Basic symmetrical sparring, with two evenly matched opponents, each using the same evenly matched weapon, is a great way to introduce students to many of the skills they need for combat. They can even stay in this symmetrical mode their whole martial arts careers, if the only place they will ever fight in are tournaments.

Things are different in a real fight though. Success is defined not by scoring more points, or even knocking your opponent out, but by you coming out of the altercation in as close to the same condition as you went into it as possible. 

Unless you are a law enforcement officer intending to arrest a criminal; on the street your mind should be focused on the words “Avoid” or “Escape” rather than on “Winning" the fight. One concept you must understand is that real street attacks are rarely as symmetrical as a regular tournament-focused sparring match.

Seldom on the street are you attacked by a single opponent who is your equal in size, strength or endurance and armed with exactly the same weapon as you are carrying (if you are carrying any weapon at all). Usually street attacks are more asymmetrical. The opponent (or opponents) is larger or stronger, has superior numbers or is better armed than the person he is attacking.
If they didn’t think the odds were in their favor, they wouldn’t attack you in the first place. Therefore, to prepare for the real world, we need to make our sparring reflect this asymmetrical aspect. The following drills should help.

Note 1. These drills are for experienced students who are proficient in their basic, foundational techniques. Therefore, this training should be focused on the application of principles, instead of the learning of new techniques.

Note 2. The concept for many of these drills were taken from my time spent as a law enforcement defensive tactics instructor; where much of the advanced training drills are scenario based and asymmetrical.

Note 3. Start each drill with the “Good Guy” using the safety/trainer version of the weapon/tool he actually would carry on his person in that situation. Have the “Bad Guys” armed with the safety/trainer versions of whichever weapons they might have in that situation. Later you can mix things up to account for the good guy disarming a bad guy’s weapon and using it, or the bad guys having better weapons than normal. The good guy should also carry his trainer where he normally carries his real weapon and practice the draw during the stress of the drill.

Note 4: Keep each “round” of sparring to 5 to 10 seconds, since this is the time frame that most real fights are won or lost. Students should fight no more than three rounds in a row as the “good guy” as a safety factor, (when you are tired you can make mistakes that get you hurt). When not sparring, they can learn a lot by watching and seeing the big picture.

Remember, the student’s primary goal in these drills is not to "win" against an individual opponent, but instead to learn how to function as part of a team. 

(This last admonition is a reminder to Type A personalities to avoid tunnel vision and stay part of their team; rather than chasing down an opponent and leaving their teammates exposed.)


STREET WALK: Scenario: You are walking down the street and see various objects and people who may or may not be dangerous. Observe and plan ahead.

STREET WALK 1. (Consider this one a warm up drill). A line on the floor is a “bottle neck ” or “choke point.” Have a “bad guy” walk through the bottle neck, while the “good guy” comes from the opposite direction. The good guy’s job is to time his walk through the choke point so that he is not walking in the danger zone at the same time a “bad guy” is passing through. The bad guy should maintain his pace as he approaches the choke point, while the good guy learns to estimate when the bad guy will arrive there. The good guy can speed up or slow down his approach to get his timing right.

If the good guy gets his timing wrong and meets the bad guy at the choke point, the bad guy will reach out to touch his shoulder, but do no more than that. The good guy should sidestep or parry this, but do no more than that. There is no fighting in this drill, just avoidance of proximity in a specific location, at a specific time.

If the bad guy stops in the choke point, waiting for the good guy, then he is setting up an ambush and the good guy should cross the “street” while keeping the bad guy in view. If the good guy normally carries a weapon, then he should practice walking with his weapon side away from other nearby pedestrians, while not blocking his view of bad guy number one.

STREET WALK 2. Several students walk down the “street” approaching the good guy, but only one is the bad guy. Bad guy chooses when and if to attack. The signal for an imminent attack is the bad guy moving into your lane of traffic. Good guy’s job is to either maintain a safe distance, escape the immediate area or to take cover. He can’t attack someone unless they attack him first and his counters must follow a justified use of force continuum.

BODYGUARD. Scenario: A well trained/armed person is walking with a non trained/armed or less trained/armed person who they are responsible for.

BODYGUARD 1. Non-combatant: Variables here could be a child or elderly person, or a completely untrained and unarmed, but otherwise healthy adult.
You and a “non-combatant” are attacked and you must get the non-combatant to safety, while still defending yourself. What are the differences in strategy when protecting someone who can move quickly and effectively follow directions under stress vs. protecting someone who cannot?

BODYGUARD 2. Full combatant partnered with semi-combatant. My Silat instructor called this “husband and wife” training. These days I think of this as “big gun-little gun” or “gun guy-knife guy” training. During an altercation, knife guy moves to gun guy’s back and warns of danger from behind and can use the knife to maintain a clear space behind them.
On the go signal, knife person grabs partner’s belt or shirt and guides gun guy towards cover while giving verbal or physical direction.

BODYGUARD 3. AKA the “Dad, Mom & Kids” drill. When violence is imminent, Dad’s job is to draw the attention of the bad guys and hold them off and/or counter attack, while Mom grabs kid(s) and moves towards nearest escape route. Once mom and kids are safe, she signals Dad who either joins them or moves to his nearest cover. I’ve used this often with my family as a mental exercise. “OK guys, where are the exits and cover in this restaurant/park/shopping center? Where should we meet up afterwards if we can’t get back to our car?”

HOME INVASION. Scenario: Our worst nightmare; bad guys in our home. (This one can get emotionally intense, so keep to short 5 second rounds for safety.) In each of these drills, use two heavy bags to act as a doorway. This allows using the “doorjamb” (surface of the heavy bag) as a weapon or as cover, as well as practicing with your weapons in a confined space.

You are standing in front of your bedroom door, keeping the bad guys from getting to your family. You can’t let the bad guys get past you.

There is a bad guy in front of your bedroom door and another bad guy inside attacking your family. You have to get past the first bad guy to save your family.

HOME INVASION 3. Version A adds a large foam shield tied to one heavy bag to act as a door. Good guy is answering his front door. Two or more bad guys are outside of the home. When door opens bad guys try to push their way in. Good guy tries to close door and then defends with hands, and safe trainer versions of a knife, stick, machete, handgun or long gun. Space and time limitations come into play (how fast can they enter vs. how fast can bring weapons into action and end the threat with different weapons). This can also be good training in the use of the door itself as a shield or weapon.

Version B. This is best done in a real doorway, (choose one without glass in it or near-by). Safety tip. Work this one slowly and plan your actions ahead of time and use safety trainers or “stunt doubles” where applicable. An example of a stunt double would be to substitute a rolled up piece of carpet for a bad guy’s head; practicing closing the door on it and then pushing it out the door, then closing and locking the door. (yes, it’s best to practice all the actions if you want them to come out reliably under stress). A good homework assignment is for students to look at the doorways to their homes for blindspots where bad guys can hide. Note: security cameras are inexpensive and easy to install these days. Even a convex mirror put in the right place can aid in removing blind spots around your home.

TEAM GET HOME. An alternative to the bodyguard is a group of equals (for example, martial arts students) walking down the street together. They are attacked by a group of bad guys. How do the students work as a team, while in the space they have and with the tools available to them?

The set up for this drill is to first define your fighting space. We have done this using a wall of the school to represent a “hard barrier” (such as a building on one side of a sidewalk), while a line of heavy bags can represent a “soft barrier” that you can climb over or go between (such as a row of parked cars), on the other side of the sidewalk.

Much of this drill is learning the range of your own weapons and how not to hit your partners as you fight and not to impede their own movements.

With an odd number of good guys, we have found it effective to stagger them in a reverse wedge or V formation, so that the middle good guy is back a step or so from his partners. The bad guys get funneled into this gap, where the front good guys (who have one of their sides protected by a barrier) can attack them from the sides. With an even number of good guys, try to form a reverse trapezoid, with the back guys forming a line at the bottom.

An alternate is to form the V formation and use the extra good guy(s) to guard the flank on the side with the soft barrier. Having this man take an extra step or two back from parallel with the center good guy will widen his field of view and help him watch for flanking maneuvers from the bad guys. It will also help keep him away from an accidental hit from the center good guy’s weapons.

Learning how to signal other team members, how to retreat as a group and who should signal this, how to bunker down and defend a fixed, three-sided area (defined as a place where your sides and back are protected by hard barriers), are all important parts of this drill.

I’ve taught this drill as part of an anti-riot escape plan; using your Get-Home-Bag on your left arm as a shield; while adding a plastic cutting board for knife resistance or a kevlar insert for bullet resistance inside the bag. Add a weapon drawn from the bag in your right hand and this can become part of a viable escape package.

Because of the high number of moving parts to this drill (and because the students get so excited when training this way – it is a lot of fun), it is advisable to put all your safety armor on when practicing this and start at only half speed and power.

BOOT CAMP DRILL: Not sparring, per se, but a way to train a technique so that it will come out under stress. Military trainers around the world purposely use this type of drill at the end of a long and exhausting day, as it allows the information to bypass the conscience brain and ingrain itself directly into the sub-conscience.

Pick one short combination attack that the students know well and practice this one combination against the air, focus mitts, thai pads, heavy bag or applicable weapon targets for the last 2 to 10 minutes of class (depending on the age and condition of the students and the difficulty of the technique).

Have them say or even shout the names of the movements of the combo in some shorthand that won’t slow down the delivery, such as “Jab-Cross-Uppercut-Hook” becomes “J-C-U-H” or “1-2-3-4.”

While they are doing this drill, they should visualize themselves successfully delivering the combo they are practicing, as well as the effect these techniques will have on their opponent.

GRAB BAG SPARRING. This is a fun drill for advanced FMA guys, as it’s a challenging way to train with different weapon mixes. Remember, in this type of advanced sparring, the student’s goal is not to win against the person in front of them at that moment, but to learn how to better their own fighting ability against a future opponent. I like to set this drill up with a line on the floor that one fighter has to guard and the other has to pass through as their respective goals.
This drill works well in 10 second rounds, with appropriate time between rounds for the fighters to rest and plan their moves for the next round.

Stage 1. Take a variety of practice weapons and assign numbers to them. Have practice versions of knives, wooden sticks, metal pipes, swords, a length of rope with a rubber ball at the end subbing as a belt with a heavy buckle, a soft rope subbing as a steel chain, a wooden dowel for a tactical flashlight, etc. Note: you can use different color paints or tape to signify different weapons, such as coloring a rattan stick black to signify an iron pipe or white to signify a machete.

Let’s say you come up with 10 different substitute training weapons. Line these up outside the sparring area. Now take 11 slips of paper and write a number (1 to 11) on each slip. Put the slips in a hat and let the students pick a number. Whatever they come up with, that is what they will spar with. As you probably have already guessed, if they draw an 11, they spar empty handed.

Stage 2 is to let the students pick two slips of paper each and fight with whatever comes out of the hat in Doble’ or Espada y Daga or, (if one of their numbers is 11) Solo style.

Note: If you see too great a disparity of force for safe training (i.e. a larger, more experienced student with a “machete” vs. smaller, less experienced student with a “knife”) try to even things up by giving the smaller student a partner or a better weapon, or give the better fighter a lesser weapon like a pool noodle. (I’ve seen good fighters pull off a “Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” stick vs sword scene with this one).

BASIC PRACTICE DRILLS: You can work principals you will need for combat into your everyday practice.

THREE PARTNERS A: When partnering up to practice a technique, partner up by threes in a triangle instead of by twos in a line. Student 1 is the good guy and does the technique one time on student 2 then one time on student 3. Next round, student 2 becomes the “good guy” and so on.

Practicing this way helps prevent the tunnel vision that can lead you to focus so much on opponent 1, that opponent 2 can get behind you and stab you in the back.

THREE PARTNERS B. This is like TPA except, on the instructor’s signal, the current “good guy” from each group will run and “escape” to another group.

Note: There is more on this drill in my Learning Through Comparisons article.

Here’s a homework assignment my teacher used to give us when class ended. On your way home, look for all the “ambush points” along your main route. Once you identify them, look for “escape routes” and where any weapons of opportunity (WOO) or points of cover/concealment (POC) might be. Next, learn alternate routes home and where the WOOs and POCs are on those routes.

Train hard, but train smart.

Tuhon Bill McGrath

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Adapted from an article in the spring 2002 Pekiti-Tirsia International newsletter.
Copyright 2002, 2018 William R. McGrath