Adapt or Die: A Self-Preservation Training Paradigm Shift

Training martial skills so that you can effectively deploy those skills when it matters most in self preservation — are thoughts that occupy most students and instructors minds. This is natural, as no one wants to find themselves in the midst of interpersonal aggression, only then to find that those martial skills you so diligently practiced, night after night, week in and week out, end up failing you.

As a coach of self-preservation I am well aware of my responsibility to my students who not only put their trust in me. Equally their lives are in my hands, as they accept that what I am teaching them will enable them to protect themselves. Unlike my life growing up, most of my students haven’t been in serious interpersonal violent encounters. Outside of Hollywood, and the dreaded news, they have no context or even experience to know for sure, that what I am teaching them is right to begin with. One can quit easily see how this relationship can be abused. In fact you see it all the time.

I feel that if more ‘self-defence’ instructors understood the serious nature of their roles in their students lives — and that what they teach tonight, may unfortunately have to be used possibly to save their students life the very next day — that they would think more carefully about what and how they teach. Sadly, what is often taught is an accumulation of techniques, chasing belts and a bloated curriculum (Much of which is established to make more money).

Now nowhere am I saying that teaching techniques is not important. I have to start somewhere with a new student, and seen that they come in with little or no understanding of the ‘fight’ game – I have to first lay down a formative structure. This formative structure will take the form of core techniques that I believe are the essential fighting tools that every human should possess.

But this is likely where I diverge from my contemporaries. I am not interested in teaching a buffet of techniques, codified in some kind of artificial hierarchy of basic techniques, rising to the most advanced. If there is such a thing as an ‘advanced’ technique, then it is rather a persons ability to take what they have learned, and find the most appropriate and efficient way to adapt those techniques for a wide range of contexts.

Creating The Generative Self-Preservation Experience

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
― Leon C. Megginson

If I could argue for anything that is of utmost importance in self-preservation, the one thing that should take precedence over all else, is training that enhances a persons ability to adapt. When you take the martial toolkit you have, and apply it under conditions that requires you to be adaptable, it invariably generates change in your results or experiences. This also invokes a freedom to be ready to absorb a wide range of possible conflicting ideas. For example, you could assume X technique would be the suitable counter measure to Y attack, only then to find that under certain conditions when Z is thrown into the mix, that Y conflicts with X. There is no way of knowing this in a sterile training environment where rather than experimentation, what is being taught is prediction. No matter how someone wants to define it otherwise, when you tell student A to execute a specific attack, and then B needs to defend with a specific sequence, that’s prediction — simply because the person who is defending, just like the attacker, knows what parameters they are working within.

When you instead offer a training environment that is generative, where the capacity of answering a specific self-preservation problem comes from the student itself — by its very nature, this experience becomes self-altering, and works to fulfil its own created future — rather than simply adapting to the given outcome it was handed. Confused?

Let me give you an example: Imagine I set up a self-preservation situation that a student may possibly encounter out in the real world. Lets say someone pumps into you, and then gets confrontational. You have all the techniques we have trained, but those were in isolation, now you have to make a choice as how best to deploy them. In this scenario, what you choose to do is up to you, not what I think you should.

    We can then take this further. A person bumps into you, it gets confrontational, but now the aggressor,

  1. has three options, either,
  2. He flips you the bird and walks off.
  3. He immediately starts shoving you.
  4. After pumping into you, he immediately begins attacking you.

What the aggressor chooses, and in which order is totally up to him. Invariably, this now requires you, as the defender, to decide on the appropriate counter measure. In other words, you have to be adaptable. The key to this being successful, is that in the beginning to slow everything down. To lower the contact too. Slowing it down, gives you a little room to process your response. But even then, if you are either not well versed in this kind of situation, or you still trying to get the techniques down, or you just execute what ever emerges from your body — you may still likely mess up, and choose a less effective response. This is what I meant by a generative experience makes you ready to absorb a wide range of possible conflicting ideas. What may have worked neatly in a pre-defined scenario in training, may not work out as you like this time around. And that’s actually okay. A generative change is not a one-time event, but an ongoing engagement. It also forces a change in how you both view, and respond to the experience you are having. In other words, this experience becomes self-altering, and works to fulfil its own created future.

Sometimes, to spice things up a bit, I apply a quick fire approach in training. I write down ten common interpersonal aggressive situations or behaviours, put them on cue cards, mix them up, and then call them out randomly (after the ten have been covered, I shuffle the cue cards again, and start all over). I also like to change the parameters of the attack.

For example:The aggressor moves in close and grabs you by your clothing, pressing up against your chest with both hands. The defender then chooses what they feel is the appropriate response. Then immediately afterwards I call for the aggressor to Rugby tackle the defender, and so on. The student has no choice but to think on their feet, and adapt. Each response will likely be different to the last. I could also take one situation, where an aggressor moves in close and grabs you with both hands, but this time the aggressor can change where he grabs you each time he moves in. Again, the defender, has to adapt his response accordingly. I can take this even further by calling out an action an aggressor should take, but this time, after the defender has deployed his initial counter response, the aggressor continues to mount an attack of his choosing. I can go even one step further, and call the ‘attackers’ into one corner, tell them what I want them to attack with, while the defenders are non the wiser. Not knowing what you will be attacked with, makes it even more real, including your response.

All of this though is first done at quarter speed. While doing things at full speed, with intent is essential, what is far more important is a person’s ability to adapt to the ever changing circumstances, and deploy an effective counter measure to control the situation. This kind of approach sees each of the self-preservation situations that I set up for my students as discrete encounters, each to be won, lost, or drawn. If you look at how reality based self defence is often taught, the ‘victim’ always wins. The truth as we know it, isn’t like that. People lose fights, even those who know how to fight.

In training losing or drawing even in a scenario as described earlier isn’t a bad thing. It invokes the courage in a person to be a creative systems, whose goal is to enhance and foster further creation. The truth is, you only really learn by your mistakes. If the scenarios are set up in such a way, that the aggressor is always the one that loses, it creates a false sense of reality. This type of training ensures that there is no opportunity for creative problem solving, and crucially the ability to adapt (which in of itself, is a form creative expression). As Pearl Zhu, author of Digital Master has noted “An adaptive mind has better learning capability.”

And as Christopher Alexander, influential architect and design theorist, notes “But in practice master plans fail — because they create totalitarian order, not organic order. They are too rigid; they cannot easily adapt to the natural and unpredictable changes that inevitably arise in the life of a community.” So is it the same in learning how to effectively defend yourself.





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