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Beyond the Basics of Kali- Learning to Read, Adapt, and Act

Posted by Leslie Buck on

When studying Kali, learning in the beginning is easy. You just imitate those who are better than you. You drill to develop coordination through consistent repetition. Eventually, you memorize patterns of movements that become techniques. You learn to perform those techniques when your partner feeds you a specific attack. The process for learning this in the beginning is pretty clear. The tough part of learning Kali starts when you move beyond those basics. This is where things get fuzzy.

It’s gets difficult when you have to coordinate your movements to attack and counter an unpredictable opponent. You have to see what is going on, decide what to do about it, then select and perform the right technique. It is hard because you must choose from a wide variety of responses, and in choosing the right response, you have to process several factors before you can decide. There may not even be one correct answer, so you must also weigh which potential solution or technique you will use.

This difficulty is really apparent when you first start sparring. Many of the techniques that you can easily perform under low stress, no longer even come out. The problem is that you are either waiting for the right moment to apply a specific technique or just swinging your weapon and trusting that your reactions will take over. To be successful, you must have a combination of basic movement and more advanced problem solving skills. The trick is learning how to train for those more advanced skills.

To learn those advanced skills, you have to change your approach to training. The approach of your training should change from drills that have one specific, correct response and clear standards of performance to exercises that require assessment, judgement, and decision making. In this higher level training, you move from basic scripted drills to application oriented exercises where you must read and interpret the actions of your opponent, identify opportunities, then take action. Below are a few points to help you determine how to make that jump in your training.

Closed Skills - The Basics of Movement

In the beginning of your Filipino Kali training, you should focus on developing precision, accuracy, power, and speed using repetition and controlled movement. Developing your coordination, consistent mechanics, and fluidity of movement are the primary objectives of your basic training. You must develop these skills as a foundation for more advanced skills.

The foundational skills of Kali are mostly closed skills. Closed skills are skills performed in a stable, predictable environment, which allows the practitioner plenty of time to prepare their movements before execution. Closed skills are self-paced, have set patterns, and have a clear beginning and end. Examples of closed skills include actions such as delivering a smooth, accurate strike at a stationary target, executing a combination of strikes in the air, or stepping quickly through a triangular footwork pattern. Closed skills do not have to be adjusted to fit changing conditions, such as the movements of an opponent.

Develop closed skills using fixed practice. Fixed practice is practice wherein you repeat movements over and over with the intent to make them resemble a particular model. Repetition is necessary to refine movement patterns. Once the movements are correct (they match the model), there is no intended deviation from the pattern. In training closed skills, focus on the replication of key points of performance that ensure proper execution. This would include points like maintaining proper elbow position while striking, turning the hips with a strike to generate force, and following through the target for penetration.

In order to apply a technique successfully, you must have it embedded in your long term memory. Through consistent repetition and training using fixed practice, you etch the components of your techniques in your long term memory. This dedication to long term, a.k.a. “muscle," memory is a necessary first step to really being able to apply your techniques. With the exception of very simple techniques, you will not be able to apply a technique if your conscious mind is still trying to coordinate the movements of the technique when you need to apply it. This is why you must first develop the basic skills such as striking and footwork before learning to adapt them for use against a moving opponent.

Open Skills - Perceptual and Cognitive Skills

Once your basic skills are established and consistent, it’s time to work on higher level application skills. Your basic closed skills become the foundation of your techniques. In order to be able to apply a technique, you need the ability to adapt it to the dynamically changing position and movements of your opponent. This ability is comprised of higher level skills - the additional skills that make the technique work.

These advanced level skills are mostly open skills. Open skills are perceptual, externally paced, variable, and interactive. Open skills require that you read and anticipate the actions of your opponent, analyze them, then adjust your techniques to fit the situation.

Open skills are harder to develop than closed skills because they are used to solve problems. Closed skills are not designed for processing problems. With a closed skill, there is only one correct action. Contrary to closed skills, open skills are used when situations have more than one correct response. You may be faced with a situation where more than one technique can be used, and there may not be a clear best answer. You must weigh your options and make a decision to use the technique that you believe will give you the best outcome. This is when you must draw on the the higher level, open skills that you can develop though proper training.

