13 posts / 0 new
Last post
Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture
Don't obsess over the attack!

Don’t obsess over the attack!

A cautionary tale for those progressing Karate

The archetypical “traditional” karate class, where students become skilled at air-punching, tag and defending against straight punches that begin further away from the moon, does little to prepare its participants with solutions to deal with non-consensual violence. 

Luckily, karate practitioners are realising this in the masses and the community of “practical karate” is growing year upon year. This means that more and more people are beginning to change the way they practice and study karate. But with that change, I see one change that practical karate instructors make when moving away from the “traditional” karate which creates two problems in the long-term. 

One of the main issues with the way karate is widely practiced is the use of Ippon Kumite (One Step Sparring). I have written a full article on this previously so I won’t go into detail here. But for those who agree with me, the next logical step is to remove that practice and replace it with a different form of practice. Herein lies the problem.

I see a lot of people who are new to “practical karate” remove the One Step Sparring practice and replace it with the “Defence against the Haymaker”. Or as Noah Legel of Karate Obsession calls it: - “Defence against the Hockey Punch!”. Which reminds that once I was watching a fight when all of sudden a Hockey match broke out….. 

Anyway, back on topic, it seems a logical step to replace a straight karate punch with a wild untrained swinging attack, as you are far more likely to be smashed in the face by one of those when compared to the karate punch. John Titchen’s Habitual Acts of Violence theory is an excellent source if you wish to look at the acts of violence alongside their frequency when put into context. 

Replacing the karate punch with the hockey punch is a good starting point, but this where we must be cautious and not fall into the two traps which I see being made once this replacement has been made.

Trap 1 - Reactionary Mindset

This first mistake I see being made by newcomers to practical karate is that they have a heavy bias to reactionary training methods. Curriculum and training sessions which spend the majority of the time (especially for new students) looking at ways of how to defend against a swinging punch, straight punch, grab, headlock, bearhug, front choke, rear choke etc… often miss the key element for a successful physical response to an attack. That element is “pre-emption”. 

By allowing the attacker to dictate the terms of the drill, the power is with the attacker. Action nearly always beats reaction and we need to ensure we train in a way which respects this natural law. For those new to karate, we need to ensure we use combative concepts that are Low Risk & High Success (LRHS). Three key examples of these LRHS concepts are pre-emptive strikes, raw intent and use of gross-motor skills.

A common technique found in many pragmatic arts is the "parry-press trap". This technique, and other trapping techniques taught, are often drilled defensively. The Enemy will start by throwing a punch and then Defender will parry the punch and trap the Enemys punching arm before finishing off with a strike of their own. An example of a parry-press trap can be seen in the GIF below (we will call this Drill A).

But trapping doesn't always need to be defensive skill set. We can use it pro-actively and do what I call predatory trapping. Please note below Drill B: -

The Defender (left) maintains distance with the Enemy (fig 1) in order to set up for a pre-emptive strike (fig 2).

However, if the Enemy manages to react and bring his arm up to obstruct the strike (fig 3) then the Defender can proceed to use predatory trapping skills.

Drill B

Fig 4 shows the Defender using his left hand to clear the Enemy's arm out of the way, then the Defender slides forward maintaining control of the Enemy's arm (fig 5) and finally finishing off with a strike to the head of the Enemy.

Drill A looks at the kata techniques from a reactionary mindset and Drill B looks at the kata techniques from a pro-active mindset. Both drills will work and should be taught, but we need to be clear that Drill B is the preference when confronted by an enemy intent on doing us harm, We need to frame our training with the understanding that out of our two drills above, our first physical response should be the one in which we utilize pre-emptive strikes with full intent followed by Predatory Trapping and further striking over reactionary trapping and counter-attacks.

Trap 2 - Specific defences have specific responses 

Whilst I think that many reading this will be aware of Trap 1 - Reactionary Mindset , Trap 2 is a little more subtle and easier to fall into without realising it.  

The notion of log-jam is one we all want to avoid, so learning 100 ways to get out of a headlock is going to be counter-productive. I’m sure we’ve all heard the  story of the rabbit who knows 10 methods of escaping the fox and is eaten before he could decide which method to use, whereas the rabbit who only knew one method survived as he had already escaped. 

To avoid log-jam, many practitioners learn set techniques to use against set attack scenarios (ie defending against a hockey punch, or what to do when the enemy blocks a pre-emptive strike). An unwanted outcome of isolating different attack scenarios is that practitioners can become conditioned to react to certain situations in specific ways. 

