The one-step arose as a useful accident. Many years ago I was reading George Mattson's The Way of Karate and I completely misunderstood his description of ippon kumite. I thought, "That's brilliant—unscripted but safe, just looking at this whole thing as a meat geometry problem…"

I had completely missed the ippon kumite is in fact a scripted drill. I'm not that bright. But it was a very useful failure. After all, if you're going to fall, try to fall up.

DRILL: The One-Step

The quest for the most efficient action.

This is my most basic drill. I find it useful and versatile on many levels. At its most basic it is very simple: one partner initiates a move in slow motion and the other partner at equal speed makes one motion to respond. The partners continue this without resetting, winding up wherever they wind up and finding solutions.

Naturally, the details get more complicated.

The flaw in this drill is the artificiality of timing—both slow motion and taking turns. Because of that, the students can and should go all-out with body mechanics and targeting. Perfect alignment and structure so that each strike pushes through the opponent and targeted to the best options. The drill should be done so slowly that the participants can press directly on eyes or throats.

Safety concerns:

  • The partners must communicate. They must all understand and respond to tapping out,
    as well as safe words and even utterances. "Ouch! Knock it off you jerk!" Means exactly the same thing as a tap.
  • The partners must not get competitive. If they do, injuries are likely to result. The deeper reason is that survival fighting is not competitive. In a self-defense situation, you need to get out safely. Sometimes that means neutralizing the threat. It never means dominating the threat or teaching him a lesson or showing who is the better man. Those are social games. The bad guy needs to fail. There is no advantage in him knowing that you beat him.
  • There will be a tendency to speed up. Because of the precise targeting this either becomes unsafe or, if it stays safe, reinforces bad habits, like practicing missing.
  • No live weapons in the training area at any time. No guns, even unloaded ones and no sharpened knives. Blueguns and blade trainers are acceptable. The nature of the game encourages people to find opportunities in the environment. I expect my students to draw and use any weapon they notice on you. That would be very bad if it was a loaded gun or a real knife.
  • If working with a mixed group where some are not trained to fall, instruct students to notice when balance is broken and things will go to the ground. Then the person who would fall lies down in the position he would naturally land in and the opponent assumes the position she would have at the end of the takedown. Then they continue from there.

No Training Required with One-Step

One-step can be conducted with people from extremely different systems safely. It is a great way to learn a little bit about how someone new thinks and acts. It requires no training whatsoever—complete novices can often hang with experienced martial artists. Most importantly, it is not dependent on style and there is no rote learning to it.

It allows you to train a student with respect to the student's natural movement and mentality.

It also becomes a tool where the students can begin to think and teach themselves.

The simplicity is that as you initiate a move, your partner is looking for the most efficient thing he can possibly do. As he chooses and acts, you must come up with the most efficient thing you can possibly do with respect to his current position and motion. The "taking turns" is not about letting the other person move but about practicing on a moving, unpredictable target.

Limiting yourself to one motion forces you to find something more efficient.

Note well- each person gets one action. Not one block and one strike. One action. Block-and-strike, even simultaneous block-and-strike are sparring or dueling artifacts. Assaults happen in a flurry of damage. In order to make a simultaneous block and strike work, you would have to be not only twice as fast as the threat but have reactions that were faster than actions. The math doesn't work. It is something we get away with because we have been practicing against feeds, not attacks. This drill will help break that habit.

Sub note: covering and striking or moving and striking are not two moves. If you have trained footwork with your strikes or trained to, say, cover your groin when going for a high kick, those are simply part of the move. The difference in blocking and striking is that both the block and the strike must be aimed and then executed. They are two separate actions because they are two separate thoughts.

Coaching Tips

  • To reinforce that this drill is about self-teaching I break every few minutes when we first start and have the students tell me what they've noticed and what they've learned. One of the first ones that come up is "You can't win on defense." If you block an incoming strike, your opponent is free to make another attack.
  • If someone gets in an untenable position, have the partners maintain position, have them ease up any pressure causing pain and have them think of options. Bad guys don't give do-overs; don't practice them here.
  • Do not practice dying, either. Students will have a tendency to reset and start over when they feel a decisive blow has landed. This is a bad habit. You may be knocked out in real life, but you might not. If a man can take ten bullets to the chest and head and keep fighting it seems a little delusional (and a terrible habit) to give up over a slow-motion strike.
  • It's hard to stick to one-step on the ground because so many grapplers practice a flow of motion. Try to restrict them anyway. Limiting it to one move you often find an efficient strike that is missed when people go into grappling mode.
  • Most locks are relatively complicated and take several moves to get, and thus usually fail on moving people in real life. Show how locks in real life are based on "gifts" where the threat puts himself in the lock position. By just applying power to one point, efficiently, you can make a lock work. Same goes for many take-downs.
  • If two students are starting to spar, have them start with the initial attack coming from behind or on the flank.
  • When a student gets stuck, have them freeze and brainstorm; then ask their partner for ideas, then other students, then the instructor. I have seen few if any position so hopeless that a room full of people couldn't come up with something.
  • Watch for people who are moving arms but not feet.
  • Show that striking and off-balancing are both good options.
  • It's okay to run away.
  • After they have practiced for a while, explain that they are on a quest for the golden move. The golden move is anything that prevents damage to you, causes damage to the threat, puts you in a better position and puts the threat in a worse position all with a single motion. If every action does all four things, you will do very well.

  • The Golden Move: A single motion that protects you from damage, damages the threat, improves your position and worsens the threat's position.

    Simply running away can do three out of four, and that isn't bad.

  • In a seminar situation, encourage everyone to play with people they do not know and to switch partners each time.
  • Use foam "bricks" and scatter them around the training area. When a group or pair go to the ground, they can use the brick as an equalizer. It tends to change the ground game quite a bit.
  • Stop action critique: Straight-up coaching for the one-step is dead simple: "Freeze. Go back one move. Why didn't you . . . ?" when you see an opportunity for something more efficient than whatever the student used. Don't overdo it, though, or you'll be stopping them every move. Let them play.
  • Let the rounds go for a minute or longer. At the end ask, "What did you notice, what did you learn?" And get the students to evaluate their own learning process and milk the experience for themselves. This is critical!

It is crucial to impress on the students that the One-Step is not fighting. Like most drills, it lacks the fear and pain that make fighting what fighting is. There is no test of heart in the drill and fighting is very much about determination and all those other things we call "heart."

Its purpose is to continuously move more efficiently. To find the smallest, fastest option that will get you what you want. A right hook may get the threat down (and may get your hand broken) but sometimes a two-inch popping movement with your knee can put him down as well, faster, more reliably and more safely. But you can only do it if you see the opportunity.

In the end, this drill is about learning to see.

The above excerpt is from Training for Sudden Violence: 72 Practical Drills by Rory Miller, Author of Facing Violence and Meditations on Violence.