“In Zen teaching method, intentional output designed to provoke reaction is called beating the grass to scare the snakes…In martial arts, the analogy is to a feint, a gesture, look, or attitude intended to induce an opponent to act in haste, thus exposing himself to counterattack, or to mistakenly defend the wrong target while leaving the intended target open.” –Yagyu Munenori
Feinting is the application of psychology, timing, and theatrics in a sparring match. Mastering the art of feinting is what separate the beginners from the elite.
If you are following The Training Factors Pyramid, the skill of feinting falls into the loftier regions of levels 3 and 4. Sure, there’s a technical aspect to feinting, but more importantly you must know the how’s, when’s, and why’s.
Like it isn’t hard enough, the criteria for feinting will continuously change, even within a single match!
So how do you master feinting? In short, lots of practice and lots of trial and error.
Let’s look at a few situations and how to apply feints in each:
The match just started. Throw a handful of feints to get a feel for your opponent. See where the put their guard. Find out if they respond aggressively or defensively. Finding out your opponent’s predispositions will affect how you proceed for the rest of the match.
You’re in the lead. As you near the end of the fight, your opponent will become increasingly aggressive in order to tie the match or gain the lead. Throw feints as they close in on you and interrupt their momentum.
They’re in the lead. Don’t give into the temptation to blindly charge in. Edge a little closer than the normal range you typically stay at. This will make your opponent uncomfortable and more prone to react to your movements. At this point you execute a feint that leaves an opening for you to move in for the kill.
You’re tired. First off, don’t show it! Don’t slouch. Don’t quit moving. Maintain your natural composure. The best way to avoid suspicion of being fatigued (and subsequently steamrolled by your opponent) is to increase the intensity and aggressiveness of your feints. The same tactic goes for injuries. If you got a bruised rib, the last thing you want is your opponent to know.
Feints come in many flavors and some will work better for you than others. Here are a few common feints to begin with:
The basic feint. Essentially, you move your leg or arm to make it look like you are about to strike. This is good for determining your opponent’s initial reaction. Do they drop their hands to guard their body? Do they flinch? Do they plant their feet?
The combination feint. This is a variation of the previous feint where you throw a light quick strike quickly followed by your knockout strike. The purpose of the first strike to divert the opponent’s attention, opening up your real target for the second strike.
Footwork feints. Movement feints are where you quickly move in on your opponent like you are about to attack. Do they respond by moving back, attacking, or at all? These can also be used in a clinch to appear as if you are about to break out and create distance.
There’s also some “wild card” feints that are simply to befuddle the opponent. Wild card feints do not follow a typical style or rule (which also makes them so effective). They are a signature, if you will, of the particular fighter.
One particularly amusing one I saw was where two guys were squared off and one suddenly stopped and began adjusting his gear in the middle of the match. His opponent dropped his guard and just stood there while the first guy fiddled with his gear. As soon as he saw the hands drop, the first guy quickly made a swing at his unwitting opponent.
While the ruse was ultimately unsuccessful, it goes to show that your feints are only limited by your creativity and what you think you can get away with.
Here’s a drill to get you started mastering your feints:
Have a partner hold a target at the desired level. His objective is to not let the target get hit. If you’ve ever played “Slaps” when you were a kid, this is essentially the same thing. Your goal is to throw a feint that is believable enough that it causes your partner to react and pull the target away. As they come back to reset the target, you deliver your strike.
Note that the distance that your opponent pulls back the target is irrelevant. Sometimes they might only flinch while other times they might pull the target completely back. Regardless, your job is to strike the target while they’re resetting.
As your skill increases, try running this drill with your partner as the target (in suitable sparring gear, of course). This will give you even better feedback as to the effectiveness of your feints and if you capitalizing on them in time.
Get to drilling!