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!
In poker, you can play the cards, the opponent, or the table. Same in life. Or fighting. Or whatever.
Playing the cards. There are four suits and thirteen of each type of card in a deck. If you have four cards that make a straight, the odds of getting one of the cards that will end it is slightly higher than 2/13. Trying to fill an inside straight? 1/13. Need one card for your flush? Instinct says it should be a 1/4 chance of drawing the right card, but you already have 4 of the 13 cards in your suit, so 9/52.
The life or fighting equivalent is playing from your own skillset. To go into a situation, counting solely on what you know, ignoring other information.
Playing the opponent. In poker this is reading tells, getting to know the other players so well that you can read how strong their hands are. You can read what they desire and what they fear. You can read the draw (a draw of 2 cars in 5-card draw usually indicates they are holding three of a kind, for example).
The fighting equivalent. From Maija Soderholm I got exposed to the late Sonny Umpad's exhortation to first learn to read your enemy, then learn to write him. This one is deep. It ranges from simply feinting to gather information or to draw a response; to getting so far inside a threat's head that you are effectively gas lighting the threat. You can control not only what they perceive, but how they interpret their own perception and whether they can trust their own perception.
Same in life. If you understand people and can read them, you can use those insights to manipulate them. You can control the game. A lot of people glitch on this. "Manipulate" has negative connotations in current usage. But really, manipulation is just acting with skill. I'd rather have good people be skillful than not.
Playing the table. Too many people who play cards just play their own. In stud, you can calculate how the cards showing change your odds. Need a jack? 1/13 chance... but if two jacks are showing, it's now 1/26. If all of the fives and tens are showing, you'll never fill any straight. (note: in this post I'm not talking about Hold 'em. Talking about what my dad would call "real poker"-- draw and stud.)
To me, in fighting, playing the tables working all the auxiliary stuff-- environmental fighting, accessing social possibilities. The asymmetrical battle of bringing in the law or HR when it suits you.
Tying it back to game theory. To be successful you have to know yourself. Your mind, your resources (including skills) your goals and your parameters. You also need enough empathy to get into your opponent's head and discern the same things from the other point of view. To approach expertise in the subject, you have to understand how all of the seemingly extraneous stuff interrelates-- the social dynamics, environment, physical and communication skills... the whole bit.
Why do you train? What could you train for? What should you train for?
Across my clubs and those that are affiliated to me, we use the phrase training for life.
I focus on orientating my training towards self defence. There are compromises because in one of the systems I teach that means ordering things with regard to the traditional order of its kata, and some things I train are drills to illustrate principles rather than self defence per se (although these develop good understanding of biomechanics, which in turn increase your odds on delivering applications, which in turn assists effective physical self defence).
The reality however is the majority of self defence is not physical, and in practice I cover this through verbal presentation, examined material in the syllabus, advice on published reading material by other people, and my Sim Days. A further reality is that given the overall low prevalence of violent crime, the type of students I attract, and the training I give my students, the odds on them ever having to put the physical training into practice are very low.
But self defence isn’t the only thing I mean by saying training for life.
Most people face far greater health risks from physical inactivity or poorly trained physical activity than they do from violent crime.
Training for life is about providing good quality training that improves people’s health. The martial arts have not always enjoyed a good reputation when it comes to this.
While there are a number of long-lived martial arts practitioners, there’s no conclusive evidence to indicate that their longevity was the direct result of their training. In karate this is particularly problematic as the Okinawan population is generally quite long-lived.
There has been a generation of long term practitioners of martial arts in the west, particularly in Japanese Karate systems, who through a likely combination of genetic factors and inappropriate training have left the martial arts or required surgery to knees and / or hips to attempt to repair the damage that their training has done. There are still instructors out there demonstrating the same poor stances and mobility practices that will cause injury, many of whom run large clubs or associations.
