The Not So Reality of Reality Based Self-Defence

One of the reasons I refused to write about self-preservation for a long time was largely due to the nutters that litter the landscape of that world (and I really mean nutters). I decided instead to share my knowledge in person, to groups of people I trusted, and who I could judge personally if they would be good candidates for what I had to offer.

urlThe world of reality based self defence is something akin to an awkward teenage boy, full of bravado, posturing, and pretence — trying to figure out what it may mean to be a grown up in reality ( not to mention trying to impress the chicks). RBSD or what ever name one decides to present it as (unarmed combatives et al.) is a weird irrational animal where people pass themselves off as experts, with inflated ‘know how’ and massive, audacious egos to boot — ironically with no real expertise in the very thing they are teaching. Sounds not to dissimilar from the snake oil salesman so often portrayed in Wild West movies, that would traverse the countryside selling his magic ‘cure all’ elixir. This is what I meant by this articles title: The Not So Reality of Reality Based Self-Defence.

In the urban tactical world when a law enforcement officer wants to learn life saving skills they reach out to those who have been there, done it and got the t-shirt so to speak. In the world of the military, soldiers have the most respect, and listen attentively to those who have actually gone to war. As someone who served time in the military, we always took what was being said seriously when it came from an officer who had served time and fought in the border wars (Angolan Bush War for example). You listened because this person telling you what you needed to do in order to survive, was a person who had been there, and survived himself. In other words he had real world experience, tools and strategies honed on the battlefield itself.

What I have always found fascinating about this though, is that many (not all) law enforcement officers and soldiers who should know better — end up listening to self proclaimed empty hand self defence experts who have never actually used what they are teaching. It’s just really odd how these empty hand self defence experts are able to pull the wool over the eyes of ‘true experts’ — but this may be largely due to the fact that in the professions of law enforcement for instance seldom does an officer find himself getting into a fist fight out on the street with a suspect, relying mostly on his backup, and the infamous tactical pig pile. For soldiers, seldom would they find that they are required to go hands on with a combatant, because that’s what guns are for.

To the credit of switched on law enforcement officers, and or military operators who do require going hands on with suspects or combatants — they tend to steer clear from anyone who will be more than happy to teach them empty hand, yet, have ZERO experience actually doing it themselves. There is clearly a reality check required in the world of self-preservation, not so much by those being taught, but rather by those teaching it.

Not Overstating Ones Expertise

When I was asked to coach special force operators, I never assumed for a moment that I knew what it was like to be them. Whilst I may have served in the military both in VIP Protection and Counter Insurgents Operations, it’s a far cry from what SF operators engage in throughout their career. And that’s the reality, that’s their career not mine, and it is something that they are completely and utterly immersed in (and of course I am not). My approach with SF operators was simple, tell me what you feel you need or are missing in your empty hand training — describe the context — and I will teach you what I know or think will work. I was always happy to further advise — but ultimately the SF operators needed to find the best way to integrate what I taught them into their mission objectives (bottom line they know better than me). I never went in and claimed any expertise outside of what I know I am really good at, and of course what I have personal experience in.

There is sadly a tendency in the unarmed combatives and RBSD world to overstate ones expertise. Naturally this is evolution playing itself out, as  we always want to look like we know more than we really do, in hopes it will aid us in being taken more seriously. No one who has ever proclaimed expertise in a subject like self-preservation wants to then say, “I don’t know!” But the reality is, I don’t know about a lot of things. Some things I know a little bit about, others a lot. Much of that ‘knowing’ is largely predicated on my life’s experience.

For example, I was brought up on the South Side of Johannesburg in government housing (similar to the Projects in the USA). In my neighbourhood gangs were rife, and getting into fights was a daily occurrence. Growing up in that way I have a very good grasp of gang related violence — and as fighting was a way of survival for me — I am well versed in how those fights typically take place. If I was asked by law enforcement to assist them in their empty hand training where for example an undercover officer may be working a known gang area and may require these empty hand skills, I do so from real world on the ground experience. But if I was asked how to best apprehend and cuff a suspect, I could surmise a good way to do it, but I claim no expertise in that area as I have no real world experience in it.

The reality is, there are so many facets of interpersonal aggression all dependent on context. A war zone, is not the same as someone trying to grab a woman’s handbag on Rodeo Drive. While having experience in one area of interpersonal violence can have a crossover effect, I think it is pertinent that a self-defence expert be willing to know his or her limitations. The notion that is spread by many of these self proclaimed experts is that they can teach you how to deal with any interpersonal violence based situation that arises — but the reality is they can’t. We need some truthfulness from the ‘experts’, and some equal objectivity by those buying into these experts programs with their hard earned cash.


Do You Need The Real World Self-Preservation Experience to Claim Expertise In It?
Yes, and no!

