A week ago I held another of my Sim Days for a mixture of my students and guests.
Although every karate lesson I teach revolves around pre-empting or responding to HAOV (habitual acts of violence), attacks taken out of any context, no matter how dynamic, alive or sustained, are one dimensional. It is in my Sim Days where my students experience the broader context of the tactical, ethical and legal repercussions of aggression and violence through simulating how they might respond to events in multiple scenarios, whether on their own, with peers, and with children (or adults).
These are training events that comprise elements that test a participant’s response, but also give them training in more optimal approaches and multiple opportunities to learn from what they and others have experienced throughout the day. The core-learning element of the day is not the experience of the short scenarios themselves, but the unpressurised frame by frame group discussions on the video footage of the same that takes place throughout the day. It is always gratifying to see how well trainees respond to this and how much they take forward to future scenarios.
As an instructor, I have an obligation to study the footage to see what I can learn to help maximise the performance of my students. Identifying mistakes or less desirable behaviour means that I must question what I’m teaching and how I’m teaching in order to help each individual progress.
I accept that what I’m looking at in my training days is artificial. There are many different compromises I have to make to ensure that the training is safe. It is however, as many participants with direct professional or personal experience of real violent events have attested, as close to the reality of the pressures of conflict management as is safe to create.
Training safety does present limitations. There are a number of things that cannot be done because of the injuries that might ensue. There are areas of the body that are not attacked, and obviously all contact to the head must be pulled because of the high risk of concussion in multiple person events when many are role-playing. While participants are clearly acting under the influence of adrenaline, they obviously do not have the full pressure of the consequences of a real event, which could elicit more extreme tactics. Nonetheless, when reviewing and learning from a person’s actions I hold the following maxim to be true: if you cannot do it in training then it is foolish to assume that you will be able to do it outside training.
So what has prompted this particular blog post?
On the last Sim Day I had the highest ratio of junior to seniors I’ve ever had. 1:1.
I like having younger participants on the training days since people do respond differently as both bystanders and participants when the threat is to or from a younger member of society, especially if they are behaving as if they are acting in loco parentis for a friend’s child. Furthermore, statistically in England the 16-24 age group has the highest risk of being a victim of violent crime and accounts for the largest proportion of offences.
On this occasion I had a group of three 13 year olds and two 14 year olds; all boys training alongside five adults. They all had between 65 – 120 hours of training. I felt that this was a great age to try this training experience as they are at a time where confidence in their ability does not necessarily account for the advantage that size, weight and strength gives fully grown adults. At the same time they were strong enough (in numbers) to pose a threat to the adults, while being young enough to elicit protective parental responses from them too.
Throughout the day I noticed the majority of the younger students having difficulty hitting the head. Now they were aware that contact to the head needed to be pulled, and had actually practiced punching both each other and the adults in this manner (the adults were all veterans of a number of these events and had long dropped any qualms on making contact and had the experience to calibre contact appropriately).
This is not uncommon. It has been my experience that a lot of people have difficulty switching from hitting an inanimate object like a pad to making contact against a person. The aversion to hitting the head or face is particularly common. This aversion is generally reduced by practice, just as the ability to shrug off direct verbal abuse is improved through practice, but it is a trait worth noting.
As attacks to the head are among the most common HAOV, my students naturally spend a lot of time delivering them and defending against them. They regularly practice striking pads in simulated head shots and they deliver these in appropriately skilled fashion for their age and time training. Despite this, the combination of the pressure of the event and a natural disinclination to hit the face meant that most of them struggled in their first few scenarios, especially in ‘leading’ with a strike to the head (as opposed to following through if necessary), and thus for safety I should assume that outside of training the same hesitation could occur.
I am not overly concerned by what I witnessed because I already have strategies in place to give my students alternatives. Many of my drills (including some of my pre-emptive drills) initiate with elbow point or forearm strikes to the body (acknowledging both the aversion to striking the head, the proximity of most violent encounters, and the potential short and long term injuries and consequences of the action) such as a slightly modified version of morote uchi uke, and knee strikes to the leg and body play a prominent role in the training I deliver. Throughout the day I saw my students effectively utilising these body shots with far greater ease than any shots to the head.
So what will I take away from this? Will I stop teaching head shots? No. Will I continue to teach body shots? Yes. What I will do is put a greater weighting on body pre-empts in my classes to ensure that from the start of their training journey my students have something that is more likely to fit within any initial limitations that they set themselves.
