In any unsolicited violent or aggressive event our primary aim is to remove ourselves (and others if we feel responsible for them) from danger of bodily harm. The aim is not to ‘win a fight’ for this is not consensual violence; in most cases therefore (excluding for example threats on the doorstep of our own property) we are endeavouring to create an exit.
There are different means by which different groups of instructors approach this, particularly in the case of multiple threats or assailants. To a large extent the approaches they advocate will be coloured by their own training or personal experience and the nature of experience within the circles with whom they associate and study. A significant determining factor in the viewpoint of that circle will be the main training methodology employed, for you get good at what you train for (and base your conclusions on how it has worked), and the environments in which they have had to utilise such tactics.
To escape from a situation we need space to run/barge or walk through, created by the absence or inability/disinclination of prior threats to engage or stop us.
If there is no current attack (i.e. no-one is currently holding or trying to hit you) then you have space and can exit. If an attack is in process (in other words someone is currently holding you, hitting you, both of those, or standing so close and posing a direct threat of attack and an obstruction to escape) then you have to deal with that in order to exit.
Space is created by the freedom to move, which in turn is created by the sufficient removal of the threat of grabbing/striking/ and potentially chasing.
So now this boils down to the manner of engagement. How you make that space to escape and crucially how to reduce the risk of being attacked by others while you do so.
Space to escape in conflict is created by knocking another person back or down in a manner that they cannot easily resume the fight or block the exit or give chase. It is the desired end result, but not necessarily the starting or mid position.
The majority of non-consensual violent situations where you have to strike a person to make an exit will start close, the proximity being the key factor to determine both the use of force and the blocking of your escape routes. As a result most initial engagements will initiate with close range tactics. You will therefore predominantly initially engage at close range. This is not something that you are likely to be able to choose – the first person you engage with is almost certainly going to be at close quarters to you.
If you are lucky and you act first and you land a good strike (because you have trained to hit pads hard and you have fewer psychological barriers/inhibitions because you have also hit people in training rather than just pads), then you may have created the opportunity and space/time to escape. This might be because there was only one threat, or it might be because the other threats are too far away to impede your escape, both in terms of distance and in terms of time. Time and reaction time are huge factors.
It is no surprise that the person who waits to act is at a disadvantage. When a person acts and moves decisively others (whether hit by them or not) have to react to them. This is frequently seen in physical immobility in my Sim Days (and CCTV or mobile phone footage) – you can literally see on the feedback videos the OO of the OODA loop (Observe Orientate Decide Act) – while the person with the initiative seems to be constantly in DA – other people stand like statues for seconds as the action moves past them, unaware of how much time is passing (something often missing from regular training drills because the expectation of the other persons actions is greater). This has proved true even when I have given people in scenario simulations what seem to be overwhelming odds against them – a lot of the people aren’t in the situation at the same time because they are playing catch up. They aren’t being nice and taking turns, they are trying to catch up with what is happening.
But what if having engaged the first person (at the probable close range that prompted the need for action) there are other threats moving to engage (because you have not dropped that person in a time span quicker than their orientation and decision to act), or other threats so close that they have to be engaged to clear your escape?
This presents two potential types of situation.
1. You are currently still engaged at close range with one person (the first person you tried to go past/through who initiated the escape attempt through their physical and verbal actions), and others are trying to get to you. You are therefore trying to finish one close range engagement while others are moving to hit you or actively trying to hit you. You are fighting close range. You have no distance. This may only last a second before that person falls back and makes space, but you are still proximate to them.
2. You have just got past one person (or knocked them far enough away from you to present an immediate threat) and now you are either about to strike another person (or are on the receiving end of a strike from another person) with potentially further people about to engage. It is the starting position of that other person, the speed of the other person’s movement towards you and their speed of reorientation to your actions that determines their proximity (distance) and thus your tactics. As a result in this situation you will either
a) have close proximity forced upon you – you are fighting close range again, or
b) you move into them (potentially with a bridging distance tactic like a kick or a superman punch) to hit them to clear your escape route – you are fighting long range briefly for that moment if it creates an escape route. If it does not, and they do not fall back at all, you will end up closing and creating that escape space in a flurry or strikes at close range, or you may have space (if they have been knocked back but still pose a threat impediment to actual escape) to strike with a long range tactic again. All the time trying to create space to exit safely.
Three very important dynamics immediately present themselves from what I have described above. The first is that continuous movement is key – other people have to be reacting to you; if you wait or get held up then you can get swarmed regardless of whether you are trying to keep people at a leg’s length or you are touching them. The second is that this isn’t chess – this is all happening in a few chaotic seconds (as you hopefully access your training), and people take time to observe orientate decide and act on your movements. The third is that close range is likely to be forced upon you at some point in time unless you make the decision to hit very early to make an escape route – and that is something rare indeed.
