The Fantastic Four – the elephants that carry your training world

We all build the mental worlds in which we live, and we don’t all live in the same world, even if we believe we do. Some worlds, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, we know are just fantasy. After all, the Discworld is a flat disc that is carried by four giant elephants on the back of a turtle that swims through space. Most martial artists build their personal training worlds on the backs of four elephants, elephants that I like to think of as the Fantastic Four (though admittedly some don’t even see or recognise all of them). These elephants that hold up our individual training worlds are Legality, Training Practicality, Training Viability, and Underpinning Psychology. The question is, “Are your elephants fantastic, or fantastical?”


Elephant One: Legality

What is legal in self defence does vary from country to country, however often people make a number of very flawed assumptions when it comes to what is legal and what is illegal.

A common misunderstanding of reasonable force is that it is somehow less effective or more gentle or gentlemanly than just ‘going for it’. That is not the case. Using reasonable force should not put you in any greater danger because you are simply using force when it is necessary to a level in response to the threat you perceive. A further myth is that ‘you can’t use force’. Here in England the late Professor of Law Gary Slapper noted that the Criminal Prosecution Service had found in 2005, when they looked at prosecutions over the preceding 15 years, there had been over 20 million crimes that they had looked into with regard to the use of force, but during that time there had only been 11 cases where people had been prosecuted for excessive use of force in self defence.

What is legal largely depends on context rather than techniques themselves. As a result it is more correct to think in terms of situations where doing something is likely to be interpreted as illegal: for example continuing to injure someone if they are unconscious or otherwise visibly ‘out of action’. In similar vein doing something that is likely to take a life is not necessarily going to be viewed as illegal if under the circumstances action is necessary and you have a reasonable belief that the threat to you is lethal and can convey that in subsequent interviews. Remember, even a simple punch to the head can be lethal. Engaging in legal use of force in self defence does not mean that you won’t be arrested because the Police have a duty to ensure that you have not acted in breach of the law.

Much of this comes down to having a thorough training methodology based on an understanding of the laws in the land in which you live, and being able to describe your actions in a manner consistent with those laws. In an online discussion with fellow instructor the excellent Marc MacYoung I once described the “I’d rather be judged by twelve rather than carried by six” approach as indicating “a casual approach to training and ROE that is bad for the trainee and bad for others in the environment they enter. To me the phrase implies an acceptance of uncertainty and a faith in the correct judgement of others, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t want the people I train questioning their decisions or ability to act or wondering whether they are going to go to court – I want them to be so clear on the self protection ROE that there isn’t any doubt clouding their minds or confusing their actions.” Marc immediately replied that he’d upgrade my ‘casual’ to ‘sloppy’ and he’s right. With the access to information and good training that is available these days there is no excuse for instructors to demonstrate approaches that are unnecessary.

A fellow instructor and I discussed the issue of ‘historical’ techniques recently and how they fit into this. I’m referring to applications of forms that are clearly likely to maim or kill someone when they no longer pose any threat. From an intellectual perspective these applications may have historical value, so should we teach them? If you teach them you are certainly liable if someone uses them in class, and could be liable in a private prosecution if they are used outside of class. Saying “I don’t teach this but you can do…” then demonstrating what you claim not to teach does constitute teaching a technique. In such instances my personal view is don’t teach it. You aren’t legally going to use it because it will never be necessary, and any student that has been trained to a level to be trusted with such knowledge should be able to spot the option without it being taught.


Elephant Two: Training Practicality

“Do not expect the combat fairy to come bonk you with the combat wand and suddenly make you capable of doing things that you never rehearsed before. It will not happen”

On Combat, Lt Col D Grossman, 2004


Under pressure people fall back to natural behaviour and the things they have drilled the most often; if the drill was appropriate to the physical, mental and chemical situation in which they now find themselves.

There are a number of things that some instructors make look very easy and simple to do, while not actually doing them. In fairness some of these are easy to do, the issue is that the students aren’t doing them (because to do so would involve an injury that would knock them out of training) and therefore aren’t actually getting good at doing them. The further issue is that because they aren’t actually being done people often have an over-exaggerated idea of how effective they might be against a resisting, emotionally charged and adrenaline fuelled (and maybe drug loaded) aggressor with a high pain threshold and a real intent to continue to harm you rather than stop on experiencing injury.

Most striking can be practiced through hitting a person slowly, and greater delivery power developed on pads or armour. Similarly a lot of grappling can be tested to a high degree. Once you get into ‘too deadly to train’ however you are getting onto more dubious territory. There’s no denying that some of that stuff works, but it may not work as well as you think – to a large degree because not everyone notices pain or injury when they are in a state that is causing them to be violent, but mainly because you’ve never really trained it.


Elephant Three: Training Viability

This is the corollary to the above.

I’m not going to flag up specific techniques although I’d invite you to take a good ‘third eye’ look at what you are doing and ask yourself – “Does this really work?” There’s stuff out there that works on a relaxed training partner but is not going to make any significant difference to someone whose mental focus is on hurting you. Pain compliance is great, if the other person notices pain. In similar vein there are moves that require very specific angles and set ups and incredibly frequent practice to maintain to use in a highly specialised training model.

With this in mind you need to be clear as to how what you are training fits within your long term and short term training aims. What is good for physical and mental exercise (long term health and continued interest in the discipline) may be timewasting or dangerous so far as self defence is concerned. That’s not an issue if self defence isn’t the reason why you are training.


Elephant Four: Underpinning Psychology

Can you hit another person as hard as you can?

Can you hurt or injure another person?

Can you hit someone in the face?

Can you claw at someone’s eyes?

Can you deliberately break a neck?

Can you deliberately hit someone with a blunt or bladed weapon?
Can you stab someone?

Can you shoot someone?

Can you do any of the above from behind?

This may seem like a strange list, it’s certainly not exhaustive, but until they have given themselves permission to do things like those listed above, a lot of people are temperamentally unsuited to actually hurting others. That temperament is something that does not necessarily go away with most martial arts training, and just because many people have been able to do such things under extreme pressure with no training at all does not mean that you or your students will be similarly motivated or enabled by circumstances.

Teaching people to do physical things that they are not mentally capable of doing is a waste of time. Exploring ‘red lines’ that might exist in lists like the one above through discussion of when they might be legally or morally acceptable is vital if you want students to have given themselves permission to do those things (or anything at all). Without that underpinning belief and release from inhibition students are far better off developing their ability to deliver simple unarmed powerful striking and throwing techniques that are equally effective.


These four elephants work together to bear the burden of your training world. They can be extraordinarily well-prepared and subject to regular review, or they could be a complete fantasy, a passed-down myth that has never been challenged by rigorous research or testing. Choose your elephants carefully for they carry your world.


  1. Great work John!


  2. Bill Burgar · · Reply

    One of the best articles I’ve read for along time.
    Nice work.

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