How to design a FMA based Self-Defense/Defensive Tactics Drill.

How to design a FMA based Self-Defense/Defensive Tactics Drill.

by Tuhon Bill McGrath

The drills described in this article come from two sources. The first are the fighting principles found in the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Filipino martial arts. The second are the teaching methods I learned during my time as a defensive tactics instructor for my department.

I began training in Pekiti-Tirsia in 1975 and began teaching defensive tactics for the NY State Court system in 1987. Both of these have contributed to my understanding of how to teach this material to a wide variety of people. I have tried to structure this article so it can be adapted to any martial arts or defensive tactics program.

Please feel free to modify these general guidelines to the specific needs of your students and local requirements.


First we have to ask, “what is a drill?” One of the definitions the dictionary gives us is this:

Intensive instruction or training in something, typically by means of repeated exercises.

Drills are different than sparring, which the Oxford dictionary defines as:

Make the motions of boxing without landing heavy blows, as a form of training.

So what are the differences between drills and sparring? Drills involve repeated practice of a set number of techniques to develop skill in a targeted area.

Meanwhile sparring is broader; involving the movements and principles of a fight, but with a reduced chance of injury; commonly by adding safety equipment and rules.

So, how does one create a drill?

When I brought my first computer chess game back in the 1990s ( yes, we had computers back then ), I did not play a full game right away. Instead I played just the opening moves, over and over again, trying different variations, for over an hour. Being a machine, the computer did not care how many times I restarted the game after just a few moves. On my side of things, since I was playing against a machine, I had no ego involved and felt no embarrassment about starting the game over at any point.

I remember trying to get to a certain position with my four central pawns in an attempt to control the center of the board. In essence, I created a drill for the opening moves of chess, trying to reach a specific goal and learning which actions gave me the best chance of reaching that goal against that specific opponent.

In martial arts, a drill can be as simple as a boxing coach using focus mitts to work one specific punch with his fighter; or as complex as an army brigade conducting a multi-day field training exercise with several types of units and equipment.

 So, how do we use drills to teach skills that will be used while under stress?

“What goes in while under stress today, will come out when under stress tomorrow.”

One of the main goals of beginning student training with a drill is to reduce stress while practicing something new. You have heard the sayings, “What you practice is what will come out under stress.” and “You can’t learn to swim on dry land.” The principle here is that you must make your training as realistic as possible for it to work in real life.

While I agree with this general concept, you have to execute it wisely. The flip side of these sayings is that stress during training will ingrain whatever you are doing (good or bad) into your subconscious mind.

When the US military wants soldiers to perform an emergency action under the stress of battle, they have their people practice that action at the end of a long hard period of several days, when they are tired, hungry and sleep deprived. Multiple repetitions of simple actions when in that level of stress bury the desired actions deep into the subconscious mind. It’s most common though for the military to do this type of training at the end of a course, after much time has been spent practicing the basic subcomponents of the action under a much lower level of stress.

This is why, when I taught my wife to shoot, we did not start with a full police qualification course with a duty caliber handgun. Instead, I started her dry firing an empty .22 caliber revolver. The first time she fired that revolver, it was with inexpensive, low powered ammo. When we moved onto shooting at targets, it was at the one yard line on a large target with no time limit. Only after she had consistent good groups at the one yard line did I move her to the five yard line. Eventually she was able to hit multiple targets, at speed, in center mass, with her CCW handgun.

Essentially, I taught her how to swim by starting with a short period on dry land (dry firing) and, when we moved to the pool, we started her training at the shallow end with the easiest technique I could teach her. I wanted her to develop correct form first, before doing anything stressful.

Stress can make learning and remembering new material difficult. That’s why some people are bad test takers. Stress actually effects the chemistry of your brain. Yes, some people can learn how to swim by jumping right into the deep end of the pool, but these are usually the natural swimmers, who find getting into the water fun, rather than stressful. For most of the non-naturals, starting them at the deep end of the pool will only ingrain bad habits in their swimming technique that will take a lot of time and effort to overcome.  This is why I discourage new people from high stress activities, such as sparring, as a test of their current performance level when joining a martial arts class.

The best fighters to come out of my teacher’s martial arts school were those who spent a lot of time doing drills in a steady progression of stress and complexity before they got into full contact sparring. While you can compress this drilling period for those with a natural talent for the desired task, they will be better in the long run if you go through at least some progression of drills with them.


