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Martial Arts Don’t Teach Good Self-Defence

March 01, 202114 min read

Why Martial Arts Fail To Teach Good Self Defence

            Firstly, a clarification on terminology.  I recognise that the majority of the general public, happily and ignorantly use the phrase Self-Defence.  For reasons that will become apparent later, I do not like to use this phrase.  I prefer the phrase Personal Protection. 

Firstly, the word defence implies that we must wait for our attacker to initiate an attack before we act.  And as you shall see this is clearly untrue. 

Secondly, use of the word self, implies only the defence of ourselves, and again this could be untrue as we may have to protect our loved ones or come to the aid of a 3rd party.  Personal protection implies the protection of the person without the specific limitation to the ‘self’, the person referred to could be us or another person.  Hence it is more general than self-defence.

Therefore, Self-Defence is a misleading term.  I will use the term personal protection instead.  Protection is defined as ‘being provided to physical objects, organisms, to systems, and to intangible things like civil and political rights.  Systems is a key word there, because good personal protection is about putting a system in place to insure you that any confrontation is a matter of last resort.

A word on martial arts.  I have studied Martial Arts for over 35 years.  I adore the martial arts and I would not be the man I am today without the journey to understand myself and my art of Karate.  However, the term Martial Arts is quite a large global umbrella term that can cover broad spectrum of topics and skills.  It can mean different things to different people, Fitness, Fighting, Culture, Self-Defence, Personal Development, or Sport.

This is the beauty of the Martial Arts it can be whatever you want/need it to be.  I came across Sensei Iain Abernethy’s ‘The Martial Map’ several years ago and it clarified this subject more clearly than any other explanation.  It drastically improved me as a teacher.  The martial maps divides the martial arts into 3 distinct areas, each with their own training goals, methodologies, and mindsets. 

1) Martial art, historical and cultural –

2) Self-protection – non-consensual violence

3) Fighting/Sport – consensual violence

Exclusively training in only one area is acceptable as is training anything simply because it is fun.  It gives clear understanding that each area may be a study in of itself, and also shows where key skills, attributes and mindsets may cross over, be mutually beneficial, and in some cases dangerously opposed.

  1. martial art training for self-improvement, fitness, mental training/abilities, stress relief, martial skill, strength, flexibility, self-confidence, self-esteem, historical or cultural reasons and good old simple fun.

  2. 3) self – protection firstly to instigate practices and procedures to increase situational awareness and threat awareness to insure you are not a victim of non-consensual violence and secondly training to be able to deal with the physical and mental effects of that violence and the legal/mental/physical aftermath.

  3. fighting / sport for competition of consensual violence between two consenting martial artists with agreed upon rules.  Training timing, distancing, speed, strategy, fitness, flexibility, strength, self-esteem, and good old fun.

With this map in mind in can give all martial artists, students or teachers, a clearer insight to what, how and why they train. 

Put any drill, skill, or training video online and within seconds someone will claim that ‘wouldn’t work on the street’.  Martial artists have a particular habit of not seeing something as a drill or misunderstanding it and referring to its effectiveness to how it works on the street. 

For example, a boxer posts a training video of how to improve your skipping or make it more enjoyable.  Other boxers do not immediately comment that he is an idiot because you would not fight in the ring in that manner.  Bouncing with your feet close together and your arms spread wide at hip level.  Neither does the poster of the video have to explain that skipping is a drill to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength in the shoulders, not a fighting technique.

Understanding the martial map allows us to appreciate the arts within their own context, without always referencing personal protection.  Tai Chi in the park in the morning for mental health and physical fitness, or Aikido for personal development, martial skill or cultural understanding, MMA or Kickboxing for fitness and sport.  All these simple examples may be studied for years for their own merits without having to misrepresent them as personal protection training.

The reason Martial Arts fail to teach personal protection correctly is much of what constitutes personal protection falls outside the purview of any particular martial arts.  Irrespective of whether you think your Martial Art is perfect for the street or not, most Martial Arts only deal with the fighting aspect of personal protection.  And in some cases, the student is actually learning only how to fight with another person from the same style, something which can be fun but very different from a non-consensual altercation on the street.

Consensual violence/sparring/kumite can be fun and doing it as part of your martial art is justification enough.  But the skills your style of sparring develop has no or extremely little cross over to the skills of personal protection.  For example, going to the ground in BJJ or MMA may be tactically good in the sporting context, but is never the place we should choose to be on the street.  And the mindset is different too.  If for no other reason than when sparring, if in I dominated my opponent 100% into submission, every time, all the time, it would cease to be fun, we want a back-and-forth contest.  However, with personal protection, regardless of whether it is in pre-emption or after being attacked, we need to cease the initiative and dominate our attacker until we can safely escape.