So there are long range engagement options and short range options, but is one best for training and is one more appropriate?
To state the obvious, you get good at what you train for. If you predominantly train a close range repertoire but then ‘bolt on’ a long range approach ‘in case of multiples’ then your bolt on is likely to snap off under pressure. You will work best at what you predominantly train to do. If you predominantly train a long range repertoire, then once the combative space for that is created that will give you the optimum results. People will generally advise what has worked for them and what has worked for them will often be determined by what they have predominantly trained. What they advise is also determined by their memory of events and their interpretation of events.
At all the times the aim is to knock back/drop a person or persons as quickly as possible so that you can take the first opportunity to escape. You are trying to exit. You are not planning to try and take on every threat one at a time.
While you are engaged at close range you can get grabbed by the person you are hitting, but you also have the ability to hit them very hard (just as with longer range hits). If you know how to hit in combinations with redundancies this should not be a protracted event – it should be over and space to escape created before others can orientate to you. An advantage of this temporary position is that the close proximity of the other person closes off more angles of attack by others orientating towards you – often they have to try and flank rather than move in directly and that gives precious moments to finish and exit. Fighting at close range does not mean you are static – it just means you stay close to someone while you are hitting them, they may be falling back with you moving forward throughout that. A disadvantage of being close to someone is that should all your hits be unsuccessful and you get tied up holding or clinching with the other person for a few seconds, then your back is vulnerable to being grabbed by those chasing after you.
While you are engaged at a longer range you have a greater ability to employ your arms and legs to strike at any angle. You are freer to move than at close quarters because you are not moving the body of another person with you as you hit. At the same time you are more open to direct attack from every angle by other people precisely because of your ‘distance’. The distance also creates a greater reactionary gap for other people to avoid your defensive exit-attempting strikes, thus potentially prolonging an event and lowering your odds of escape. If you are close enough to punch someone then they are also close enough to grab you, so unless you plan to exit a situation in a whirlwind of kicks the idea that grabbing is just a close range danger is misguided.
I advocate using close range tactics to create the distance I need to make an escape. That’s partly because I feel most comfortable with my ability to successfully and safely eliminate a threat at that proximity, it’s partly because that is where I expect to find myself in the first place, and it’s partly where I expect to be if I fail to remove the initial obstacle as quickly as I would like. It is also related to the fact that the majority of my training is focused on close range habitual acts of violence (HAOV). This focus is not going to stop me pushing or throwing a front kick or a low shin kick if I have to get past a second person and they happen to be that far away, because I also train to use those tactics. I weight my training for what I believe are the most probable things, multiple person events being less likely than single person events (both in general and in accordance with my lifestyle).
The truth is that the distinction between long range and short range tactics in a multiple person encounter is an illusion, and the idea that you get to choose your tactics (or maintain a distance/range) is largely an illusion too, a case of the brain reconstructing events favourably after an event. An event may seem like an eternity but it is actually seconds, seconds in which many people will be standing still as they try to process what is happening through an adrenal fog. The range you engage ‘the first person’ will be the range at which you have decided to ‘go’. It is highly probable that that will be close range. If you have then made the space to escape then you will do so. If you do not, if there is an impediment, then you will attempt to engage that impediment at the range it presents in order to escape.
Train hard, try it, and remember that contact (and surprise) changes everything – make sure you mimic its effects.
In my last blog post, terms and terminology, I drew a distinction between self defence, as the physical aspect of using force to protect yourself or others, and self protection; the broader umbrella comprising the more important aspects of crime prevention through personal safety awareness, avoidance, deterrence, threat negation (running away, de-escalation through language and body language), physical control (where necessary and appropriate) and finally self defence.
The observation was that what a lot of people actually need is self protection, but people don’t look for what they don’t know they need, so they search for self defence rather than personal safety training or self protection. As most martial arts clubs advertise themselves as teaching self defence, and only deliver physical training, is the end result that most people who start training with a martial arts club don’t really get what they need? Rather than improving their ability to avoid or deescalate situations they end up with fighting skills of varying quality and efficacy? Does this make people less safe?
Well, yes and no, for various reasons.
At risk of generalising, what most people joining martial arts clubs actually need is not the ability to avoid or escape violence, it’s better physical (and mental) health. From that perspective the fact that the vast majority of clubs are offering little more than aerobic activity that gives a safe outlet for aggression and has the potential to improve balance, flexibility and coordination is not necessarily an issue.
A second factor that we need to consider is that the need for personal safety skills does vary widely. The rougher the neighbourhood in which you work / live or traverse the more likely it is that you require such skills. At the same time though, those who have grown up in such environments are less likely to require any formal training as these are likely to have come with the territory. It is those who have had the benefit of living or growing up in non-violent environments who find themselves coming into social encounters (or environments) where violence is normalised that have a greater need of advice.
The element of training from which most people could benefit, regardless of background, is in their communication skills to de-escalate aggression; the verbal element of conflict management. This is not likely something that you will find in a martial arts class and is a topic that a lot of ‘specialist’ self defence providers ignore completely. It is however a limited skill set in some regards. It is limited because in the cases where good practise works, the situation would most likely have been resolved verbally with no training, and in situations where it does not, violence was probably unavoidable. It can make a significant difference in a very small number of instances, and given that it is awkward and time consuming to practice, and the odds on being in situations where it would benefit are so low, it is not surprising that it is often omitted. But improving communication skills can have benefits to so many areas of life that the ‘minority effect’ in Conflict Management may simply be a bonus.
The same ‘limited relevance’ could be said for training in the conflict management aspect of control and compliance techniques. Sometimes you may want to control or detain a person, or reduce the risk of harm to them, others, or yourself. But what are used are predominantly compliance techniques, often pain compliance techniques, and they do come with risks (positional asphyxiation in many holds for the person being held, vulnerability to external attack for the person holding). If the person is non compliant to the pain then one person is not going to be able to hold them in the majority of cases. While many ‘holds’ can become ‘breaks’ or ‘tears’ in the instance of non compliance, that can actually escalate the later consequences of the altercation for both holder and held. Controls are useful skills that have a time, a place, and a context.
Are the fighting skills taught by so many martial arts clubs a problem because they mean people associate conflict resolution with fighting and are more likely to resort to violence in situations that might otherwise have been resolved? I would argue that the association is not so much the problem of the martial arts as the external perception that conflict can (or should) be resolved by consensual shows of force or premeditated revenge rather than dialogue. I would also argue that those who take such a creed are likely to be the problem causers rather than the ones seeking training for self defence, and those who look to violence to resolve disputes are more likely to do so because of its social acceptability in their upbringing rather than as a result of the ethos of any martial arts club or any movie culture. While there is an argument that you can only use the tools in your toolbox, the martial arts do not have a monopoly on the tools of common sense, courtesy or self discipline.
Is the teaching of fighting skills as self defence a problem? Isn’t self defence a legal construct rather than fighting skills? Well yes and no. Self defence isn’t a fixed item. What qualifies as self defence varies according to circumstances and a person’s perception of them, and of course from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It’s therefore not easy to say that this part of this system is self defence while this part is not, it’s not always that clear cut. There are some fighting skills I’ve seen taught that cannot be self defence because they are designed to maim or kill a person when they are no longer in a position where anyone could reasonably claim that they believed they still had the potential to do harm. Teaching those techniques and leading students to believe that they are self defence is a problem, and it is one that is prevalent in the RBSD community as well as in Traditional Martial Arts. Teaching people ‘fighting’ techniques that are quite simply fantastical in the context of application in non-consensual violence is also an issue that is prevalent in both RBSD and TMA.
Ultimately the problem with the martial arts (and the self defence community as a whole) is an underlying lack of knowledge amongst many of its instructors at all levels and across multiple disciplines. I can remember a number of years ago a few people I knew being blown away by the content of a newly released book on self protection. I was very surprised at the time because while it was (and remains) an exceptionally good text, its contents were not new (to the market) and these were people I regarded as fairly knowledgeable. There were already a number of great well-researched books on the subject out there, many of which covered some areas in a superior fashion. I’ve seen similar reactions from people on their first experience of training with a different coach. The point perhaps being that if you are in a dark room any fresh light will catch your eye and make a big impact, but if the room is already filled with lights a new one is less noticeable.
The onus is on martial arts instructors to fill their rooms with light by exposing themselves to information from multiple sources (books, videos, blogs, articles, personal research and seminars) so that they are in a position to give good advice or make reading recommendations to supplement their students’ physical training, and of course are themselves informed enough to construct appropriate physical training. There is a tendency within the martial arts community to mock people who talk more than train, and of course training is important, but our training has more value when supported by good reading habits, sound research, and information exchanging conversations.
Personal experience is not enough. Whether you have been unfortunate enough to have involvement in one or two altercations, or whether through professional employment you have had to participate in hundreds of violent incidents, your experience is always limited by your personal perspective and the context in which those events took place – especially if it was a professional context. Every instructor should take the opportunity to engage in research and take on board the experiences of hundreds of other people.