Martial arts training should be challenging, but that does not excuse sloppy approaches to injury risk management. People come to a class to get fitter, stronger, more flexible, more mobile, to focus aggression in a safe manner etc. – they do not come to get injured. In any physical activity there are risks of injury, but injury should never be accepted as a normal thing: usually it means that someone has made a mistake, or the student has over-estimated their capability and not been reigned in by the instructor, or the instructor has pushed the student further than they should. This is not training for life. I take it personally whenever we get an injury of any kind in my classes or seminars, whether it’s a badly strained muscle or a cut knuckle, because I want to see if it was preventable, because its not why people come to train. I’m not wrapping my students in cotton wool; to be effective they have to experience pain and physical and psychological discomfort, but they don’t have to experience injury. From warm up through to warm down (and I’ve experienced some shocking injury causing warm ups in recent years by instructors young enough to know better) and training advice for home training, our methods need to be professional, up to date, and appropriate.
Training methods must be appropriate to the health and abilities of participants and take on board good practice and information from other physical disciplines. Where contact is used (and I believe it should be used on a very regular basis) its purpose should be understood and its intensity adjusted according to the needs of the trainee. Head contact in training should be carefully managed and minimised to strike the balance between the head being the most commonly injured part of the body in violent crime (and thus the need to practise attacking and defending it with correct distancing and commitment) and the need to protect the brain from long term damage. This does not mean ‘going soft’, but neither does it mean that a ‘good session’ should leave you drenched in sweat or moving in pain for the next week. As I have written before, fast training or exhaustive training does not necessarily mean focused or good quality training.
Why do you train? How should you train?
Train for life.
Grossman popularized it, but he was quoting a Korea war vet. My dad was a vet from that era and he used it too, so it must have been in the air back then. But it has jack shit to do with the way most people use it.
The part of it that was true, and what my dad meant by it is that as a soldier, I had more in common with an enemy soldier that I do with the civilians we are protecting. Yes, we. Saddam's Republican Guard or the Wehrmacht or the 82nd Airborne... people were defending their homes, their people, their values. Sometimes expeditionary forces, sometimes home guard... but especially in the age of conscripts, a drafted US soldier in a third-world country he's never heard of and a conscripted kid from that third-world country actually have a lot in common. And more in common with each other than they ever will with citizens or, especially, their own generals and their own politicians.
More broadly, coal miners in Virginia and coal miners in China will have more in common with each other than they will with their own bosses or their own governments.
That, to my mind, was what the sheepdog metaphor was trying to convey.
But it's become something else. A badge people put on to feel superior. So let's walk out the modern interpretation.
Number one, there ain't no sheep. Humans are amazing predators. Tough, adaptable, capable of learning at a whole new level. It takes a metric shit-ton of brainwashing to convince children that they are supposed to be weak and that passivity is a virtue. That social conditioning has happened, and it has been successful, but it is not natural. If you want to look down your nose at anyone and think they are weak, that's your arrogance, not truth. If they find the right incentive and throw off their imaginary leashes, not only will the meekest person you know give you a fight, your will prevent you from seeing it coming.
And here's the big one (hat tip to Terry Trahan.) Sheepdogs aren't good guys. They don't work for the sheep. They work for the shepherd. They don't keep the sheep safe from the wolves because it is the right thing to do. They keep the sheep safe from the wolves so the shepherd can butcher them or shear them on a precise schedule for maximum profit.
Still feel like a hero, Mr. Sheepdog?
Two things in my mind, going opposite directions. You are not sheep. You are mighty. Your ancestors pretty much conquered the world at half your size and half your brain size and nowhere close to your access to information. With sticks and chipped rocks and opposable thumbs and communication and teamwork, humans spread. Humans became the apex predators on this planet. Almost all of the species we used to dread are now protected as endangered, a testament to both human power and human compassion. We, as humans, are anything but sheep.
Yet we are being treated like sheep. And we tolerate it and in many cases beg for more. Look at your paycheck. How much are you being fleeced for? How much of your productivity does the shepherd take? Did you consent? Did you negotiate?
Evil corporations? Oil company profit on a gallon of gas is roughly three cents. Taxes (state and federal, in my area) are 48 cents. Production, purification, delivery for three cents... regulation and control for 48. Which is the fleecing?
I know this is going to get some knickers in a twist. Do the math. Who provides the things you appreciate? Who pays for your labor? And who controls your behavior and siphons off from your labor? Who are the shepherds that are sheering you? Who has (and to what extent do you give them) the power to butcher you?