The reason that this unwanted is that training becomes too specific. What happens is that training becomes too technique-orientated and as soon as the attack scenario is modified even slightly the technique begins to fail. We have all experienced this, think about a time you are learning a new technique in class and you are practicing with a training partner and  as you finally get to grips with, your instructor asks you to change partners. and at that point your ability to perform the technique vanishes. Usually, this is because your new partner is a slightly different build or reacts slightly different than what your previous partner did, Let's look at some examples.

As a follow up to Drill B, the Enemy may manages to put his head out of position to be struck. If that occurs one option is to apply a jointlock to the Enemy. In Example 1, I follow-up with the Tekki/Naihanchi Armbar using the gedan-barai motion. 

Example 2 is also a follow up to Drill B, but the attacker has a large size and weight advantage. Therefore, the Defender needs to adapt the technique in order to suit the particular circumstances they are in.

Whilst the techniques at Examples 1 and 2 are different, the concepts behind the techniques are the same. 

Although the concepts taught in the armbars from Examples 1 and 2 were from the attack scenario of Drill B, they could have been used from a variety of attack scenarios. Anytime the Enemy's arm is in a position to be locked, it can be. We need to ensure we don’t fall into the habit of linking specific attack scenarios with specific techniques. We need to realise due to the dynamics of real violence, things change quickly and we need to be able to adapt to what is happening and do whatever is “right” in that moment.

Of course, to start with we need to learn certain techniques from set attack scenarios, but as time goes on we need to begin to move past static training and begin to include dynamic drills where the enemy can have a more freedom to react so that the defender can begin to use whatever technique works in the situation they are in..

Until next time!

Leigh Simms

Paul_D's picture

Great stuff Sir.

Wastelander's picture

Thanks for the mention, Leigh, and I completely agree with your article. I've actually brought up the offensive use of the parry-pass in dealing with the bad guy defending your attack (pre-emptive or otherwise) in my article on the parry-pass method (http://www.karateobsession.com/2017/01/the-parry-pass-method-karates-uni...), and that reminded me that I had this adorable GIF of two of our youth students the first time they tried it:

Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

I definitely can't compete with the cuteness of that gif, but it did make me realize I can insert gifs into my post!

Thanks for the feedback guys!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Great article Leigh and I fully concur.  

Leigh Simms wrote:
We need to ensure we don’t fall into the habit of linking specific attack scenarios with specific techniques.

It’s why I often like to start teaching a drill with a “neutral arm” (as per ‘The Pinan / Heian Series: The Complete Fighting System’ DVDs). Because the arm is “no-thing” we can make it into “anything”. A “thing” is always that thing though. Once the student has the idea that the methods can control the arm because it’s an arm – and it does not matter what the arm is doing i.e. straight, bent, active, reactive, etc –  then we have them run though those variations. This makes the movement applicable in many situations and does not tie it to a specific scenario.

Leigh Simms wrote:
We need to realise due to the dynamics of real violence, things change quickly and we need to be able to adapt to what is happening and do whatever is “right” in that moment

Absolutely! Something almost all of the past masters emphasised …

“Kata must be practiced properly, with a good understanding of their bunkai meaning. There may be those who neglect the practice of kata, thinking that it is sufficient to just practice two-person drills that has been created based on their understanding of the kata, but that will never lead to true advancement. The reason why is that the ways of attacking and defending have innumerable variations. To create two-person drills containing all of the techniques including each and every one of their variations is impossible. However, if one practices kata correctly, it will serve as a foundation for performing - when a crucial time comes - any of the infinite number of variations.” – Kenwa Mabuni

“Never be shackled by the rituals of kata but instead move freely according to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses” – Genwa Nakasone.

"It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms. Essentially, it is a habit - created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation - by the subconscious mind. " – Hironori Otsuka

"One must learn how to apply the principles of the kata and how to bend with the winds of adversity" – Choki Motobu

“Always perform kata exactly, combat is another matter.” – Gichin Funakoshi

All the best,


Bob Davis
Bob Davis's picture

Nice post.

The other trap that I'd add in there Leigh is to avoid "getting the drill right" becoming the priority over understanding why and how it works (which is just another way of saying "principles based" rather than "technique based" I guess ), you'd think they are the same thing but they are not.

You see a lot of students in paired work worrying about getting the attack/counter "right" so that the drill works rather than the emphasis being on learning to work with what you are given and developing the adaptability to cope.