On Saturday, under my supervision, four teenage boys (aged 13-14) experienced a fake abduction. This was a single scenario in a multi faceted training day for both adults and teenagers. While this is a very rare event, it is perhaps one feared the most by parents, and so we wanted to see what we could learn from replicating an example.
Like all training, we had to make compromises for safety. The most glaringly obvious compromise was that the boys knew they were going to experience an abduction attempt. They also knew which vehicle the attacker(s) would use. What they didn’t know was how many people would be involved or how we would set them up.
That wasn’t the only compromise:
– due to a scheduling clash we had to stage our scenario outside a venue filled with young children with open doors for ventilation, so the teenagers couldn’t shout for help or bang on the vehicle,
– the vehicle wasn’t scrapped so we couldn’t kick it or hit people into its bodywork.
– for safety all shots to the head were pulled; the attackers wore headgear in case of backward uncontrolled strikes,
– the teenagers were bare-headed and we decided to proceed on the basis that the attackers would use body shots to subdue them so as to preserve their looks.
Each teenager entered the scenario ‘blind’, not having seen the ones that went before or having had opportunity to get any information from the previous participants. They were asked to walk down a particular passageway as if on their way home from school or visiting a friend. An aggressor would run up behind like a jogger, and then grab the boy to lift him into the van where a second person could assist in controlling them. A third man was behind the wheel.
This obviously represented a possible attack. More people could have been involved. We could have used a fake weapon for intimidation. The aim of the exercise was for all of us to see how difficult it was to escape once the attack had begun, and how quickly it could be done.
The results were chilling as you can see here.
Of the four participants, three were taken with the van ready to drive away within 12 seconds from first contact. The longest resistance lasted 35 seconds, and had he not been pulling his shots (for safety) that young man might have escaped or caused his attackers to abandon their attempt for fear of being caught. As it was we did attract some outside attention.
One of the most obvious things to take away from the exercise is that awareness of your environment is everything. Anyone listening to music on headphones would be easy prey. Hoodies would reduce peripheral vision and reaction time. Choice of routes, walking in company, wide corners and how you react to people around you in terms of innocuous hand positions (scratching the back of your neck for example) would make a difference in reducing the odds of being a victim and in being in a better position to resist.
These abductions featured bear hugs in what is their most likely use. These particular scenarios reinforced that unless you act before it is fully on, you are not going to get out very easily, and you probably won’t have a stable ground platform to work on. I teach bear hug defences to illustrate principles of movement, and to try and ingrain the reaction to move before it is on, but I recognise that the attack is both rare (because there are very few scenarios in which someone would do it) and that once it is on then most defences I’ve seen demonstrated (including my own) are ineffective until the person starts to release you.
If you want to theorise about bracing against a van, or pushing off from a van, or a car boot… try it. Come up with ideas, but then try them until you have some high percentage solutions.
This was nothing more than a training exercise, but it has given all those participating something to think about.
What’s in a name?
I’ve used the term self defence because most people understand what is meant by it, even if it is not the most accurate term. We can play semantic games with terms such as Conflict Management, Personal Safety, Physical Intervention, Self Protection and Self Defence – but what most people ‘think’ they are looking for, and therefore search for is self defence. Martial arts training can comprise aspects of self defence, but unless the art has been specifically devised for that purpose recently, it isn’t the same thing.
The elephants in the room
Elephant number one. Let’s call her Nellie. Nellie is the fact that while most classes you attend are physical, and most people want or expect a physical session, the majority of self defence is comprised of knowledge/experience that does not really come with physical training. Nellie isn’t in class, she’s packed her trunk and said goodbye to the (martial arts) circus. Nellie isn’t necessarily an effective use of your instructor’s time in regular training, given how little time your instructor spends with you. Most of what Nellie has to offer can be covered in a seminar or taught via books and videos.
What is Nellie? She’s the non-physical element of self defence.
Avoidance – knowing what does and can happen and strategies to reduce your risks of being a recipient of social or asocial violence, aggression or sexual abuse.
Deterrence – knowing how to move and behave in a way that does not make you a target or a challenge.
Negation – knowing ways to behave in situations of social aggression that can ease tension and reduce the risks of a physical altercation.
Legal – knowing not only where you stand with regard to using force, but also how that underpins your trained responses, and how to describe your actions so as to minimise the risk of prosecution should your actions face investigation.
