Six things you should do in your training

1. Train against attacks to the head

The head is an obvious target.  Not only can we be knocked unconscious through strikes to the head, our ability to hear, see, shout and even our balance can be damaged. We do have natural reflexes to protect the head which will be activated should our eyes receive a stimulus once it is too late to access and execute a trained protective action, but these reflexes are not always effective.  The best way to become skilled at protecting the head is to have to defend against attacks to that target on a regular basis.  It does not matter whether those attacks are intended to make contact or not, all that is required is the incentive to continuously protect our head from impact and to learn carry the arms in such a way that we can do so speedily with ease.

2. Train against HAOV

Pushes, shoves, grabs, wild haymakers, head butts, headlocks, shoulder barges, tackles, clinches, stomps… the use of habitual acts of violence in training can be controversial.  From a self defence perspective they are essential training tools, for in a violent situation you are far more likely to be attacked using haov than any more precise form of attack, even if your attacker is themselves a skilled martial artist.  The downside of training against haov is that it means that a proportion of the training time is spent delivering a skillset in which you do not want or need to become proficient at employing.  How much time you spend on training against haov should be weighted according to your primary skill development aims.

3. Train at Close range

By close range I’m referring to tactile contact and working at a distance where you are generally within at most ¾ of the arm reach of your training partner.  Most violent confrontations quickly close to this distance no matter how skilled a ‘long distance’ fighter one participant may be, and this infighting range is one at which it is important to be comfortable.

4. Make Contact (actually hit people and pads)

Contact in training is tremendously important.  I’ve written about it in Volume Three of the Pinan Flow System.  Both making and receiving contact is important.  Experiencing contact in training so that real shoves or knocks don’t faze you or affect your will to continue is invaluable, and it doesn’t have to be knockdown or dangerous/damaging to do so under the supervision of a good teacher.

5. Use verbal abuse and distraction

Verbal abuse, whether by one person or a group, can freeze a person unused to personally experiencing it more effectively than the shock of contact.  Exposure to bad language at a distance, or on the screen is not the same. There is a big difference between facing a silent focused training partner, enduring the kiai of a confident partner, and having one or more people swearing and shouting directly in your face.

6. Train against multiple opponents

Dealing with multiple opponents isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty.  There are lots of different ways that this can be done: some that genuinely put the trainee under gradually increasing pressure, others that are frankly ridiculous either because they are always so intense that they offer no chance for progression or learning outcomes, or because they are so spaced apart that there is no added pressure or learning gained. There’s no guarantee that training against multiple opponents is going to enable you to fight more than one person (and you should try to avoid even fighting just one person), but this form of training will make you aware of the difficulty, give you indications as to things that definitely don’t work, and possibly provide a more appropriate focus for your one on one strategies.

I haven’t picked these six training paradigms at random.  From the experience of observing many trained and untrained people from a range of backgrounds in hundreds of simulated aggressive and violent confrontations, these are the six factors that determine how easily a person is able to access their combative skill set.  The more of these a person deals with in regular training the easier it will be to access their skill set, the fewer of these they work regularly or have experienced the harder it will be to access that skill set.  This model helps explain why personality, upbringing, martial arts styles and training regimes all have an effect on how successfully people can physically defend themselves.

Not everyone is able to meet all six of these criteria in their regular training, but that doesn’t matter.  I have seen people who meet only three criteria in their martial arts class (attacks to the head, contact and close range) do exceptionally well because in their work as LEO (Law Enforcement Officers) they have encountered verbal abuse, haov, and dealing with multiple opponents.  The more you meet the easier it will be. If you identify a gap in your class, and if you are not in a position to fill it (or your instructor doesn’t want to) then it is usually easy to gain experience and have fun by cross training at a seminar, or inviting an instructor to teach at your club or workplace.

Have fun and train safely!


  1. I like your style very much. And Merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you Sylvia. Merry Christmas to you too!

  2. Great post! Do you have any additional tips for women, who tend to face domestic violence at a higher rate than they do more random encounters?

    As a female karateka who has been frustrated with a lot of (well meaning) “physical focus” in my “self defense” training, Sensei Abernethy’s Q&A Podcast has got me thinking and I’m curious how different clubs around the world reflect the male/female differences in violence stats in their idea of self defense.

    Osu from Winnipeg!
    My training blog

    1. Hi Jill

      As Iain Abernethy said in his recent podcast, men and women do face different violence, and the types of violence we all face also vary according to our age and the different lifestyles we lead related to that.

      Many martial arts clubs focus on the physical violence expected outside what we hope is the safe environment of our home, and in general (unless you are in a gang or in an area where gang related intimidation is likely) that is alcohol related violence and violence related to robbery or sexual assault. The two elephants in the room are the fact that most sexual crime is committed by a person known to the victim (and trusted – hence the access), and domestic crime.

      An important and awkward facet of both sexual crime and domestic violence is that the victim may have greater difficulty in protecting themselves from injury, or inflicting harm or escaping from the perpetrator. The psychological impact of these crimes should not be underestimated, nor the power or dominance that the perpetrator may have achieved over the thought patterns of the victim. Victims may believe (mistakenly) that it is their fault. They may believe that worse things will happen to them if they tell or resist. They may believe that doing so may cause worse things to happen to a child, a sibling or a pet. They may (and generally will the first time it ever happens) have emotional ties to the perpetrator that inhibit protective actions. Leslie Morgan Steiner’s TED talk on Domestic Violence is a powerful insight and education tool:

      Gavin De Becker’s book Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers safe (and parents sane) is a very useful tool for supplementing your classes with advice that can be given in special classes or warm ups/warm downs.

      With regard to what I teach my regular students, as opposed to courses or classes I deliver, I run the same syllabi but prioritise techniques differently according to the age of my students. Things that are less common for adult males in the UK are more common playground, robbery or bullying scenarios for younger children. I don’t teach a separate female syllabus, because the most important early focus of my adult syllabus (protecting the head) is equally important for both sexes, but I do focus on certain drills more for female students than male students. My syllabi are ordered according to the commonality of HAOV.

      I hope that helps!


  3. I would add to this that when delivering “one-off’ courses I prefer to deliver both the ‘theory’ and the ‘practical’ separately to men and women. There is an overlap in content, but how I approach the subject matter differs and there is material specific to each gender that I feel it is counter-productive for the opposite sex to hear. So far as I am concerned the non physical element of self protection is far more important than the physical self defence skills and the majority of what I teach in lectures is available to my regular students in their syllabus.


  4. […] are not used to accessing their skill set in the training environment presented – see my post here) and swing windmilling punches, collapse failed punches into headlocks, grab and push without […]

  5. […] employ that skillset. Everything comes down to how you train and to a large extent how many of the six things you should do in physical training for self defence are present in your […]

  6. […] potential offered by the change. As I have written in short blog posts about contact in training, six things you should do in your training and speed in training, variety and different training methods can all bring […]

  7. […] are for people learning the drills), but they are designed to be trained in the manner I describe here with progressive resistance, speed and unpredictability. Ultimately I believe in their […]

  8. […] isn’t as easy as working with a compliant training partner. As a general rule at close quarters (where most violent incidents occur and remain) you will need to strike to control and control to […]

  9. […] employ that skillset. Everything comes down to how you train and to a large extent how many of the six things you should do in physical training for self defence are present in your […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: