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 essay 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.


 Sparring at the 1981 Pekiti-Tirsia Summer Camp.



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 probably 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. The way I put this is: “What goes in while under stress today, will come out when under stress tomorrow.”

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. However, it’s most common 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 on to shooting at targets, it was at the two yard line on a large target with no time limit. Only after she had consistent good groups at the two yard line did I move her to the three yard line and did the same progression before moving 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 into the pool, we started her 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 actually effects the chemistry of your brain and can make remembering the information you need difficult. That’s why some people are bad test takers, even though they knew the material well prior to the test. 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.

Therefore, here's another teaching motto I follow: "Do not test a student before they have been taught." Remember, you are warming up the brain as well as the body at the begining of class, so keep the first excercises for new students simple.

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 students 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.


A sample from the drills of 64 Attacks.




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. Meanwhile, our training partner is matching these angles strike for strike. Therefore, both the boxer and stick fighter are practicing to strike a moving target.

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.

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.

Symmetrical training is useful for beginners, as it gets them doing repetitions for muscle memory, timing, accuracy and distance control. 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. )


 A drill using just 1 and 2 (jab and cross). Basic techniques with Advanced timing.


A sample level 1 drill.



Empty hand drills incorporating theories from levels 1 and 2 from the 5 Attacks subsystem.



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 ( i.e. countering the counter ).


 The geometry of Pekiti-Tirsia footwork in the counter to thrust drill of 64 Attacks.


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.”

In level 2 training, we add an asymmetrical element to the drills.

We can 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, ( Therefore, 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.


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. 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!”)

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 lines can be taught once a student understands the basics.


 Single stick counters using footwork with asymmetrical striking.


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?”

 The Pekiti-Tirsia Upper 8 drill and a comparison of the basic stick, empty hand and situational applications of the techniques and principles. This version of the drill combines elements of levels 1, 2 & 3.


I have a decision making chart to help Pekiti-Tirsia students practicing these drills. It involves a short list of principles to help them choose which tool to use 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.

Before we get into the details of this, we should 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 its 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 built into your core reactions. One training principle we often use is “If you want something to come out first while under stress, then train it first.” The principle is for a desired action to be used under stress, as a quick and instinctive reaction, train it as early as possible.

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 the Batman, Flash and Superman sytles of fighting.


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 techniques that falls into the category of the 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.



Solo Contradas, set 1, technique 1.


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 a pistol caliber submachine gun firing short, quick bursts. 



A takedown from Solo Recontras as taught in the 5 Attacks Subsystem.


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 buckshot.


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

Start with three men, each with a different mode of attack and each with three different rubber training weapons. My usual recommendations are the Cold Steel bowie, a kukri and a tomahawk. All are made of Cold Steel’s synthetic rubber called Santoprene. (A step up in quaility would be the polymer training tools from Volpes Training, but these are much heavier than the Cold Steel versions; so you need to train with more care and move more slowly when practicing).

While these trainers are safer to practice with than sharp steel, I still 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 their trainer in their belt, at the location where they might carry these tools.

Step 1 is solo training, to learn a set of basic attacks with each weapon.

Step 2 is learning two simple counters to these attacks and two recounters with each tool against a single opponent (one counter should escape to the right and one should escape to the left). 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 each different weapon in turn.

Step 3 is applying what you have learned with three partners, each with a different training tool.

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.


Bowie vs Kukri vs Tomahawk: understanding the pros & cons and things to remember for FMA students.


Here’s the cheat sheet for using these principles:

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 partner attacks slowly enough, the good guy partner usually can figure out the right thing to to do. I tell the students in this segment that when they are the bad guy in these drills, they should see themselves as the temperary coach and move only as fast as their partner can do the technique correctly. If their partner is not moving correctly, then it is their job to slow down until he does.

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 marks from the rubber trainers 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. 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.  The ending of each drill set should be to move towards an escape route or exit. 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 two or 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 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. Therefore, move no faster than you can move correctly when learning something new.

Control the distance between you and the threat. Know your escape routes and places of advantage.

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 types of 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 this section of my blog:

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