The 3 Habits of Highly Effective Karate Fighters


Did I tell you the story of how I “won” my first – and only – medal at the national championship in kumite (fighting) back in the days?


It’s so embarrassing…

To make a long story short; with a hefty dose of youthful enthusiasm and a soon-to-be black eye, I somehow managed to bulldozer my way through four opponents and, without scoring a single real point, win each and every fight to finally get a shiny medal at the end of the day.

Sounds unreal, right?

So, how the heck did I do it?

Well, let’s just say I had a habit of walking into punches and kicks!

A habit that quickly got my opponents enough fouls to have them disqualified, making me the “winner” of all fights up until the semi-finals (where the medical doctor made me surrender), leaving me with a coveted bronze medal at the end of the day.

I still laugh hard when I think about that day!

Anyway, what I’m trying to illustrate with this story is that a) if winning is the only thing you care about, you can always ‘game the system’ in some way, but more importantly that b) if you have bad habits, they can sometimes work to your advantage even if you don’t have the willpower or know-how to actually change them.

But don’t follow my lead.

A black eye is cool in high-school – not at the office!

So let’s talk about habits for a second.

Because, if you ask me, that’s what it all boils down if you want to achieve success – whether it’s Karate or life in general.

The #1 thing that sets apart high-achievers and Type A personalities from the rest of us is not some “magical” willpower gene, but simply the fact that they have habitualized and automatized more important skills/tasks than the rest of us.

That’s today’s topic.


More correctly, the universally awesome habits that great Karate fighters seem to have in common, but rarely teach – because it’s such a natural and easy thing for them.

Now, based on my intro story, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not the greatest fighter on earth.

But I am a pretty good observer.

And when it comes to habits of highly successful Karate fighters, there are 3 particular ones I’ve observed in world-class fighters that I’ve trained with and interviewed, like Junior Lefevre and Luigi Busa.

Check it out:

Success Habit #1: Keep Mobile

This habit is first for a good reason.

One thing that all great fighters figure out early is that you’ve got to be able to move effortlessly in any direction, at any given time, during a fight.

In other words, you’ve got to be mobile.

  • Oh, your arms are tired? So let your guard down then.
  • And hey, sure, your mind might get tired too. So stop thinking then.
  • But NEVER EVER let your legs get tired – because they are your ONLY ticket out of a slaughter.

Highly successful Karate fighters know that footwork and body movement (ashi-sabaki and tai-sabaki) are the foundation of not getting your butt kicked, which is why they spend a lot of time learning, repeating and perfecting legwork.

Your lower body is literally a powerhouse, and should be used as such – both for attacking and evading.

Perhaps the importance of staying mobile is best summed up by the grandmaster of Shotokan Karate:

“Do not think of winning; rather, think of not losing”

– Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1975)

Your mobility dictates this.

Keep moving to keep the distance and keep safe.

The ability to move around freely in a fight is second nature to great fighters, and you should try to make it a habit yourself.

In the words of Muhammad Ali: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.

Success Habit #2: Stay Playful

Next up…

The day you stop exploring new opportunities for setting up strikes, kicks, punches or takedowns is the day you stop growing as a fighter.

A stale mind produces sad results.

In Karate and life.

So, what every great fighter has understood, is that in order to truly evolve you need to constantly keep a playful attitude towards fighting.

Don’t get me wrong; a fight should never turn into a circus.

You should definitely keep in mind that your opponent isn’t there to sell you Girl Scout cookies or give you jumping mid-air high-fives.

But that doesn’t mean you should cement your mindset!

“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”

– Albert Einstein (1878-1955)

Keeping an open and playful attitude, both technically (“let’s try this technique!”), strategically (“what happens if he does like that?”) and physically (“crap, that hurt!”) is not only one of the most effective ways of achieving higher success in kumite, but also one of the most enjoyable ways.

Imagine that – you can actually enjoy fighting!

The hard part is to make playful and unpredictable fighting a habit – and not just something you do when you’re bored…

Or drunk.

Success Habit #3: Be Committed


The term “to commit”, has become something of a buzzword, especially in MMA, for a very good reason.

For every technique you throw in a fight, there should only be one purpose.


1. To hit.


2. To set up a hit.

Yet people keep doing pointless stuff like sloppy jabs or spinning hook kicks (!) in the air in front of their unimpressed opponent, with poor timing and questionable distance.

Old habits die hard.

What every great Karate fighter knows is that energy is a precious thing – and that the person who can achieve maximum effect with minimum effort quite often ends up on the winning side of a fight.

Thus, a technique without purpose is a technique wasted.

And it all boils down to physical & mental committment.

The purpose of a technique should always be to either hit your opponent, or to set up (feint, lure etc.) the next technique; which, in turn, should either hit the opponent or set up the next technique.

And so forth.

In other words, committment to whatever you are doing (attacking, moving, defending) is the concept you need to habitualize in order to stop wasting time, start feeling safe & finish the fight.

Reach for those last extra inches in each attack, dude!

Either you do it, or you don’t.


The End.

What do you think?

Again, I’m not the new Chuck Norris but I’ve seen some really great fighters in my days – and these three habits (1. Mobile, 2. Playful, 3. Committed) are just a few of the numerous habits I’ve noticed to be universal in the most successful Karate kumite players out there.

Because, again, the thing with successful people isn’t that they’re necessarily better than you and me.

They’ve just figured out that some stuff works better when it’s automatized – saving precious brain space and willpower for more important stuff.

Both in Karate and life.

Good luck!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

– Aristotle


  • Greg
    Really interesting article again Jesse, thanks for again taking the time to help us expand our arsenal :) Have good day! Greg
    • Thanks Greg-san, I appreciate it!
  • Ian
    Great post Jesse! A must read for karateka new just starting to do kumite and good reminder for seasoned practitioners.
    • Thanks Ian-san, glad you enjoyed it. :)
  • Ian Johnston
    How did you not get disqualified? If I were the referee this is what would have happened: First excessive contact: Your opponent gets a warning. Second excessive contact: Your opponent loses a point. Third excessive contact: You get DQed for failing to defend yourself. Just sayin'! :) Oh, yeah! Good article.
    • I think the rules were modified or something. They've changed a lot lately!
  • Raphael
    Great article Jesse ! Very true ;)
    • Thanks Raphael-san! It means a lot, coming from such an experienced and successful Karate athlete as yourself.
  • Luis
    I guess the last one is the one that's the most difficult to teach, the willpower to always try to crush your opponent's nose, but having the control to just let him know he's in your hands, or fists. Ikken Hissatsu if you will, but always remembering Karate Ni Sente Nashi
  • Antonis
    Very good article Jesse-San! There is a great truth in the story you share with us, that, in my humble opinion is valid for sport Karate, all the kinds of Kumite (from point system to knock-down), and all combative or team sports. There is a truth that nobody, especially in these "realistic", "super effective" martial arts puts focus on... and that is...REGULATIONS. Regulations restrict the players in a way that judges and refs are able to give clearer, less dubious points and finally have a winner. In addition to that it would be at least dangerous (if not stupid) to let everyone do whatever he wants, due to the possibility of severe injuries. BUT...people that have fought within the same rules again and again for years tend to systematize their way of fighting and find workarounds that help them win "technically" and, as far as they act within the set of rules, "legally". This is where athletic committees should come and make changes in the rules from time to time in order to shuffle the things a little bit so that people with passion and good technique can win and sport remain spectacular, in other words not boring.
  • juan manuel
    If you want to be an efective karate fighter, stay away from tournament bullshit. Karate its no a game, nor a sport. Its about protect life, so, real, nasty, brutal fight. You win a medal today in a tournament, tomorrow have a street figth, next day they put the medal in your grave.
  • Ian
    Ah yes, I've scored a few points with my nose in the past, too. And I take it that another way of saying "playful" is "don't be rigid and predictable" .... which, as we all know, is essential for good kumite. I remember long ago watching a kid's division at a tournament, and noticing one kid. He had good technique for an eight-year-old, but he took predictability to a whole new level. All he did ... ever ... was right foot forward, jab, jab, reverse punch, real leg roundhouse to the head. Again and again and again. Fortunately for him, his opponents never cottoned on to what he was doing, so he did well.
  • KCO
    What rule-set did you fight under? Normally you would get a mubobi or similar if it was your own fault. However, having had the fun of judgeing a few tournaments, Im not surprised that you could win - but Im impressed you kept the reflection and humility of knowing why.
    • Old WKF rules, Kim-san. :-)
  • Sebastian Salvatierra
    You have much reason
  • Fin Smith
    Nice article. As an old karateka, I always knew my stamina from 30 years of running meant, worst case, I could out move my opponent for 3 mins. Too many people don't have that aerobic/anaerobic base on which to build their speed and technique.
  • Beth
    Great article :) This really hits home for me - my main martial art is TaeKwonDo, and I absolutely adore sparring. But whenever I spar, I end up wasting energy trying to score, and taking the training too seriously, but with that I tend to stick to comfortable techniques. My instructor always ends up trying to get it into my head that training is not a place to try and compete, it's a place to learn. I need to start learning again. Maybe this article is what I needed to actually recognise what my instructor was telling me. Thank-you!
    • Karate kid
      Agh see I don't know what to do,I'm 14 I compete in Kata internationally but part of me wants to give kumite a go,just don't know if it's a good thought or not ??
  • Bucksmallsy
    An interesting article, but the three targets or critical areas to be covered to be a competent fighter, are actually : (1) tolerate complete physical pain (full contact fighting) from head to toe as in Kyokushin / Muay Thai, Judo (2) have at least five drills / repertoire of techniques so ingrained on both left and right side one is fluid in their execution and response when attacking and or attacked! (3) have the accuracy and ability to block and or strike as in Shiwari demonstrations with baseball bats (Louisville Slugger size 30); in the event of reality one block and or one strike is ALL it takes for GAME OVER. Kumite / fighting should never be taken as anything other than as close to REALITY as possible ! What one does in the Dojo WILL be HOW one responds both in competition and out on the street ! We are creatures of habit ! Not God's ! Osu !
  • Akshat
    Can someone please explain me how gichin funakoshi 's quote is related about staying mobile and what does itmean in general
    • Jaime Gonzalez
      I think Jesse explains it, just below the quote: "Your mobility dictates this. Keep moving to keep the distance and keep safe." Maybe, if you fight within the mind-frame of "I have to win" you will, most likely, become so focused on winning that you end up leaving openings for your partner to hit you, just so you don't miss a "chance", you may have, to hit your partner. And if you fight within the mind-frame of "I wont loose" you'll be a little more conscious about distance, timing, body-positions, speed, etc. both yours and your partner's. But that's just me :D Peace!
  • Graziela
    It's really really REALLY important not to give up or let the fight end in your head before it's over. Until time's up. Back in the day when I played tennis, I ended the game in my head after the first few points. And then, I started lacking. I thought "I can't win this anymore, I'm so bad". And I was bad. But not confident. My older sister won 1st place in the regional competition at that time, while my team, consisting of a few friends and me, was last place in the regional competition, partly because of me. Just because the game was over in my head, even if it wasn't. Maybe that was because I was 10, unhappy or lived just through the days, but it was stupid.
  • Karate kid
    Ah see I've been thinking about giving kumite a go,I'm 14 and already compete internationally for Kata just part of me really want to try kumite ,just don't know if it's the right move for me ??
  • Doug Bohl
    Funakoshi died in 1957 not 1975. Besides hitting and setting up a hit a technique also can be used to block/defend, or to disengage.

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