Dynamic context drills


In my article “Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness” I discussed the importance of appropriate situational reflexes in martial arts.

Then in “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex” I discussed how such reflexes might be developed – ie. through drills that set up the relevant situation in a dynamic context. A “dynamic context” is, of course, one where one or both parties are in a state of constant movement. It compares to a “static context” where drills start from a position where both sides are stationary - what I call a “standing start” drill (eg. one step sparring or “ippon kumite” as it is known in Japanese).

In “‘Standing start’ drills – what’s wrong with them” I discussed how “standing start” drills are not up to the task of situational reflex development. In the absence of a dynamic context you cannot establish a rhythm that is sufficient to enable:
  1. pattern recognition; and
  2. the inculcation of a matching of a situational reflex.
So what drills are up to this task”?

Lessons from Filipino weapons arts

Over the years I’ve copped the occasional bit of flak for training in multiple martial arts - see for example my article “You know too many forms”. One of the criticisms that I face is that I have become a “Jack of all trades, but a master of none”. And to some extent, this is undeniably true.

But one of the biggest benefits of this cross training for me, as a martial arts teacher and researcher, has been the chance to cross-refer not just techniques, but training methods.

In this regard, one of the biggest revelations to me about the need for drills to be placed in a dynamic context has arisen via the Filipino martial arts of kali, escrima and arnis (FMA).

These martial systems are highly functional and pragmatic, having their roots in either warfare or dueling “street arts”. I have no doubt that when it comes to baton and short blade weapons, they are among the most practical and efficient fighting systems around today. And it is salient to note that they are based almost exclusively on drills. Furthermore, none of these drills are anything like the “standing start” drills taught in self-defence courses or in some “reality-based” schools. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on setting up a rhythm, where a tight sequence of moves is repeated over and over again.

Consider the following video from a recent documentary on FMA:

Some footage of arnis/kali/escrima stick and knife fighting drills. Note that constant rhythm is one of the key features - “standing starts” are nowhere to be seen.

When starting these drills you will initially practise them slowly and softly. Over time, you speed up and add intensity. And with greater familiarity, you can even practise with live blades.

What you’ll notice from the drills is that experienced practitioners can move through a particular sequence at bewildering speed (more on “simple speed” in a minute). This is because they are utterly comfortable with the natural, inherent flow of human movement within the confines of those particular movements. Their subconscious knows that the elbow can only bend in this way, the shoulder in that way. If he stabs and you deflect, he only has these options, which means that you close them off with this movement. And so on.

In other words, over time these drills lead to a kind of “neural mapping” of these biomechanical options. This gives the practitioner a kinaesthetic awareness of the dynamic context of close quarter blade/baton movement. Importantly, the drills also give the practitioner appropriate reflex responses for that dynamic context - allowing the practitioner to control it.

Testing the reflex mapping of FMA drills

In order to get relatively new students to appreciate the function of the FMA drills, I often get them to do the following:

I will give them a single baton each and ask them to start sparring (lightly, of course). The students will move around, making a complete hash of things, not doing anything productive.

I then stop them and get them to work on one of the basic arnis/escrima drills - like the one below which we would call a “box pattern”:

A “box pattern” drill from the Kali Sikaran school, demonstrated at a fast speed

At the end of the lesson I ask them to stop practising the drill and start sparring again.

Immediately can I see a completely different paradigm: the students are no longer “grasping at clouds”; rather they are using tactics, blocking, deflecting, countering, trapping, controlling and disarming. All from one simple drill. In short, they are using the techniques from the drill, even though the drill looks nothing like sparring.

An instructional (step by step) video of a “box pattern drill” from arnis/escrima (done at a very slow speed initially, although there is some faster movement further on). Later in the video I demonstrate some impromptu sparring using techniques from the drill.

Okay, this is not “real fighting”. But my point is not that they have developed fighting skills. It is simply this:
    They are visibly transferring knowledge from the drill to an unscripted environment.
It is just the first step - but it is an important one.