I’ve been teaching for over 40 years now, and my teaching of drills has evolved over that time. This article contains a general overview of my current progression. (I’m going to assume most people reading this are familiar with either Filipino martial arts or at least the common names of punches in Western Boxing).

Level 1 Drills. These drills teach the student the “How” of the techniques. This is analogous to a boxer doing pad drills with a coach. In the case of our stick work, I begin students with “Mirror” drills, in which they are matching the movements of their training partner. Boxing coaches often number the punches, so their fighter knows which combination to hit the pads with. In Pekiti-Tirsia and most other FMA systems, it is common to do the same with the basic angles of stick strikes. So a boxing coach may call out “1-2-3-4” and the fighter will know to punch with a jab-cross-hook-uppercut combination; while we in FMA will be striking on these angles with our stick, while our training partner matches these angles strike for strike. Both the boxer and stick fighter are getting contact work in striking a target.

For a grappler, this level of drill may entail practicing just the entry portion of a takedown or lock for reps, without completing the full technique itself.

This level of drill requires little decision making on the student’s part, just lots of repetitions to ingrain the movements into the muscle memory.

Level 2 Drills. In the Pekiti-Tirsia system this level of drilling is based on a three step format of Attack-Counter-Recounter. This breaks down into one person delivering an attack, which their partner counters, followed by the first person recountering ( countering the counter ).

This Attack, Counter, Recounter drill phase is usually taught to students after they have become proficient at the basic movements of the system. Let’s call this basic level 1 stage the “How” stage (how to strike, how to block, how to move with footwork).

I call the three-step level 2 drill stage the “When” stage, as you are learning when to begin and end these movements. This is why we often call these drills “Timing Drills.”

Level 3 Drills. This is where things get really interesting. While level 2 drills cover much of the basics, they can be a bit two dimensional, as they are based on fighting a single opponent with weapons and attributes that are close to your own. This is fine if the focus of your martial arts training is on sports competition. But I would recommend going further if you would like your training to include real world defense; which may include dealing with multiple opponents, potentially with weapons and attributes different from your own. 

In level 1 drills you are learning how to do the techniques with good power, speed and accuracy.

In level 2, you are learning the timing of the delivery of these techniques.

In level 3, you are learning how to choose the right technique for each job.

If levels 1 and 2 teach you how to use different tools such as a hammer and a saw, then level 3 teaches you to recognize when a problem can be solved by a hammer and when the job requires a saw.

Much of my level 3 training involves teaching students to understand what I call a “Decision Tree.” This is a martial arts flowchart that is based on the attributes of your opponent(s), relative to yourself and how and where you need to move during and after a technique is delivered.

I like to start this process with footwork.

In this chart we have what my teacher called a Ranging Footwork pattern. Your starting position is at the center of the X, while your opponent is represented by the O at the top of the chart. The footwork includes stepping forward, angled right or left (1 & 2), lateral steps on the horizontal lines (5 & 6), and back steps, angled right or left (3 & 4).

At this early stage we are avoiding going straight forward or straight back (beginners can get in trouble doing this in a fight), but these movements can be taught once a student understands the basics.


In level 1 training, a common drill would be a symmetrical, single beat contact drill in which we and our training partner would strike with four diagonal strikes, matching our strikes and using simple sidesteps with each strike. These short sidesteps are represented by the short bars on the horizontal line in the chart. This is called a “single beat” drill because we are hitting with one strike for each of our opponent’s.

Symmetrical training is useful for beginners as it gets them doing repetitions for muscle memory, timing, accuracy and distance control (much like a boxer working the same punching combinations multiple times against focus mitts). Meanwhile, because stickfighters are doing this drill against a live partner doing the same attacks, it helps them learn to recognize the visual clues that signal the beginning movements of each attack. It’s a bit like a boxer doing shadow boxing in front of a mirror; it helps you recognize the movements that telegraph an attack. However, this symmetrical drill phase is really intended as “Training Wheels” and not how you should fight a skilled opponent.

( Note: To translate many of the drills used in this article from FMA to boxing, use this numbering system: 1 = jab. 2 = cross. 3 = hook. 4 = uppercut.

