The Cold, Hard Truth of Training to Survive Physical Violence

One of the most fatal flaws of martial art instruction, is that often, it is built off a system of predefined responses, that would need prior knowledge or prediction to accomplish. This may not be immediately obvious, but one can, if you look closer see how this acknowledgement of prediction is codified in practice.

It’s not uncommon to hear an instructor suggest that today’s lesson is dealing with someone who attacks you like X, with the instructor then going on to demonstrate what should be the appropriate response. All in attendance, then regurgitate, or in other words copy the instructors moves, while the ‘attacker’ feeds the attack as demonstrated. When you have people who have never thrown a punch in their life enter your school, this method is okay as an introduction, but sadly, in most places you go to train for ‘self-defence’ this is the only approach you will ever be exposed too.

This standard approach to teaching ‘self-defence’ makes several, even though often unconscious assumptions. Firstly, that to some degree that you will;

  1. Be able to immediately identify the kind of attack as it takes place in the moment of all out interpersonal aggression.
  2. That you then, in the heat of that moment dripping with fear and dealing with a ton of hormonal changes, will be able to recall verbatim what you were taught for that specific attack.
  3. And that you will then, because you have trained and remembered the response to that exact attack, will then be able to apply said defensive techniques with success.
  4. That the way you are attacked in real world self-preservation incidents will likely be one of the attacks you learned to defend against in the Dojo.

But the truth is, it is far more likely that you won’t know when someone will attack you. You won’t know exactly how he will attack you and with what. That the attack, even if it has some resemblance to what you trained, may still be marginally different enough, to not fully, and inclusively resemble the exact attack you trained against in the Dojo. Even in instances when you do have some for-warning of an impending violent attack — you still will likely not know exactly when and with what the person will be attacking you with.

Sounds all doom and gloom right? But, this doesn’t make training for self-preservation hopeless, but it does highlight the truth. If you start from the reality of things, understanding the worst case scenario, then the method you utilise to train for that worse case scenario will take on a very different form, both in training and execution.

First things first!

Why All The Prediction?

I do think it is necessary to consider why for so long and still today (especially in the arena of reality based self defence) why so much time is spent on cookie-cutter responses to a myriad of self-preservation problems (i.e., someone grabs you like this, you do that, someone throws a punch like this you do that, and so on). I don’t think people teach like this because it resembles reality, but rather because it is widely accepted, its easy to do, you don’t have to really prove what you teach works, and as I will get into in a moment students actually want it this way (be that unconsciously of course).

Most people are unconscious of the fact that their brains are do not get killed devices. It’s the same brain as our hunter gatherer ancestors. It hasn’t changed. As such, the brain seeks out coherence, structure, and order. No wonder then, when someone offers a process that seems coherent, structured, and orderly, attached to a promise of survival, the brain goes “bingo, that must be the answer.”

When something like fighting that is so complex is observed, it is hard to make head and tails out of it. I am not surprised then, that many of the older forms of martial arts used an approach of reverse engineering the complex nature of a fights they witnessed — in hopes that by reducing it to smaller more manageable chunks — that understanding would become more clearer. The idea was really a simple, but fatally flawed one. Observe the chaos of a fight, then try to reduce it to manageable chunks, put it into a codified step-by-step approach (i.e., attacker ‘A’ attack like this, then defender ‘B’ do this) and eureka, when faced with the real fight again, you will be able to take what you learned and reapply it into reality.The truth is, it doesn’t really work that way. the reason should be painfully obvious, but clearly it’s not, as so many people teach a step-by-step approach to every attack even to this day.

The irony is, while the human brain may love coherence, structure, and order — fights, survival by it’s very nature are more often than not, disorganised, unstructured and lack order. This of course is hard to sell to the human brain.

Can you imagine this as a marketing tool:

“Come train with me to learn how to defend yourself when your life is on the line, but when I teach you expect a disorganised teaching approach, with zero structure and lacking any order.”