Physiological – knowing what is likely to happen to your body during and after an aggressive (and possibly a physical) altercation, how it will make you feel, and strategies for dealing with it during and after.
Psychological – admittedly this does carry over into the physical class, having the resolve and having made the decision to act when necessary to protect others or yourself and to handle the consequences of that.
Aftermath – knowing strategies to cope with the impact of an event after it has occurred (physiological, psychological and legal).
These things can be difficult to cover in an average class. Obviously good instructors allude to them where possible, but people generally come to classes for physical training. One strategy that can work well is to cover this material in either a written syllabus that students are given, or in youtube videos for students – in addition perhaps to suggested reading of texts by authors whose work you recommend to broaden their thinking. To help ensure exposure to this external material, introduce short (one or two line answers) multiple question open book theory exams with each grade.
Elephant number two. The king of elephants. Let’s call him Babar. Babar is the fact that actually most people do not need self defence training, they only think they do.
The actual prevalence of aggression and violence for the majority of the population (particularly in first world countries) is so small that most people with a little common sense (see Nellie if they have grown up in a nice enough environment not to develop ‘street smarts’) will only see ‘unavoidable’ violence on screen. The majority of violence that does occur doesn’t happen to the people coming to your classes, or if it has, is not likely to happen to them again. Attendance at a martial arts class is a bit like car insurance, it’s something you hope you never need, and something that is rarely used, but we feel better for having it. While the training aim for the attendees may be self defence, what they actually need is a good product (a martial arts class weighted towards self defence) that will give them confidence and reassurance, and what they need more than self defence is a form of physical fitness training that will provide good health (which is not necessarily exclusive to good self defence). The strength of martial arts is that it can provide excellent mobility, balance and coordination training as well as aerobic and anaerobic development in a mentally stimulating fashion that suits a broad range of ages, personality types and body sizes.
Integrating martial arts and self defence in regular classes
This is where a lot of well-meaning instructors fail. They know that their potential students want self defence, so they use it in their advertising, but because they have no clue about the reality of aggression and violence (due to lack of experience/information or plentiful but limited experience distorted by the prism focus of a particular environment (military/security/LEO)), they don’t offer an appropriate self defence focused class. The problem can be compounded when they are part of a larger organisation with a set martial arts syllabus comprising externally set forms, set basics and pre-arranged sparring.
So how can such an instructor orientate their classes more to self defence?
The big difference between real violence and pretence is that people actually hit things. I’m not suggesting that students hit each other (though that is beneficial for psychological conditioning), but that they hit pads. Hitting pads is how you develop and test (the two are not exclusive) your ability to reliably deliver force.
Pad work is the most common nod to self defence I see in martial arts classes, and it is also one where I tend to see a classic error in understanding the issues of real violence.
Guard – Don’t assume that an altercation will be one on one. If you aren’t using a free hand to hold then it should be used to protect the head, the most common target. It’s great to see people do aerobic pad work routines that stretch their stamina and mental resilience, but if they are so tired that they are dropping their guard then they are engraining bad habits. Most violent incidents barely last a few seconds; from a self defence perspective, drilling good habits is more important than drilling stamina.
Head shots and hands – Most people, given pads, immediately focus on head shots. In doing so they are overly focused on the head as the target and the fists as a delivery system. This is a perception skewed by a few factors: firstly the knowledge that head shots can be very effective; secondly the use of the head as a target in both contact and non-contact combative sports. Hitting the head with an unprotected fist is very different from hitting a pad with an unprotected or gloved and wrapped hand, particularly if you aren’t engaged in any other form of hand conditioning. The fist is a useful weapon, but choose targets with care. In pad drills use the fist, but focus more on developing power with forearm and elbow strikes, knee strikes and open-handed strikes and don’t under-estimate the ability of body shots to safely negate most threats.
Pre-emption – pad drills can be an excellent way to incorporate real bread and butter items of good self defence training such as smooth pre-emptive striking skills, combining verbal distraction and striking, experiencing verbal aggression, and utilising appropriate fences. In addition to this they can also isolate and train classical martial arts techniques so there is a real win-win for instructors balancing the needs of self defence and a martial arts syllabus.
- Making greater use of the their forms
The technique weighting in classical martial arts forms is interesting. It is quite different to what you will see in competitive martial arts drills where certain types of techniques score higher points, or certain types of protective equipment make certain strikes more viable.
While we do see punching in martial arts forms, it is not the most common movement, particularly in karate forms. You’ll see other techniques that can act as strikes with the forearm or elbow, grappling movements, shielding or parrying, trapping, throwing, kicking or kneeing occur far more regularly.
Learning and training good quality self defence focused applications for your kata not only ticks the self defence box, but also helps students develop as martial artists within the confines of an organisation (and helps expand the organisation’s future instructor knowledge pool).
- Hitting through a training partner and simulating impact.
Try to hit people.
This does mean adjusting your drills. Pulling contact is a bad habit that can develop incorrect distancing and a lack of understanding of how people move when hit. It’s useful when you are only training to touch a target, but if you want to train to make contact effectively you need to hit people.
I’m not suggesting that the class be full contact. What I am suggesting is that attacks are made at a distance where an on-target hit would go through the target, and where (a slowed) response will push through its target, thus creating body movement and a more realistic picture of follow up responses. Is hitting people slowly a compromise? Yes it is, but not perhaps so great a compromise as practising missing people, particularly if you are also practicing hitting the pads full power and by actually pushing through the human target you are getting a mental map of tactile response, potential follow up tactics, and gaining stability feedback.
- Incorporate HAOV.
Admittedly this is harder to do if you are working within a tightly regulated syllabus, but if you aren’t actively practicing defending against HAOV in the physical classes, including not only the most common initial attacks but also the likely follow through and compromised positions in which students may find themselves, then you aren’t teaching self defence.
How can you do this in a tightly regulated martial arts syllabus? We’re back once again to training applications for the forms. Pushing, grabbing, pulling, haymakers, headlocks, clinching, barging, tackling even ground escapes – the counter tactics and escapes are there waiting to be trained. Doing so brings focus to the rationale behind ‘obscure’ movements and stances, stays true to the martial arts, and hits the physical self defence brief.
If you can address Nellie in your syllabus and gradings, target Barbar with appropriate incorporation of aerobic exercise, and bring good pad work, form use, appropriate contact and HAOV into your physical classes, then you’re offering something beyond a simple martial arts class, you’re also offering self defence.
It’s not that you don’t do it. I’m sure that if you are a form practitioner interested in bringing a functional purpose beyond postural exercise to your forms then you do. It’s just that some people seem to pay no more than lip service to actual analysis when arriving at their applications. For me bunkai is about methodology and criteria. I’m very strict about what I teach, for what purpose I teach it, the context of each tactic, and why I choose to drill some applications and not others.
In my Pinan Flow System series of books I discussed many of the criteria I use when assessing potential applications as to whether I deem them worthy of inclusion in my teaching and training repertoire. To borrow an analogy from recent popular culture, my bunkai process sits like Thor’s hammer Mjolnir in the Avengers’ Headquarters, and impressive characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Hulk attempt and fail to lift it. Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark remarks “The handle is imprinted, right? Like a security code. “Whoever is carrying Thor’s fingerprints,” I think, is the literal translation.” and some might think that in similar vein my bunkai process only chooses applications that I have formed myself, but as Thor observes “Yes, well, that’s a very interesting theory. However, I have a simpler one. You’re all not worthy.” Thor’s honesty (and that Mjolnir does accept other worthy people) is demonstrated later in the film by the character Vision also lifting the hammer. In similar vein I will obviously use good material from other people that meets my analysis criteria. I’m always looking for it when I cross train, and I have referenced in books and videos other instructors such as Rick Clark or Waldo Zapata when I have taken or adapted a drill that I’ve seen them do that lifts my Mjolnir.
So what do I look for through my bunkai? I’m certainly not trying to retrospectively work out the purpose someone in the past saw in a single movement or sequence. Past use or historical accuracy does not guarantee effectiveness or appropriateness in our environment. I have seen in one demonstration of another art an application which I think is such a good fit for a kata sequence that it is highly likely to be the ‘original’ envisioned use; unfortunately it is only appropriate for one on one encounters on soft ground and so I will not drill it – it fails the criteria of my bunkai. If I was teaching seminars in kata application for MMA matches I’d probably train and demonstrate it.
My analysis criteria to find applications looks for movements and tactics meeting as many as possible of a number of combative principles. Here are mine with brief explanatory notes. This is the Mjolnir used to forge my applications.