How do we get to a point where more people are offering good advice and training? The books are out there, the blogs are out there, the videos are out there, and there are some top-notch instructors delivering appropriate physical training underpinned by that information. The more in depth material isn’t shared all that often because people seem to prefer to share gifs and short clips of fights or cool or fantastical technique clips. The chicken nuggets ‘sell’ whereas the more nutritional, longer prepared, tastier high quality meals get ignored. The onus is on each of us to share more of the articles and the longer video clips that are out there, to try and get people more accustomed to focusing on detailed information rather than thirty-second clips. Dumbing down to reach the lowest common denominator has not raised the overall standard, and it never will. It’s time to make a conscious decision to raise the bar.
The other day a respected friend of mine made an observation about the number of clubs, particularly the pyjama dancers (as I call them), advertising that they were teaching self defence, when at best all they were doing was giving their students fighting skills.
It’s not an uncommon gripe amongst the instructors I train and talk with, both here in the UK and abroad. They know that when people are looking for ‘self defence’, actually the majority of what they really need isn’t physical skills; it’s greater knowledge to help them avoid, deter or de-escalate situations and the attributes to help them deal not only with events but their aftermath. These are things that are hard to find in most martial arts or RBSD syllabi, even harder to find taught well, and of course difficult to fit into an activity which for many is their main form of physical exercise – they expect physical training.
So are these people being conned when they believe they are learning self defence?
This does beg the question whether avoidance, deterrence, de-escalation and physical controls are actually self defence or related skill sets.
Your linguistic umbrellas may not be the same as those used by others.
If you use physical force to cause harm to another person and you have to justify it to either avoid charges regarding to the use of force, or to defend yourself against such charges, then you would claim ‘self defence’. The legal basis for this does vary from country to country, and anyone claiming to teach self defence should be aware of their own localities laws and be able to provide or direct students towards advice (which in turn should frame the physical training). As an example, although I provide information in my syllabi, I also direct my England-based students here.
I label what I teach under the broad brush of self protection, which for me includes personal safety (avoidance/deterrence), conflict management (verbal strategies and physical controls), and self defence (employment of fighting skills). After all, if I have to justify the use of force in a Police interview or Court of Law I will do so claiming self defence based on my honest belief as to the threat posed.
Since self defence is the term by which the justifiable use of force is known, and the most common lay terminology, it is also the term that you are most likely to see people (accurately) using to describe the physical skills they (maybe far less accurately or delusionary) believe are appropriate for dealing with people attempting to hurt them. As the majority of tested techniques are used in combative sports, these are also likely to be ‘fighting skills’.
So from a different perspective fighting skills are actually the main part of self defence, but self defence is really just a small part of self protection, and what most people looking for self defence really need is advice on personal safety and conflict management for the prevention of crime.
Does this solve the problem of the representation of self defence? People aren’t going to look for what they don’t know they need, they will search for what they believe they need. That’s why the use of the term self defence is still important.
It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid…
It’s the season to be jolly, or is it? Most Leisure Centres shut down for a number of days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and even if they aren’t people are often so tied up with family gatherings and other social events that they can’t make any martial arts classes that are still running.
Are you dreading the physical toll of a dearth of training combined with a number of days of feasting?
I’m not going to advise going easy on the food. Whether you are hosting, a guest, or celebrating on your own, everywhere you look there will be the temptation to eat. If it’s there, make the most of it. It’s only for a short time and a few light-eating days will balance things out. Occasional excess is not the same as sustained excess.
I suspect more people are worried about not having the physical exertion and stress relief valve that training provides.
Without a class you are limited, but not that limited. You just have to work within the confines of the time and space you have and switch to a daily routine if you don’t already have one.
My first tip is start early, before breakfast if you can. That moment between waking and joining others is one of the few parts of the day in which you are likely to still maintain a degree of control. Once you start to eat however other jobs, other activities and the food in your stomach (not to mention any alcohol later) are likely to scupper the best-laid plans.
My second tip is keep it indoors. Poor light, poor weather and the objections of others may stop you training otherwise. Indoor training does not necessarily require much space. If you can stand in straddle stance then you can do squats, you can practice hip-work by shifting foot positions, and you can kick on the spot (working balance, flexibility, coordination and strength). If you have more space you can drop and do any number of different forms of press-ups.
My final tip is to keep it simple. The more you set yourself, the more daunting it will seem, the more likely you are to skip it. Choose one or two exercises for strength and one or two for technique refinement. When I am short of space I tend to do push ups, squats, slow side thrust kicks and either one of my own forms or the space saving Tekki/Naihanchi Shodan.
Have a great holiday, and keep training!