No one would pitch for your class. The word would be, you have no clue what the fuck you are doing. This is the paradox of real self-preservation training. People want to learn how to survive a life and death situation but they don’t want it to be messy. But it’s going to be messy, only barely resemble what you trained, and tons of things will pop up in the midst of a self-preservation situation that you never (or could have ever) trained for.

Training For Self-Protection, Training to Survive

So what’s the answer?

Anyone who claims they have that down in my opinion is lying. I actually think its super difficult to teach someone how to deal with the chaotic, unpredictable nature of real interpersonal violence. It’s not just the reality of the vastness of possibilities of attacks and what they may be or consist off (which no one in a lifetime could cover every eventuality) — it is compounded further by a persons temperament (who are they, what life they have led, their history), and not withstanding the biological, psychological changes that will take place in the heat of self-preservation. Something that is very difficult to simulate on the mat in training. In other words, you can train all you like, but until that day that you are in a fight for your survival, you won’t know how you will respond.

With that said, even though I said its super difficult to teach someone how to genuinely protect themselves, I am not saying it’s impossible. But no matter what you have been told real self protection isn’t as neatly packaged as so many self-defence ‘experts’ claim it is.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on how I approach the problem outlined above. It’s not the entire extent of what I coach, it is simply not possible to cover all of that in a single article. Think of these rather as some starting points, a couple of examples, sign posts or even questions to ponder:

Defensive Paradigm: I believe generally it is far more important that you are able to survive the initial onslaught than immediately fighting back. I am not saying don’t fight back, because to win you have pretty much no choice. But considering that in many instances you won’t know when someone will attack you, you are left useless in the fight, if you end up taking punches to the face for example while trying to execute an offensive counter measure. Especially if those punches/strikes/what ever, incapacitate you. It’s the first two-seconds of a fight that will often, but not always, decide the outcome.

I need to make it clear here too, when I say defensive action to survive the onslaught, I am talking about a micro-second or two, not sustained continues defence for minutes. Also, the way I teach defence is active, not passive, designed to enable the user to mount an offence when needed. This could be physical defence as in covering (CM1, CM2 etc), making space first to have a clearer picture of the threat (Bear Position, Star Defence) or pushing the threat away to orient oneself to the threat first (3PC, T-Bar).

I know this doesn’t sound as Navy Seal as going hands on immediately, and with a flurry of strikes you incapacitate the attacker instantly — but you need to take into account your Response-Cycle to physical assault. If you know there is potential danger ahead, you can begin to prime yourself, which makes attacking back from your end quicker. But when you are caught off guard and unaware (which is far more likely), your brain will attempt to orient itself to what is happening. By the time you realise you are being attacked, it may already be to late to respond with immediate effective offensive action, especially if your attacker just clocked you with a shot to the head that had you spinning.

Scenario-Drills for Movement Fight Fluency: It may have sound earlier in the article that I am against teaching a scenario to students. For example, if some grabs you, you deal with it like this, kind of methods. I am not against it per-say, but I actually don’t teach scenario drills so much to teach someone how to deal with a specific attack, but rather to develop what I call Movement Fight Fluency.

In this sense, it is not so much the scenario that is important, but rather the capacity of the scenario to force you to work on movement responses that you may never have considered. For example, the way you deal with someone running up to you and punching you while sitting, will be different to the way you deal and move against the same striking action when you are standing up. How you respond to an attack when you see it, will be different to when you don’t. The more diversity in the drills that I can create, that continue to challenge the movement efficacy of the student —forcing him or her to be adaptable, often with a students coming up with movement responses I never even taught them — the more options of movement that student will have when faced with a real threat.