Lessons from Japanese weapons arts

The same process is even more visible with a staff - possibly because the longer the stick, the more it amplifies your errors - and your triumphs!

Again, I will ask students to try their hand at sparring with the jo (4 foot staff). Predictably, they make a real mess of things. Then get them to practice some dynamic context drills from our jo syllabus (the topic of my forthcoming book “Essential Jo”).

A sample of our 2 person jo drills

As with the baton, at the end of the lesson I get them to try the sparring again. Voilà! They go from doing random, ham-fisted and jerky movements to using the beginnings of intelligent tactics and proper techniques. Of course, it isn’t anything like real fighting. But it’s a very good start at inculcating appropriate situational reflexes.

With the length of the jo, the dynamics tend to shift a bit. As a 2-handed weapon it tends to involve more commitment and more whole body use. Your stances tend to be narrower (ie. the feet line up) and you work at a greater range. The “whole body” element also means that you move differently, integrating the weapon movement with your body movement (where in baton fighting the weapon is wielded with greater wrist use and “flail-like” independence from your core).

But such differences are to be expected. What doesn’t change is the fact that the drills and the sparring both have the same rhythm. They both “feel the same”. Matching the rhythm of the drill to unscripted sparring really is the key to unlocking the door to useful situational reflexes.

Transferring the lessons of weapons to unarmed fighting

So, many years ago, it got me thinking; if only we could use the same weapons platform for unarmed fighting. Surely there has to be a way in which you set up sequences of movement in an appropriate context so that you can actually develop reflexes - not leave your basics and kata behind, just to start floundering away with faux boxing. There had to be a scientific way of learning how to apply the techniques one did in “standing start” platforms. Surely the weapons methodology would be equally applicable?

Well, as I’ve noted before, these drills take a series of movements and put them in a “looping” pattern1. There is nothing preventing one from doing the same with unarmed fighting. All that changes is the focus; weapons drills are focused on an implement - a baton, a knife or a stick. Unarmed fighting does not have that focus, so the movements change a little. But in principle, it is otherwise the same: take common technical sequences (ie. techniques in a relevant context) such as you already find in your kata (more on that in a minute) and arrange them appropriately.

I suppose there really is nothing terribly surprising about the concept of 2 person dynamic context drills. It has been around since the dawn of the fighting arts. Historically it has formed the basis of drills used in practically every weapons system. And arguably these predate the unarmed Asian fighting tradition (see my article “My meetings with masters in Hong Kong” where I describe martial historian CS Tang’s view in this regard). The concept of dynamic context drills is also evident in what is arguably China’s oldest unarmed fighting art, namely xingyi.5

I think it is only in fairly recent times that some have “forgotten” the importance of dynamic context in the traditional kata/xing/form-based fighting arts.

However there are certainly many, many schools of martial arts still teaching dynamic context drills.

Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting

Okay, so we have a whole bunch of drills and they have a dynamic context. How do we know that they will work to improve our martial abilities?

Well the first thing is to remember what it is you’re doing. Just because you’ve strung together a particular sequence that has a “looping” pattern and a rhythm doesn’t mean you have a useful martial construct. Otherwise drumming patterns and baton twirling would count as “martial drills”. They don’t.

Accordingly it is important to remember that a dynamic context drill isn’t a dance or courtship ritual. It isn’t a gymnastic display. It isn’t intended to provide entertainment. It is a drill for inculcating situational reflexes for martial purposes.

Consider the following drills based on the “de cadena”4 hand trapping of FMA: It is indeed “impressive” in its speed. But what has it become? Does it have any martial connotation in this form? I would say the answer is definitely “no”.

An example of various arnis/escrima/kali hand trapping drills. Note the speed, but total lack of intensity.

