Instructor Resources Musings

3 Reasons Why Martial Arts Partner Drills Work (and what makes them fail)

Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about martial arts partner drills. I’ll identify the important aspects of movement learned via partner drills. Then I’ll talk a bit about what makes partner drills fail.

Arnis partner drills.

Partner drills form the “glue” between static movements and reality. On a continuum, form would be the least realistic. In form, there’s only an imagined opponent.

Partner drills and sparring practice movement against an opponent. They’re pretty realistic. 

Street defense is the most realistic. There are no rules, mats, pads, or equality of size/strength–only survival of the fittest.

(That is not to say that form isn’t important!! Form is the place where you perfect your techniques & movement by maximizing efficiency. Form builds strength, and can be a great HIIT activity in and of itself).

So what *d0* you learn during partner drills?

Basically, martial arts partner drills teach 3 important aspects of dealing with an opponent:

  • Distance
  • Targeting
  • Control

Back up for a second. Partner drills work by slowing down. (Well, sort of. If you do them TOO slow, you won’t learn much. We’ll talk about that in a bit).

Unlike sparring, where attacks are more random, partner drills are scripted. Like a play. The attacker’s job is to actually try to hit the defender, in order to simulate reality. The defender’s job is to defend using specific techniques, directed at specific targets.

Martial arts partner drills
Partner drills are often done with a set attack and defense.

Partner drills are a great chance to build your neural pathways. By focusing intently on each movement for:

  • a very,
  • very,
  • very large amount of correct repetitions, (think 10,000)

You’ll end up building strong neural pathways that become instincts.

Now let’s take a look at each of the 3 aspects:

  1. Distance, in a basic way, is how close you are to your opponent. Distance also covers speed, leverage, and correctly positioning your body. Moving out of the way of an attack relies on speed & positioning. Attacking back relies on speed & positioning. Using control holds or doing takedowns requires leverage. Without correct distance, you won’t have correct leverage. It all works together.
  2. Targeting. Partner drills, especially between differently sized partners, allows you to learn how to target. The solar plexus on your 5’3″ instructors is located very differently than the s.p. on a 6’+ opponent. Partner drills give you the opportunity to practice reacting, moving, & targeting accurately.
  3. Control is an important aspect of becoming a black belt. Respect & safety are crucial inside the dojo (& out). Control is the ability to attack a vital target at full power, full speed, but pull back just before injury can occur. Without control, people get hurt.

What Makes Partner Drills Fail?

In my opinion, the two worst habits students display during partner drills are:

  1. Tuning Out
  2. Unrealistic-ness

For #1, tuning out & letting your body go on “auto-pilot” detracts from building instinct.


“Auto-pilot” disrupts your mindfulness. If you focus on, think through, and imagine each move, you’re actually building strong neural pathways. It’s brain-training.

Basically: brain controls body, strong brain = strong instinct = better chance of surviving a self-defense situation.

As for #2, “unreality,” this is what I usually refer to as cheating your partner out of learning. Listen up, because this is important.

If you don’t attack your partner at full speed & power, how will they ever learn to defend against full speed & power?

Obviously, when you first learn a drill, you should do it slowly. You want to make sure you have all the motion & details correct. Gradually increase speed & power.

Then you’ll be on the right track.

Feel free to sound off in the comments with your views about martial arts partner drills. What makes them work? What makes them fail? Are they important? What can instructors do to better teach them?

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