The anatomy of randori


I am about to reveal one of my personal "secret" martial art training methods. I would go so far as to say that it is the single most important way to learn how to apply civilian defence techniques in a dynamic environment. I am speaking, of course, of the sparring method we call randori.

As I have explained previously, randori is a kind of sparring analogous to the "playfighting" of dogs; the movement is continuous and flowing, takes place entirely within what I call the melee range and features strikes/punches/kicks that are controlled (rather than made to miss - see my article "Control vs. missing").

I'm sure most of you have seen dogs engaging in their playfighting. It really is the only "preparation" dogs have for real fighting. Yet I don't think any of us would doubt the ability of a dog to fight on the basis of this preparation. In fact, those of you who have seen real, all-out dog fights (and I have seen many) will attest that the inherent movement/tactics employed in such fights are identical to those in employed in dog "playfighting"; the only difference lies in the speed and the fact that the bites are not "controlled".

I am strongly of the view that this paradigm applies equally to human beings. "Randori" (the human equivalent to the playfighting of dogs) is a vital key to developing real fighting skill. It allows you to experience/immerse yourself in the same inherent melee range dynamics without real injury. It allows you to experiment and inculcate the appropriate movement by mapping neural pathways for muscle memory or reflexive movement.

But isn't real fighting completely different?

Before I get into the specifics of how one should approach the human version of "dogfighting" (ie. randori) I'll make the following observations:

I've often heard it said that when you fight for real your approach is very different to sparring. Many will argue that in a real fight you engage the "lizard brain" or the amygdala - ie. the oldest and smallest region of the evolving human brain. In some respects it can be said that we have a lizard brain "with some extra stuff on top" - in particular the cerebral cortex.1

In this regard Professor Bata Milosevic, founder of the "systema like" Serbian martial art of "Svebor", said to me: "You fight like your grandfather fought". In other words, in his view your technical training will come to nought in real fighting; you will default to your genetic predisposition. I respectfully disagree with this view.

I think fear, anger, adrenaline, malicious intent etc. all affect the outcome of a fight. However I will go on record as saying that in my experience the inherent dynamics of randori (ie. the general way in which people move in this type of sparring) are largely the same as those seen in real fighting (cf. "tag competition"). This is not to say that randori is even close to "real" fighting. Far from it. I'm merely saying that as a developmental tool it can teach you a lot about melee dynamics.

True, in softer sparring one tends to experiment more and take greater risks. Conversely it is also true that in real combat one's coordination will be affected by sudden surges of adrenalin. However once again the essential melee dynamics remain the same - it's just that under real conditions one's efficacy will be compromised by fear, adrenaline etc.

To summarise, my experience in facing a pounding has been that my movements correspond more or less to conservative randori, done fast with a lot less accuracy than I would like!

So for me randori serves to inculcuate into your amygdala (the "lizard brain") appropriate responses for fighting in a melee environment. The movements thus become reflexive - ie. they can emerge irrespective of pressure of real combat. This is the theory underlying training in the military, be it with fighter pilots or infantry; you train for reflexive responses that emerge despite any "adernaline dump" etc.

In my view many people's sparring bears no resemblance to how they fight in real conditions because they engage in faux boxing or similar "distance" sparring (eg. "tag competition") which is outside the melee range except for brief, chaotic bursts. Since the real confrontation occurs in the melee (where tag fighters typically spend only about 10% of their sparring time) they are really facing an entirely new "beast". I think it is this factor that makes some people "fight differently" in a real scenario as opposed to sparring.

How to do randori

So how should one practise randori? What are the key points?

First, you must stay in the melee range as much as possible. This is where the real fight happens and accordingly this is where you need to accumulate experience. Furthermore, melee range tactics such as blocks/deflections are designed to work in the melee range - not further out.

Second, you must flow. This means you must move continuously - ie. without any pauses.

Third, you must move at an even pace - as must your partner/opponent. Neither party should suddenly break from this pace as this is "cheating". Who are you cheating? Yourself!

I am reminded of how I was once sparring with one of my sempai Desmond Lawrence, a formidable martial artist with real street experience (and knife wound scars to prove it) but who was a real "softie" in the dojo. I recall thinking that I had the better of Des in the "3/4 speed" randori we were doing. Then my instructor Bob Davies said: "Right - move it up to full speed". I found I had nothing left to give; I hadn't realised I was already at full speed. Des picked up his pace and he was able to manipulate me like a doll.

This third point is the most important of all because it teaches you to be "in the right place at the right time". If you have to abruptly move much faster than the speed of the "flow" you know you have been "wrong-footed".

If you are wrong-footed and your partner delivers a controlled blow - take it. After all, the blow is going to be controlled, so you don't have to worry about injury. Don't "cheat" yourself by suddenly flailing out. Remember that if the speed were already at maximum you wouldn't be able to flail out and save yourself. Rather you should take careful note of how and why you went wrong and try not to let the same thing happen again.

On the same point, don't shuffle your feet about. Place your feet deliberately in each move. Little "shuffles" let you cheat by adjusting your position subtly. At full speed you won't have the luxury of little shuffles. You will be wrong-footed. If you've stepped/moved into the wrong position, wear the consequences and learn from them.

Fourth, experiment! Don't be conservative and use your tried and trusted few movements. Try to apply techniques/bunkai from kata. Extend yourself. This is the only way you'll learn.