Compare this to the video below of my own performance of a similar 3 point4 de cadena drill and I’m sure you’ll agree, that while my student and I don’t go anywhere near this speed, our movements remain recognizably “martial”. The same cannot be said of the hypnotic rhythm set in the above video. Impressive as the speed is, it has robbed the drill of its “intent”.

De cadena #1 as practiced in our school – a 3 point4 symmetrical1 dynamic context drill derived from FMA. (Note the speed and intensity are matched – cf. the preceding performance of a similar drill.)

So what do I mean by “intent”? You will recall in my article “‘Standing drills’ – what’s wrong with them” I discussed how dog playfighting still looked like “fighting”. In other words, the intent was still there – just “toned down” to accommodate the corresponding circumstances of a reduced speed and intensity. [You’ll notice that I’ve emphasized both speed and intensity – and I’ve done so for a very good reason as we will soon see.]

In the above example, I take it to be self-evident that intent is entirely absent. And a drill without the requisite intent is not going to be effective as a martial drill. Why? For this reason:
    Your brain needs to be able to make some connection between the drill and acts of aggression. Without that nexus, no useful situational reflex can be inculcated; the brain simply simply won’t recognize the “situations” as being related in the first place!
So how do you know if your intent is sufficient? Well, a disparity between speed and intensity is the first, and usually most reliable, indicator.

Speed without intensity – a sure sign of lost intent

The first thing to note about the earlier “intent-deprived” de cadena drill is the speed at which it is being performed. It is being done at a bewildering tempo. The second thing to note is the almost total lack of “intensity”.

I mentioned before that in dog play fighting both speed and intensity were correspondingly reduced. This is because the 2 variables are inextricably linked in real fighting. Try to imagine “panicking slowly” or “panicking with feather touches” and you’ll see what I mean.

So in order to ensure the requisite pattern recognition and situational reflex matching to real fighting, you need to make sure that they remain in balance; if one is reduced, so must be the other.

However if you increase one and not the other, you get a dichotomy that never exists in real fighting. Your subconscious knows this. Throw out the balance of speed and intensity, and your brain no longer recognizes what is happening as “martial movement”.

Put another way, if you reduce speed and intensity at precisely the same rate, you can retain some nexus to the martial origins of the movement – sufficient anyway for patterns to be recognized and matched to reflex martial responses. Increase one variable while ignoring the other and your chances of that recognition and matching start to reduce exponentially.

Consider the drill below by way of comparison: It is a one point2 symmetrical1 dynamic context drill we call the “kick touch” drill. Note that the practitioners (my brother Nenad and one of our black belts, David) start off slowly, then speed up. But notice that the intensity is also increased. Each kick is being delivered as it would in combat. This is made possible because they are not contacting. But the lack of contact in no way affects the speed or intensity or the feeling that this is “related to fighting”.

The kick touch drill: note the speed and intensity both increase proportionately

If I were to say what one of our greatest “secrets” of martial arts training was, I would say this little drill is it. It conditions you to start moving/responding the moment your opponent’s kick begins. And on a broader level, it conditions you to read the movement of a front kick in the melee range. It is one of the drills we use to address the sort of “situational reflex blindspot” towards front kicks that Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort suffered in their fights against Lyoto Machia and Anderson Silva respectively.

Yes, it might not look like much, but I believe it to be the backbone of correctly matching the cues for a kick in melee range distance. The response might seem token (a tap on the side of the calf) but I’ve personally found this reflex being used (and adapted) in hard sparring. And I’ve found it often enough to appreciate its lessons. The connection, established by this drill, between the kick beginning, and your body responding reflexively, is undeniable.

“Hand drills” - ie. stationary dynamic context drills

You’ll note that the dynamic context drills to which I’ve referred above are all more or less performed from a standing position, with no stepping or substantial movement off one spot). I call these “stationary dynamic context drills”.

These are common in FMA as well as the other southeast Asian systems (ie. those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand etc.).