With that said, I have already said that it would be virtually impossible to cover every conceivable way another human could hurt you, and what your response to it should be — but what I can cover, and what I can make you good at is giving you the ability to be adaptable in fight movement. Here the key word is adaptability. You shouldn’t be asking how many techniques you know or can remember — but rather, how adaptable are your martial movement responses to varying situations, especially in situations you may never had considered. As a side note, ever see that prank video where a guy goes around in the hood challenging tough guys to fight, and when they decide to, he pulls his pants down only to show off is amazing pink thong? What happened there? Most of these tough guys were caught completely off guard, and most simply backed up and ran away. The bottom line, the more creative you can be in training for self-preservation — which then illicit martial movement responses that may not even had been trained in class or offer up variations of what was trained — the more chance I believe you stand of surviving a real out in the world fight for survival.

For example, when I teach combinations, I am not teaching combinations because that is the exact combination that will land on an opponent. How would I know that anyway? Who is to say what kind of mistakes my opponent will make? Maybe I train only combinations that are directed towards the head, but then I face an opponent who never leaves an opening around his head (but maybe his body is open…but I haven’t trained that, so now what)? The reason to train combinations then, at least how I see it, is to make students as diverse as possible, with as many types of angles included in them that I can dream up. This way, when faced with an opponent, there isn’t an angle of striking they haven’t trained for, so when openings do appear, they are then able to hit into them without even thinking about it.

Semi-Unrehearsed Simulated Fights: I love this training approach. We chose some parameters to make it manageable, but then the goal is to see what comes out. For example, I may ask two people to walk towards each other, while one person is instructed to bump into the other person. The person who bumps into the other person is then instructed to sometimes just to walk on like nothing happened, At other times the person is instructed to turn back and simply argue. Whilst at other times to actually start attacking back right after arguing a bit, or even not at all (and they can attack with anything they like, a punch, a kick, a weapon if we are using those). This way, not only do I get to see the response cycle, and how the defender defends himself, but equally it gives us an opportunity to unpack what happened. A good thing to do here is to film it, so we are able to debrief it later.

I also like to ensure in this type of training that at times when the defender fights back that he is given the opportunity to ‘win,’ and at other times the attacker continues to fight back, even though the defender had deployed an initial defensive response. This makes it more realistic, as far too many times, people are taught counter measures that always sees them winning. We all know however, deep down, that no one is just going to stand there and let us do our awesome series of techniques. They are going to fight back, and things can get messy quickly (and they will). These types of Semi-Unrehearsed Simulated Fight drills aren’t all out fights, but it allow a level of unpredictability requiring adaptability that is essential to learning how to defend oneself.


The Sad, Sad Truth

I have more ways of preparing my students for self-preservation, but as noted earlier, these are just two ideas that consider taking what is often predictive training, to a level that closer resembles reality.

Its imperative if we are really honest with ourselves as self-preservation instructors that we allow our students to get as close to the reality of what a fight will be like. Of course it needs to be done sensibly, systematically and with care. At least until, they are adaptable and skilled enough that you can really be super creative, unrehearsed, and get them to fully immerse themselves into what will be the chaotic nature of the fight.

But I will go out on a limb and say this: most instructors will avoid teaching this way, because much of what they would love to teach, they will now need to discard. In chaos, much of what is peddled as self-preservation skills wont work, and that will be immediately evident once both instructor and student step into a more real training environment. With all the cool stuff chucked out the window, there will be no more opportunity for instructors to be standing around in camos looking awesome against pre-defined drills where they always seem to win. Everything they teach might only be approximations when applied — that’s not really good for someones ‘cool’ rating. Instructors will also have to deal with the uncomfortableness of not actually being able to make everything they teach work.

Students won’t like it either. It won’t sell as great. The average Joe on the street says he wants to learn how to defend himself, bur that’s what he says. When shown the reality of what fights are like, what will be needed to win, and the way one will have to train in order to make that into a reality — well lets just say, fantasy is easier to digest than reality. It’s just far to much work for most people. Man, I have had people who joined my trainers program who didn’t want to do this work, and didn’t like the reality of what it would take to learn how to not only learn to fight themselves, but in-turn teach others. Ridiculous I know!


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