Along with that, there is a planned, follow-up approach to the actual training so that the technical and tactical skills that have been developed will be put to effective use. Just like using a road map to best arrive where you want to go and avoid getting lost along the way, a martial arts athlete needs a similar “map” in his or her development. What follows is a viable and effective “road map” that can be used by coaches and athletes to best arrive at their competitive destinations and avoid getting lost along the way.

From my experience and training as a coach, there are three primary factors or parts that comprise the overall, effective development of athletes. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty of “training smart” the three parts that follow have proven to form a solid foundation in the development of athletes at all levels, from novices to world-class sambo wrestlers. These three parts are: (1) Structured Learning and Drill Training, (2) Free Practice or Sparring, (3) Competition. The first two parts should take place at every workout or practice. The third part is the actual tournament or competition that is necessary to measure all aspects of a particular athlete’s development and level of ability.

Structured Learning and Drill Training

An athlete doesn’t get good simply by showing up and rolling on the mat with his buddies for a couple of hours, even if he does it on a regular basis. Learning and retaining what is learned requires structured training. Remember, education is learning and training is applying that learning to actual situations. The following advice analyzes how to effectively see to it that athletes retain these skills and know how to apply them in realistic and competitive situations.

The first part of an effective workout is planned and structured drill training. There are drills for just about every aspect of what takes place in a real situation or in a match. There are drills for fitness and conditioning, drills for skill learning and development, drills for specific situations that take place in a match both technically and tactically and drills for everything else that actually happens.

Drill training eliminates, to a great extent, the goofing off that can take place in a practice session. Through intelligent drill training, the athletes can learn skills more easily and the coach can regulate time better. Drill can prevent a team from going stale because drill training provides a variety of situations in training. Really, just about any situation in sambo can be drilled on and should be, for that matter. Drills can be used to teach new skills or reinforce already learned technical or tactical skills. Drill training is the most effective method of teaching learned, automatic or efficient spontaneous behavior in sambo (or any sport.) Drill training is efficient because the drills themselves can vary so much in content and context.

Drill training is effective if a coach uses it wisely. Drilling, like anything else, can be overdone. Often, a coach can teach an underlying movement, skill or tactic by using a well-planned drill or game. This is where a drill can have more than one use, even though it has a specific purpose. An example is teaching a throwing technique using a crash pad. This not only teaches the mechanics of the throw, it also teaches the student to follow through with more force, since the person being thrown and taking the fall is landing on about eight inches of foam. Learning how to throw an opponent with control and force is a good skill and using crash pads is handy for this purpose.

A coach can better dictate the tempo or pace of the workout so that the actual training session will be as hard or as light as the coach desires. A coach should constantly vary the drills so that they don’t become boring or lose effectiveness. A coach should also coordinate the drills to suit the skill level of the group or team. Drills that are too easy or too difficult are ineffective and could do more harm than good.

Drill training can develop technical and tactical skill, fitness, coordination, confidence or whatever the coach wants for his athletes and team.

Drills can be classified into two basic groups.

Skill Drills

Skill Drills emphasize teaching or reinforcing already learned technical or tactical skills. When discussing skill drills, there are two varieties that are used.

Closed-ended Drills, which teach or reinforce specific technical or tactical behavior. This is also called a “fixed drill” and the student must work on a specific skill or exercise repeatedly to develop that particular skill in a specific, automated or learned reaction.

Open-ended Drills, which are drills where a student is often presented a basic or specific situation and he must adapt or react to it using his own initiative or already-learned skills. Often, what are called “situational drills” are good examples of an open-ended drill. The coach places his athletes in a situation and the athletes must react using already learned behavior as well as their own initiative.

A coach can develop realistic, effective drills by carefully observing situations that actually take place in a sambo match. Situational drills effectively reinforce successful behavior in the athletes so that they practice specific moves, technical or tactical skills that actually take place in a competitive situation.

Fitness Drills

Fitness drills emphasize physical development and coordination. Often, the value of drills overlaps so that a drill that is primarily a skill drill will often have fitness value too. When doing fitness drills, it is important that they are not boring. I often like to say that I “fool my athletes into having a hard workout” because they enjoy themselves so much.

This is where using a variety of games that can be played on the mat are useful, even for adults. Games aren’t just for kids; adults like to enjoy the practice as well. A coach will do well to remember that unless he is working with a group of professional athletes who get paid for what they do, the people on his mat are there because they want to be there. This may make some coaches cringe, but it is okay for an athlete to actually enjoy himself or herself during a workout.

Something to Think About: Education is learning. Training is applying that learning to actual situations.

Free Practice

The second part of successful training is what the Japanese call “randori” or “free practice.” Call it “going live,” “rolling” or any name you wish, the premise of this aspect of training is to provide an organized and structured time for the athletes to use their own initiative and experiment with the technical and tactical skills they know.

Free practice is what the name implies. It’s practice. First and foremost, it’s not a competition. Every coach should carefully monitor free practice. As a coach, set specific goals for every round of free practice that your athletes engage in. Likewise, as an athlete, set goals for yourself and be sure to discuss them beforehand with your coach and teammates.

I like to compare it to the sparring done in boxing. There is always a reason for a sparring session in boxing. Fighters don’t just get in the ring and beat the snot out of each other. They get in the ring for specific reasons and those reason are whatever the coach or trainer has in mind for them. The same for free practice in judo, sambo or any of the combat sports. Every session of free practice must have a purpose. Just showing up and beating up on each other simply creates too many injuries and turns the training session into a time when the stronger, more experienced (and tougher) grapplers often tend to pick on the newer and weaker athletes on the mat and beat them up. This type of training simply creates predators. And predators, no matter what species—human or animal—tend to pick on the weak rather than seek out those who will actually challenge them.

I’ve been a coach for a long time, and I was an athlete before that and it’s been my experience that the guys who are predators in the gym are almost always the guys that can’t be relied on in a tournament or in a real competitive situation. This is just my personal advice to coaches, but it you have someone in your gym who views free practice as a time to keep a record of “wins” and “losses,” then he’s a detriment to your team and to the welfare of your students and athletes. He should either change his attitude or change the place where he works out. I’ve had guys who “collect scalps” or keep a record of “wins” and “losses” in free practice and they have always been shown the door.

To sum it up, free practice should always have a purpose, always be structured and should always be monitored by the coach. It should be considered as a time to prepare for the real thing, a competition.

Something to Think About: Free Practice is not a tournament. Nobody wins or loses in free practice. It’s practice, period.


This is the actual test for an athlete. There are a lot of tests in life and competing against another human being who is fit, motivated and skilled, is about as honest of a test as anyone can find. I’ve often told my athletes, “It’s a fight, not a game.” It’s important to remember that what we do in the martial arts isn’t a game. It’s the real thing. You have every intention of throwing your opponent to the mat or crank his (or her) arm or leg to the point that it forces him to surrender to you. That’s not playing, that’s fighting. But, it’s a fight with a set of ethics that are enforced by the rules of the fight. This is what separates war from sport.

Fighting sports are simply personal combat with a mutually agreed set of rules that is governed by ethical behavior. What our society calls “sportsmanship” is fundamentally ethical and moral behavior applied to sporting or competitive situations—in our case—competitive fighting. For this reason, sportsmanship isn’t simply an old-fashioned notion of being a gentleman or lady. It’s a vital part of the competitive process and without it, sports, especially fighting sports, would not be possible.

Through the accepted rules and mores of sportsmanship, athletes, coaches and anyone connected with the activity have a certain standard of behavior to exhibit. Without good ethical training developed by honest, sincere effort and an adherence to the rules of the sport, athletes, especially those athletes in combat sports where aggressive behavior is required for success, become predators. Sport, in this case the combat sports associated with the martial arts, is impossible to continue from one generation to the next without a definite set of ethics and sportsmanship.

The concepts of competition and sportsmanship force the athlete to take risks. If someone is only willing to compete when he is assured of winning, he will not realize his potential as an athlete or anything else in life. Winning is more fun than losing, but that’s only true if an athlete has accepted the risk of losing. If a sport (or anything else in life) isn’t worth the risk, it’s not worth the reward. The combat sports that are part of martial arts are an ideal vehicle for a person to realize and even achieve his or her potential, but it takes structured training that enables someone to not only train hard, but to train smart.

The above is an original article by Steve Scott who is also the author of The Judo Advantage: Controlling Movement with Modern Kinesiology (March 2019), The Juji Gatame Encyclopedia: Comprehensive Applications of the Cross-Body Armlock (May 2019) and The Sambo Encyclopedia: Comprehensive Throws, Holds, and Submission Techniques (November 2019).