They are also common in the southern Chinese martial systems (eg. the Hakka school, in particular arts like wing chun). The latter include the many “chi sau” or “sticky hands” drills used to train sensitivity.

An example of classical wing chun “chi sau” (sticky hands) drills

Apart from their “stationary” position, the drills are also typically very short, comprising mostly one point2 drills.

These design elements allow a fairly easy inculcation of reflexes; the lack of stepping and shortness of the sequence mean that practitioners are free to focus on what is a fairly simple series of movements. This in turn allows them to become accustomed to the movements relatively quickly, go through them very rapidly and frequently, and match reflexive responses to those movements.

The down side to this is that the dynamic context is necessarily truncated - ie. there is less of it. Accordingly the reflex is applicable in a much narrower range of situations.

Body movement: a necessary element of unarmed fighting drills

Another issue presented by the relative lack of movement is that there are very few (perhaps no) reflexes being inculcated to deal with penetrating, powerful techniques. This is not an issue with bladed weapons or batons which can be wielded with short, sharp movements yet still have maximal destructive effect. However the situation is very different with unarmed fighting, where greater momentum is required to make the human fist, hand, elbow, foot or other body part become a truly effective “weapon”.

Consider for example Lyoto Machida’s jumping kick knockout of Randy Couture. In fact, any kick carries a lot of momentum and must be countered using substantial tenshin/taisabaki (body evasion/movement).

Accordingly, while FMA and similar weapons disciplines provide some sort of template for dynamic context drills, we need to look somewhere else for drills that cover the wider spectrum that is covered by the human body. But where?

Using kata as your template for wider dynamic context appropriate to unarmed fighting

The beauty of your kata/xing/forms/patterns is that they already contain contextual movement directly relevant to unarmed fighting. Kata contain not only the hand and leg techniques, but also steps, lunges, shuffles, evasions and other body movement.

Moreover, it is important to note that every punch, kick, block, lunge, step, evasion etc. forms part of a sequence of related movements. As I’ve discussed before, I don’t believe kata is simply a collection of unrelated, disjointed techniques. Rather, a block should be connected with a body evasion; a counter should be set up by that block and evasion; and any step or lunge used in the counter should add power to it.

What’s more those movement is designed to be efficient: traditional punches are straight, techniques generally have no telegraphing or extraneous movement, etc. The context that remains is “bare-bones”. If you find cues in that context to trigger reflexes, those cues will be essential. You’ll be training to react to only that which really matters – not to feints and other false cues.

Put another way, if you can respond to minimalism well, your ability to respond to an inefficient, telegraphed attack will be enhanced. It doesn’t work the other way.

I’ve previously noted this usefulness of kata in creating dynamic context drills: consider my articles “Really USING your kata” and “The ‘Oh sh*t!’ moment: more about 2 person forms” as well as “Muidokan embu: 2 person forms for karate”.

It is precisely the use of kata (especially when one understands the movement underpinning the applications of kata) that one can start to address the sorts of concerns Emero had in trying to find a means of dealing with his masters circular kicks. You will recall that I advised Emero to enter into the attack on the inside, moving with the circle. But Emero’s reply was: “But what drills can I use to teach me to do this (reflexively)?”

One answer can be found in a dynamic context drill we teach in conjunction with our very first kata – fukyugata ichi (based on pinan nidan and Nagamine’s fukyugata ichi). Our “embu” or 2 person version of that form is a multi-point3 drill that teaches, among other things, moving on the inside of kicks that have the potential to become circular. The sequence is short enough – 7 points5 and symmetrical1. And it can be practiced with considerable intent – ie. with speed and intensity. Or it can be slowed down and eased off for examining finer points.

Our fukyugata embu which employs a lot of offline forwards evasion in a dynamic context

The above dynamic context drill is, of course, very basic. The higher kata have correspondingly more complex, less “formal” and more realistic patterns of movement, as one would expect. Consider our embu for the kata seiunchin by way of contrast:

Our seiunchin embu - the difference in complexity and “realism” between this and the fukyugata embu (which is basic) should be immediately apparent

”Tit for tat” – the first of the remaining straw men

A few criticisms remain of this approach to training. One of the arguments I frequently encounter is that it teaches students a “tit for tat” reflex. I take this to mean that students are inculcating a reflex response to “trade blows” or “take turns”, rather than “win”.

First off, I’ll note that the reference to “taking turns” is misleading. It implies that “waiting for your partner to do x or y” is somehow an issue with dynamic context drills, but not in other ones. In truth, all drills necessarily require you to “wait for your partner to do something”. It is part of what defines a “drill”. If it is a problem with dynamic context drills, it is a problem with each and every drill.

In a “standing start” drill, the defender “waits for x or y” (a known attack). The attacker then “waits for x or y” (a known defence). Then they swap sides. How is this not “turn taking” exactly?

What’s different with dynamic context drills is that I’m always learning to deflect/deal with an attack, then counter (perhaps “simultaneously”). My partner is doing the same. What’s more, both sides should be learning optimum responses. If that’s “tit for tat” give me more!

This contrasts with “standing start” drills where one side is purportedly “learning to “win”.
    However if this is true, the other side is necessarily “learning to lose”!
The attacker is knowingly launching doomed attacks. And with the “string” attack variety the attacker is also learning to stand there, absorbing multiple counters without a single response.

It’s a good thing that “standing start” drills are so ineffective at inculcating situational reflexes. Otherwise the results might actually be catastrophic. Imagine the situational reflexes inculcated in drills where you spend exactly half of your time “losing” - often in the most daft way!

The only valid “tit for tat” criticism that I can see is when the drill loses its martial “intent” – where a sequence becomes the means and the end. That’s another issue entirely. Taking turns at certain non-martial movements becomes an elaborate dance/ritual and nothing more.

Otherwise, with the correct intent and focus, dynamic context drills provide valuable situational reflexive training. Consider for a moment how the kick touch drill teaches you to react to a kick the moment it is launched. This “bare” reflex is further refined in such dynamic context drills as our gekisai embu (see below), enabling a student to use downward deflections against kicks (something that many people have considered “impractical” - probably because they have never inculcated the relevant situational reflexes from kata to enable them to do so).

Our gekisai embu - featuring defences against kicks in a dynamic context

Accordingly, the fact that dynamic context drills feature “turn taking” is simply part and parcel of the fact that they are drills. The fact that this “turn taking” is more noticeable with dynamic context drills is largely due to the following:
  1. the repetition is greater (ie. sufficient to create a rhythm and actually inculcate reflexive responses for a change); and
  2. the repetition does not allow one side to lose (for obvious reasons).
Otherwise dynamic context drills are no more or less “flawed” in the “turn taking” element than any other drill. Indeed, the increased repetition and rhythm of “turn taking” is precisely what enables the inculcation of situational reflexes where otherwise they would not be developed.

“Lack of finishing blows” – the second of the remaining straw men

The second and final criticism of dynamic context drills is related to the one above. It concerns what people have described as the “lack of finishing blows”.

My first response to this is: Do your “standing start” drills really have finishing blows? How exactly? Do you really hit your partner - with full power? Do you really “finish him/her off”?

The answer is, of course, “Not at all!” You aren’t “finishing off” anything.
    You just aren’t having your own blows thwarted/countered.
If you want that, I suggest you hit a bag or dummy. Your partner shouldn’t play your dummy just so that you can get this “satisfaction”.

And against a bag or dummy you at least get the chance hit properly. The “power slaps” given to your unfortunate training partners in “string attacks” are a poor substitute. If anything, they groove a series of “sub-optimal” strikes - pulled ones - compared to those you would deliver to a bag or dummy. In short, if you want to practice combinations, an inert target is better than a live person.