While this will work well for translating strikes between the two fighting systems, the footwork may be different because of the use of both arms in boxing, while many of the FMA drills we are using as examples here use a single stick held in the dominant hand with that side forward. )


In level 2 training of this drill we add an asymmetrical element.

We begin by asking the student to decide how and when to use different footwork angles. I set this up in two ways.

One way asks the student to counter the opponent’s number 1 strike (or a boxer’s jab) with each of his own four strikes. Their choice here is which footwork angle is needed for each strike. For example, in 1 vs 1 in stick work, you can use a simple sidestep to block his attack. However, if you are countering his 1 with your 2, a simple sidestep to either side will not take you out of the strike zone of his weapon.

A better footwork choice for a 2 counteract of a 1, is a wide sidestep that takes you out of your opponent’s strike zone, while still allowing you to strike his head or torso.

If you are using a 3 against his 1 strike, then two possible choices can be to either advance on the 2 line or retreat on the 3 line, depending on your timing (are you countering early or late in his attack). You can follow the same decision making process to counter with your angle 4.

In this drill you are like a boxer fighting a specialist in one category of punch (such as Ali being a jab specialist or Tyson being a hook specialist. It may not have been the only punch they threw, but it was the one you needed to worry about most often). While your opponent is a specialist, you are fighting as a generalist and can make use of all four attacks equally.

The other version of this drill turns things around. Now you are limited to using one of your strikes to counter each of his four strikes, ( Thus, you are now the specialist and he becomes the generalist ). How does your footwork change? How does your 1 vs his 2 differ from using your 2 vs his 1? Do you find that you are using the same category of footwork, but just mirroring it on the other side? Do you find your reach changes when using a forehand instead of a backhand? How does this effect your footwork choices?

In the first version of these drills, the opponent is stationary or using simple sidesteps. Now try it with him charging straight in or trying to outflank you. Now with him retreating: straight or at an angle.

Remember; Your goal here is to control the distance to your advantage. Know your escape routes and points of cover (and remember, distance can be cover for non-projectile weapons). Use footwork to move towards positions that give you an advantage. (“I have the high ground Anakin, you can not win!”)


Level 3 is were things get really complicated. Why? Because real life is complicated.

This level adds multiple opponents with asymmetrical weapons and attributes.

If level 1 is like a game of checkers and level 2 is like a game of chess, then level 3 is like that three tiered game of chess that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock would play in the original Star Trek TV show.

This is where the decision tree process comes into play.

1. It starts with an understanding of your environment before the danger even appears:

Get in the habit of looking for potential ambush points and escape routes along your daily route of travel. How far to the nearest police station or other government building with armed security? Nearest hospital? Which roads are closed due to construction? Which are the high crime areas nearest your route? Which roads have the most traffic congestion and at what times?

When indoors take note of the exits and make a mental list of the places of cover or concealment between you and those exits. What potential allies are present? What environmental weapons are present?

2. The next step is to recognize the danger when it appears: Who are the bad guys? What are their physical and mental attributes compared to your own? What are their assets? What level of threat do they pose? Can I de-escalate? Can I instill doubt? How can I mentally or physically divide them?

Now do the math: If environment + danger = X, then you have to ask yourself “What tools and tactics must I bring into play to overcome X?”

Here is an excerpt from my article on Learning Through Comparisons where I set up an empty hand version of this drill as an example:

We recently used the Three Man Team drill in Europe during the classes in the Abcedario de Mano. Instead of having the students learn all 12 sets of 12 strikes (144 techniques), I gave them just the first set (12 strikes of forward slap). Once they could do these 12 strikes well, I then gave them the principles of how to choose which strike to use in a given situation.

Here’s how I set the drill up. The students divide into groups of three, with one “good guy” against two “bad guys.” I tell the bad guys that they are the coaches during the drill. Their job is to make sure the good guy is moving correctly. They should move only as fast as the good guy can do the technique correctly. If it is not perfect, then slow down until it is. We start with each bad guy doing the same attack, so the good guy can work the same technique against different opponents from different positions.

Let’s look at a left jab as the attack. Against a single attacker, the“safer”angle to move is to your right, slipping outside his guard. But wait. What if bad guy number 2 is to your right? Then moving to your left is the better option. Consciously choosing which way to move because of a second attacker is how you use this drill to avoid developing tunnel vision during a real fight.

I have a mental chart for decision making for Pekiti-Tirsia students practicing these combat drills. It involves a short list of principles to help them choose which tool to reach for when they see a particular problem. I have expanded the details of this list into more general categories of techniques, so non-Pekiti people can choose from the tools available to them.

First, we have to do a bit of review. The basic techniques and drills of Pekiti-Tirsia can be divided into two general groups.

1.  How to hit stuff. Specifically how to hit with a good balance of speed, power and accuracy.

2.  What to do if your “Plan A” fails. Pekiti starts it’s timing drills with close quarters work. It’s not because we like working at this range (it is the most dangerous range to fight in, especially with edged weapons, as it has the most going on and the least amount of time to react to problems). We train here first because if your safer, long range technique fails, or you are caught off guard and the danger is in your face before you recognize it, then you had better have the right close range responses baked into your core reactions. One training principle we often use is “If you want something to come out first, then train it first.” The idea here is for a desired action to be used under stress quickly as an instinctive reaction, train it as early as possible.

It’s only when we get into the advanced levels of Pekiti-Tirsia that students begin to learn the “Plan A” stuff: i.e. those principles and techniques they can use if they have time to make a battle plan, before things get fast and ugly.

Here are the first three categories of techniques I use for decision tree drills among advanced Pekiti-Tirsia students: Seguidas, Contradas and Recontras. For a comic book shorthand version of these techniques consider them as Batman, the Flash and Superman.

SEGUIDAS ( AKA “I’m Batman” )

Seguidas techniques are designed to be used when your opponent and/or his weapon is equal to you and your weapon. Therefore, you must use more efficient techniques and better strategy to win.  Much of Seguidas focuses on a technique that falls into the category of a jab, but it is not just any quick hit. Seguidas jabs come from unexpected angles and are very efficient in their use of force. As in boxing, these jabs are used to set up the power shot. But, just as in boxing, your opponent knows the power punches are fight enders and won’t allow you an easy opening for your power shots.

Think of how Muhammad Ali used his jab as his main weapon. His preferred distance was long range and he used his jab to keep heavy hitters at bay. No single jab would likely be a knock out, but enough of them would wear a stronger fighter down until Ali found an opening for the cross or hook.

In combat against multiple opponents, your jab might not be used to set up a power punch. Instead it might buy you time to run for the exit, or create enough distance to draw your weapon or get to a weapon the environment offers.

I call Seguidas the “sniper rifle” of techniques. Think of which of your techniques fall into the category of “long range/precision use/weapon” and that may be your Seguidas technique.


In Contradas, your opponent is larger or stronger than you or your weapon. However, you and/or your weapon are faster and more maneuverable, so you use multiple, fast strikes (usually from middle range) while leaving yourself an escape route if things don’t go your way.

If Contradas were a boxer, it would be Sugar Ray Leonard, using great footwork to evade his opponent’s initial attacks, sneaking into middle range, firing off a quick combination and then making his escape. If Contradas were a firearm, it would be an Uzi submachine gun firing short, quick bursts. 


 In Recontras, your opponent is faster than you or your weapon or he has better endurance, but you or your weapon are larger, heavier or hit harder. Therefore, you should use decisive, committed attacks that nullify the opponent’s speed advantage.

In Pekiti-Tirsia, Recontras techniques usually involve either grappling, limb destruction or overpowering the opponent’s lighter weight weapon through force on force contact.

Recontras techniques are also known for decisive, direct entries and can be useful when time is not on your side. If there is a “con” to all these “pros”, it is that Recontras require full commitment. There are not much in the way of easy escape routes in Recontras if things don’t go as planned.

If Recontras were a boxer, it would be Mike Tyson in his prime; charging in, knocking men out in the first round of the fight. If Recontras were a firearm, it would be a double barreled shotgun loaded with 12 gauge 00 buckshot.


So, how do you fit these principles and techniques into a decision tree drill?

You saw how I did this in the example from the seminar in Europe, but that was in pre-Covid times. Here is a variation on this drill if you are stuck in lockdown with only a single training partner to work with.

Instead of three men, each with a different mode of attack, give each of the two partners three different rubber training weapons. My current favorites are a Cold Steel bowie, a kukri and a tomahawk. All are made of Cold Steel’s synthetic rubber called Santoprene.

While these are safer than sharp steel, I wouldn’t want to get poked in the eye with one, so proper eye protection should be worn even while training slowly with these.

Each partner puts the three trainers in their belt at the point where they might carry these (if you had to carry all three at one time). I would put the hawk on the right hip, the bowie on the left and the kukri at the back so it can be drawn with the right hand.

Next decide which partner will start as the bad guy. (I usually have the more experienced person play the bad guy first).

Step 1 in training is to learn a set of basic attacks with each weapon, as well as at least one simple counter and one recounter with each one. Here they practice level 2 drills with each weapon, moving as slowly as they need to in order to learn the movements and practice safely.

You should start off with the same weapon fighting the same weapon, so the students can learn the rules of each. Next do the same drills, but against a different weapon.

This is where the decision tree comes into play. With three different weapons in the mix, it becomes like a game of rock-paper-scissors but the characters are Batman, Superman and The Flash and each can beat any of the others if he uses the right technique at the right time.

Here’s the cheat sheet for this:

Use Seguidas principles when the opponent’s weapon is equal to your own.

Use Contradas principles when the opponent’s weapon is heavier than your own.

Use Recontras principles when the opponent’s weapon is faster than your own.

Remember, practice only as fast as you can do the techniques properly. If the bad guy attacks slowly enough, the good guy usually can figure out the right thing to to do. 

You can try this drill in multiple levels. Here are some examples.

1.  The bad guy attacks and the good guy counters and moves past him.

2.  The bad guy attacks, the good guy counters and the bad guy recounters and the good guy blocks the recounter while moving past the bad guy.

3.  The good guy fakes an attack to draw a block from the bad guy, the bad guy counters and the good guy recounters as he moves past the bad guy.

The next stage of this is to add real world goals and problems such as escape routes and barriers. The simple way to do this in a school setting is to designate a line a few feet behind the bad guy as the “safe” zone and an area next to one side of his body as the “barrier.” If you have a line of heavy bags in your school, these can make a good safe zone or barrier. Don’t line the guys up alongside a wall of the school for the barrier unless you are ok with black rubber marks all over the wall. And windows and mirrors are totally off limits, as even a rubber trainer can break them if used with enough force.

Remember to change the “barrier” side periodically, as the goal here to to simulate an area that may be off limits in real life and these can’t be known ahead of time. Like the example in the drill in Europe, you may have a preference to move in a certain direction for a counter, but if there is a barrier in that direction, then you should have some practice in moving to your “non-preferred” direction.

You can use the same drill process using empty hand techniques, with each partner having a choice of three different arts ( for example, Western boxing, Thai boxing and BJJ ).

If you only know one art (boxing, for example), then the partners can cycle through the drill, moving in the style of Ali, Leonard or Tyson.

Some more things to think about:

1.  Have moving towards the escape route at the end of each technique as the finisher of each rep of these drills. This helps build muscle memory to get out of the danger zone after contact is made. Just because you won that battle does not mean you are going to win the war if bad guy number two shows up. I usually have the students take three steps towards the exit door to help with this. Movement is life!

2.  Once the good guy finishes each rep of a drill with those three steps, have him turn and continue training, facing the bad guy from this direction. I am constantly telling new students at seminars, “You don’t have to go back to the Good Guy spot to do the next rep of the technique.”

3.  An additional way to do these drills is to have the good guy start with his training weapons in his belt and counter the first attack from the bad guy with an empty hand technique. Then he draws his training weapon and the next rep can be in weapon vs weapon format. We do this often in our Pekiti-Tirsia classes, as the purpose of our hand vs knife training is to buy us enough time to draw our own weapon. 

I hope this gives most instructors enough of a format to allow you to build your own drills using Pekiti-Tirsia principles adapted for your techniques.

Training tips to remember:

If you want a technique to come out first, even under stress, then train it first. Just remember to train it right.

Control the distance between you and the threat. Know your escape routes and places of advantage. Movement is life!

The goal of level 1 drills are to teach techniques with a balance of speed, power and accuracy.

The goal of level 2 drills are to teach each attack with a corresponding counter and recounter.

The goal of level 3 drills are to teach applications of levels 1 and 2 against different opponents and weapons and to move towards escape routes while avoiding danger zones.

Train Hard, but Train Smart,

Tuhon Bill McGrath

PS: You will find some addition articles on related subjects in the training articles section of this blog: