Kiado-Ryu Karate

May 16, 2022 - Feature of the Week

Sparring Safety: Focus, Nick & Stick Drill

There is only one way to learn to fight and that’s to fight. Martial Arts is, after all, a warrior art. However, a basic problem is learning to fight without combatants being injured. Enter sparring.

Simply stated, sparring is controlled combat. But how can individuals learn to fight with full intensity without hurting or being hurt? One solution is to utilize the “Focus, Nick & Stick Drill,” which is taught at the Karate Institute of America.

The “Focus, Nick & Stick Drill” is comprised of three parts:

  1. Focus: strikes are delivered within an inch of contacting the target.
  2. Nick: strikes are delivered but only slightly contacting the outer surface of the target (skin).
  3. Stick: strikes are delivered with full impact to a non-human target, such as a punching bag or a fully padded human.

As we see, in the “Focus, Nick & Stick Drill” parts 1 & 2 generate no damage because they don’t impact the target. Part 3 is used only on non-human targets, fully padded humans, or an attacker bent on hurting you. The “Stick” is a penetrating strike and meant to inflict damage to the target.

Mastering the Drill

The “Focus, Nick & Stick Drill” is designed to teach total control of one’s strikes. Using a punching bag as a target and a fist as a weapon, deliver a slow punch toward the bag but stop the punch within one inch from the bag (the Focus—no contact) and retract the punch to its original position. Next, deliver a slow punch but only nick the front of the bag (the Nick—light contact). Finally, deliver a punch to the bag (the Stick—heavy contact and penetration). Execute these three components sequentially (one right after the other) to get a feel for controlling the punch at its various depths—from no contact, to extremely light contact, to full power impact.


Start by mastering the Focus. Start slowly. From a still position, do ten, twenty, thirty punches or more. Increase the speed of the punch without touching the target. You will find that your focus is critical to your success. You’ve got to pay attention, i.e., don’t let your eyes move away from the target.

As you become better, gradually increase the punch to full speed—all this without making any degree of contact with the target. Once you have mastered the Focus strike from a still position, begin moving back and forth, side to side, bobbing up and down. It will be much more difficult but also much more controlled. The goal is to be able to throw a fully explosive punch from any position—still or non still—while stopping the punch one inch from the target and resetting the punch.

Next, master the “Nick” phase of the drill doing the same thing. Start from a still position, throw a full punch but only nick the front of the bag or target and reset. Graduate to moving your body while punching. This will take a lot of time and practice to master but it will ultimately allow you to spar with confidence by never injuring your opponent because of your control, which translates to competence and, as the Karate Institute of America teaches, “Competence creates Confidence.” After all, the reality of sparring is that we need opponents to fight with us so we can master our craft. However, if we continually hurt people during a sparring session no one will want to spar with us. This, of course, will have a negative effect on our development and progress, not just in sparring but in actual combat and self-defense.

Finally, using a heavy bag or a “Bob,” execute all three parts of the Focus, Nick & Stick drill in succession—no touch, light touch, full power. Do this over and over and over again. Start from a static position and work up to a non-static actively moving position. It goes without saying that this drill should be used for all body weapons—punches, back knuckles, finger whips, karate chops, armbars, elbows, knees, kicks and so forth.

Once the Focus, Nick & Stick process is mastered, you will be able to spar with total confidence. Your sparring partners will appreciate your control and respect for their safety. Plus, if you ever have a justifiable means to protect yourself in a real fight, you will have the confidence to do so, having mastered the striking process.