“Power slaps” given to your unfortunate training partners in “string attacks” are a poor substitute for striking bags and dummies

The corollary to this is that the best use of live training partners is to let them do what they do best - and that is resist you!

Make no mistake, “standing start” drills are useful for learning a series of blows (whether in a string or not) as a comprehensive counter to an attack. And there is no reason why such drills cannot co-exist with dynamic context drills and bag/dummy work (as they generally must).

This merely highlights that dynamic context drills cannot be “all things to all people”. They are useful training devices in the context of a wider training methodology. They are no more “flawed” in their absence of “finishing blows” than any other partner drill - unless you’re really in the business of “finishing off” your training partners (and I hope you aren’t)!


A week or so ago, I set about answering a query by Emero as to how he could learn appropriate reflexes to deal with his master’s circular kicks. I started writing an article that has evolved into this series of 5 separate articles, namely:
  1. Dealing with circular attacks”; and
  2. Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness”; and
  3. Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex”; and
  4. ‘Standing start’ drills – what’s wrong with them”; and
  5. this article.
I’ve had to chop the original article into all these separate ones because, during the course of writing it, it became clear to me that many of the premises I had taken as “givens” (situational reflex and “situational reflex blindspot”, the role of rhythm in developing situational reflex, the limitations of “standing start” drills, the types of dynamic context drills and their function) were often unknown or at least misunderstood - even in the traditional martial arts community, never mind the eclectic/combat sports world.

To some extent, my previous articles about 2 person training have also assumed the arguments I’ve made in this series of articles.

But recently I have become aware of the need to address fundamentals more thoroughly. Accordingly, I hope that these articles have shed some light on the whole question of situational reflex development and the importance of training in a dynamic context in achieving that objective.

I say this because I really believe that situational reflex development is the key to moving your traditional techniques out of your kata, onto the dojo floor and (hopefully) into any civilian defence situation you might encounter.


1. Most dynamic context drills in use today employ a symmetrical design: that is, both sides use the same sequence. This is useful pedagogically (it cuts down on teaching time and avoids confusion in students) but it also increases the repetition time – and hence opportunities for pattern recognition and situational reflex mapping. A good example of such a drill would be the “de cadena” hand trapping drill (see the second video under the heading “Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting”).

A second variety features both sides repeating the same sequence, but on opposite sides (ie. mirror image). This is sometimes necessary to permit flow to continue, given the nature of the particular techniques, their sequence and human physiology.

A one point2 dynamic context drill where both sides execute the same sequence, albeit mirror image to each other

A third variety involves both sides repeating separate sequences. This is particularly useful when one side is required to execute “simultaneous” deflection and counter responses or when it is not practicable for one side to “recover” from a position.

A deflection drill where both sides execute different sequences to each other (necessitated here by the “simultaneous” deflection and counter)

2. The simplest dynamic context drill involves only 2 movements in a sequence, albeit that the movements comprise one response – eg. a deflection and a counter. Accordingly I call this a “one point” drill – there is only one response by both sides, and that response is repeated continuously. The drill below is an example of a one point drill:

An example of a wing chun based “one point” drill. Note that both sides do the same thing – deflect and punch. The deflection and punch comprise one response, hence the reference by me to “one point”.

3. When drills involve multiple responses you get what I call “multiple points”. Typically, there needs to be an odd number in order for the drill to loop.

4. For example, most FMA based dynamic context drills are based on 3 points (ie. 3 different responses) through which each side cycles.

An example of a 3 point dynamic context drill is the “de cadena” (the chains) – a hand trapping exercise, a video of which you can see under the heading in this article "Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting".

5. An example of a 5 point drill would, of course, be xingyi’s 5 elements. I have covered the use of the use of the elements as a drill in my article “Cracking the xingyi code” so I don’t propose to do so again here.

6. An example of a 7 point drill would be aikido’s 13 count jo form, as I’ve described in my article “Genius and the “13 count” form”.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic