You could be making some of these mistakes and not even know it. Keep reading to make sure that you AND your partner are getting the most from each training session. We all want to train with a good partner. We all want to be a good partner. Figuring out what qualifies as a good training partner is a little tougher. The short explanation of what makes a good partner is someone who actively strives to enhance the quality of their partner’s martial arts training. But what does that actually mean? Here are some tips for how to take your partner work to the next level.

Put safety first

If there’s only one thing you remember about partner work, it should be this one. When your partner punches in for you they’re demonstrating a large amount of trust in you and your ability to control what’s happening. Their safety is in your hands, so it’s your job to make sure they make it through the technique unharmed. Use control whenever you make contact, and never make contact to the eyes or groin. If you’re doing a technique that you’re not sure of, like a new sweep or throw, be sure to ask an instructor to watch while you do it to make sure everything is as it should be.

It’s Always Your Turn

There’s a common way of thinking that during partner work, you’re only training half of the time. In reality, partner work involves two distinct roles, and while you will switch off between these roles, there is no such thing as ‘it’s not my turn’ or ‘I’m only here for target practice’. Everyone knows the basic requirements for the defender role—your goal is to finish your technique in the most correct way possible. When it comes time to take on the attacker role, however, many students mistakenly view it as a break. The attacker’s goal isn’t to punch towards their partner; a good partner needs to aim for a specific target, and strike at it in a committed and predictable way. If the technique involves a takedown (and you’re a high enough rank to be taken down), it’s your responsibility to control your landing. And of course, whether you’re attacking or defending, you should be practicing a good stance, with bent knees and energy in your body. If your body language doesn’t say you’re ready to do karate, your technique won’t either.

Make Contact

Making contact is, as you might guess, a big part of learning to do partner work. It’s something that we spend a lot of time working up to—for example, an orange belt isn’t expected to make the same type or amount of contact as a green belt. In fact, for your first few ranks, you don’t even need to worry about making contact; you do the technique on a partner more for reference than anything else. Often, the hardest part about learning to control your strikes isn’t hitting softer. It’s in finding the balance between hitting too hard and hitting too soft. Obviously, if you hit your partner too hard, they get hurt. But on the other hand, if you don’t make enough contact, or don’t make contact at all, your partner doesn’t get to build up their conditioning, and you don’t really get a feel for how the technique would work. Especially on techniques that involve a take down, it’s not going to truly work unless you put a little bit of force into it. DM 2 is a great example of this, because even though the elbow that makes the take down happen works as a push rather than a strike, the take down won’t happen unless you actually do the elbow. It’s a great technique to showcase the balance between hitting too soft—where your partner doesn’t move enough to fall—and hitting too hard—hurting or damaging the sternum. With this technique, like in all of them, you want to be careful, but if you’re not going to actually hit your partner, you may as well practice in the air instead.

Accuracy is everything

When you punch in for your partner, put effort into punching to the correct target. Often students will get into the habit of “tracking” their partner, following them with their fist as they move away from the punch. This is bad for your partner’s technique because by failing to simulate the commitment and follow-through of a real opponent’s strike, it gives them a skewed perception of what it takes to avoid that strike. On the flip side of this, you absolutely need to try to hit your partner every time. Sometimes, students will intentionally miss their partner, thinking that they’re doing them a favor and making the block easier. Not only does this give your partner a skewed perception of what’s needed to stop a punch, it can lead to someone getting hit on accident because the punch wasn’t going where it was supposed to. When it’s your turn to do your technique, take advantage of what you’re striking and make an effort to hit each and every target. And since your partner should be doing their best to punch on-target, make sure you use that to full advantage by working on blocking or avoiding their punch. Don’t start your technique after they’ve already hit you; that doesn’t help anyone.

Respect the Strike

Whether you’re doing a grab escape or a take down, the last thing you need in a partner is a rag doll. So when someone is doing a technique on you, offer them some resistance. That most certainly doesn’t mean that you fight them every step of the way and refuse to be moved. After all, they’re not hitting you full force, and you don’t want to give them a reason to. But you do need to make your partner work a little to make sure their technique is effective, otherwise they will never fully understand it. And since a good partner will make you work a little to get the technique right, you need to get used to making it work. A functional technique on a partner who’s offering the correct level of resistance will deepen your understanding of the technique in a way that simple repetition cannot. If you’re the attacker, be careful not to fall into the “Hollywood stunt man” trap. That’s when you take respecting the strike a step too far by moving the way you think you would if they’d actually hit you. While a little compliance can help your partner understand their technique, too much moving with the technique will inevitably put you into a position to get hit accidentally. When you’re the defender, make sure you’re relying on technique and skill, rather than muscle and size. Just because you may be at an advantage with your current partner doesn’t mean you can ever count on that in the real world.

Stay Clean

Partner work is by definition done up close. It forces us to get closer to our partner than we do in most interactions we have in our daily lives. That’s why if hygiene is important anywhere, it’s the dojo. If you’ve ever had to do a technique with someone who had bad breath or body odor, you know exactly what we’re talking about. If you haven’t, you don’t want to find out. Nobody wants to work with the smelly person in class—so make sure you’re not that person. Go the extra mile if you need to—carry deodorant and breath mints with you, and make sure your gi and undershirt are clean (not free of stains, actually washed). If you find that washing your uniform after each sweaty session is too much work, pick up an extra uniform or two. You’ll be amazed at the difference that makes. Sweating and bad breath happen to everyone on occasion, but it’s up to you how you handle it. Of course, good hygiene in the dojo extends past showers and laundry. If you smoke or have pets, find a way to keep it away from your uniform, as those can create big issues for other students with asthma or allergies. Lastly, keep your nails short and well-maintained, both on your fingers and toes. No one comes to class hoping to get sliced by a toenail.

Avoid Playing Sensei

If you’re a few ranks higher than a partner you’re training with it can be very tempting to try and help them. In some cases this can be great, but in other cases it can be a disaster if you offer advice to someone who isn’t looking for it you may just frustrate them, make them feel small, or make a wrong suggestion that seeds a bad habit. If you’re still learning a technique you may be making mistakes and not realize it, which means if you “correct” someone to that mistake, the drill breaks down. If you think your partner is making a mistake, that’s the time to flag down an instructor to clarify. Avoid phrases like “my partner’s making this mistake, can you fix it?” and instead ask more useful questions like “is it supposed to go this way or that way” or “can you watch us do the drill?” That way you can solve the problem without bringing ego into it.

Leave Small Talk out of It

Time is precious, especially in a martial arts class. Your class will be over before you know it, and you only get so much time to train a technique or condition your basics. If you break up your partner work with jokes, comments, or chit chat, you’re losing training time and de-railing focus for both you and your partner. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot who never takes a moment to breathe or think. Just make sure that you’re courteous and thinking of your partner’s needs, not just your wants. Remember that even though you and your partner may enjoy talking to each other, that’s not what you’re there for at that particular moment. Try to save your socializing for before or after class, and use class time to focus on your training.