HAOV Relevant – focusing on habitual acts of violence, whether for pre-emptive use in pre fight posturing, or recovering the initiative from the most likely forms of initial attack, delivering an effective follow through in the event of tactic failure, or dealing with likely secondary or tertiary attacks from failures are important to me because that is the environment for which I am training my students. The physical acts of violence within HAOV may include defending against ‘professional’ or skilled tactics, but I do distinguish between habitual and historical. Purely focusing on the physical techniques is martial arts training not self defence, teaching them alongside patterns of crime, avoidance, deterrence, negation/de-escalation, legal underpinning, aftermath etc. is where more accurately you are teaching self defence as part of personal safety/self protection.
Legally Underpinned – this is not the weak option. This is not about increasing your risks in a situation, it is about decreasing your risks afterwards. This is about understanding force and how to use it effectively within the law. It’s about having a training methodology that results in drills that lessen the risk to practitioners should they have to engage in non-consensual violence. This is an important aspect of self protection. You’re not in an action flick; violence has consequences.
Effective, Efficient and Easy
Minimising Risk of Harm (defender) – I don’t often stress this because I think it is obvious. Protect your head! Don’t rely purely on your technique working. I shudder every time I see someone hit or enter while demonstrating a kata application without doing this. I slap myself if I get so distracted by teaching that I don’t do it in demonstration. If both hands are engaged then not doing this makes sense, but both hands should not be engaged if your head is in or going through a potential striking line.
Technique Multiplicity with Transferable Skills – You don’t want a huge repertoire. You want a small repertoire that can effectively be used to do a lot of different things. You also want the training efficiency that comes from transferable skills.
Utilising Predictable Response – This isn’t simply about how people are likely to attack you if you stand one way rather than another, it’s more about understanding how people really move when things work and when things don’t. You need to hit people and grapple with people to find this out.
Taking and maintaining the Initiative
Inherent Redundancy – Things go wrong, things fail. It might be due to size, strength, angle, or intoxication. You have to have back ups.
Vital Points Targeting – I’m not really talking about Kyusho here, although there are overlaps. Go for weak points. Maximise the efficiency of your movements. This is the secret ingredient in the icing on the cake – the ingredients and cooking of the cake is more important overall.
Adrenaline Tolerant – It’s got to work under pressure. Raising your heart rate can simulate some aspects of this but it’s not the same. While I’d like to see it with bigger group samples to draw firm conclusions, I’ve seen similar increases in combination lock opening times between 5 minutes of hard aerobic exercise and 1 minute of verbal argument followed by 3 second fight simulations in scenario training.
Low Maintenance – It should be simple. That doesn’t mean it can’t have several stages and turns. A lot of things look or feel complex until you’ve done them a few times (watch beginners trying to turn their hips or coordinate arms and legs), but it should be easy to keep at a high skill level.
Stable Posture – Your techniques should not compromise your balance.
Unbalancing – We should always be looking to reduce the other person’s ability to unbalance us, hit us, or brace against a hit.
Multiple Person Awareness – you can only effectively fight one person at a time, but doing so should hinder the ability of others to join in rather than make you an easy target. Some favour close range for this, others favour long range. I certainly favour movement, changing angles and head protection with any free arm.
Holistic Integrity – A technique can be great, but if it doesn’t fit with everything else you do it’s near useless to you. Techniques and tactics need to fit together and be able to flow into each other (see redundancy). An application may look cool, but does it force you to make a completely different initial response to normal?
Rest is highly under-rated. Most people do not allow themselves adequate rest between different types of training to maximize the benefits of such training and give the body enough time to recover. Failure to allow appropriate recovery is the equivalent of taking a step back for every two steps forward. This isn’t just about taking time off from training or mixing lower intensity sessions or having varied workouts. The amount (and quality) of sleep you take has an impact on your mental and physical performance, memory retention and therefore progress.
This isn’t so much about flexibility as mobility. Daily routines that encourage and increase your joint mobility and maintain or increase your ability to reach or turn will reduce the likelihood of injury in more intensive training. You do not need to ‘warm up’ to do this. You are already at body temperature, your muscles aren’t going to get warmer. Gradually extend and increase your range of motion in supported exercises. When was the last time you saw a Yoga class do star jumps on the spot for fifteen minutes before starting their routines?
