of drills is to react to the stimulus of a shove and/or grab to the hair or clothing from behind with an aggressive response. The technique is not as important as the recognition of aggressive contact and the ability to respond with the same.

The position of the hands on the head protects the face and the vulnerable temple and coronal regions of the skull. This position also anchors the neck so that the musculature of the upper back and shoulders can stabilize the head against further acceleration while contributing to the charge and a successive flurry of elbow strikes.

At this range, complicated techniques such as joint manipulations and fully extended strikes will be of little use. Such an attacker will have the element of surprise and the advantage of initiating the attack, allowing them to land several strikes before the victim can can decide upon a response and make it. At speed and full force the victim will be disoriented and in a poor position from which to fight. These drills aim to train students to move into an unexpected attack with an equally aggressive response using gross body movements, hopefully creating the space to escape or fight from a better position.

Give it a whirl, and after folks get the hang of it pick up the intensity on the attacker and the defender’s part- just watch the face and throat. It’s hard to control the amount of contact delivered by whirling elbows at this range. Mouth guards for the attacker are recommended, headgear might not be a bad idea at higher speeds.

Just posted a couple of additions to the TKRI training clip library:


Peripheral Visual Tracking Drill

(this is one of those ideas that made us wonder afterward “why the hell did we think this was going to be fun?”)



Sumo Drill, 2-Man Variation

We were extremely fortunate with this year’s demonstrations at the Missouri Botanical Gardens Japanese Festival: great weather, great crowds, great performances of the material, and two people on hand to film it all in it’s entirety.

Take a look and see for yourself:

TKRI Seizing Drills

Naihanchi/Tekki Application Drills

TKRI Seisan Applications

Bassai Applications

Long Range Knife Defense Scenarios

Close Range Knife Defense Scenarios

Great job folks!

Below are two more short sample clips of training with the kakiya. Training with a partner is best, but the kakiya can provide a good tool for skill refinement when a partner isn’t available. Plus, it’s just plain fun. In both drills, the demonstrator’s hands remain in a high guard and punches are thrown from this level instead of a pullback/hikite, a bad habit which karate training often imparts. As an added bonus, training on uneven ground prepares the student to use these skills in a more realistic setting than smooth dojo floors.

Low Kick Entry to Striking Combo

Here the kakiya is used to train basic entry and attack skills. Facing the kakiya at a close engagement distance, the student throws a low kick to the height of an opponent’s knees or groin. Immediately following the kick, he uses his lead hand to pass the “guard” of the kakiya arm to enter and throw a striking combination.
While higher kicks may be more visually impressive they place the kicker at a very high risk for disabling counters; a low kick to the kneecap or groin is far less risky, and will cause an attacker serious pain.

Kakiya Ducking Drill, Varied Response

Here  a punch ducking and counter striking drill is practiced on the kakiya. The aim is to duck under the kakiya arm, which simulates an opponent’s extended arm. Both feet ideally clear the attack line to the outside of the arm, placing the student in a position to attack along the “opponent’s” weak line. Notice that his feet do not stay flat, as is commonly taught in karate. Flat feet reduce mobility, response speed and power. When ducking the arm, notice that his head remains upright enough to see the target.

When returning up from the duck, counter-strikes are thrown in conjunction with the rising and twisting of the body to exploit power generated by the rebound of the legs. The drill starts slowly and then progresses to half speed. The student ‘s responses begin with punching combinations, then progress to knee strikes and low lashing roundhouse kicks followed by strikes to the body and face.

This is some good fun. Each drill is totally unscripted and unrehearsed- the attacker is free to attack how he chooses and the defender is responding intuitively- so there is an element of “aliveness” to it that is often lacking in traditional karate. The drill is an “integration game” that allows both partners to experiment with techniques and strategies learned in other settings in a live fashion. The student in the blue shirt has been training for one year.

On all of these E&R drills, you’ll notice that not every attempt is successful. The defender’s main rule is simple: if a response does not come naturally, disengage, reset, and start over. This encourages him to hone responses that are natural for him, instead of trying to “make” techniques work, fumbling around while the attacker simply lets him. The unsuccessful attacks are included because they are invaluable feedback that lets the defender know when something didn’t work, or could have been done differently. It’s also a good reminder that martial arts demonstrations are polished and rehearsed shows, and usually do not address the realities of dealing with an impact weapon. By leaving them in the clip, the viewer can contrast the successful strategies with the ones that fail.

When the defender is successful in controlling the attacker, note that the engagement goes until the attacker is forced to the ground, forced to tap out or is choked.

Evasion and Response Drill: Random Knife Draw

The drill begins with light free sparring and negotiation for position. The student in the attacker role is carrying a training knife at his hip, and is free to draw the weapon whenever he chooses to, ideally when the defender cannot see it. The defender’s goal is to avoid incoming attacks and either control the weapon when possible or execute a response that prevents further attacks.

The instructor draws the knife at :14, and in the second iteration the student draws the knife at :55.

Attacks are done at half speed, and while we are not “knife fighters,” the attacker’s goal is to execute realistic, continuous attacks that also involve grabbing, shoving and kicking in addition to attacking with the knife. The main purpose of this drill is to expose the student to a scenario where a knife is brought into play at random during negotiation/fighting with a violent individual. Too many karate “knife defenses” are just “karate with a knife” which does not allow the defender to develop usable skills.

Evasion and Response Drill: Long Stick

Evasion and Response: Long Stick 2

Evasion and Response Drill: Baseball Bat

The attacker is wielding a plastic baseball bat as a weapon. The defender’s goal is to avoid incoming attacks and either control the weapon when possible or execute a response that prevents further attacks.

Karate people: look for a bit Naihanchi at :40, and Heian Nidan at 1:22 .

Please watch this second video clip to put the drill into a more realistic context for bat fights:

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


July 2020

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