Firstly coming back to what I wrote previously. Of course I acknowledge that if you have experience as a soldier on the battlefield, then that experience affords you a level of understanding of interpersonal violence that civilians for example wont have. This experience, knowing what it will be like in a life and death situation and how to deal with the inner turmoil that comes with it, are crucial lessons to impart with anyone who needs to know what it would be like (on the battlefield or on the city streets). Yet, if you are a veteran, you also know that the rules of engagement on the battlefield and the streets of suburbia are not the same (see the social conscience section of this article).

So does one need expertise in interpersonal violence in order to teach others how to defend against it? Yes, preferably, or at the very least, that you have been trained under someone who has. Sadly, there are people out there that have trainers certification programs in various aspects of dealing with interpersonal violence, yet they live in the safety of suburbia. The closest they get to dealing with interpersonal conflict is someone cutting in front of them on their morning commute to drop the kids of at school (road rage isn’t a qualifier to be called a self-defence expert, unless of course you get out of your car each time and get into a


Knowing The Limitations, And Telling Others The Truth

So lets say you do have experience in interpersonal violence. I am not talking about the few scuffles you had on the playground as a kid, but dozens of sustained real world interpersonal violent experiences on which you can draw your tools from. Lets say these experiences you had were just fist fights, but you now want to extend your offerings to your clients beyond simple empty hand defence — into dealing with a weapon, say for example a knife. Is that okay? Sure, but be honest about it.

I have survived two potential stabbings as a doorman, that however doesn’t make me a defence against the knife expert. I have immense experience in interpersonal violence as the head doorman outside some of Johannesburg’s roughest nightclubs for several years (not counting the violence I was brought up in, that I was the hand to hand combat instructor for my military unit, and living in one of the most violent cities in the world etc). As a doorman for several years I survived two attempted stabbings (I say attempted because I won that day), being shot at (in which I successfully disarmed the assailant), dealing with mass attacks on numerous occasions, dealing with weapon wielding assailants (like someone with a tire iron) or using weapons myself — yet I am still very cautious when teaching knife defence.


Because no matter how much you pressure test it, it’s still theory. Until one is actually faced with the reality of someone trying to kill you with a blade you just don’t know if all that training is going to come to bear. Of course, getting as real as you can in training will aid in your survival when the ultimate event happens. But lets just be honest, until then, it’s theory. What helps of course is being coached by someone who actually knows a lot about interpersonal violence (even if it was mostly against non weapon wielding people), which means they will have a keen insight into the psychology of human predation — which is invaluable to anyone who wants to know about defending themselves.

My final thought on this is if you are teaching self-preservation to people, but you have no claim to having real world experience in interpersonal violence yourself, then you absolutely have to be learning from someone who has (even then you wont know how you will react until the actual event happens). Most importantly you shouldn’t be the head of a program you developed, because you are lying to yourself and those you teach (remember most RBSD, unarmed combatives instructors don’t say what they are teaching is an approximation of reality, or based on a theoretical framework of the reality one will face — they claim what they teach is reality).


Social Conscience (and the truth of the fight)

If you watch most self defence videos presented on platforms like youtube it is almost always without a real pre-fight context. It’s always this person attacks you, and you go in for the kill (overkill generally). The truth is, as I see it, most people training this stuff seem to be in the delusion that they have only a hammer, and when that happens everything looks like a nail.

for example, the other day someone asked me on my closed Facebook Fan page for Crazy Monkey what were my thoughts on preemptive strikes? There was no context, just what are my thoughts? Thats a ‘hammer’ question. My reply was this, “Ummmmm could your question be any broader? You may think it’s a specific question but it’s not. what’s the context?”

I went on to offer a thought experiment of three scenarios,

Scenario 1: I am at a wedding, this guy is in front of me, his drunk, and being an ass, he says he wants to kick my ass, but he has done nothing as of yet – but, I am afraid, I am sure he is going to hit me, I preempt it, and hit him once. That’s not self-preservation, that’s assault.

Scenario 2: I am in the Congo, turn down the wrong street, a group of guys surround me, I am outnumbered, they want my wallet, I preempt it, punch the closet guy and run for my life. That was self-preservation, because the intentions, along with circumstance suggests that this is a situation where I am in trouble.

Scenario 3: But just to throw a spanner in the works, I am in the Congo, turn down the wrong street, a group of guys surround me, I am outnumbered, they want my wallet, I preempt it, punch the closet guy and run for my life – but they catch up to me, and stab me to death. We will never know if maybe had I given them my wallet, they would have simply left me alone (maybe not). Or better still, if I did my homework on where I was to begin with, and the threats to know about, I may never had walked down the wrong street to begin with (far more important than worrying about a preemptive strike).

