The Myth of ‘Reality’ Based Self-Defense

Through Neuroscientific research we know now that the human brain is a prediction and pattern detecting machine. The brain from this perspective desires stability, clarity, and consistency. These are characteristics that the brain views as essential to its survival. In contrast unpredictability, instability and uncertainty are seen as a threat to its survival. This answers an important question that has confounded me for some time.

Why are so many reality based systems so popular, in light of the fact that so many of these systems, fail to teach unpredictability, instability and uncertainty?

Anyone with real ‘fight’ experience knows that knowing how to deal with unpredictability, instability and uncertainty (UIU) are the essential ingredients to surviving a ‘fight’. Not only are these essential ingredients to survive that fight, these are the ingredients of all fights to begin with. In other words, no matter how much a person would like to avoid UIU, there is no way too.

If you took some time out now and went through what is passed off as ‘self-defense’ training on YouTube – what you will find is many X military based systems. Systems such as these, based on their military heritage should be well acquainted with what is required in interpersonal aggression. Yet watch carefully, and what you will see is one person attacking, who then stops attacking, stops fighting back, once the defender fires off his cool series of counter fight moves.


What’s missing here?

The realities of the fight dictate that the person you are defending yourself against will fight back. If it happens to be in a life and death situation, you can bet a million Dollars that he is going do what ever he needs to in order to survive. Training cool techniques then against an opponent who does not fight back, is not only dangerous, it is a ‘self-defense lie’.

The peddlers of these military style systems of hand to hand self-defense training are smart. Deep down inside they know that the human brain is designed to avoid unpredictability, instability and uncertainty. So they know when potential students look for self-defense training, that they will look for training that is seen to be stable, clear, and consistent. And this is exactly what these reality based self-defense instructors give them. They teach a neatly packaged curriculum of various sequences of attacks, for example a gun attack from the front or defending a knife that is held to your throat etc. All of which is neatly packaged into a curriculum that is systematized to offer the participant stability, clarity, and consistency, which in turn the human brain just loves.

The irony is, that by teaching students neatly packaged scenarios that offer the participants prediction and pattern, or said another way, that give them an illusion of a high sense of achievement certainty, is the direct opposite of the reality of the fight. The reality of interpersonal violence dictates that you will immediately lose stability, clarity, and consistency when deploying your technique against an opponent who actually fights back. And contrary to popular reality based self defense propaganda, once you have disarmed your opponent, or you remove the threat of the knife to your throat, he wont just drop down and play dead. It is a guarantee that he will fight back. Why anyone thinks that someone who has the balls to attack you in the first place is then going to be a complete walk over, and won’t be very skilled at the fight game is beyond me.

Reality based self defense instructors know this too. But here is the uneasy truth, they quickly learn that students  don’t really want it. It is not profitable to teach real self-defense training. The paradox of self-defense training is that people want to learn how to defend themselves, but they don’t want their training to be unpredictable, unstable and uncertain — because this means not only hard physical work, making errors and looking like a fool when techniques don’t work — but it also likely means facing ones real fears and psychological breakdowns.

I believe this is one of the major reasons so many reality based, I “will just stick my fingers in his eyes” groups play down combat sports like mixed martial arts. The argument is that what mixed martial artists do is sport, but they on the other hand train for the street. For the ‘street’ guys to admit that mixed martial arts is the other part of the game they are sorely missing, would be to acknowledge that you just cannot train for the realities of the fight in self-defense from a purely stable, clear, and consistent position. The fact is mixed martial artists, BJJ, boxing practitioners etc al., all train for unpredictability, instability and uncertainty. Yes, the exact other part of the fight game needed to successfully defend oneself.

In my opinion to be truly ‘self-defense’ ready then, requires both stability, clarity, and consistency through working possible scenarios that one may encounter in a self-preservation situation (such as having to deal with a firearm etc), but it must be taken further (and balanced with) incorporating unpredictability, instability and uncertainty (UIU) — which is the playing ground of real fights.


My Approach

Taking the above into account, I developed what I term the Combat Intelligent Athlete (CIA) program (this is the civilian version of my Combat Intelligent Soldier/Combat Intelligent Officer programs).

CIA comprises of three key training ingredients,

Combat: Here I teach students through various self-preservation scenarios, that allow them to place themselves in situations they would hopefully not typically be in. Then to embody how it feels to be in that situation, and then how to effectively respond to that situation. This is where I coach students stability, clarity, and consistency (SCC). This is important as the first stage of training to develop confidence in their technique, strategies and tactics. This is also where most reality based systems begin and end. But the truth is, it is only the beginning.

Intelligent: Expanding the ‘combat’ aspect further, Intelligence speaks to bringing the worlds of Combat (street) and Athlete (sport) together, through a training process that not only makes sense, but enhances a students ability to engage in UIU for self-preservation encounters. Further intelligence speaks to developing psychological skills to ‘survive’ a self-preservation incident.

Athlete: Here I teach students to not avoid unpredictability, instability and uncertainty (UIU), but to embrace it. This is the one thing that puts a lot of people off when it comes to REAL self-preservation training. It is far easier to pretend to be a Navy SEAL, wearing camouflage to training etc, but a whole different animal to actually put your skills to test. Here combat athletes (or what the realities guys like to call the ‘sport guys’) clearly have an upper hand on those who hide behind the deadly groin kick. They understand chaos. As such, while we may be training for self-preservation, we still want to be training with a combat athletic mindset. As such, here I coach students how to A.C.T:

Achievement Uncertainty: While drills and scenarios are fine for the beginning stages of training, they will never truly encompass the UIU of the fight. What is required is an increasing method of introducing students to UIU of interpersonal violence, where they themselves have to troubleshoot, adapt, and respond according to the changing landscape they find themselves in. We therefore train progressively to achieve this, by not constantly telling a person how and when they will be attacked. Imagine sparring, but for self-preservation, and you have the CIA approach.

Conservation of Energy: Here I teach students techniques, both physical and mental, that minimize their physical and mental energy costs in a survival performance environment. In addition understanding that a minimal outlay of physical or mental energy, allows for skills been taught and used to be applicable in most environments. In other words, complexity kills, quit literally in a self-preservation environment. What is taught should always be stripped to its absolute essentials.

Time Expediency: All training that I offer is taught with the concept of minimizing the time used. Reaction and response time or simplicity in application of technique is imperative. In addition, time kills. The longer you are in a fight for your life, the more can go wrong. As such the quicker a person can get the ‘fight’ over with, and exit to safety is the key to successfully surviving an interpersonal attack. *Of course I acknowledge that some survival situations may not be overcome quickly, as such we return to our combat athletic based prepared to ride the storm if need be.


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  1. I usually would not do this but, Rodney really got my attention with this one. In all honesty i totally agree with Rodney. Unpredictability should be, and is the foundation of our training, however, i have trained in many systems and most really don’t get this. E.g Single knife attacks do not happen in real life. I have seen Many instructors who are recognized at the highest level, teaching fantasy my little pony bull.

    Further more Self preservation and fighting are to very separate things. I.e Lets say you are under attack from 8 guys armed with chains, baseball bat and knives… What is the solution? As i have personally been in a similar situation, i can tell you my survive instinct kicked in like a jab to the heart of adrenaline. What did i do? I ran, scaled over walls and building like spider man. It all took about 20seconds and i was safe again. I did not have any reality training at the time, but i had survived what could of been a life threatening situation. Did i fight no, did not need to. I got away with out a scratch.

    Having a gun pointed at your head is not fun, and running is not an option (you will most likely get shot in the back.) The first thing you need to work out is, Am i being Robbed? Is he/she/they here to kill me. From personal experience, you will know with in the first 10seconds, of the confrontation. Do I act or do i cooperate is a personal choice, but we should all know that in acting someone is most likely going to land up dead. Do i fight or do i survive? fight and survive are to separate paths. Ego fights, Intelligence survives. Prepare for the worst, avoid true confrontational at all cost, Survive to teach and live another day is our attitude.

    Fighting is only a small aspect of Survival, not all animals fight to survive, some run, some hide and camouflage themselves. It is important to train as unpredictably as possible, and it is important for a student to come to the conclusion and realise the truth about violence and how ugly it can be in its true form. If a student has not understood this, then he will not survive long. excuse spelling i can be very dyslexic. A very good point Rodney.

  2. Hello.

    What’s your take on simulation training? In normal sparring everyone wears protective gear. So it’s hard for someone to really learn what damage a technique would do.

    So for someone who never boxed someone into the face in real, doesn’t know what would happen in reality. Same for kicking the balls.

    I totally agree that you should always train with someone who fights back. But what about simulating. So that a training partner gives you some feedback in regards to your techniques. So if you hit him hard or at a vulnerable point, you can easily fight back if you wear protective gear. So you could act as the technique wouldn’t harm you at all. But in reality without gear, it would hurt you and it would force an action.

    So from a physical point of view, it could make sense to give your training partner realistic feedback. This doesn’t mean you stop and don’t fight back. I just mean giving realistic feedback.

    Like if you get kicked to your knee. Sometimes you just continue fighting. But sometimes you simulate that it would force you to go to you knees for example.
    And then you fight back from there. Grabbing the opponents legs and try to bring him down for example.

    I think from a physiologic point of view it could make sense to give the student some feedback if a technique works or not. So you have to act and give some realistic responses. For someone who already has street experience, who knows how it feels to hit someone into the face and what could happen, this is not necessary. But for a lot of people it is.

    There are protective suites like “Realy Gear” or Redman Suite available to help with with simulations like that.

    From your experience Rodney, does that make sense at all?

    Would be great to hear your feedback on this.

  3. Hi Pete…

    First off a realistic response is subjective. How does my partner know what the correct reaction would be if it was a real hit? Considering as you propose we are not going real to begin with. So if he does give me a reaction and I work off that, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is still completely subjective. And as you suggest is a simulation on what may (or may not) be his reaction.

    So the simple answer is yes, there is nothing wrong with ‘simulating’ varied response, and it is important so that you get to both play and train variations on both defending, attacking and counterattacking.

    The problem lies in what is passed off as real, when the other guy never seems to fight back at all. When everything is neatly packaged so the guy pulling off the cool moves is never in risk of messing up and always looking good. Which is not how fights end up. You make mistakes, your techniques wont always work and you have to be adaptable to the environment when that happens:)

  4. Hi Rodney,

    Having been around martial arts for 2 decades and beyond as a youngster in karate etc.
    There is many unrealistic systems when it comes to self- preservation.
    Although many have the best intention I believe it’s plain dangerous to coach some material and then pass it off as worthy. Be it the civilian or law enforcement etc.

    Bottom line is after coaching civilian , military and law enforcement and had many clientele have to use this material the same outcome occurs be it stopping the threat to control or to exit.

    Working with the CMD program WORKS ! Through evolution and the correct approach to a real life situation!

    Head Coach/ Owner of crazymonkeyaustralia

  5. Hi.

    That’s a very interesting article. Thanks a lot for that!
    There are a couple of key elements I take from the article:

    1. The fitter you are the better it is for self defense. No one can fake conditioning!
    2. Techniques have to be easy and gross motor. So that they can be applied under stress.
    3. Always pretend that the fight doesn’t end. If you think your deadly groin kick will always end a situation you could be in real danger.

    In addition to the physical aspects, are there any psychological drills you do with your clients? In regards to fear management / understanding.
    Scenario Trainings with gear? A modified checklist like the 4 drivers for self defense? Something like: Picture your little child standing behind you. And if you don’t defend yourself and escape, he will be in trouble. Could something like that help you mentally in a self preservation situation?

    I think 75% of self defense is mental right? Detect a situation and try to deescalate things. Managing fear so that you are able to face the danger. That your attacker doesn’t see you as an easy target.

    Just wondering if there is anything else you would teach your clients besides the physical skills. Or is it already enough mental preparation to do lot’s of sparring with CM principles and “face the music” a lot of times?

    Besides the “secret military self defense” stuff, there are some systems who claim to have mental preparation drills. Stress inoculation training and stuff like that. Just would like to know if that’s something you automatically get with the right sparring and regular training or do you really need special drills for that?

    Thanks a lot for your feedback and keep up the great work!!!

  6. “Why are so many reality based systems so popular, in light of the fact that so many of these systems, fail to teach unpredictability, instability and uncertainty?”

    As you indicated teachers know that their financial well-being is dependent on student retention. “The quickest way to make enemies is to talk about change” and speaking up when the emperor is wearing no clothes or worse.

    Everyone has heard of incidents where a guy successfully takes away a knife or gun from a bad guy———-only to mindlessly return it to them just as they practice in classes. And this training mistake costs lives.

    In the final analysis Rodney makes the consequential point that “self-defense” training requires self-preservation “modules” coupled with an integration of “UIU” experiences.

    Great article

  7. Hey Rodney thanks for the great article ! I live in Santa Rosa ( close to rohnert park where there is a certified CMD training center ) and im very interested in taking classes. I had to questions i was hoping you could answer for me. From readin this article i undersant how CIA is about realistic self defense that works with evolution, something that truly rings true with me. However, as a total beginner to a striking art ( ive done some bjj in the past) is CMD built around self defense principles as well? Also does CMD involving in basic grappling or takedown defense ?

    Thanks for all the help and the great articles, Ive enjoyed them a bunch !

    1. Hi Harrison,

      CMD has all of that. CIA is an add on to CMD, building off the material learned in CMD’s athletic base. Therefore CIA was never developed to be a stand alone program, but to complete the training done in CMD. So CMD is the athletic base, the place to learn important core techniques, develop timing, power, speed etc, while CIA takes all that you learned and deploys it within a self-preservation framework.

      Hope that made sense ?

      1. It made complete sense ! Thanks very much for answering so quickly Rodney I really appreciate it. Im going to be signing up at your rohnert park center this week. Im excited to learn so many new things, but above all, the mind set that comes with the traing.

        Thanks again

  8. Awesome article Rodney. Well put.

    Too many instructors argue against mixing it up and combat sport training simply because they are fat and cannot fight. They have no or poor fighting skills.

    If they acknowledge that fighting skills are important they undermine their own status and position.

    They will therefore stick to their position that there are too many rules in the combat sports and alive training and they deal with “reality”…



  9. Spot on. Problems I’ve seen are these:

    * Instructors’ insecurities. Dressing up in special forces outfits (when you’re not special forces), posting scary badass pics on FB, (when real operators would never do so), and crafting a tactical badass aura screams insecurity to people who’ve actually done it. Big Insecurity breeds big ego, which is a big, big problem in teaching others, as well as learning new things.

    * Reality self defense in dojos or gyms, to be commercially successful, has to leave out the elements that make it useful in the first place: panic training. No one likes being terrified, especially after a long day at work when they’re choosing between pilates, or zumba and want to try out a self defense class. But the panic training is very important for first responders. Competitive sailors, life guards, emergency workers all have such drills designed to acquaint the trainee with the adrenaline dump of crises. It’s very useful for an experienced BJJ or ring fighter to be shoved and pushed by ten people, or spun around then attacked randomly. But it’s unpleasant and doesn’t give you the Jason Bourne experience.