This is a no brainer. We all like to treat ourselves and most of us should have a pretty good idea of what is good for us and what isn’t (despite frequently contradictory isolated studies being taken out of context to attract interest in the mainstream media). Ultimately a nutritionally varied diet that doesn’t upset your stomach and helps you maintain or achieve the weight you want is what you should aim for. If you want your body to recover and be ready for training you have to give it adequate fuel. Saying that you are trying to ‘lose fat’ and then cutting the fat or carbs in your diet so much that you don’t recover properly after training, or suffer mental fatigue, or feel too tired to train is counter-productive.
Visualisation isn’t actually what I mean. Good practitioners can visualise what a technique or tactic looks like and see themselves doing it. More experienced practitioners who have spent time internalising their training can feel a technique without doing it, replicating in their mind not only the sight but the tactile sensation and feedback of the movements. Greater awareness of what you are doing leads to better practice and more reliable skills. If you’ve not done this before it will be hard to begin with. Many people initially cannot visualise something without physically replicating the movement, but when this happens to me I take it as confirmation that I don’t know it as well as I should. Moving from closed eye video representation to adding in tactile feedback (foot pressure, muscle sensations etc.) requires both more paired practice and attention to detail (shutting your eyes in paired training once engaged tactilely and ‘strike-safe’ can help as can focusing on sensory feedback in forms).
If only I had the time, or the energy!
You do have the time, because most of us have unrealistic expectations of what personal practice can be and should be.
Although they can overlap, a training session that develops strength, a training session that works your aerobic fitness (and requires ‘fitness clothing’ and makes you sweat) and a training session that develops core skill sets (balance, mobility, sound biomechanics, coordination etc.) do not have to be the same thing. At full speed most ‘full’ kata only take 10 to 40 seconds to practice, at slow speed you are only talking one to two minutes for a high quality repetition, and quality repetition makes a huge difference. You don’t have the space? Don’t do the full kata, or practice alternative stepping and weight transference to enable you to do a full form. You have no space? You’re sitting on a train? See item 4! Rehearse in your mind what the moves feel like – research shows that mental rehearsal can be as powerful for imprinting good biomechanics as physical rehearsal. It is something done by most top-level sport competitors in multiple disciplines, so why not follow their example?
You don’t have the energy?
Again I’d say that is both an issue of perception of how much energy is required, and what your body is acclimatized to do. A hard training session after a normal working day is both a mental and physical challenge for most people (especially parents) compared to relaxing at home. It’s a wonder that many people make it to training, but then those that do find that socialising with people in a different environment (or simply setting a moment aside at home), doing something that takes the mind away from all other distractions, can be incredibly relaxing and beneficial.
The more you do, the more you become capable of doing. The trick is to stretch yourself gradually, stretching rather than breaking the comfort zone. Those of us who use Leisure Centres are familiar with the January and February perfume of deep heat that accompanies the upsurge in attendance from people who have set themselves challenging New Year resolutions. The aroma only last two months because most people do not set SMART targets for their progress: they aim too high too soon and lose both the mental resolve and the physical recovery to continue. Increase what you do gradually, follow the other five shortcuts, and you will have the energy.
Is this really as obvious as I think it is?
It’s a well-known mantra to tell people to consume more fluids, but how many of us really do it?
You are a bag of water, you are continually losing water, and you need to replenish it at safe levels on a regular basis in order to function efficiently. Simple lack of adequate hydration can have as profound an impact on your concentration, reaction time and vision as tiredness or mild intoxication.
Hydration affects your quality of life. You don’t have to drink pints of water and you don’t have to overspend on flashy prefabricated isotonic drinks or sugar-laden juices. Your food choices can affect how much you need to drink as a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables will contain good levels of moisture, but a healthy person will need to replenish fluids on a regular basis.
Is this all too obvious? Then ask yourself honestly, how many of these do you really adhere to?
Thanks to Dan White for the mobility exercise image. I do not own the rights to the food or bed images.
One of the most prevalent myths I’ve noticed over the years in the martial arts community is efficacy of hitting men in the groin as a one-stop solution to the problem of physical violence.
There is no doubt that strikes to that area can be effective. But a number of people teaching them as part of a self defence curriculum seem rely on them far too much. Like any target on the body, depending on numerous factors, they can range from being fight stoppers to unnoticed insignificant body shots.
In terms of targets, with regard to men, these are the groin itself and the testicles.