In other words there are no hard and fast, simple answers like many people think their should be for self-preservation, context is always key! No one talks about the context pre-fight because it’s never as exciting as sticking your fingers in someones eyes (I am being condescending here).

I get asked all the time on the topic of self-preservation why don’t I teach this or that, or why didn’t my online course have what these other guys teach in self-preservation. There is ALOT that I teach, that I am only prepared to do in a seminar, where I can assess the people I am teaching. If I think they are a bunch of camo wearing crazies I don’t give them much to hurt people with. On the topic of preemptive striking, and why I don’t have it in my online program? That same strategy can also be misused for assault. If I am going to teach that, I want to do it live, in front of people, so they can get the whole picture, and I can fully explain to them the difference between self-preservation and an ego fight.

Sadly many of these so called reality based self defense experts have zero social conscience, and don’t realize that criminals are watching their stuff too (and getting ideas). They wrongly think that they can put anything out there in the public domain, as long as it is presented under the rubric of self defense. Point in case about a week ago I watched a video on an open forum of a guy teaching others how to defeat the legitimate defense of an unarmed person, who was controlling an armed assailant with a blade. Yup you read right. The only people I would think who would want to know this kind of stuff are criminals themselves (but the people in attendance where people who wanted to know how to defend themselves…WTF).

The reality of the ‘world of interpersonal violence’ is this, no one who genuinely wants to defend themselves wants to get into a fight for their life. As Mark Hotson one of my members on my fan page responding to the thread about preemptive striking noted, “It is all about the context. The drunk guy at the wedding example, I tend to have found that other people tend to step in on those and it becomes more push and shove and diffuses anyway. I saw the blog of a long time doorman who became interested in control and restraint because of the legal consequences of hitting people. Depending where you live this often not addressed. Are you prepared to have a criminal record, loose your job, maybe do prison time because you didn’t want to walk away?”

The last line of that statement is the most important. No one in the world of reality based self defense, unarmed combatives etc, talks about this. No one typically teaches it, or it is taught seldom. Why? It’s not glamorous, you don’t get to show off your killer moves, you know those killer moves you are teaching based on ZERO real world experience.

While it is not always possible I know, I try my best to not put stuff out on the public domain that could be used by a criminally minded person to become a better criminal. Its for this reason, I don’t disclose what I teach special force military operators, and why there are things I am only prepared to coach in person, and won’t be putting out on a DVD anytime soon.


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  1. Thank you, for the insight article! One person that addresses these topics in their seminars is Rory Miller. He discusses case law, verbal de-escalation, and creates scenarios where you have to explain your actions to someone acting as a cop. The majority of situations will be against people that “monkey dance” to show who is tougher. These individuals do not actually want to fight, which you can just walk away from.

    1. Rory Miller is absolutely in that category. He also has the modesty to say “I don’t know” and doesn’t pretend to know it all.
      This article echoes what anyone who takes SD seriously has been thinking ithout expressing it for a long time a MUST READ. Thank you thank you thank you.

  2. DAMN!

    You write so well on this topic.

    A very sensible, sane and wise evaluation of the wide ranging and varied reality of combat related training.

    I am so tired of the ‘my style is better than yours’…and the ‘what you should have done is’…or the ‘I would have…’ comments we see all the time.

    It is so refreshing to hear from someone who gets it, walks it, talks it and also explains it all so well.

    Good job Sir..and thank you.


  3. Well done Rodney! You have made some excellent points about those who are teaching self-defense in an unrealistic manner.

    A few of my fellow seasoned beat policeman (and martial artists) have created the new martial art of Police Judo to address the realistic needs of police officers on the street.

    We just been asked to street-proof a form of Karate because one of the head instructors here was concerned that his black belts, who are teaching self-defense classes, have never being in a street fight (tasted of their own blood outside the dojo so to speak).

    Our goal in Police Judo is to teach how to physically restrain resistive and combative arrestees in an ethical manner and this is no easy task (Google your own name – no joke- in North America to see an epic failure on the part of the police in doing so – AKA ‘The Rodney King Beating’)! This is why we developed the Police Judo and we have the street experience to back up what we teach . We have stripped our base martial art of Judo of all forms of traditionalism and sport.

    As you well know there’s a huge difference between street and sport. We have blended the residual core, practical, components of Judo with other martial arts involving punching, kicking, joint locking, etc. with police arrest and control tactics (including handcuffing). We frequently do scenario training involving the most likely situations an officer would encounter on the street in terms of people resisting arrest and assaulting them – and we throw in the iPhone paparazzi wildcards to put our students under some stress while they are making these on-mat practice arrests.

    Keep up your good work there Rodney. It looks like you have a very interesting and realistic program. Drop me a line if you find the time.

    Al Arsenault
    Police Judo
    Vanvouver, BC