There is undoubtedly a purpose to getting the drill right until the principle is understood but with my guys I tend to stick with "work with what you've got" rather than resetting because it didn't go to plan, we can revisit it on the next execution to go through what went wrong but I like my guys not to train to "stop on failure" because the drill hasn't gone to plan.

Was very pleased to see a student of mine training as a guest at someone else's dojo just using our Hein Nidan entry (which is quite an aggresive "active flinch") as a catch all technique for any of the three "suprise" attacks on offer and it working for all (mind, he is the sort of guy that could make pretty much anything work  )

chrishanson68's picture

Hi all, just to reflect on this one quote above (and by the way, it resounded strongly in my practice and my personal beliefs, thank you for that!):

"as time goes on we need to begin to move past static training and begin to include dynamic drills where the enemy can have a more freedom to react so that the defender can begin to use whatever technique works in the situation they are in."

A couple of reactions that came from this:  

1. As instructors, our duty is to prepare our students.  If we let too much time go by from static to dynamic drills, we might engrain too much unhealthy muscle memory!  We need to get to the dynamic portian quickly where students can play and feel uncomfortable soon....important for their learning.  There's much to learn from the dynamic nature of other non-martial activities., e.g chess, checkers, table tennis, basket ball.  All of these activities/sports have one thing in common...they are all "alive".  In the beginning, you teach moves, then strategy, then you have to just "play".  You play continuously, against resisting opponents.  The biggest problem we have as Karate Ka is that we tend to live in the drill/moves phase...and no matter how much we say, we "spar" or do "randori", it still resides in drill.  There is a time and place for this all, but learning happens in sparring (kata based, drill based, concept based, or whatever name you wish to attach).  Out of safety concerns, there has to be mutual concensus on intensity and compliance.,...but there has to be resistance from both sides......I have been to countless of dojos and the self defense drills are exactly that.....drills.....great stuff, don't get me wrong, but practicing a drill, is like taking a basket ball and repeating a set play...you will die on the court when you play this way! My solution to this mess: I teach a concept, show a few techniques that exemplify this concept, then create sparring drills to practice it, and at the end of it all, students have developed their own techniques and responses.    


Brush pass, trap and hit: Main concept is to attack the limb, affect balance, and enter or turn away.  We'd start with some simple attacks, linear, hooks, etc.  But then we'd spar with it, and students would have to figure out what worked, what didn't and what they did to adhere to the concept (attack the limb, affect balance, or turn away).  

This "technique" I've seen in countless of styles: wing chun, mantis, choy li fut, karate, silat, jkd...etc....but rarely you see it adapted to whatever comes at you.  The technique remains in isolation, never adapted....and if so, it's taught as another technique!! (this is unhealthy).

Some adaptations: Depending on the energy my partner gives me, I might just use the brush pass to enter, go for an arm drag, and take back to a submission....it all depends.....if he traps up my hands as I enter, I have to react accordingly...who knows right? I can head butt if he traps my hands, knee, strike whatever way I can to illicit something, and then apply the technique, or simply abandon.....again...big concept here....ADAPT OR LET GO!

2. In my humble opinion, I think cross training in various arts teaches you how to adapt to various energies.  No style has all the answers.  As vast as Karate is, it's still Karate...it was formed by a cultural synthesis of Okinawans....they didn't see it all...they were highly influenced by Chinese Arts (who were limited as well)....you need to travel, to slice, and dice, and adapt, reject, morph, and change things up to what works for you.  I am a die hard Karate guy, always will be....however, you gotta open the box, travel, meet new instructors, and adapt into your game.  

3. Don't believe the hype! Any instructor who tells you absolute truths..."this will ALWAYS work"...is lying to you! There is no always, there's a "depends".  So, I tend to test out my techniques...different bodies, weight classes, ages, styles, energies, etc.  This is the only way you'd be humble, and understand what you are doing.

All the best, and have an awesome day.


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Chris,

That’s a great post. Thank you for adding it.

chrishanson68 wrote:
I am a die hard Karate guy, always will be....however, you gotta open the box, travel, meet new instructors, and adapt into your game.

Definitely. Like you I am a “diehard karate guy”. I keep an open mind and want karate to thrive and be the best it can be. If I come across something useful, then it’s becoming part of “my karate”. People sometime forget that karate arose as an eclectic fusion of martial practises.

