Addressing self defence in martial arts training

Practical Karate Association in High Wycombe

What’s in a name?

I’ve used the term self defence because most people understand what is meant by it, even if it is not the most accurate term. We can play semantic games with terms such as Conflict Management, Personal Safety, Physical Intervention, Self Protection and Self Defence – but what most people ‘think’ they are looking for, and therefore search for is self defence. Martial arts training can comprise aspects of self defence, but unless the art has been specifically devised for that purpose recently, it isn’t the same thing.

 

The elephants in the room

Elephant number one. Let’s call her Nellie. Nellie is the fact that while most classes you attend are physical, and most people want or expect a physical session, the majority of self defence is comprised of knowledge/experience that does not really come with physical training. Nellie isn’t in class, she’s packed her trunk and said goodbye to the (martial arts) circus. Nellie isn’t necessarily an effective use of your instructor’s time in regular training, given how little time your instructor spends with you. Most of what Nellie has to offer can be covered in a seminar or taught via books and videos.

What is Nellie? She’s the non-physical element of self defence.

Avoidance – knowing what does and can happen and strategies to reduce your risks of being a recipient of social or asocial violence, aggression or sexual abuse.

Deterrence – knowing how to move and behave in a way that does not make you a target or a challenge.

Negation – knowing ways to behave in situations of social aggression that can ease tension and reduce the risks of a physical altercation.

Legal – knowing not only where you stand with regard to using force, but also how that underpins your trained responses, and how to describe your actions so as to minimise the risk of prosecution should your actions face investigation.

Physiological – knowing what is likely to happen to your body during and after an aggressive (and possibly a physical) altercation, how it will make you feel, and strategies for dealing with it during and after.

Psychological – admittedly this does carry over into the physical class, having the resolve and having made the decision to act when necessary to protect others or yourself and to handle the consequences of that.

Aftermath – knowing strategies to cope with the impact of an event after it has occurred (physiological, psychological and legal).

These things can be difficult to cover in an average class. Obviously good instructors allude to them where possible, but people generally come to classes for physical training. One strategy that can work well is to cover this material in either a written syllabus that students are given, or in youtube videos for students – in addition perhaps to suggested reading of texts by authors whose work you recommend to broaden their thinking. To help ensure exposure to this external material, introduce short (one or two line answers) multiple question open book theory exams with each grade.

 

Elephant number two. The king of elephants. Let’s call him Babar. Babar is the fact that actually most people do not need self defence training, they only think they do.

The actual prevalence of aggression and violence for the majority of the population (particularly in first world countries) is so small that most people with a little common sense (see Nellie if they have grown up in a nice enough environment not to develop ‘street smarts’) will only see ‘unavoidable’ violence on screen. The majority of violence that does occur doesn’t happen to the people coming to your classes, or if it has, is not likely to happen to them again. Attendance at a martial arts class is a bit like car insurance, it’s something you hope you never need, and something that is rarely used, but we feel better for having it. While the training aim for the attendees may be self defence, what they actually need is a good product (a martial arts class weighted towards self defence) that will give them confidence and reassurance, and what they need more than self defence is a form of physical fitness training that will provide good health (which is not necessarily exclusive to good self defence). The strength of martial arts is that it can provide excellent mobility, balance and coordination training as well as aerobic and anaerobic development in a mentally stimulating fashion that suits a broad range of ages, personality types and body sizes.

 

Integrating martial arts and self defence in regular classes

This is where a lot of well-meaning instructors fail. They know that their potential students want self defence, so they use it in their advertising, but because they have no clue about the reality of aggression and violence (due to lack of experience/information or plentiful but limited experience distorted by the prism focus of a particular environment (military/security/LEO)), they don’t offer an appropriate self defence focused class. The problem can be compounded when they are part of a larger organisation with a set martial arts syllabus comprising externally set forms, set basics and pre-arranged sparring.

So how can such an instructor orientate their classes more to self defence?

 

  1. Impact.

The big difference between real violence and pretence is that people actually hit things. I’m not suggesting that students hit each other (though that is beneficial for psychological conditioning), but that they hit pads. Hitting pads is how you develop and test (the two are not exclusive) your ability to reliably deliver force.

Pad work is the most common nod to self defence I see in martial arts classes, and it is also one where I tend to see a classic error in understanding the issues of real violence.

Guard – Don’t assume that an altercation will be one on one. If you aren’t using a free hand to hold then it should be used to protect the head, the most common target. It’s great to see people do aerobic pad work routines that stretch their stamina and mental resilience, but if they are so tired that they are dropping their guard then they are engraining bad habits. Most violent incidents barely last a few seconds; from a self defence perspective, drilling good habits is more important than drilling stamina.

Head shots and hands – Most people, given pads, immediately focus on head shots. In doing so they are overly focused on the head as the target and the fists as a delivery system. This is a perception skewed by a few factors: firstly the knowledge that head shots can be very effective; secondly the use of the head as a target in both contact and non-contact combative sports. Hitting the head with an unprotected fist is very different from hitting a pad with an unprotected or gloved and wrapped hand, particularly if you aren’t engaged in any other form of hand conditioning. The fist is a useful weapon, but choose targets with care. In pad drills use the fist, but focus more on developing power with forearm and elbow strikes, knee strikes and open-handed strikes and don’t under-estimate the ability of body shots to safely negate most threats.

Pre-emption – pad drills can be an excellent way to incorporate real bread and butter items of good self defence training such as smooth pre-emptive striking skills, combining verbal distraction and striking, experiencing verbal aggression, and utilising appropriate fences. In addition to this they can also isolate and train classical martial arts techniques so there is a real win-win for instructors balancing the needs of self defence and a martial arts syllabus.

 

  1. Making greater use of the their forms

The technique weighting in classical martial arts forms is interesting. It is quite different to what you will see in competitive martial arts drills where certain types of techniques score higher points, or certain types of protective equipment make certain strikes more viable.

While we do see punching in martial arts forms, it is not the most common movement, particularly in karate forms. You’ll see other techniques that can act as strikes with the forearm or elbow, grappling movements, shielding or parrying, trapping, throwing, kicking or kneeing occur far more regularly.

Learning and training good quality self defence focused applications for your kata not only ticks the self defence box, but also helps students develop as martial artists within the confines of an organisation (and helps expand the organisation’s future instructor knowledge pool).

 

  1. Hitting through a training partner and simulating impact.

Try to hit people.

This does mean adjusting your drills. Pulling contact is a bad habit that can develop incorrect distancing and a lack of understanding of how people move when hit. It’s useful when you are only training to touch a target, but if you want to train to make contact effectively you need to hit people.

I’m not suggesting that the class be full contact. What I am suggesting is that attacks are made at a distance where an on-target hit would go through the target, and where (a slowed) response will push through its target, thus creating body movement and a more realistic picture of follow up responses. Is hitting people slowly a compromise? Yes it is, but not perhaps so great a compromise as practising missing people, particularly if you are also practicing hitting the pads full power and by actually pushing through the human target you are getting a mental map of tactile response, potential follow up tactics, and gaining stability feedback.

 

  1. Incorporate HAOV.

Admittedly this is harder to do if you are working within a tightly regulated syllabus, but if you aren’t actively practicing defending against HAOV in the physical classes, including not only the most common initial attacks but also the likely follow through and compromised positions in which students may find themselves, then you aren’t teaching self defence.

How can you do this in a tightly regulated martial arts syllabus? We’re back once again to training applications for the forms. Pushing, grabbing, pulling, haymakers, headlocks, clinching, barging, tackling even ground escapes – the counter tactics and escapes are there waiting to be trained. Doing so brings focus to the rationale behind ‘obscure’ movements and stances, stays true to the martial arts, and hits the physical self defence brief.

 

If you can address Nellie in your syllabus and gradings, target Barbar with appropriate incorporation of aerobic exercise, and bring good pad work, form use, appropriate contact and HAOV into your physical classes, then you’re offering something beyond a simple martial arts class, you’re also offering self defence.

 

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. css1971 · · Reply

    This needs to be bold, two sizes larger in red, and blinking. Huge problem.

    “but because they have no clue about the reality of aggression and violence (due to lack of experience/information or plentiful but limited experience distorted by the prism focus of a particular environment (military/security/LEO)), they don’t offer an appropriate self defence focused class.”

    The second problem is the Dunning-Kruger effect; People who don’t know, don’t know what they don’t know.

    1. Just for you… 🙂

  2. In my opinion in every dangerous situation, the most vital is self-confidence. You can barely know 2 techniques but with assertion and focus, you can succeed! Opposite, knowing hundreds of techniques will not help if the critical situation makes you frozen!
    Cheers
    Jason

  3. BTW: Thank you, John, for this great post! 🙂

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