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?

Have you checked out my Tiny Teaching Course for Instructors?

If you like my stuff, you’ll love this free course. Get it here:

Kumite Footwork Exercise

Are you ready for a quick kumite footwork drill that helps develop strong quads, explosive movement and agility?


You’ll need a sparring partner and a pair of focus mitts.

It works like this:

  1. Partners face each other in their fighting stance at kicking range, left leg forward.
  2. The Target  holds the mitts in front of their body with palms touching (picture and imagine praying).
  3. The Fighter  waits in anticipation for the Target to present the mitt to hit.
  4. With their left hand the Target shows the mitt at a position for a front leg jodan mawashi geri  (upper level roundhouse kick).
  5. The Fighter skips up with the back foot, chambers the knee and fires off the kick, recoiling the leg and placing their foot to the ground next to their other foot, legs slightly bent at the knees.
  6. At the same time the Target EITHER shuffles backwards or pushes forwards one  slide .
  7. The Fighter must react appropriately after the kick.

In the case of a retreating Target, the Fighter pushes forwards using the loaded spring of the BACK LEG into forward stance, and delivers reverse punch.

In the case of an advancing Target, the Fighter pushes backwards by loading up the FRONT LEG and driving backwards. At the same time the Fighter must move the back foot as to regain their original fighting position, and follow with slide in reverse punch.

[HINT: Pay attention to what you/your students do after the kick! A common mistake is to fall forwards instead of recoiling the leg and driving forwards. This action leaves the fighter open for the counter. It also puts the fighter in a position unable to chase their opponent should they double-shuffle backwards. Conversely a fighter who recoils and springs forwards has momentum and can push forwards again if their opponent moves further back, breaks line, etc.]

Typically we to this exercise for 10 repetitions before changing roles, and of course then working the other side of the body. The objective is for the fighter to develop strong explosive movement, to be able to anticipate the target’s movement and react appropriately ensuring proper distance and timing for their technique.

Here’s a quick visual, just because I know you love my stick figure animations. 😉


Try it with you students and if you like this kumite drill I have a ton more of them here.


— Jason

Develop Your Weak Side

How many karate-ka does it take to change a light bulb?

Just one. But he’ll do it 10,000 times with his right hand, then 10,000 times with his left.

(This is the part where you laugh.)

In all seriousness as much as we karate-ka like to think we are equally proficient on both sides of our body, the reality is we’re not.

The fact is most of us are right-side dominant, and not as coordinated as our left-handed brothers, since “lefties” have to adapt to our right-handed world.

Side note: Unless you’re left handed you probably don’t realize how much of a challenge it can be with daily tasks in a right hand world. Think about writing, scissors, tools, measuring cups, etc. For lefties, check out – You’re welcome. =)

Anyhow, let’s get back to the original point.

Typically, by nature we are a one-side dominant species. Approximately 85% of people are right-handed according to Scientific American.

But why?

Well it’s to do with the left brain controlling the right side of the body. The left brain is also what controls speech, and when the written word came to be, it was therefore natural to write with the right side.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

This explains why other primates (who can’t speak or write) don’t tend to favor their right side, yet us wacky humans do.

However one of the requisites of karate is that we train both sides equally. But how many of us seriously do that in every aspect?

ZERO would be a good guess.

Here’s why:

It would be a fair assumption most traditional karate dojo practice either Pinan or Heian kata, wouldn’t you agree?

If we look further at kata it’s apparent they were developed for defense with right side attacks first in mind. Think about the first move in any pinan/heian kata… you turn/move away from a right-handed attacker.

(A savvy reader might argue these right-handed attacks develop a strong left side defense. And I would agree… which is followed by a dominant right hand counter.)

In addition many of the finishing techniques/kiai points are made on the right side of the body. This holds true for almost every kata. This evidence reinforces karate is a right side dominant fighting system. 

Still need more convincing?

Try doing Pinan/Heian Godan as the mirror image of what you regularly practice. You’ll probably get through it, but not smoothly. There are certain techniques that you almost only ever apply with the right side of the body. And when you attempt the lefty version of these you’re bound to feel like a beginner all over.

Consider the kosa dachi/uraken kiai point in Pinan/Heian Godan, or the first move in Bassai Dai for example. How often do you practice these moves on the left side during kihon (basics) or bunkai (application) practice? I’m guessing not very often if at all.

The left photo shows the first kiai point in Pinan Godan. The right picture is a reverse image of the same technique.

With all of this in mind, it becomes apparent why lefties tend to do quite well at karate since they already have the left side dominance as a natural ability. They learn through repetition to be proficient with their right. Often times they can hit just as hard with either side of the body, or perform difficult techniques on either side without much thought.

Makes sense, yes?

And if you’re a right-handed karate-ka, guess what? Your right will almost always be stronger and more coordinated no matter how much you practice both sides equally. It has the natural advantage already. So equal numbers of reps will keep it ahead of your left, less dominant side.

So what’s the solution?

In order to feel more coordinated on your weak side, a simple exercise would be to make a list of movements from kata for which you only practice the right side of the body. Take those movements and incorporate those directly into your kihon (basics) section of class and you’ll see a marked improvement in your students’ skill sets.

For example, from yoi dachi have your students step in (on your count) to kosa dachi and make uraken per the picture above. On the next count have them return to yoi dachi. On the next count they step in with the other side of the body. Repeat.

What other techniques can you think of to practice in this manner?

Post away!