Traditional to keep an open mind like that too:

“Both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one quality of greatness: they suffered from no petty jealousy of other masters. They would present me to the teachers of their acquaintance, urging me to learn from each the technique at which he excelled.” – Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-Do: My Way of Life.

chrishanson68 wrote:
Any instructor who tells you absolute truths..."this will ALWAYS work"...is lying to you!

All techniques can fail. No method exists that is guaranteed to work 100% of the time when applied by all people against all others and in all circumstances (#). Having the likely failures identified, and the actions needed to capitalise on the resulting opportunities presented, is a must. I think we see a lot of that in kata.

All the best,


(#) – Does the absolute truth that there is no absolute truths negate itself? Tread carefully as I think we have unleashed a paradox! :-)

Mark B
Mark B's picture

At about 2:46 on this clip I'm asked whether the attack needs to be hook or straight. My answer was "whatever". This clip was actually the first application template of this particular seminar. It's obvious that in a real life situation we will not have absolute certainty of what form the initial attack will take. Apart from training exercises based on random habitual acts of physical violence this type of training drives home the absolute necessity for the application of very simple concepts. It's only when you work against an unscripted initial stimulus, and vigorous non compliance that the need for absolute simplicity truly presents itself. Regards. Mark

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I know everyone in this thread gets what I am about to say, but, nevertheless, the limitations of defensive motions could be worth underlining for some readers.

Leigh does cover that actions can be used proactively, but I thought I’d underline it.

It is a fundamental truth that at close-range action will beat reaction. In addition, the speed and chaos of real situations combines with that fact to mean that blocking is of limited value.

When we have complementary skills (as we do when martial artists of the same style work together) and distance, blocking seems to work really well.  It is of far less value in self-defence though. This is why being proactive and taking control is key. In short, the enemy needs to be forced to react to our techniques such that they have no meaningful opportunity to launch their own.

The vast majority of methods in the kata can be used proactively as well as reactively. To ensure the right mindset, I feel they should drilled proactively first.

When it comes to reactive methods, covering works way better than blocking. We see this in kata too:



This US cop summarises the limitations of blocking and the advantages of covering:


(NOTE: The three things he mentions – covering, controlling distance, and angling – are all things we pragmatic types emphasise).  

Of course, we practical karateka know that what are often labelled as “blocks” are not intended to be used as such; and hence don’t work well when applied that way.

I think we should include more functional blocking – despite its limitations – as a back up of last resort, and for its use in fighting / martial duelling. However, blocking is far less effective than many assume.

Being proactive should be emphasised, with covering and crashing being the go to option should we lose the initiative.

All the best,


Mark B
Mark B's picture

Two weeks ago one of the parents of one of my junior students messaged me. Her son (aged 11) is a junior 1st kyu in my system. She explained that he had been put in a position where it was necessary to defend himself, actually he was defending his friend. A lad of 13 years old, apparently smoking, abusive, aggressive etc decided to target my students friend outside the local swimming baths. My student stepped in. Said 13 year old attacked with a swinging hook punch. My student checked/received/blocked the punch - call it whatever you like - and hit the lad twice with palm heel shots, as I teach him, putting the 13 year old toe-rag on his backside. Aggressor didn't fancy anymore and was away on his toes. Did my student do it wrong? Did his check/block or whatever fail? Seems to me the proof is in the pudding. If a strike is directed towards your face then placing your arm in its path is a natural response, and providing you know what to do within that scenario can be seen as proactive. Regards Mark

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Mark,

Mark B wrote:
Did my student do it wrong? Did his check/block or whatever fail? Seems to me the proof is in the pudding.

It’s not wrong because it worked :-) I’m not arguing for blocking not to be practised, but for its practical limitations to be acknowledged. It is a low percentage method.

As Peter Consterdine so succinctly put it in his “Streetwise” book, “blocking in bollocks” :-) Having being a long term student of Peter’s, I know that blocking is still something he teaches, but primarily for the fighting and duelling side of things.

I also think we need to avoid pointing to exceptions to overturn rules. The limitations of blocking are well attested to overall. I think the experience of the police officer above is one that many here will relate to.

As a strong example, Geoff Thompson has written at length about how during in his time as doorman, and his hundreds of real situations, he can’t recall a single block being used. In Geoff’s words, “it was attack and furious counter-attack”.

When we combine being at close-range, the chaos, and the rate of fire; blocking’s success rate plummets. The science of this is also worth looking at. Hick’s Law comes into play.

