Communicating as a Leader

The King, the Fool, and the Fox, Reading and Controlling Non-verbal Communication in the Sparring Ring

Stefan Verstappen asked:

Know yourself and know your enemy and in a hundred battles you will be victorious.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Few people today have not heard Sun Tzu’s famous axiom, but how can you know an enemy you have never met before? This is the situation most fighters face when competing in sparring tournaments. Even seasoned veterans of the tournament circuit who know and will have studied the fighting techniques of other regulars, must still face new and unknown fighters. How can you know what type of fighting tactics these will use against you? The answer lies in knowing human behaviour.

In the Far East strategy focuses more on understanding the strengths and weaknesses of human nature than the use of sheer force. Tactics were aimed at taking advantage of an enemy’s foibles and character flaws over finding a weakness in a formation or fortress. In the sparring arena we all have certain flaws that we unconsciously reveal through a type of non-verbal communication called telegraphing or Tels for short. Telegraphing is the name given to unconscious body movements that `Telegraph’ a person’s intentions in advance of an attack. The ability to `know’ an opponent is through the observation of his Tels. But this is a two edged sword. Not only do you need to be able to read your opponent, you must prevent your opponent from reading you. This is where the strategies of The King, The Fool, and The Fox come in. But the first thing is to read others. The following are some Tels that are common among martial arts fighters.

Reading Non Verbal Communication


Watch the opponent’s eyes. Most fighters will focus on the intended target briefly before attacking. For example, if the attack is to be to the lower part of the body the eyes will drop just before the attack. If the attack is to be to the upper body, the eyes will look upwards. If the intention is to grapple, the opponent’s eyes often focus on your hands or waist. As a rule; where the eyes look, the attack will follow.

Hands and Arms

It is thought that long before man was able to speak he was able to communicate through the use of an extensive hand language. The use of hand gestures to emphasize speech is still an integral part of our modern communication. It thus comes as no surprise that the hands reveal much about what we are thinking. One of the most common Tels among novices is dropping the hands, and chambering the arms. When a fighter drops his hands, it is usually a prelude to a kicking attack. This is often the result of poor training whereby students feels they need to use their hands to counter balance a kick, at other times the fighter drops the hands in order to clear the way, so to speak, for their kick. Professional fighters know this Tel well and will maintain a proper guard position while launching a kick.

The next most common Tel using the arms is a chambering action. Many fighters chamber their arms before launching a hand technique. This is what Bruce Lee was trying to counteract in his students when he taught them the one and three inch punch. A pro just shoots out the punch instantly; the amateur will pull back and chamber the punch first giving the perceptive fighter advance warning.


While watching the opponents eyes use your peripheral vision as well as your hearing to note the opponent’s breathing pattern. The breathing rhythm will give away the time of the attack. Before launching an attack, most people will unconsciously perform a mental version of 1 – ready, 2 – get set, 3 – go. This occurs very quickly but will follow the same pattern, regular breathing during the `ready’ stage, a sudden intake of breath during `get set’, and then exhalation during the attack. (Although some will hold their breath during the attack.) Listen to your opponent’s breathing, when you hear the sudden intake of breath the next instant will see the attack. To use the strategy of `Interception’, attack at the very instant he inhales. Almost no one attacks during the inhale.


The position of the torso may reveal an opponent’s strategy. A sideways stance with the hips facing 90 degrees to the side favors a kicking attack. If the hips turn, away exposing more of his back, then expect a spinning attack whereas hips turned towards you favors hand and grappling techniques. There is an exception to this interpretation. Most styles and tournaments forbid attacks to the opponent’s back. Some fighters turn their backs towards their opponents to hide legitimate targets and to foul out the opponent should they strike their back by accident. This cheap tactic may win a trophy but no points for skill.


Using peripheral vision one can notice an impending kick by stiffness or delay in one of the opponent’s legs. The most powerful kicks come from the back leg; as a result, the back leg is often a little more tense or stiff just before being thrown. If the opponent is outside of kicking range, he will first need to close the distance, when he steps forward the kicking leg tends to lag or drag behind slightly.

An intellectual grasp of body language and telegraphing is helpful while practicing and learning but, during actual combat, one must be able to have an instinctive perception of body language and this can only be achieved through observation, and endless practice. Eventually you will forget how you are able to see, you just see.

Hiding Non Verbal Communication

Mastering discretion is greater than employing eloquence.

Chinese Proverb

The first rule in the art of war is that all is a deception. To succeed, a strategist must learn to see his opponent’s deception while creating his own. To hide one’s intentions, our inner goals and desires, one must suppress non- verbal leakage. Our attention being limited we cannot manipulate and control every verbal, facial, and bodily expression all the time. While it’s not possible to suppress every gesture, we are able to fake and control enough to fool all but the most observant. There are three general strategies to prevent giving oneself away: to suppress, to disguise, and to manipulate non-verbal communication.

The King Strategy

Wait long, strike fast.

Chinese Proverb

One method to suppress non-verbal communication is by making as few physical movements as possible. The face becomes a mask set in a certain attitude such as concentration, or nonchalance. The hands make only the minimal number of actions when needed to carry out attacks and defence. The body is kept still, no movement made without purpose. The idea is to provide so little body language that no one can detect any meaning. This is known as the King Strategy and is based on the observation that in both primates and man the most dominant male exhibits the least body movements. The ability to suppress non verbal leakage is a result of superb body control and self discipline.


The Fool Strategy

The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life.

Samurai Maxim

The second strategy is the exact opposite of the King strategy, playing the fool. It involves a non-stop display of acting and gesturing. The idea is to provide so much body language that it is impossible for opponents to detect the true mood beneath the surface display, not being able to read the signs because of too much background noise. There are several roles the fool can play. Some use continuous pantomimes, others pretend to be angry and upset, some tell jokes and tease. Playing the fool also serves another advantage; having your opponent underestimate you. The saying you can’t judge a book by its cover is never truer than in a sparring ring but not everyone knows this. If you succeeded in having your
opponents underestimate you they will tend to drop their guard and their responses will become slower. T
his tactic only works once though with a smart fighter.

The Fox Strategy

He who is fearless in being bold will meet his death; He who is fearless in being timid will stay alive.

Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching

This is the most difficult strategy of all, since it requires an acute presence of mind to control both verbal and non-verbal communication so as to intersperse true signals with false signals. This is a dangerous device and requires great acting ability. You manipulate the opponent’s perceptions to make it seem that he can read you, but what he sees is only what you’ve allowed them to see. For example, you could affect a Tel such as dropping the hands when kicking. You exhibit this quirk when making inconsequential attacks, so that the opponent easily recognises it as a `Tel’ and will defend low in anticipation of a kick when he sees your hands drop. Then when going in for the kill you exhibit the Tel that acts as a feint. Knowing how your opponent will react by defending low to the feint, you attack his opening.


To win you must know your enemy and know yourself. You can know your enemy by observing his body language. But to know yourself is to know that you also communicate through your body language to others. Use one or more of the above strategies to hide and or confuse your communications and then wait for your opponent to make a mistake. That’s winning without trying, and Sun Tzu would be proud of you.

Website content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *