One problem I've seen in myself and others at various stages of training is a tendency to become fixated on a particular target or technique when fighting. The tendency to focus on only a handful of targets and not to see the whole person. In my dojang we frequently talk about remembering how both you and your opponent have "two arms and two legs" (and a head, and knees, and elbows…) because there's a tendency to fixate on one thing to the exclusion of everything else.

One thing I'm wonder is if there are good ways to help overcome this through drills or other structured exercises (not sparring).

Are there good drills out there to train seeing the whole of the opponent and adapting more dynamically to changing circumstances?

  • 1
    It's funny, I found this question yesterday, and then yesterday night at our dojo we did exercises focusing on exactly this topic. Weird how things work sometimes.
    – eidylon
    Commented Jun 27, 2012 at 15:24

7 Answers 7



  1. If you are in a kata-based art, practice your least-favorite kata until you start noticing it pop up in your daily life (opening doors a certain way, stepping to dodge someone in a crowded area just like in the kata). You pick your least-favorite because it is most likely to move you out of your comfort zone. Don't force it though. As you practice, let your discomfort flow out of you as you practice. You don't want keep repeating motions while associating it with "this sucks."
  2. Keep drilling the choreographed two-man applications from that kata until you are not thinking much about it.
  3. Slow down the sparring to half-speed, full intention. Don't focus on each individual technique. That is, don't let your mind be completely attached to the technique you are doing.
  4. Learn to become aware of your peripheral awareness. It's from the peripheral that you learn to initiate movement that will break and disrupt whatever pattern you find yourself in.
  5. (Updated): Practice with other people. Sometimes you keep doing the same thing because your partner keeps giving you the same bad habits to exploit. If you really want to shake things up, cultivate friends who practice completely different lineages from other cultures.
  6. (Optional) Probably the most important practice that few people really try: Meditate. Set a timer for 5 minutes and stare at a candle flame or a dot on the wall. You will feel urges to get up and off the cushion. You will want to check on the timer. You will thrash hard to try to avoid meditating. You will get lost in stories inside your head, forgetting to stay with the dot on te wall. Accept the reality that you are sitting there and allow the urge to pass through you and out of you. Until you have accepted reality, meditating is far more difficult and painful than anything you can ever do in your physical training of martial arts, but no martial artist who has never tried ever believes me. :-) Those thrashing are the root cause for you getting stuck in patterns; when you learn how to confront the things you hide from yourself and accept them, then breaking out of getting stuck in a technique is easy.
  • 1
    That's all really excellent advice. Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 16:02

I have completed the following drills before sparring. I can say that they work very well to put you in a more creative mode of thought. Repeat these drills before sparring.

  1. Take a partner and a tennis ball (or anything you can throw to the other person). Face each other at a distance of about 1 metre. The first person throws the ball and calls "left" or "right" just before they throw it. The other person must catch the ball with their left hand or right hand, whichever side is called out by the other person, then return the ball and repeat. Continue for about 1. Swap roles and repeat.
  2. Repeat the exercise as above, except this time, when you catch the ball, you must throw the ball back with the opposite hand you caught it with. Continue for about 1 minute and make sure you both have a go at catching.
  3. Repeat as above, except this time when you catch the ball, you must do a 360 degree spin in the direction of the hand you caught the ball with, while still swapping hands before you throw the ball back. Again, 1 minute each.
  4. Repeat the above, but this time whoever is catching the ball must count backwards from 10, out loud, while they do all the other things as well.

If you make a mistake during the exercises above, like catching the ball with the wrong hand, take a moment to turn away from your partner, regain focus and then return and continue with the exercise. Do the drills in order, and follow each drill with the next one after a short break.

These drills are based on NLP principles. My understanding is that they overload your conscious mind, and active your unconscious mind and put you into a flow state.

I can say this technique worked well for me and for everyone in my class. It improved focus, creativity, enjoyment and overall performance during the training session immediately after doing the drills.

Unfortunately I don't know very much about NLP so I can't really say much more.

How does this answer your question? Well, when we are thinking too much during sparring, our reactions are too slow. By being "in the zone," that is, in a flow state, you will react more quickly. This is part of the problem I think you're describing. That is, thinking too much and therefore reacting too slowly, which cuts down how many options you have and decreases your awareness.

In combination with improving your flow during sparring, learning new techniques will increase the overall repertoire available to you during sparring.


Fixation is a natural part of the way we train new techniques and new forms. When you practice, you say, "Okay, I'm going to work on XYZ kata." or "I'm going to train ABC technique now." We then proceed to drill the technique repeatedly.

This is good training at a very low level, but it's something that needs to be abandoned at a point. In my estimation, this is the point where the student begins dissolving techniques into the handful of principles at the core of any art.

In the Bujinkan, if I examine the torite kihon goho (5 basic techniques in our art), I'm looking at five techniques that deal with locking the body by means of the joints, disrupting the balance, creating exceeding pain, and controlling the opponent.

Now, rather than saying, "I'm going to practice ura gyaku" which gives me two techniques to practice (right and left), I'll instead say, "I'm going to practice disrupting balance." Now if I only know the torite kihon goho, I am practicing 10 techniques (5 techniques, right and left). But these techniques are composed of small pieces, so I skip portions, change movement, and seek to still disrupt balance. Now I'm no longer practicing techniques but principles, and I'm not rooted to any one.

So then I'll work under stress; rapid-fire randori after a few laps around the room to elevate my heart rate. Don't think, but respond and let the attackers attack how they will.

When you stop focusing on performing the technique and begin to just move, you'll find 1.) that you know the techniques you've been training and 2.) that you do not need the techniques to be effective.


One class of drills that worked well for me in karate, as well as my very short time training MMA, was changing the phase or range of the fight. So we'd drill, in isolation:

  • Closing the distance on kickers
  • Shooting a takedown on punchers
  • Standing up instead of going for a sweep or submission from the guard
  • Maintaining distance against someone who wants to clinch

Being able to change the terrain of the fight from long-range to short-, from striking to the clinch, and from the clinch to the ground (and all the permutations in between) encourages fighters to take advantage of alternative possibilities instead of getting stuck brawling or brute-force-wrestling in the position they're in.

Disclaimer: I can't say that I really achieved proficiency with any of these; really, I was only exposed to them.


If working with a group you can watch for these patterns and then come up with a scenario where this technique either won't be effective or just flat out won't work. Do the drills slow and give your mind a chance to think at this level. You could also check out Rory Miller's book "Drills" which has some good tips and ideas on thinking outside the box. https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/44993


I'd say you need to have a fairly big repertoire of techniques to chose from before you can achieve this. When you know a bunch of different techniques well, stop planning or thinking about which one you are going to apply, but rather apply the one which fits the given situation where you see an opening.

By changing your technique according to how your opponent reacts I'd say you'd get rid of the "fixation" - it's best to take things slowly to start with, so that you have enough time to react to changes in your opponents posture and "openings".


Use your eagle vision. Don't stare into tunnel vision but see everything in your field of vision. Like the great eagle don't worry with detail just get the contrasts. To train your eagle vision look with tunnel vision and swiftly switch to eagle vision. Practice to a little while and you'll master it.

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