Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
June 9, 2016


Whether it is self-defense or sport karate, success in a hostile encounter depends on multiple factors.  Only some of those factors are within one’s control.  In addition to the choice of technique, “timing” can also be determined by a karateka.   For this article, timing refers to choosing when and how to take action. This article will examine timing and the multiple decisions for achieving the effective range of one’s chosen technique as well as how one’s rhythm of engagement can best disrupt one’s attacker.

Maai (pronounced, mah-eye) is the Japanese martial arts term referring to the “interval” or “engagement distance” used by a person engaged in a hostile exchange.  This concept involves not only the exact distance and the exact time one should execute a technique, but also how one gets to that point in space-time.

Distance – depending on the moment, the specific technique one wishes to execute will either require that one decrease or increase the distance from the opponent.  To decrease or close distance, one may need to take a shuffle step or perhaps one or two full steps.  Perhaps one will need to run or even take a flying leap! While one is moving, a “secondary” technique, as part of that movement, can be used to set up the “primary” technique; a kick or a sweep or maybe a simple feint can change the opponent’s body position and set them up to maximize the effect of the primary technique. Another consideration for closing distance is to simply hold one’s ground; if the opponent is in motion, allow the opponent to close the distance. Similarly, if one needs to increase distance in order to execute a technique, one could move back with a shuffle step or a full step back, but one can also choose to make the opponent move away simply by pushing them.  Along with these choices in changing distance, it is important that one have a sense for how much time it will take to change the distance, taking whatever steps or secondary actions, to arrive at the needed distance at the correct time. Competence with this aspect of timing, manipulating distance, can only come from repeated drills and purposeful practice of this concept when sparring.

Angle – engagements will generally line up opponents so that they are face-to-face.  While this maximizes one’s choices of techniques, both offensive and defensive, it does the same for one’s opponent.  Thus, in extended encounters, opponents will “work the angles;” each person will seek to create an angle of approach that provides an advantage over the opponent.   Certainly, the most advantageous position is directly behind one’s opponent where the opponent’s defensive options become minimal as do the offensive techniques they can bring to bear. But, the ability to move to the rear of one’s opponent is often also highly guarded against for obvious reasons.  Less well defended against, however, are flanking maneuvers; moving to the left or right side of one’s opponent. Particularly for the less experienced martial artist, having one’s opponent move “away” to their left or right is seen as less threatening than having one’s opponent moving directly toward them.  When executed by an experienced martial artist, this is a purposeful illusion.  Flanking maneuvers not only deprive an opponent of half of their body to use in techniques, flanking also can be used to subtly manipulate distance. One can increase or decrease distance in a flanking maneuver and it will be far less perceptible to one’s opponent.  Again, as with more overt manipulations of distance, one must account for the time required to work an angle before being in position to execute the primary technique.  And, again, to make this aspect of fighting essentially instinctual, one should engage in repeated drills and purposeful sparring practice of this concept.

Rhythm – there is a rhythm to engagement and this occurs due to the engagement style of the two opponents.  One can be aggressive, biasing significantly toward offensive versus defensive techniques with little regard for the actions of the opponent.  One can be passive, again with little regard for the actions of the opponent, one can significantly bias toward defensive techniques instead of offensive ones. Preferably, one should strategically take the actions of the opponent in mind when considering the timing of one’s attack. There are three strategies:

Go no sen – waiting to attack after the opponent.  Sometimes called “reaction fighting,” one waits to take advantage of the vulnerabilities exposed in the aftermath of an opponent’s attack. Go no sen can also have the psychological impact of putting one’s opponent into a more passive role as the opponent inadvertently seeks to deprive the reaction fighter of such opportunities by switching from offense to defense.

Sen no sen – attacking simultaneously. This is a strategy that seeks to take advantage of the inherent vulnerabilities that occur in stance and form when a person has launched but not yet completed a technique.  To be successful, one must be able to complete one’s own techniques faster than the opponent and thus such a strategy will demand more use of open-handed strikes and snap kicks, which, while delivering less force, are faster to complete than closed-hand or thrust kicks.

Sen sen no sen – preemptive attack. This strategy requires ki sensitivity. One must have a sense of where the opponent is dedicating their energy and therefore the likely technique the person is planning on taking. Then one must executed one’s own technique, one that is likely advantageous over the opponent’s planned action, before they even start.  This strategy can be further enhanced through sensitivity and manipulation of kokoro-no-maai.

Kokoro-no-maai – beyond the physical aspects of maai, there is a mental aspect: kokoro-no-maai (pronounced koh-koh-roh-no-mah-eye).  It is human nature to be distracted by sensory events, thoughts, and feelings.  But, we can also purposely seek to distract one’s opponent and in so doing disrupt their timing and gain the advantage.  If one ever wondered why Bruce Lee emitted a kiai prior to launching an offensive, manipulating kokoro-no-maai to one’s advantage is an excellent reason.