The Irony of Self-Defence in the Modern World of Martial Arts
Irony, in its broadest sense, is a rhetorical device, literary technique, or event in which what appears, on the surface, to be the case, differs radically from what is actually the case. Wikipedia
Self-defence is a countermeasure that involves defending the health and well-being of oneself from harm. Wikipedia
Self-defence is a term that I have not been fond of since starting out in the world of Martial Arts many moons ago. I don't blame the term itself, I think it is as apt a description as you are going to come up with when needing a phrase of reference for protecting yourself from harm. My biggest issue with it comes from the modern viewpoint that it can be a wholly separate entity to Martial Arts training and that it conjures up images of people being bullied/attacked as opposed to anyone proactively dealing with difficult situations. Only the other day I spoke to someone who asked my advice on starting to learn self defence but without wanting (nor seeing the need) to do any actual style of Martial Arts, sparring or associated training. This was the trigger for my writing of this post and expressing my thoughts on the matter.
You only need to look at Wikipedia here and you will see a very interesting perspective as to what Martial Arts the general public views as being relevant for self-defence. They exclude BJJ, Judo and Muay Thai for their leaning towards what they view as more sports based applications whilst including systems such as Aikido, Jujutsu and Aikijujutsu for what I am presuming is their preference for pre-set one step applications against situational attacks.
On the surface this might make complete sense to someone who has never trained Martial Arts or ever been involved in a physical confrontation. Those with anything like a passing experience in having to defend themselves in a real fight or any resistance based training i.e. sparring or grappling, know that the reality is somewhat different. I think a complete public re-education is needed around this wholly contentious area on a number of different levels.
All the people I have had the pleasure of spending time with over the course of my life whom I feel have had the relevant experience to impart actual self-defence skills have often had a pretty similar approach to each other. Awareness is key. As is psychology, mental strength, conditioning and focus. The actual physical applications they utilised were simple, straightforward, often pre-emptive in nature and targeted to do maximum damage in as little time as possible. They were not after a fight and wanted to end encounters quickly.
So, their physical training was based on combatives then? Yes and no. Yes in that they often drilled set responses to visual, audio or distance cues and repeatedly strengthened up their best strikes to the most vulnerable areas on an attacker. No in that they still regularly trained in different Martial Arts systems that allowed them to work against resistance i.e. sparring, grappling, wrestling etc. They also devoutly did strength training and running as part of their ongoing weekly routine. Weights to hit harder and cardio to be able to run away at top speed if the need arose. Think of it like stress training. The aim was to prepare both the mind and the body for the heightened adrenaline, severe mental fatigue and extreme physical exertions that actual fights always ask of you (just like in competitive combat sports). Technique alone is not going to help you survive an aggressive, sustained attack, just as fitness or strength is no get out of jail free card in this arena. Numerous things need to be developed and brought together in order to maximise an individuals effectiveness in protecting themselves from harm.
If this sounds a tad serious or like it would take lot of work, time and commitment, that's because it is and it does. However, not every individual is going to want to go this far down the rabbit's hole so to speak. Just as in any other area of life, you will take it as far as you want to go, depending on both what you want from it and how much you are willing to give (or give up) in order to achieve it. It's a bit like first aid. Everyone knows how to put a sticking plaster on to cover a small cut but only a very small percentage of people would know how to effectively stop someone bleeding out at the side of the road following an accident. Not everyone in life is going to be a surgeon just as not everyone in life is going to have (or want) the self-defence/martial arts skills of an elite special forces soldier.
I genuinely enjoy all Martial Arts styles when they are done well and to a high level. As part of the Warrior Collective, I travel all around the world filming and spending time with practitioners from disciplines such as Muay Thai, Krav Maga, BJJ, Judo, Boxing, Silat, Kung Fu, MMA and more, so I have more than the average experience in seeing various training methods across the board.
People train for a huge variety of different reasons. The ability to protect yourself from harm was historically always one of the key aims of any true Martial Arts practice. However, so was the development of ones health, body and mind. This is where I think the general public and those teaching Martial Arts need to find their common ground. Honesty and clarity are of vital importance in order to ensure snake oil is not being peddled, false promises are not being made and time is not spent aimlessly chasing down the wrong path.
Martial Arts as a hobby, starting in old age or just simply wanting to enjoy training without risk of injury when in session are no bad things. Looking to develop fitness, self-esteem or co-ordination/technical ability are all highly worthwhile goals we should actively be seeking or encouraging others to do on a daily basis. Just working these things will start to give you the grounds to work basic self-defence applications from the go i.e. the cardio to run away, the strength to push/pull etc, the understanding of how to block or pin, the confidence to stand up for yourself, no matter what style you train in. Watching children train in Martial Arts is a great way to see all these things happen organically. Most have no real concept of utilising it for self-defence purposes. As such they take part because the enjoy it (social interaction and physical fun) and find it rewarding (technical development and greater self-worth).
Training in Martial Arts should be beneficial and enjoyable for the individual taking part. If your training is actively meeting your needs/aims in terms of what you want from it i.e. health, body and mind, great, stick with it, you are already well ahead of the game in lots of respects! If however, you want to resolutely move away from the sticking plaster skill level with regards to self-defence (forgive the first aid analogy) in more than a passing encounter, then you will need to be honest with yourself with regards to what you train in and how your train it.
As I said earlier in this post, if you want to cover your bases for being involved in any kind of physical encounter where you have to defend yourself, you are going to need a multitude of tools. Is there a single martial arts style that is best equipped to achieve this? I don't think there is any one individual system or discipline that is 100% all encompassing but if I personally had to choose, I would look at what is involved in the training first. What does it entail? Is it structured with regards to techniques/drills from beginners to advanced? Does it involve physical fitness or strength work in some respect? Does the training have tiered resistance to increase an individuals ability to utilise it under pressure i.e. grappling, clinch work, randori, sparring? Is it purely sport based or does it look at other potential arenas of conflict?
Next I would look at who is coaching/teaching and what is the make-up/ability of other students within the club/gym. Do I get on with the instructor? Is he/she a good role model (off and on the mats)? Is he/she a technically competent and confident coach? Do they make the training about themselves or about others? What is the ethos of the other students? Do they treat me well? Do they train hard and look to progress their Martial Arts? Are the longer serving students technically proficient?
If you are happy with the answers to these questions then I definitely think you are on the right path. You also need to remember as well though that you have more than a passing part to play in all this. You have to turn up (shocker I know ha ha) regularly to class, listen to your instructor and train hard when there. There of course could be a lot more if you want to take it further and are willing to commit more of your time to training (such as cross training in different styles to work different ranges i.e. striking, grappling and throws, competing etc). But, remember the earlier analogy again though. Just ask yourself, what level of equivalent competence are you wanting to reach? First aider? Doctor? Surgeon? I know I seem to have some kind of medical obsession at present but when I have a theme I like to stick with it ha ha!!
Doing all this will not suddenly make you John Wick or even necessarily likely to walk away unscathed from a violent incident unfortunately. This is not the movies. It should however ensure that your time in training is helping you become more capable of handling yourself in difficult situations, and if that is one of your aims for training, you will be working your way effectively towards it with every hour you put in!!
I think this topic is highly contentious and there are multiple points of view that could be argued! What are your thoughts on this subject and on what I have written? I am genuinely interested to know so please leave your comments below!!
Keep up to date with the Warrior Collective
If you would like to stay on top of all that goes on the Warrior Collective, please subscribe to the newsletter or follow on any of the Social Media listed below.