- Frontal groin impact can cause severe pain if the muscles there are relaxed or weak and the bladder is full (and might perhaps cause rupturing of the bladder), but this is by no means certain. Of more use perhaps is the unbalancing effect that groin shots can have on the angle of the subject’s pelvis, creating opportunities for escape or further strikes. While I cannot speak from personal experience (and it isn’t a question I ask or get asked regularly), the same impact on women may well traumatise the female reproductive system and cause pain.
- While most men have probably experienced pain in the testicles at some point in time due to impact, compression or movement, none of these can be guaranteed by a direct hit at any angle.
To a large degree the effectiveness of groin strikes relies on pain compliance. Factors involved here are the angle and force of impact in terms of whether it affects the target to elicit a normal pain response, and whether the chemistry of the body at the time is such that it recognises and responds in a useful fashion to that stimulus.
There is no doubt that are lots of possible ways to attack the groin. The Enter the Dojo show regularly parodies the over reliance of some on this target and Master Ken has demonstrated 100 ways to attack the groin.
Hitting the groin effectively outside of prearranged combinations is not always easy. If people are actively resisting each other and are hands-on, often the angle of the body is such that the groin is further back than the rest of the torso making it less accessible. Overly tight or loose cut clothing can often impede upward strikes towards the testicles. A further factor is that you get good at what you train for: obviously it may seem to be a ‘natural’ target, but you’ll tend to be better at hitting the things you practice targeting. That’s not to say that groin/testicle shots can’t happen. I have seen numerous accidental ‘hard’ groin shots in training to people without cups and effects have ranged from them being unnoticed, unbalancing knock backs (creating an opportunity for follow ups) or fight stoppers.
A large factor in this has often been how intense the training was – the less intense, the more mentally and physically relaxed the recipient, the more effective the strike. Those who were fully committed to attacking the striker often did not notice they had been hit. It is the unexpected nature of the impact as much as the impact itself that can frame the response. On a number of occasions I have been unaware of being caught until an hour or so after training when I have literally doubled over while sitting at a table as if I had just been hit; the body had been sending pain signals but adrenaline related chemical factors had inhibited their recognition.
Do groin strikes have their place in a self defence curriculum?
Of course they do.
As with every other strike we should be prepared for failure and have a redundancy trained in place for when they do not work. We do not expect every hit to the head to result in a knockout (although such strikes can be devastating and should always be context appropriate), nor do we expect every knock to the leg to cause a person to fall to the ground desisting in attack or pursuit. Groin strikes can be part of a repertoire, they can be effective, but they are not a guaranteed escape plan and to paint them as such is simply bollocks.
In all of my books and videos there are deliberate differences between my kata and my paired application (oyo) that has resulted from my analysis (bunkai).
“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.”
Gichin Funakoshi, Twenty Precepts
Karate kata are generally taught and trained as a solo platform. Through their stances they hint at suggested weight distribution and methods of movements that can support the upper and lower body techniques of which they are made, and indeed at the oyo (if any) of the form that its teacher had in mind from their own bunkai.
I say ‘if any’ because changes in kata may be made to obfuscate purpose, allow greater speed in transitional movement for aesthetic purposes, or provide a greater athletic challenge. Furthermore changes may come about through the copying of the movements of older karateka who have themselves changed their form to reflect how they wish to move and exercise their more mature bodies, or through ignorance of potential oyo or flaws in their approach.
This is not meant as a criticism of any one system; the onus is on all of us to examine what we do and ensure that in application we use the most appropriate posture rather than sticking with something higher or deeper as the case may be.
But whether moving slow or fast in the kata, there is a significant difference between executing controlled techniques into thin air compared with endeavouring to make maximum impact on a target, or moving against the resistance of another person while grappling. This is a subject about which I have written in greater detail in Volume Four of my Pinan Flow System series of books.
The postures and techniques found in the majority of movements in kata are not designed to exactly replicate the biomechanical structure for optimum application, but instead their purpose is varied and can be:
- to protect karateka from unbalancing, instability and injury by limiting the power of movement against no resistance,
- to balance the ‘hollow body’ that forms good biomechanical structure for striking and grappling with exercise that inverts that posture to ensure balanced muscle development for good health,
- to indicate either a single tactic or through generalisation (lack of specificity) give an altered movement that acts as a coat hanger reference point for multiple similar or overlapping tactics,
- to highlight a principal of movement on which a number of tactics are based,
- to provide an important physical exercise that underpins and strengthens the muscles required for many tactics.
