The Most Common Mistakes Martial Artists Make in the Ring and How to Correct Them!
By Benjamin Paris
Your mission: To enter the sparring ring and deliver one or more strikes that somehow differ from what your opponent expects.
Your goal: To gain the advantage and ultimately the victory.
It seems simple enough, but in practice, few attacks succeed. And some martial artists almost never succeed in scoring with their techniques. Some of that can be attributed to the defensive skills of the opponent, for the best defenders can make even good martial artists look ineffectual. However, many attacks do not and will not succeed because the strategies with which they’re employed are fundamentally flawed. While there are many ways in which a strategy can be lacking, the seven listed below bear the brunt of the blame.
Predictable Technique Selection
No matter how fast and strong you are, your attack cannot score if your opponent knows what you’re throwing, when you’re throwing it and where you’re throwing it. Varying any of these—technique, timing or target—can make you less predictable, but executing the same technique the same way every time makes you easy to defend against. Worse yet, predictable fighters are vulnerable to counterattacks.
Every martial artist is more comfortable with some moves than with others. You tend to execute the moves you believe are your best ones, but in a match, there’s no one best technique. The best move is the one your opponent doesn’t expect. So no matter how strong your punch is, you’d better be prepared to use a different technique in case your foe takes away that option.
The most dangerous thing about being predictable is that you’re probably not aware of it. Most people think they’re unpredictable because they can’t predict which technique they will employ next. However, just because you can’t tell what you’ll do doesn’t mean others can’t predict what you’ll do. Try this experiment: Ask someone to watch you spar and keep track of what you do. (Alternatively, you can videotape yourself.) Then examine the findings. While you were sparring, you probably thought you had a variety of options at any moment. However, when you read the report or watch the tape, you’ll probably be amazed at how predictable you really are.
Another complicating factor is that when you’re scared or hurt, you become more predictable. When you’re feeling confident, you’re more willing to experiment, but as soon as things begin to go bad, you retreat into what’s comfortable. This happens often when you fight a more skilled opponent. You’re afraid to make a mistake, so you use only the techniques you’re most comfortable doing. However, that can make you easier to read and more likely to get hit—which makes you even more predictable.
The fix: When you’re fighting a skilled opponent, don’t make it easy for him. Force him to respect a multitude of your techniques. You can’t fight effectively if you merely try to avoid making mistakes. You need to shape the situation so he changes what he does out of concern for what you might do.
Signaling Your Opponent
Sometimes, being predictable is a mental issue: Without realizing it, you choose to do the same thing every time. Other times, it’s a physical issue: You provide visual cues that betray your intentions. Or a lack of flexibility or poor technique forces you to commit to an attack early enough to forewarn your opponent. No matter the specifics, signaling him about what’s to come is never good.
The fix: To overcome this problem, you must first realize that you suffer from it. If you’re giving away your intentions, you probably aren’t aware of it, but someone else might be. Ask a classmate to watch you spar, or watch a videotape of yourself.
Doing something to rectify the problem is harder. If your visual cue is because of a lack of physical ability, you can try to improve your ability, but that takes time. A faster way of overcoming the problem is to work within your current ability and change your tendencies by throwing more fakes. For example, if you always shift your front foot out before executing a rear-leg roundhouse kick, you should occasionally shift your front foot out and not kick. After a while, shifting your front foot will no longer indicate that you’re planning to kick. Then, when the time is right, you can shift your foot out to initiate the kick without giving it away.
If you’re signaling which technique you’ll use because of a habit you’ve developed, you can try to break that habit. However, know that changing a psychological habit can be even harder than overcoming a physical limitation. So, as good instructors teach, if you cannot get rid of your habit, use it. If you drop your hands before kicking, drop your hands and don’t kick. After a while, your “habit” will cease to be an indicator of anything.
A more sophisticated method of dealing with habits is to consciously use them to lure your adversary into a predictable position. If he’s a good defender, he’ll pick up on your habits, but if you know what he’s doing, you can switch to a technique that can be thrown from that same position.
The strange thing about using your opponent’s counterattack against him is that it’s more likely to succeed if he’s skilled at defense. Bad defenders don’t notice your tendencies, and so they won’t react to them. Good defenders notice what you’re doing, but if you notice that they’re noticing, you can use their perception against them.
Hacking Away Without Reacting to Your Opponent
Most martial artists learn techniques long before they think about strategy. They learn—correctly—that strong technique is necessary for success in fighting. Unfortunately, many never realize that strong technique is not all you need to be a successful fighter.
The fix: Heed the lesson Sun Tzu taught: Understanding yourself is only half the battle. The other half is understanding your opponent.
Fighters who’ve failed to learn that truism train hard to improve their technique and in time strike with increased power and speed. They may even win in the early rounds of a competition, but they always lose to the best fighters because the best fighters make adjustments to their opponent.
Of course, the position the defender takes in the aforementioned example has its weaknesses, as well.
For example, the defender can be lured into throwing a defensive kick prematurely, thus creating an opening. But to exploit those weaknesses, you need to know what the defender is doing and adjust. Many fighters are unable or unwilling to understand what the defender is thinking, so they always lose to strategic fighters.
Not Using Fakes Well
A fake simulates the start of an attack but stops before it exposes you to a counterattack. Used well, it can provide valuable information about your opponent’s defensive tendencies.
The fix: Make fakes an important part of your repertoire. If you never throw fakes, your adversary knows that every time you seem to start an attack, that attack is in fact coming. He can start to make a defensive adjustment at your first twitch. The best fighters are unpredictable, and fighters who don’t fake are very predictable.
Throwing even a few fakes will help disguise the moment of your next attack. As long as you fake some of the time, your foe can’t be sure that your movement signals your next attack. However, faking without a deeper purpose wastes the opportunity to gain information. When done properly, it can give you a better sense of your opponent’s defensive strategy without entailing much risk.
Staying Out of Range
It seems obvious that to connect with an attack, you must be close enough to actually strike your target. Still, many martial artists refuse to get close enough to connect. Why? Usually, they’re concerned about a counterattack or simply afraid of hitting their opponent. Attacking while staying far away seems like a solution because it’s a safe way to strike without risk. However, in some cases it’s more risky than not attacking at all.
Fighters who consistently execute long-distance attacks typically lack confidence. They may be afraid of making contact, or perhaps they don’t believe they have enough power to damage their opponent. For some, moving close enough to land a technique takes tremendous courage, and the confidence to do so rarely comes overnight.
The fix: Recognize the power you have to damage your opponent. Then trust that power to keep you safe as you close the gap. Even great fighters are vulnerable to a counterattack at some point in their offensive, but they almost always strike at the same time. Yes, you can be hit, but the ferocity of your own blows will prevent your opponent from exploiting any openings.
Attacking With No Potential to Damage
Sure, you can hurt your opponent with a good attack, but not every attack you execute has the potential to do damage. Weak attacks, such as those delivered when you’re out of range, expose you to a counterattack while offering no benefits.
When you attack, you’re in range, which typically means your opponent is close enough to hit you, as well. If your attack isn’t strong enough to affect him and you throw it anyway, he’ll have an advantage: He can ignore your techniques and strike you with impunity. And his strikes are likely to land because you’re close enough and at least one of your limbs is busy launching a useless attack. That’s not to say every one of your shots must be a killing blow. However, if your opponent won’t be significantly affected by your strike, that strike is at best a waste of time.
The importance of attacking with sufficient damaging power is most clear in self-defense scenarios, but it also has a role in continuous free-fighting bouts. The concept is applicable even in noncontinuous point sparring, in which the action is stopped as soon as a point is scored. Even there, judges won’t award a point if the technique isn’t strong enough to inflict damage.
The fix: Before you find yourself in a simulated or real combat situation, learn which of your techniques have damaging power and which do not.
Throwing Complicated Techniques for No Reason
Spinning kicks, jumping kicks and flying kicks can be valuable parts of your arsenal. However, using them for no particular reason gets you nowhere. In general, throwing any technique without a strategy is a bad idea, but the problem is worse with complicated moves because they take longer to execute, require more distance and force you to spend time to regain your balance.
If you throw a lead-leg roundhouse kick for no reason, you’ll probably get away with it. But if you throw a spinning kick for no reason, you may lose the fight. You could lose your balance while trying to execute it, and even if you do it perfectly, your opponent can easily counterattack if he knows it’s coming.
Still, many martial artists employ risky techniques. Why? Some are impressed with their own ability and enjoy trying difficult moves even if there’s no reason to do so. Others mistakenly believe that more difficult techniques are more likely to connect. They think, If the side kick doesn’t work, try the spinning side kick.
But that’s backward. In general, if you can’t connect with a simple technique, you’re less likely to succeed with a complicated technique. If you’re too slow to connect with your roundhouse kick, how will you connect with the slower spinning roundhouse?
Spinning kicks, jumping kicks and flying kicks can succeed when your opponent is tricked into defending the wrong target. But if you haven’t established your basic technique, he won’t be fooled. Meanwhile, your attack will be slower.
The fix: Understand the purpose of advanced techniques. Ask yourself why you would throw one and what conditions have to be set up before it can succeed. That will launch you on the path to using such moves appropriately.
Sometimes, the best way to understand what to do is to understand what not to do. As you digest the information provided above and analyze the mistakes martial artists often make, you’ll no doubt transform yourself into a more effective fighter. No matter which style you practice, when you’re an unpredictable opponent who has a strategic purpose in everything he does, uses fakes well and always strikes in range with powerful techniques, you’ll be a devastating martial artist.
About the author: Benjamin Paris is a freelance writer and fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo under S. Henry Cho. This article was originally titled "(Un)Lucky 7: The Most Common Mistakes Martial Artists Make in the Ring—and How to Correct Them!" and appeared in the March 2006 issue of Black Belt.
A simple, direct technique is often superior to a complicated technique. Here, the opponent (left) sizes up his adversary (1) and initiates a spinning back kick (2). The lag time enables John Baek to move out of its path and counter with a punch to the head (3).
For a technique to be effective, it must be launched close enough to make contact with the opponent. Consistently doing so requires confidence because once the entry is made, the opponent can land a blow, as well. For illustrative purposes, Salem Assli is shown defending against a punch.
Using the same footwork (1-2) and chambering motion (3), Bill Wallace (left) closes the gap and positions himself so he can execute a hook kick, side kick or roundhouse kick to any number of targets. In this way, he minimizes the signals he sends to his opponent and, therefore, the time his opponent has to prepare his defense.