In studies, where there is just one stimulus (i.e. when the light goes on, you push the button) reactions speeds are normally around 0.25 seconds. When they add in two possible stimuli, each with its own requested response, the average reaction time is between 0.35 and 0.45 seconds. This continues exponentially. The more potential stimuli, the slower the response.

Even at the level of two basic stimuli and two basic responses (fingers on buttons ready to go) we are at a level where people can’t react fast enough to block.

There are massive amount of potential attacks; speed, angle, target and tool combine for a huge number of variables. We also need to enact a specific response (an appropriate block) and that takes time too. When you consider that even untrained people can get off around three punches a second, it become clear that the human body simply can react quickly enough. The average person can get off a punch every 0.333 seconds, and that’s faster that people can respond to just two set stimuli with fingers on buttons ready to go … let alone a huge number of potential attacks that require more complex actions to negate.

Of course, a badly delivered punch can be blocked when time and distance is on our side, but I don’t think we should point to that to override the science and, more importantly, the widespread experience of live conflict.

Covering is better because it is a single response (less mental processing) to a plethora of potential actions. In that way, Hick’s Law strongly favours it. The video of the police officer reflects that.

I also think it is very significant that the very first motion of a great many kata can be seen as such a cover too (Naihanchi, Kushanku, Unsu, Seiyunchin, Suparinpei, Sanseiru, etc). Across the piece, the kata clearly point to this as the favoured method. The police officer lists, “covering, controlling distance, and angling” as what works, and I think we see way more of that than blocking in the kata. Indeed, the kata that don’t start by covering, do start with angling.

Mark B wrote:
If a strike is directed towards your face then placing your arm in its path is a natural response …

Natural flinching can be effectively weaponised through training, but that’s a more of a cover again. However, as previously mentioned, any response is likely to be too slow to prevent harm. It could be that the first blow lands, which then triggers the flinch, which then stops following blows to the same area, but that’s entirely dependent on the blows that land not taking you out. The odds are firmly against us that we can block the path before the enemy's blow has travelled the path. Action will beat reaction.

Mark B wrote:
… and providing you know what to do within that scenario can be seen as proactive.

I don’t think can label it as “proactive”. The word “proactive” means, “creating or controlling a situation rather than just responding to it after it has happened.” Because the cover is done in response to the enemy’s attack (“If a strike is directed towards your face then …”) then by definition it is reactive.

I too encourage “defending in an attacking way”, but that does not negate the fact we are still trying to make a reaction faster than an action.

Again, I’m not saying we should not practise blocking. What I am saying is that blocking has a high rate of failure and hence being proactive should be encouraged. If we have to be reactive, covering is much better than blocking due to the fact it is a singe response that can be used in response to a wide range of attacks (favoured by Hick’s Law).

Blocking stands its best chance of working when our previous actions have limited the way the enemy can respond (Hick’s Law again), and I think this is the kind of blocking we generally see in kata.

Personally, I like bunkai and drills to follow the paradigm outlined in this post: encourage and promote a dominating mindset; action over reaction; covering and crashing as the default reaction; make use of angles (tactical positioning); the aforementioned methodology will limit the enemy’s potential actions such that, if we do lose the initiative, the enemy’s immediate limitations means blocking is now edging into the realms of workable.

I do believe blocking should be practised. I don’t believe it should be favoured due to the fact it is a low percentage method. And that is something we emphasise whenever we do any drills that contain any blocking. Blocking needs practised because, as I joke at seminars, it would be no good if you did spot a blow coming only to think, “I wish I knew how to stop that!” However, the practical limitations of blocking against a frenzied and committed attack need to be fully emphasised and appreciated.

All the best,


Bob Davis
Bob Davis's picture

We had an interesting session this week pretty much on this topic where I specifically set out to break the drills I've spent the last year teaching (as much to prove a point as anything else). The drills are very effective in a known situation, very simple and easy to apply, and if the attacker is really commited to the attack, very painful to be on the receiving end (hence the use of body armour if we are doing them more than a few times). The drills are actually not that disimilar in shape to Mark's video.

What happened on the back of this exercise using random high speed attacks was that the success rate for applying the drill as designed (basically a simultaneous block/cover and strike from H2 done reactively), went down from around 99% to probably less than 33%, on the plus side, nobody got hit and everybody had other things in the box to fall back on.

It did occur to me  however that exactly the same move could be practiced pre-emptively to good effect whilst still looking defensive (so next session :-) ), this means we still only need the one trained response for either scenario, which is a win in my book.