In many kata there are straight rear leg postures or very high stances. These are not necessarily wrong, but a product of their context. A straight leg can be an exaggerated example of thrust, codified into ‘good form’ for aesthetic purposes and to limit forward momentum against thin air which risks injuring the knee joint. In similar vein, thin air fighting puts balance and weight bearing limits on power generation through the movement and positioning of the knee and hip.
Unlike the postures often utilised throughout the majority of kata, when grappling with a training partner, attacking, preparing to attack or bracing during an attack, the back should not be held at a perfect right angle to the ground.
No matter how good your stance or footwork, having an ‘upright’ or classically ‘arched’ back while resisting physical force from another person is biomechanically unsound. The greater the level of force you are resisting, the more necessary it is to brace appropriately to take the load so as not to place undue stress on your back or compromise your balance, so the greater the angle of your back (and depth of stance and thus angle of shin) required. There is a difference between lifting an object and exerting or resisting force along other planes of movement.
The postures of kata protect and develop the body in solo training. They are the other side of the coin that balances the effect of the postures of paired training. Karate is soft and hard, relaxation and tension, grappling and striking, slow and fast, expansion and contraction.
For health and flexibility, form cannot always mirror function. To provide greater depth of application from a limited sequence of movements, form cannot always mirror function.
The kata is a map, but the map is not the territory.
There is a difference between training (for development and/or testing of skills) and utilizing those skills outside of your training, whether in a competitive format, in scenario training or in an unsolicited violent situation.
What we do in training is a game. That is true whether you are competing in any of the top-level martial arts competitions or whether you are engaging in the most realistic self defence training possible. It may be a game focused on a very serious purpose, it may be incredibly tough, but it is a game nonetheless and it has rules and conventions in place to enable it to be played in a manner that not only allows for progressive skill development but also can be done safely. It is important that we all accept this in order to gain the maximum benefit from our training.
So what do I mean by ‘playing the game’?
When you train with someone else it is in your interests to ensure that they, like you, are developing their skill sets and improving. A training partner that cannot progress limits your potential because it means that the training you do with them will be limited and less fulfilling for both you and them.
It is obvious that there are times when you should resist your partners movements, and they yours, but doing so at the expense of learning or practicing the optimum biomechanics for a movement is not necessarily one of them. You have to play the game and increase resistance gradually. In similar vein being a completely limp training partner can be a step too far and again limit the development of the necessary skill sets, which is a waste of both people’s time. It is in your interests (both in terms of training safety and your own skill development) to have a skilled adaptable and alert training partner, and you bear a measure of responsibility for that as well as both your partner and the class instructor.
Training is a game for more than one person, and any drill – be it attacking, taking a throw, or holding a pad has as much educational value and potential for the receiver (observing patterns of movement, learning telegraphs, feeling for flaws or potential escapes, learning why a hold works to better employ or escape it, psychological conditioning) as it does for the one practicing.
Almost all my drills are games and they involve making pulled contact to elicit movement; as a result they require give and take. It’s important to know when to go with a drill or how to resist to allow someone to practice and refine a skill set and when to seize opportunities to turn the tables, to take an escape if the opportunity is there, to teach both parties about their strengths and weakness and keep themselves ‘on their toes’.
If I hit someone in training, but pull the contact, I expect that person to move as if they have been hit and simulate some degree of effect, whether that be the full effect (going down) or partial (turning the head or body, buckling the legs, or momentarily relaxing). If they don’t do this then my follow up response is nonsensical – my training partner is not playing the game, they aren’t giving me realistic stimuli and thus they are inhibiting the development of appropriate responses.
This is akin to a person holding pads for a head shot but putting all their force into their arm so it is as if the person’s head is a stone cliff face. Heads move. Certainly some people have such strong necks that their heads don’t move so much, but they are few and far between (and an experienced person might relax their neck with a shot to an alternative target first). For a person developing their head shots, and learning the biomechanics of power delivery, the game needs to be played. The pad needs to give, the resistance has to be measured. If you engaging in mobile pad training and you never let your training partner hit the pads, you aren’t doing anything for their confidence or skill development. You may think you are proving that you are faster but you’re actually proving something else about yourself.
Whenever you are training you need to keep in mind both context and purpose. What are you training for and what is the purpose of the exercise you are doing. It is a game. Playing to win every time is not necessarily a winning strategy.