Examples of randori

I thought it might be useful to show some examples of randori. Here are some stills taken from some light sparring I did with Sensei Jeff Cosgrove (3rd Dan). In it you'll see us applying kata movements, including some throws and locks. The sparring was unscripted.

Example 1

Jeff launches a front kick and I use a standard shiko dachi (sumo stance) 45 degree back evasion with a gedan uke (downward deflection) from the kata gekisai. I immediately counter with a reverse right palm strike to Jeff's face which Jeff (foolishly as it turns out) deflects with a left hand palm deflection on the outside of my strike. His better option would have been to deflect me by wedging on the inside of my strike as we will see from the next frames.

I continue my forward momentum with a left hand feint, knowing that Jeff is going to deflect it with his right hand (which he does). However note how my right hand swings around to the outside of Jeff's left enabling me to land a palm strike to Jeff's face.

Example 2

Jeff launches a left leading jab followed by a right reverse punch. The move appears to be a tactical blunder as I can deflect both punches with the same arm. However Jeff's move was a deliberate feint, analogous to an "approach shot" in tennis. Note how he has closed in to an optimum distance and note also that he has effectively limited me to one (obvious) counter - a right cross which Jeff already has covered.

Of course when I begin my right cross, Jeff slips it and deflects it with a forearm block (haiwan nagashi uke) throwing a right vertical fist punch into my solar plexus. The best I can do is put my own forearm in the way so that he strikes it instead of my body.

However I have already started drawing my body back in defence against Jeff's punch. And I continue to draw it back until I can use my left leg for a front kick (mae geri)2 which lands on Jeff as he pulls away in retreat.

I follow with a right cross, but Jeff intercepts it with another haiwan nagashi uke, trapping my arm with his left hand. Jeff then swaps arms (having effected a "check") and goes for reverse shuto uchi (knife hand) while holding on to my hand, aiming to do a kaiten nage (rotary throw) as illustrated in the picture at the start of this article. I am however well placed to stop the shuto with a press on his elbow which throws him off balance.

Example 3

In this example Jeff attacks with a right cross. I evade the attack by moving 45 degrees back into shiko dachi and using the secondary part of the standard chudan uke (chest deflection). I move my momentum forward taking weight off my rear (right) leg which I then employ in a front kick.2 The kick is however easily deflected by Jeff since his left hand is in exactly the appropriate position for a gedan uke (downward deflection). Note how Jeff uses his other hand to effect a high counter balancing pullback as seen in many kata such as jion or even naihanchi/naifunchin.

After his deflection, Jeff keeps his momentum moving forward with the aim of effecting his own mae geri (front kick) - again with his back leg.2 I'm moving back as I retract my own kick. As I do so I try to stifle Jeff's advance with a right cross (hoping Jeff will impale himself as he moves forward). My distancing is however such that I realise his kick will land before my punch. This is what I have previously called an "oh sh*t! moment". Accordingly I convert what was going to be a right cross into a downward deflection (gedan barai uke) of Jeff's kick together with a sideways tai sabaki (body shift). Note that I too use the high counterbalancing pullback for my low block.

Example 4

Jeff throws a committed right cross which I evade and deflect with an age uke (rising block). Because of the commitment in his punch I am able to slip under his arm before he has time to "reset" himself and pull back.

Once I have slipped under I am able to apply a kaiten nage (rotary throw) which is from Nagegata Sho (see my articles "Applying forms in combat" and "Can karate become taiji?").

Example 5

When Jeff throws a right cross I use an outside wing block (or "bong sau" as it is known in from Wing Chun). I follow it up with a low punch - deliberatly baiting a high left hook from Jeff. Jeff deflects my low punch by converting his right cross into a downward deflection (gedan barai) - again utlising his knowledge of how to deal with "oh sh*t! moments".

As anticipated, after deflecting my blow Jeff takes the bait and throws a left hook to my exposed face. However I advance (note how my right foot has moved) to intercept it early, catching his punch with my left hand on his forearm and my right forearm at his elbow (what is known as a "scissors block/deflection" and which appears in the kata seiyunchin). I then apply a move from shisochin and take Jeff down into an arm bar.3


Of course, randori is not really a "secret" - nor is it a panacea. However I see it as one of the more important things that should be in one's "toolbox" for understanding the melee range (which is, I believe, central to civilian defence).

Your randori should have the same inherent movement as real fighting - what will be different is the speed and ferocity/intent. You can never make any sparring "real" without injury and it goes without saying that randori is not trying to emulate "reality". Rather it gives you a forum for experimenting, applying techniques and inculcating (ie. "grooving") certain automatic responses in a controlled, largely safe melee range environment.

Randori won't teach you to deal with fear, adrenaline, pain and panic. You will need to employ other training methods to deal with these variables. What randori will give you is muscle memory so that you can be in the right place at the right time - especially when combined with other training measures that help you deal with the pressures of real combat.


1. See this article about the reptilian brain.

2. When you are kicking in the melee range one must be careful as to which leg you use. Broadly speaking, when you are advancing you use the rear leg. When you are retreating or evading, use the front. See the video below.

A discussion about kicking in the melee range

3. As an aside, when I was sparring (in randori fashion) with Chris, a student of Hans-Kurt Schäfer in Hong Kong, I learned some very efficient defences to arm bars based on the internal arts of bagua and taiji - but not before Chris put me into a very nice arm bar that left my elbow sore for the next week (the adjacent picture shows Chris in the process of apply that arm bar).

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic