The Mystery of ‘Pressure Testing’ in Self-Defense Training

I was forwarded an article, where the author who is a founder of his own system writes about how so many self-defense instructors don’t pressure test what they teach. This leaves them open, as he suggests to putting forward ludicrous claims and advice on the topic of self-protection. I agree, except, and ironically I know this individual. Not only is every single video he has up on social media of him demonstrating self-defense options with no one ever fighting back — when he was around me, he was one of those guys who always tried to get out of sparring (the one way at the very least you get to pressure test some of what you say you know).

Putting that aside, (and acknowledging this person as the pot calling the kettle black), he does make an important point of the need for pressure testing. Albeit that he shares nothing in the way of what that actually means, or what that should look like (typical). I do think however, both for those teaching ‘self-defense’ and martial skills in general – and those training for it – that this topic should be explored further.

Why Do We Pressure Test?

At the heart of it, we know that in self-preservation there is a chance the bad-guy attacking us may try to take our lives. This of course is the worse case scenario. This bad-guy will be using everything in his power, both his body, his mind, and elements from the environment to achieve his aim. Knowing this, we want to know that if that moment every arises, that we have trained in a way that matches the reality of what we will have to face. In other words, can we handle the pressure?

It’s through pressure testing it is said, that we gain a key insight into what will hold up against an resisting, uncooperative opponent. But that’s the thing, the problem of course when we talk about ‘pressure testing’ what qualifies? If I take the person who in their article critiqued other people in the self-defense industry for not pressure testing what they teach, then he actually doesn’t do so either. All I see on his videos, is like the rest of them, letting a would be attacker attack once — and then as the defender he goes off on his counter offensive moves. While all along the attacker simply covers up and waits till it ends. There’s nothing in there that’s pressure testing. It’s demonstrating techniques sure, but pressure testing by definition means that the other person should be resisting, mounting pressure – in other words fighting back themselves. Now of course, this can take various degrees of pressure in training, but their needs to be give and take.

Clearly we have not only a definition problem on what actually qualifies as pressure testing, but what it actually constitutes as the concept in practice. There’s many reasons for this, no withstanding that most self-defense instructors talk about the need to pressure test, but don’t actually want to, knowing that nothing they teach will show up anyway if they let someone fight back unscripted.

As you can see in the short video to follow. There are times that I am demonstrating a technique with no resistance. In other words, this wouldn’t count as pressure testing, but merely showing a technique. Secondly there are moments when I am fighting back against an opponent who is also trying to do the same. In these examples one could suggest that there’s pressure testing, but I am not going to lie it’s light. In order to go beyond this level of pressure, would require both of us to go harder, and we do, but as you will see next, this isn’t always as easy as one thinks.

The thing is, no matter how much I want my students to pressure test, and they should, we will always be limited by the realities of the intensity, and the response in the fight problem.

The Intensity Problem

While we all want to train for the reality of self-preservation, we also don’t want to hurt our training partners. As such, there are very few options to go all out and test self-preservation techniques, strategies, and tactics. Sure, you can put on some protective gear and that helps. But there’s no way to introduce punches to the throat, eye gouges, groin, and knee cap kicks at an all out pace. Someone is going to get seriously hurt. It’s for this very same reason you tap in submission wrestling, because if you don’t, you going to end up breaking something.

We are ultimately stuck between a rock and a hard place. While we want to train as realistic as we can, there’s only so far one can go with realism. Of course, and as most people know my position on this, combat sports sparring is the next best thing. MMA, boxing, kickboxing, and grappling sparring are all great intensity experiences, teaching individuals to cope with pressure. But again, as good as these are, they are not self-preservation experiences, and there’s a limit to how often you can spar all out anyway. This especially true if you want to consider your long term health.

So the truth is, pedagogically there are ways to pressure test (I have designed several of these for training), but they will ALWAYS fall short of the reality of interpersonal violence. You can never go all out in training to test what you have been teaching and or learning. You can try, and you should, but you are quickly going to run out of people to test on.

The Response in the fight Problem

It would be quit comical, if not disastrous, to take many of these self-defense experts seriously when they shout out claims on what someone should do in interpersonal violence — especially when most have never had to defend themselves.

Even with training against an uncooperative opponent under pressure you have zero idea on how you will actually react in a real self-preservation incident until you are actually in it. The Dojo isn’t reality, and never will be. There’s a huge difference between some adrenaline in training and real gut wrenching fear in a fight for your life. I have seen guys who do well in pressure testing in the academy, fall completely apart in a real altercation. It is for this reason, I spend a lot of time with my students teaching them how to develop their inner fitness.

Bottom line: there are aspects of being immersed in a real world self-preservation experience that cannot easily be recreated in training.

For example, in a real world self-preservation incident there’s a strong chance your Amygdala will be hijacked. This is an immediate, overwhelming emotional response, that makes it hard for you to think clearly. The massive chemical change in your body will overwhelm your coordination. Applying what you learned in your self-defense class, that’s if you can even remember it, will feel harder to accomplish, clumsy even. In fact, what your body really want’s to do is run, and everything it’s doing is to enable this to happen.

You will feel like you are looking down a tunnel, with everything else around you being blurred out. This is not so great of course if you dealing with more than one assailant. You mind will play tricks on you too, you will second guess yourself, you will have thoughts of apprehension, and acknowledgement that your are afraid. Sometimes things happen so fast that there’s no time to acknowledge your thoughts, but instead, the mental dump that happens in that split second when you are assaulted, can end up confusing your next move, or at worse you freeze. Your heart rate will rise dramatically, along with your breathing, that it will feel like you are nearing the end of a 100 meter full out sprint.

All of the above as noted, is difficult to recreate accurately in training. This is not withstanding that finding people who would be dedicated enough to go through this kind of training regularly will be hard to find. Most self-defense spaces are for profit. There’s a fine line for many instructors between trying to keep things real, and still keeping the lights on. This in of itself often creates self-defense training that is often less than optimal. I’ll be honest I struggle with this too. My experience is that people want to learn how to defend themselves, but don’t want to be put through any distress. The biggest culprits here surprisingly are those who want to teach it. They would rather collect certificates from weekend trainers courses for their academy wall, then do the real hard soul searching work.

The point I am trying to make here is that all the training in the world, isn’t going to prepare you for the actual event of self-preservation. You have no idea how you will respond until it happens. Of course depending on how you trained will either aid in your response or not. So I am not saying don’t train, but realistic of both its potential and limitations.

So What To Do About It?

I think if you are planning to teach self-preservation, and lack any real world experience of it — it’s absolutely imperative that you learn from someone who has actually been in the trenches. If all their experience stems from teaching seminars, their dojo/academy as the proving ground for what they teach, don’t believe a word they say (not matter how professionally they package it).

If you are a student and you are looking for a self-preservation instructor, make sure they have been in the trenches, or at the very least under the guidance of someone who has. When I say guidance, I mean currently, all of the time. The fact that your instructor lacks the real world experience in self-preservation means he or she has to train harder than anyone else (this means especially harder than you and all of their students).

I am saying all of this for a very, very good reason. Just like the person who critiqued other people in the self-defense industry for not pressure testing, this person, like many of them, has zero real world experience. I am astounded that someone can be so forthright, so confident in putting out their views when they have never had to defend themselves for real. I just don’t know how anyone can live with themselves teaching people to defend their lives or those they love, yet isn’t absolutely honest that they haven’t applied anything that they teach beyond the Dojo. It would make matters better if they at least did some form of combat sports sparring, but they avoid that too.

I have already shown some of the pitfalls of claiming pressure testing as the rule of thumb in real self-defense training. It isn’t as easy as most claim it to be. Even if you are pressure testing, most don’t seem to understand what that actually means. There are limits to how far you can go with pressure testing too. In the end, There still remains important unknowns, like how you will actually respond in the actual event of self-preservation. Now if you don’t know that, and your instructor who has never had to defend themselves for real doesn’t know how they will respond — how legitimate can what they be teaching you be?

This is why, I personally absolutely stick to what I have applied for real in self-preservation and or through thousands of hours of full contact sparring. In fact, much of what I do in sparring, I can quit easily pull off in the street, and have. Like it or not, I had the experience of surviving interpersonal violence growing up, and then spending several years as a doorman outside some of the most notorious nightclubs in Johannesburg. Hundreds of altercations later, taught me the brutal honesty of interpersonal violence (part of this was because the last few years I was the head doorman, I ran the contracts and had over 70 doorman working for me. Hence I got roped into every altercation).

For the first year as a doorman I totally messed up most of the time, even though I supposedly should have known what to do. In the subsequent years I became far more skilled at dealing with interpersonal conflict. Which often at the door, was with more than one person!

The lessons I took away were, that fights never go to plan, chaos reigns supreme, and most of what is taught in ‘self-defense’ is junk (then and now). For example, in my years of Karate training we did a lot of self-defense training (almost all pre-arranged, with zero pressure testing to speak of). One year into working the door, and I pretty much threw it all away, abandoning it on the mythical junk pile of so called self-defense certainties.

I learned that the concept of Occam’s Razor while sometimes misquoted in pop culture as “The simplest solution is most likely the right one,” is generally correct. I learned that sparring (boxing, Muay Thai, MMA etc) as I did every day was the number one reason I was able to survive most real fights. I learned that most potential altercations could be solved without ever throwing a blow, just by using good old communication. To be honest sometimes this was the only way out of potential conflict when outnumbered.

Fighting isn’t pretty, it’s raw. It doesn’t look like most self-defense instructors claim it to be. That’s why simply claiming that you need to pressure test, is meaningless, when you have no reference of experience what to pressure test, or that you don’t even know what that actually means in practice. In real fights, truth can be stranger than fiction, but much of what is taught in ‘self-defense’ is simply fiction, clearly pressure testing included.


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