How to Develop Open Skills

The method for training open skills is very different from that of closed skills. When practicing closed skills, you are mostly perfecting your motor movement. With open skills, you are developing your cognitive abilities to perceive, analyze and decide. This difference in objectives requires a different approach in training. Whereas closed skills are best developed through fixed practice, open skills are best developed through variable practice.

Develop open skills with variable practice. In variable practice, one uses drills that allows the practitioner to encounter a variety of situations and solve a variety of problems. Variety is the key to training open skills. The variety allows you to repeat your basic skills in different contexts and a wide range of situations. Each training session will give you the opportunity to draw on your previous experiences, test your theories and observe the outcome of your decisions. Through experience with this type of training, you will learn to read, interpret, and adapt.

When training open skills, focus on recognizing cues that will allow you make decisions. In order to respond to any movement of your opponent, you must first recognize what factors will allow you to quickly assess what is happening, decide what you will do about it, and then decide how to do that. Quickly recognizing relevant cues will allow you to complete this process faster. Training to recognize cues would include learning to read the tells of your opponent, recognizing the right position from which you can apply each of your techniques, and seeing open targets or weaknesses in your opponent’s capabilities.

When practicing open skills, use drills that mimic real situations. By using drills with situations that are similar to those that you will encounter in sparring or in real life, you build a library of experiences that will serve as references for you when you need to make a quick decision or solve a problem. The larger this experience library, the more reference material you will have at your disposal. With training, this library will reside in your subconscious, and it will inform your intuition.

Open skills require that you are flexible in your application of movement. In order to adapt a technique to the situation, you must be flexible in it’s execution. Good form is important, but being overly rigid will limit your ability to adapt. Under pressure, you must chose the technique that will give you the best outcome, and you must adapt that technique to the situation. You cannot memorize a technique for every situation. Situations are endless. You must learn to stretch and mold your techniques to fit many different situations.

Mindset for Open Skill Development

Have the right mindset for training open skills. Your mindset should be playful, curious, and experimental. Allow yourself to try new options and follow ideas that come to you. Only by exploring the material will you make discoveries. The right mindset with open skill training will help you cultivate your imagination and foster creativity. Creativity is what is needed to solve problems.

Be willing to make mistakes. Open skill training includes a lot of trial and error. Take chances. Allow yourself to make mistakes. This is your laboratory. Test your ideas. This is an experimental process, and though it is not efficient, it has process related rewards. In fact, often in open skill training, the process is more important than the results. This is true because you are developing your perceptual and cognitive skills while you are looking for an answer. You are developing your problem solving skills along the way. With the right attitude, you will make useful connections and discoveries that will expand your understanding and skill.

Final Words

Balance your training to develop both open and closed skills. Mastery of basic, closed skills is critical to your success and should be continued regardless of your level of skill. You will not outgrow the basics. Continue to polish the basics with regular fixed practice. Include them in your warmups.

For faster skill development, get feedback and analyze your performance. Because drills that develop open skills can be complex, it is very useful to get feedback from your training partners and your instructor. Your instructor will help you understand when you are making improvements and guide you in the right direction. Video is a helpful tool when looking for detailed analysis.

Use the right training process for the skills you are trying to develop. Using the wrong approach to skill development will give you subpar results. If you introduce variation too early in your coordination training, then you will not develop smooth movement. By using the right approach, you will learn more, faster.

Closed and open skills are on two ends of the same continuum. In many cases, your drills will include some aspects of both closed and open skills. Structure your training so that you progressively move from a focus on closed skills to a focus on open skills. A progressive approach will allow you to adapt your coordination and movement skills to your open training exercises. By following this approach to skill development, you will develop a strong foundation as well as your abilities to read a situation, identify opportunities, adapt, and act.


If you are dedicating a lot of your time to training Kali, you deserve to have all the best training tools. Check out the training weapons we have at Kali Gear. We have padded training sticks, rubber training knives, and aluminum training weapons for a more realistic feel. Get the tools that serve you best.

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