To kick or not to kick, that is the question.
This debate comes up regularly on martial arts forums and such discussions tend to produce variations on a number of regular characters:
- The person who is convinced that whatever he or she does in class will work.
- The person who sees kicking as a low percentage strategy but advocates low kicks if kicks are used at all.
- The person who has used kicks ‘in real fights’ and therefore believes that they are a high percentage effective strategy, especially high kicks.
- The person who has used kicks in competitive fighting and therefore believes they can do so in self defence.
- The person who has no opinion but just wants information.
- The troll.
So who’s right?
When it comes to applying martial arts techniques in self defence, context and training methods determine the results. We get good at what we train for.
If you don’t train kicks regularly then the likelihood of being able to use them in a self defence situation decreases considerably.
Whether you can use kicks bears no relation to what someone else has reputedly done in self defence or in the ring, it depends not only on how much you train them, but how you train them.
If the opportunity to kick comes in the form of relative positioning and pressure that is familiar to you, then you are likely to be able to employ that skillset. Everything comes down to how you train and to a large extent how many of the six things you should do in physical training for self defence are present in your approach.
A few years ago I put together a video showing all the kicks and attempted kicks used by participants from a range of different martial disciplines in my Sim Day scenario training. The clips came from hundreds of simulations, but featured very few kicks indeed (although knees were very successfully employed).
This was in part due to the enclosed environment, but primarily because most people had no experience in trying to kick at that range or under those conditions. Although we don’t kick in many of our regular drills, of the participants my personal karate students (and a very experienced LEO who is also a Ju Jutsu instructor) kicked the most because the environment and range was familiar.
Since then I have seen more kicks employed successfully because the kickers are returnees to the Sim Days and are not only more comfortable with the environment and range but have also made little tweaks to their own training based on the lessons from previous sessions.
So can you kick in self defence?
Only you and your training can decide that.
Disclaimer. This is an analogy. Like all analogies it generalises.
Kata, for most of us, is fixed. It is a set construct that we learn and rehearse. It does not vary very much. Over time different instructors have figuratively taken the same block of ice and carved away at some of the edges, added on smaller blocks, broken it down into lots of blocks and reassembled it in a different way, or taken chipped off elements from lots of different blocks to form a new block for others to replicate. In this manner we have lots of stylistic variations on the same kata and new kata have been created. Because it has been frozen (fixed) and joined in different places at different times its crystals are generally not aligned and it is filled with air bubbles; the block is opaque.
Training regularly is said to polish technique. Training regularly in a kata does indeed polish the structure, it polishes the surface of the ice. You get to know the contours and positions, you can form them in your minds eye and they become ingrained. Polishing the ice has value for understanding the shape of the form. But form is not the same as function. Form is a dance that teaches important positions, movements and develops strength and balance – a combative dance but a dance nonetheless. Polishing the ice brings the satisfaction of the development of those attributes, it takes a lot of effort and brings clarity to the surface, but as with a lot of ice the interior remains opaque and hidden. The dancer cannot utilise the form outside of the choreography; to deal with the unpredictable they are forced to utilise other methods. Their kumite and/or self defence bears no resemblance to their kata.
As a state of matter, ice is limited. It is strong, incredibly strong, but not adaptable. It can be cut to fit shapes, but then is limited to those shapes. It is limited to predictable fixed scenarios.
There is a welcome increase in the interest in learning the applications of kata in karate at present. This interest itself is nothing new, but I would argue that for many years the explanations given to students were so ridiculous and ill-informed that they drove away from karate those of a practical and independently minded nature who were not prepared to overlook the deficit and simply continue to develop the attributes gained by polishing ice.
More than ever it is possible for karateka to easily find videos and books on karate application, and while there is exceptionally good stuff out there, it still isn’t all that common and it is often surrounded by the bad and the ugly. Even amongst the good, I see a lot of demonstrated applications produced by well meaning people that I regard as ice. They have simply chopped up the kata into smaller blocks and arranged each for static attacks. There is no evidence of adaptability, there is no provision for failure, a way of moving between applications is not taught. They have simply created more blocks of cloudy ice. It is simply a smaller dance routine. They have the shape of the form but cannot see through its substance.
To get inside the kata you have to do more than break it into blocks. You have to heat it up through training. You have to work those blocks through unpredictable and dynamic training until they completely break down and merge together into one transparent mass of water. Good application is like water. It moves freely, it fills and exploits spaces, and it continuously adapts. The tiny air bubbles and ill aligned crystals that made the ice opaque disappear, and the meaning and potential become clear. Applications should be fluid, they should be adaptable, and we should be able to flow like water from one to the next, nor be limited to one kata.
