How to Develop Fighter Instinct

The tactical landscape of tournament fighting is forever changing. Competitors and coaches are always looking for an edge over their opponents. And with the all-too-frequent changes in rules, there is an arms race to develop the next great strategy, tactic, or method.

Thanks to the pursuit of the next nuclear fighting tactic, fundamentals have taken a back seat. It’s all too common to see kizami zuki with the back foot high off the ground, ura mawashi geri executed with a swinging leg, and mawashi geri often not recoiled, yet points are being awarded.

Competitors have become masters of 3 or 4 scoring techniques, and have learned to play the game using them. As a result, many competitors haven’t developed their fighting instinct. That is, the ability to do something instinctual outside of their usual bag of tricks.

Was it always this way?

Conversely competitors from 30 years ago weren’t as strategic as today. Fighters had their favorite techniques of course, but fought more on instinct than careful strategic analysis of their opponent.

Strategy back then was more simple. Fighter instinct was at a high.

WKF World Championship, Long Beach, USA – 1975.

But what if you could develop your competitors to utilize both STRATEGY and INSTINCT?

For that we must revisit the fundamentals of kumite, and use training methods to develop fighter instinct.

What is Fighter Instinct?

It’s the ability to do something at a subconscious level. To know what the right option is at any given time, and to execute technique without thinking. This could be a punch, a kick, a combination, a block, or movement.

Even more simply it’s an ability to subconsciously control the choice of technique, the distance, and the timing. Those who understand these fundamentals and who can manipulate these variables have a distinct advantage.

So how do you Develop Instinct?

How do you develop fighters who can break the mold of systematic robots who struggle when presented with something outside of their programming parameters?

It comes back to training methods, and a need to spend more time on those things that develop fighter instinct.

A simple training exercise that you can use to start breaking up strategic stagnation is to place restrictions on fighters during competitive sparring in the dojo.


A rudimentary example would be to have fighter #1 only allowed to punch, while fighter #2 is only allowed to kick. This restriction forces each fighter to use techniques, strategies, and tactics outside of their usual scope. It puts more options into their ‘go-to’ bag. The more they practice them, the more comfortable they are using them, the more likely they are to use them in a match.

Take a look at the table below. Here are some ideas I brainstormed for you. We use these restrictions often in class to develop fighter instinct. For each round, choose one of these restrictions for each of your fighters. Half way through each round, (on your command) fighters switch roles. Use these basic training methods to start to develop techniques and strategies that might otherwise be forgotten.

Fighter #1Fighter #2
Must kick before they can punch Must punch before they can kick
Block and Counter only Attack only
Left hand behind back Right hand behind back
Right hand behind backRight hand behind back
Must fight right leg forwardMust fight left leg forward
Can only anticipate
(sen no sen)
Can only attack
Techniques with only right side of body (either stance)Techniques with left side of body (either stance)
Can only attack headCan only attack body
Can only kickCan only punch
Limited to straight techniquesLimited to circular techniques
Single techniques onlyMultiple techniques only
Must fake before attackNo fake before attack
Must do multiple counterSingle counter only
Must attempt sweep 3 timesMust attempt clinch 3 times
Starts from laying down on backStarts standing

What else can you think of?

Placing these kinds of restrictions on your fighters gives them practice in unexpected situations and helps develop their fighter instinct. Combine that with the 3 or 4 favorite go-to-techniques and a well planned strategy, and you give your fighters the edge. A good fighting instinct helps competitors adapt and overcome, and can save them from being beaten by the unexpected.

Where to next?

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