Non-consensual violence accounts for about 10% of any personal protection system.  The bulk of a good personal protection system must consist of awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, and escape skills.  Much of which is only paid lip service, with token lines, such as, “run away if you can.”  Breaking away or escape skills need to be taught and trained.  Lip service is also paid to avoidance and awareness.  Avoid what?  Be aware of what?  Here again danger signs and warning signs need to be understood to help a student manage a real situation.  And unconscious skills like ‘commentary walking’ and ‘people watching’ need to be practiced to develop awareness skills. 

Other skills that need to be trained include understanding pre-emption strikes, the fence and the legal ramifications.  Legal issue in particular, generally falls outside your traditional martial arts class.  One of the worst statements you are likely to hear is, “It is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6”.  This wrongly implies that it is not possible to legally defend yourself.  Defending yourself, including pre-emption strikes, is legal under Irish law is covered in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997.

Another failing of many martial arts is the type of attack scenarios that they train.  This can amount to little more than martial arts in jeans, where unwitting instructors, highly skilled in their art, teach attacks that showcase the best of their and the arts abilities.  Karate lunge punches from outside touching distance and the attacker leaving the attacking limb extended or totally freezing.  The fact that these drills are pre-arranged and with a consenting partner attacking from the wrong range limits their effectiveness.  And may lack a certain level of pressure testing. 

This pressure testing also applies to the techniques taught, constant drilling in line, punching the air does not give the student effective feedback on the technique.  Restrictive punching and uncomfortable ranges and positions should all be practiced on some form of impact training device. 

Also, the type of techniques taught can be ineffective.  So called “dirty fighting” techniques get their name from being banned in sporting competitions.  Many of these “infighting” techniques work perfectly adequately in personal protection and should not be labelled dirty or illegal.

What is personal protection and how is it different to martial arts?

Personal protection is an open system. In a closed system there are known factors and there are right and wrong answers based on these factors. In an open system there are many ways to be right and wrong.  Martial arts are a closed system.  The difference between personal protection training and martial arts training is that personal protection teaches students what they need to know, and martial arts teaches subject matter.  By their very nature Martial Arts styles have a syllabus which teaches the philosophy, techniques, skills, and attributes that those learning the style must learn. 

Here are 2 simple examples.

  1. Personal protection teaches power generation principles, martial arts teach multiple different strikes or techniques.

  2. Personal protection will teach a 20stone man differently than an 8 stone female, martial arts teach everybody the same syllabus. The reason for this is a 20 stone man doesn’t need to worry about being dragged into the back of a van and raped, an 8 stone female will not need advice with how to deal with a monkey dance.  A male is more likely to be attacked outside the home, a woman more likely in a home and by someone she knows.  Different realistic attack scenarios require different response.

Personal protection training must give each student the tools and freedom to solve their problems in their own way.  Techniques that suit the individuals physical and mental makeup.

To understand and defend yourself correctly on the street these days, you must understand the difference between social and asocial violence, and the tactics that must be used to deal with each.  The tactics used to avoid/de-escalate social violence could increase your risks with asocial violence.

Social violence = the monkey dance, the interview, sparring/duelling, sorting it outside, have a knockabout. Social violence is violence used for social status, dominance or to teach a lesson. Examples “Dave’s mad, he took on that huge bouncer last Friday”, or how dare he do that, “I’ll teach him.”

All predatory animals have social violence or some sort of play fighting. Think dogs, foxes, lions, or tigers wrestling and playing. This is how they learn to fight, hunt and display dominance. It is never lethal.  Humans social violence is designed not to be lethal and when it is it is usually from falling and banging their head. With social violence it is for dominance/status or to teach a lesson, i.e., punching someone to teach them to show you respect. The mindset for this must be justified. You will subconsciously be hitting to communicate, not to eliminate.  This could include martial arts sparring

Asocial violence = the group monkey dance, violent crime, a predator. If you go to kill an insect do you need to get worked up or get angry? Do you need to convince yourself that this is a bad insect? Do you need to justify it like its justice? Do you give the insect a chance and fight or just kill it? This is asocial violence. This can be lethal. Experienced violent criminals have gotten past this and treat people like animals, which gives them a huge advantage. Most people defending themselves cannot. Unless you train to flip the switch.  Sometimes you practice a technique, but it is important also to do it with a more realistic mindset.