Once we have our water, our kata becomes something different. A medium through which we swim in our paired or multiple person training. We benefit from and utilise its substance, but it no longer constrains us with the rigidity of blocks of ice. Having heated it this way through our training, we can allow it to cool in a controlled manner into ice for our solo practice, and because we can control how slowly it cools and freezes in layers, we control its opacity. It is ice to polish once more in solo practice, but now it is transparent, and now we can see through it.
Kata may be ice. But be like water my friend.
“In war it is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune. When you are advancing, this normally follows; if you withdraw, it is neither so obvious nor so easy. Yet it is possible. There are three reasons for retreat: self-preservation, to save your force from destruction; pressure elsewhere which makes you accept loss of territory in one place to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front; and, lastly, to draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945
Many tactics cross multiple fields. We can draw upon the experience and advice of successful military leaders and apply it not only to modern warfare and politics, but also to business decisions and even to competitive or consensual violence.
But does this apply to personal safety? Is there value here for the physical element of self protection, the aspect that is often termed self defence? While self defence has some overlaps with
- consensual violence (accepting a challenge to ‘a fight’ or engaging in physical violence when it could be safely avoided),
- competitive violence (such as UFC, Olympic TKD, WTF Karate etc.),
- or the use of armed or unarmed force by individuals in a professional civilian or military capacity (such as Security, Police or Infantry),
it is a different entity.
It is a simplification, but I like to think of self protection as to
AVOID, DETER, NEGATE and ESCAPE aggressive behaviours and violence.
Each of those has many facets. The final one, escape, is the physical one. Its aim is extrication – whether of myself or others. It’s a deliberately vague and permissive term in some respects, while being incredibly definite in others.
The aim is to escape. It is to remove myself (or others) from harm. That harm to me also includes possible repercussions from the use of violence. That is not something to think of at the time: that is something that is addressed beforehand in training methodology and the mentality fostered. This aim is one of self-preservation and it is one of strength. I give myself permission to do whatever I think is necessary to reasonably negate the threat as I honestly perceive it at the time.
Slim’s exhortation to “gain and retain the initiative” is one to which all good self protection instructors adhere. We see it in so many forms. It is keeping others in the OO of the OODA loop for example. The physical means to this will vary from person to person, from instructor to instructor, from system to system.
But how much of what Slim says here applies to self protection?
Retreating for self-preservation is wiser than seeking a battle you do not have to fight nor gain from winning. While you should not have to, choosing carefully where you go out, what route you walk or drive, or leaving an unfinished drink at a club or bar because of a bad vibe or argument; all these are common sense.
Accepting the loss of territory in one area to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front?
This could be applied to the planning of property defence or burglary prevention situations where you choose to strengthen security/protection/cctv in one area at the expense of another, but this does not apply to most self defence situations.
It is the last item on Slim’s list that is the most interesting to me, and perhaps the most controversial. “To draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
This is something we see all the time in competitive and consensual violence. One or both participants trying to trick the other in order to gain and retain the initiative makes up a significant proportion of each event.
Does this apply to self defence?
How or when do you draw someone into making a mistake while retreating so you can escape if you are trying to avoid, deter or negate the threat in the first instance? This is different from pre-emption. Pre-emption is an aggressive defence selected when threat avoidance, deterrence and negation (negotiation) have failed. It may be disguised by innocuous body language, it may be set up by the trick of a gesture or a glance, but it is part of the advance that Slim describes, not a trick of retreat.
In non consensual violence, until aggression or violence occurs an interview process is still taking place. The target is threat assessed. In most instances if the target appears aware of the selection or exhibits body language or verbal indications that they will pose a risk of failure and potential harm/exposure to an aggressor, they are deselected in favour of searching for an alternative easier target.
Luring an attack by retreating to appearing weak through your body language is not a sound self defence strategy in the vast majority of cases.
Few attacks are certain until they commence, and once an attack does commence there is no certainty that by appearing weak beforehand it will be any less aggressive or successful. What criminally/violently inclined person thinks “I’m going to attack/approach this person differently/in-a-less-alert-manner because they don’t appear to be ready for me”? That is a competitive sparring perspective. In most cases a person that has selected a target is alert and watching for signs that things might go wrong.
A faked weak persona is not so likely to lull them into a false sense of security and vulnerability to counter attack as a confident persona is likely to deter them from attack in the first instance.
I am not a psychologist but I would wager that those undeterred from continuing by a strong front are not going to initiate in a manner that leads them to be successfully suckered by a fake weak front. It is a strategy that will have worked on occasion, but it is a poorer strategy than deterrence.
To sum up I return once more to the initial words of this quotation from Field Marshall Slim. “It is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune.” This goes beyond the physicality of self defence and to the heart of self protection. Avoid, Deter. Negate.