The Approximation Principle in the Reality of Self-Preservation

There is a difference between perfection in training, and the approximation of application in reality. I talk a lot about this, both with my students and trainers. In training it may be tempting to always try an achieve a perfect result, with the execution of perfect technique. But the truth is out on the street, in real interpersonal violence, where you are dealing both with your own internal opponent, and external factors, seeking perfection is an illusion.

Let me explain…

The world of self-preservation beyond the mat, the studio, is one of chaos — it’s unpredictable. The very nature of unpredictability makes perfect responses virtually impossible. Perfection of technique, which really is another way of saying don’t mess up, is only made possible by knowing before hand what to expect. Take that pre-knowing part away, which is pretty much what you will face in real fights, and one is left in a quagmire of potentialities. As the saying goes, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In other words all the training in the world to defend a punch, won’t prepare you for an attacker who decides to pick up a brick instead.

It Doesn’t Need To Look Pretty, It Just Has To Work

In the end when we talk about self-preservation, it doesn’t have to look good, or pretty — it simply has to work. This means, conceding to the fact that what comes out in the street will likely only be an approximation of what you trained in the gym. Even if you trained as best you can for all possible eventualities, there’s a strong likelihood that what you end up facing in a real fight may be something you simply never trained for or even thought of training for. As such, it makes far more sense to ensure that your overall approach to learning how to defend yourself is reduced to simplicity.

Here I am not suggesting simplistic. As Edward de Bono notes, “Simplicity before understanding is simplistic; simplicity after understanding is simple.” Therefore, you need to be honest about what you are actually able to pull off in training against an uncooperative, resisting opponent, versus what is possible when things are more choreographed. Sadly, much of what is peddled out there as self defense is done in a way that makes the defender look good. The common recurring scenario where one person attacks, while the defender lets loose with a multitude of physical responses — while all along the attacker simply stands idly by and not fighting back — is the hallmark of unreality (yet passed off as real).

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)

As Edward de Bono points out, once you fully understand something, in this case the reality of interpersonal violence as unpredictable, and chaotic, you begin to realize through training real, that it is simplicity that wins fights. As obvious as this sounds, this is not how most of the world of self-defense instruction is presented. Sadly it is often presented as complex, requiring precise energy from the attacker, with a pre-understanding of each parties roles.

The truth is though, that even the role of an attacker on the street is never fixed. In other words his not always attacking you, and he may even change his mind. For example, he may go from being aggressive in one moment, to talking rationally in the next, he may throw a punch, but then decide to walk away.

Making your approach to self-preservation simple, then allows you to adapt in the moment to the ever changing terrain of the interpersonal violent battlefield. Because you keep things simple, you are able to get away with applying techniques that approximate what you trained and still win. People need to understand that on the street it’s all about what works, not what it looks like. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what your technique looks like when you have no choice but to fight back to survive — what does matter is can you make it land, and can you make it hurt? In the end, not much else really matters!

Train How You Wish It Never Ends Up

Finding out what works doesn’t happen by training the way you would like it to be, but rather to train how you wish it never ends up. Making mistakes in training, trying something out to only find it fails, finding yourself in a bad spot, is never a bad thing. If heaven forbid you find yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to defend yourself and you are able to neutralize the threat immediately that’s fantastic, but as you already know instinctively this hardly happens. It is far more likely you will throw a punch and miss. It is far more likely in trying to get out the way of a blow barreling towards your head, you trip over a bench and find yourself spread eagle on the floor. If all you ever trained was when things go right, for perfection, you have pretty much lessoned your chance of self-preservation victory by 90%

I remember as a child my Mother giving me medicine. It tasted like crap. She responded, “If it doesn’t taste good, it’s probably good for you.” When you drop all the pretenses and the Hollywood notion of fighting, and get down and work the simplest, most functional approach you can — you begin to realize, successes in a real fight wont taste good. It will be messy and untidy. The more you can simulate the mess in training, the untidiness — the more chance you will have of surviving a real interpersonal violent encounter. As I have noted throughout this article, what you finally execute, doesn’t have to be perfect, it simply has to work. And just like crappy tasting medicine it is good for your self-preservation success.


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  1. Rodney,

    Excellent article. I like the realistic perspective you share which seems like it would make all the difference in one’s training.