The things that can prevent or de-escalate social violence can invite asocial violence and vice versa.  In a predatory approach you must be able to distinguish between a crime motivated by cash (resource predator) from one motivated by cruelty (process predator).  And in this scenario the criminal (asocial) wants you responding to them with a social mindset. 

Bad guys don’t fight, they’re not in this to lose. They use surprise or blitz attacks. Martial arts work well in social violence where you have time and choices.  Asocial violence comes as a surprise and you will be surprised, don’t kid yourself that you won’t, especially if you’re awareness skills have failed you.  As the Japanese saying goes, “Even monkeys fall out of trees.”  We should be training for when things go wrong, having a default position to aid recovery when we do not know what to do.  So, when taken by surprise and we do not know what to do, we have a technique to fall back on.

Personal protection is not a physical skill it’s an emotional skill, it is all about how fast you can recover when injured or surprised. What to do is almost never the problem. Acting, or beating the freeze is the issue.  And this takes a change in training, teaching and methodologies that are used.

Traditional martial arts are “ancient” codified forms of warfare or civilian protection.  Some of the techniques were employed on the battlefield using weapons that have now been replaced, spears and swords for example.   Or were designed for personal protection in the days where there were no streetlights, police forces or laws governing self-defence.  The modern form of criminal assault has also changed and the types of attacks they use.  With that in mind, many of the traditional martial arts and not equipped to deal with modern society crimes and laws.  The skills needed to quick draw a sword from a scabbard and slice a bandit or ninja are vastly different from those skills needed to avoid a fight with a drunk outside a takeaway or deal with 3 guys circling you on a darkened street.  If violence has changed then so too do the martial arts claiming to teach us how to protect ourselves from that violence.

For martial artists to improve the teaching of personal protection within their classes they would need to incorporate the following.

  1. Understand the way in which criminals work?  And train to use their skills against them.  The criminal will generally use the 4 D’s, Dialogue, Deception, Distraction, and Destruction to facilitate their assault.  We can use them same techniques back on them, which they are not expecting.  Dialogue to de-escalate, or deception to play submissive in the fence to draw them in.  Asking opening ended questions to distract their attention to facilitate our pre-emptive strike, destruction to break their will/posture/mental state to insure our escape.

  2. Legal overview of what is legal and illegal, the ability to explain/justify the use of force, modify training to reflect the law of the state, example kicking a downed attacker in the legs rather than the head.

  3. Grappling skills both standing and on the ground.  With the goal to be competent at all ranges not a master at all

  4. Breakaways and escape skills against singular and multiple opponents

  5. Verbal de-escalation skills and some tolerance training for verbal abuse

  6. The fence and what to do when it goes wrong, this can also include other techniques like the modified columbo and the head scratcher, so students can select the one they feel comfortable with and train it

  7. Techniques for when we are surprised or taking damage such as Dracula’s cape, or entry techniques such as the opening moves of Kushanku or Naihanchi

  8.  Understanding the training matrix, the flaws inherent in every drill and how to cross train correctly to compensate

  9. Gifts in a fight such as trapping and locking, and how does locking incorporate into your goal of escape?

  10. Impact drill including restrictive punching/positions and punching whilst in motion

  11. 3rd part perception.  What you say?  Kiai’s may make you look like a madman and the possible aggressor.  How you retreat?  “I’m gonna fuck you up!” or “stay away!! I don’t know you.  I don’t want any trouble.  Leave me alone.” And what message is your body language sending as you retreat?

  12. Conditioning or fitness training.  Having a good cardiovascular base is good, but the ability to fight anaerobically is vital. 

  13. Training against multiple attackers, in escape drills, use of the fence, pre-emption skills where the student is taught the roles attackers will assume, the mouth, snipers and the pack.

  14. Training to protect others against single attackers and multiple attackers.

  15. Training against weapons both blunt and edged weapons

  16. The use of the environment and improvised weapons

  17. Ground fighting and different ranges.  Insure we are not beginners at any level.  Judoka should be able to impact, Karate able to ground fight and regain their feet.

Adding all this into your training will make your art more practical and allow students to have a comprehensive understanding of all the parameters of personal protection/self-defence.  This type of training can be added onto a practical syllabus or taught in the form of top up specialised seminars on topics such as self-defence and the law etc.

With the proliferation of martial arts and styles and instructors teaching gospel what they learnt from their instructors and not knowing any different, there are generations of students who believe what they do is real, and they are prepared for the street.  Therefore, I firmly believe in the martial map theory and why many martial artists are not qualified to teach self-defence.

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