Focus Mitts for Self-Defence Coaching (diary entry)

Jamie Clubb coaches a transitional striking drill, beginning with the fence23.08.19


Tonight I was booked for a special two hour instructor private lesson. My client wanted me to coach self-defence/counter-assault focus mitt exercises. These will be used for children and teenagers. My client was a highly experienced martial arts teacher with good cross-training credentials as well as a progressive attitude towards coaching.


Each of the below focus mitt exercises are underpinned with the overlapping principles of the “Training Matrix” (thank you Iain Abernethy, for coining this term). Each should be trained using a target placement/familiarisation exercise, within the context of a progressive pressure test and striking focus mitts. Good focus mitt holding should be taught. The mitts must be held still and firmly by the coach in a stable yet mobile stance. Bad mitt holding can lead to joint injuries if the pad is hit hard against insufficient resistance.


The Fence/Pre-Emptive Striking


The fence is best taught as a concept and not a technique. Students need to understand that their fence is constant operation. It is the boundary they set with everyone in their life. This can and does extend to emotional and mental boundaries. Self-defence is about taking control. The person holding the fence takes control their life and all situations, no matter how hopeless matters can seem.


As a counter-assault method, the defender sets up a line they only allow people they can trust to cross. When fear signals that another individual is a possible threat, the defender puts up their fence. The fence is most easily demonstrated with an outstretched hand. It is important that the outstretched hand and the posture adopted by the defender appear natural. They need to be either passive or assertive gestures, but shouldn’t be overly aggressive unless used to create space. Keeping the raised hand mobile and even dropping it in a relaxed fashion intermittently helps hide the fact that it has been set up as a means for delivering a pre-emptive action should an enemy/antagonist become physical. Crossing the boundary line, best triggered by having the enemy touch the outstretched hand in some way, sets off the pre-emptive strike. I keep it that simple as a straightforward self-defence rule.


After target familiarisation exercises, which can be aligned with some role-play, the students should be moved onto the focus mitts. Now the realistic targets, which have previously been touched, are replaced by a focus mitt, which can be hit with full power.


Focus mitt coaches need to start the exercise outside of the defender’s set barrier/fence. They are to attempt to use non-physical cues to test the defender, to get them to move back or draw them forward. The defender should not move forward until their fence-line is breached/contact has been made with perceived intent. Here the defender has justification that an assault has been attempted and they are acting in defence. The role-play training should help test the student’s understand of when it is acceptable to physically act; when they cannot immediately escape and when someone has shown genuine intent to physically harm them.


Incidental Combinations/Forward Pressure


When the counter-assault has begun it is important for the defender to remain committed until they can facilitate a tactical escape. Strikes need to be administered as a successive stream of forward pressure. The defender needs to keep the pressure up and the coach needs behave accordingly to promote the right counter-offensive behaviour. A good coach, mimicking the likely response to a receiver of strikes, needs to move backwards as the strikes come in and change the angle of the focus mitt, as a receiver would react. The striking defender should immediately adjust the striking angle and switch to appropriate striking tools – rear hand straights become overhands become downward hammer strikes and then spear knee strikes. These are incidental combinations.


The completion of the exercise is confirmed when the focus mitt is completely covered, which should trigger a tactical escape/withdrawal from the exercise, where the student moves towards a genuine exit point and then walks back to the coach to resume the exercise anew if required.


Referencing/Datum Setting


After the first strike has been thrown it is important to find a reference point on the enemy. The free hand should be placed near the target for this purpose, allowing for a consistent line of attack. The free hand should not grip, but taught to simply make contact. This can take the form of a grappling “bear’s paw” hold if required.


Obstructions and Obstacles


Next we looked at dealing with obstructions and obstacles. This included a restrictive training exercise where the coach places one hand on the defender. The defender ignores the hand and simply hunts the target.


The next progression is for the coach place the edge of a focus mitt across the target to represent an obstruction. This comes up whilst the defender is throwing successive strikes. The defender clears the obstruction with the non-striking hand thrusting back towards the enemy whilst striking the now clear target. Gripping, entanglement and grappling need to be avoided at this stage.


Tactical escape training should be introduced as part of a self-defence warm-up. Rather than simply having everyone go for a light jog and perform abstract callisthenics, get the students run in different directions, bring in obstacles and then, at a moment’s notice, tell them to escape. They should all run to real exit points.


The Cover/Regaining the Initiative


The next stage of the conflict is regaining the initiative. It is important to maintain a proactive attitude in all students. They are attacking the attack, not reacting and blocking. The cover is a robust tool that I describe in detail in my eBook “Mordred’s Victory”. A victim of its own success, the tool must only be used when the defender is already on the receiving end of strikes and as a temporary transitional tactic for regaining the initiative.


The technique should be coached with the defender simulating “code white”. The term, taken from Jeff Cooper’s Colour Code, refers to being switched off or in a state where the defender has been surprised and cannot pre-empt their enemy. We can do this by having the defender close their eyes and be given a simple physical prompt. This prompt is the only signal they are given before opening their eyes and responding to the attack. The response should be to cover, which is a trained development on the flinch response to being attacked from all different directions. Therefore, the cover works well both against multiple enemies as well as a flurry of attacks. It is important to move into the attack using the cover in order to jam the strikes. The defender should start striking as quickly as possible, overlapping the incoming strikes and looking to overcome these strikes with the original straight strikes taught consistently throughout these focus mitt exercises.


The cover transfers well into a range of different exercises. It is also a good cross-training technique.




I now advise that before anti-grappling techniques are taught, a student should learn some basic stand-up grappling. It is important for everyone to have knowledge of defending takedowns, maintaining a strong posture and to understand position when being wrestled. Collar ties, over-hooking/under-hooking and sprawling are relevant skills to form a strong base to add on anti-grappling tools.


The first exercise I teach for dealing with attacks that involve gripping is to have the coach hold the defender in some way and to break their posture. The defender gets used to being gripped, grabbed, pushed and pulled. They ride the storm, so to speak. Next we introduce the focus mitt, turning this into a development of the hunting drill.


The next exercise looks at a close grip, such as one where the defender is up against a wall and the grappler is pressing with their head. From here we introduce the eye-gouge in order to create a gap for head-butts, elbow strikes and then back to the regular straight hand strikes.


Restrictive & Transitional Training


We finished with the lesson going back to the developing the straight hand strike. These technique needs to be trained from key postures – standing, kneeling, seated and from the back. It is good train functional postures to deliver the strike, so that a defender can fight effectively and take advantage. Students should be encouraged to strike from any position and to also strike in transition.




I advise that although good body mechanics and appropriate levels of intensity should be taught, coaches should be mindful of teaching hard strikes with youngsters as they would with adult students. Bones and joints are still developing, and can easily be damaged by excessive trauma to these areas. I encourage the use of open hand strikes first, especially with youngsters, and then punching targets. When punching targets, good hand protection should be worn. This includes hand wraps.




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