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Reading your opponent (like a picture book)

Habits in combat, everyone has them.

Whether you do Karate, Judo, Jiu Jitsu or some other awesome martial art, everyone shows what they are doing, before they are doing it.

Unless you have become really well practiced, the past 25+ years

how to be

Humans are gregarious primates. This means that they mostly live in big groups and enjoy being social with each other. Being in that social environment all the time means that people interact with each other, all the time. In a speaker based society like most of the West (where the speaker is responsible to express how they feel) this means that we always give away how we feel in this exact moment:

  • Slumped shoulders, head down? Not a happy camper.
  • Children who dance and play around? Happy!
  • Frowned face and a stern face? Oof..

Skipping the lecture, what does that have to do with fighting?


Everyone during sparring (or a form of it) is busy with both mind and body simultaneously. The thing is, those two cannot be completely separated. So when the body is going to make a move, the brain already thought of it.

The brain is always first and subconsciously, your body will give off a signal that something’s going to happen.

This can translate itself in many forms:

  • Eyes widening
  • Pulling back the front defending arm
  • Flaring nostrils
  • Crawling in closer to the opponent
  • Licking the lips or pursing them
  • Frowning or blinking multiple times
  • Even pulling back a little, to go forward again

You could say that everyone has their own little ‘ticks’. They are signs of an attack coming, and they will give you out to the opponent if they are skilled themselves.

Maybe you are thinking now: “uhm I’ve been practicing for a few years, I’ve never noticed that.”


Did you ever look for them? Did you ever train yourself in looking and the art of Metsuke (the art of observing)?
When you have practiced it enough you will be able to use ‘mokushin’ which we can literally translate to ‘your mind’s eye’. You will be able to read the poor sucker that is your opponent and make sure nothing gets by you.
Mind you though, this takes years of practice. There won’t be a magical light bulb moment that say “a-ha! That’s it!” No. But the more you can use it, the more you will be aware of the fact that you can.

[bctt tweet=”Here are some tips to start you off with” username=”kwunion”]

So what’s your tick?

Do you know what you do? Probably not. Someone else has to point it out for you.
I had no idea why I was so predictable until somebody showed me. This revealed an ‘oooooh….’ – moment and I was able to work on my obsessive need to to crawl in (for almost exactly every time: 3 steps) the opponents’ space. Apparently my face was a big traitor in the beginning as well…

With help from my Sensei and one of my faithful sparring partners, I was able to work on it (and I still am working on it, every week). Now my face is calm and my predictable state is gone.

Something I can recommend is to make videos of yourselves. You can study yourself and your opponent and analyze what you are doing.


Okay now that I have introduced you to ‘Metsuke’, it’s time to lose your punching bag status. Sure you can read the opponent and react to them, but so can they.

If you are predictable you might just be a punching bag.
(saves us the trouble of chasing after you)

Here are some tips to start you off with:

  • Don’t just stand there, be dynamic in your movements.
  • The way contenders in kumite competitions do it might be a big overdone for the dojo but at least they are a hard target to hit!
  • Keep your guard UP. Especially if your opponent is taller than you.
  • Keep your guard forward. Keeping your arms close to you means you’re inviting them for a hug, a painful one.
  • Have a stance.
  • Don’t stretch your legs but keep them bent. They allow you to move, which refers to my first point.
  • Don’t show your BACK.
  • Now I’ve sparred with quite a few people who were active in the tournament scene. I never had easier opponents. Why?
  • Let’s go back to the first picture:


If the blue dots are potential targets, I’d have a fun time. Their backs are wide open! Their legs are on one line which makes it easy to sweep and the one in aka (red) has a low guard. Mind you, these are competitors in the Team Kumite Competition 2014 World Karate Championships. Their lightning fast reflexes will probably save them.


If you took the previous points in, well done. There is one more thing that I see bothers pretty much every colored belt, and sometimes even black belts:

There is no variety in their attacks.

When you practiced for a little while and you found a combo that works for you, you will do it. All. The. Time.

I had one, or two:

(Surikomi) Mawashi geri – tobikomizuki – Gyakuzuki
(round house kick – front punch – back punch)


I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this, but fact is that everyone knows what’s coming after two attacks because You have so many options to choose from, why stick with this? Because they work? Well for now maybe, but never for long. You have so much to combine:

  • Punches
  • Kicks
  • Movements
  • Attacking and reaction TIMING
  • Sweeps
  • Strikes
  • Locks
  • Okay the last ones might be only for the higher belts (it’s different from dojo to dojo), but the first three are already available from the first week you start practicing!

[bctt tweet=”When you practiced for a little while and you found a combo that works for you, you will do it” username=”kwunion”]

Mix it up, don’t be boring. Even with the most basic things you’ve learned you can make many combinations. This will make you harder to read and less of a target because…

You make sure you will be a surprise during the whole fight!

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