Martial arts for self-defence… the truth (Part 1)

Ever since the popularity of UFC/MMA exploded in the early part of this century the subject of Brazilian Jiyu Jitsu and grappling has been at the forefront of all self-defence related conversations. This is the latest fad (yes sorry it is a fad) to sweep the martial arts world.

In the early 1900s through to the 1950s boxing was seen as the be all and end all for self-defence in the UK, in the ’70s Karate and kung fu were the chosen solutions for self-defence and the fear or “Black Belts” was generated through Hollywood, through the ’90s there were spates of Aikido popularity followed by Kick Boxing and later Tae Kwon Do… and now in the 2000’s we have MMA, BJJ and grappling.  In part two of this post we will discuss grappling, BJJ and MMA in more detail, but first I would like to set the scene by highlighting the difference between real life situations and training.

The fact is that most people, who partake in a Martial Art whether this be a sport orientated version or a traditional system, will believe that they understand fighting and self-defence.

This is fully understandable as hours spent training and practicing blocking, striking, throwing and grappling moves should equip you with a level of fitness, a range of motion and an understanding of movement that should aid you in a confrontation.  HOWEVER… how many people ever use their skills/training effectively when posed with a real life situation.

Most martial artists will fall into one of a few categories:

  1. 1. Never been in a situation that resulted in violence
  2. 2. Been involved in a situation and immediately reverted to basic human nature (losing all form of technique)
  3. 3. Been involved in a situation and utilised training and performed techniques correctly, resolving the situation (winning)
  4. 4. Been involved in a situation and utilised training and performed techniques correctly, to find them ineffective (lose/win via other means)

Firstly addressing those in classification one.  We should all wish to be in this position, none of us wish to fight or hurt anyone so we may put our ability to state that we have never had to down to the mindset we are given through our practice and our ability to neutralise a situation before it escalates.  As I say, this is great BUT do not then go on to teach self-defence or martial arts telling students what will or will not work in the real world!  Without true experience an instructor should pass on the theory and their beliefs but it should be taught as such with the caveat that this is based upon opinion and research and not first hand experience.  Our students deserve honesty!

Category two is the most common in my experience.  Technique is thrown out of the window and we are back to the sort of pummelling, grabbing, etc. that we see young children do.  Firstly I would like to say that there is NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS!  It is natural, which means there are no hesitations, no delays while techniques are remembered and our body is doing as it is designed to do.

Look at apes such as chimpanzees, there are no specific techniques used in their fighting, however I very much doubt that any human would stand much of a chance against a fully grown chimp (I’d also like to add that I have no desire at all to see this proven!!).  Additionally, all of our years of training will not be wasted, the body conditioning and fitness will enable these natural movements to be more efficient and utilise a high percentage of our maximum potential strength.

If you fall into category three, this is brilliant, your training has done what it should do and equipped you for that situation.  The only word of caution I would provide is, do not let this give you an abundance of over confidence.  There may have been luck involved (of which there is always some in a fight) or the conditions of the conflict may have fitted perfectly with your training, this may not be the case next time.

The forth category is all too common a situation, generally caused by either instruction from someone in the first category or being in the first category for a long period of time while deluding themselves that “I can handle myself, I spar in the club all the time and was on the England team for a while…”.  I have had many high graded students join me over the years, as a result of them finding themselves in this category and it is always the same story, they feel let down by their style/instructors, that they have wasted time, effort and money on something that does not work.

The practice of martial arts, whether it be MMA, Tai Chi, Karate (traditional or sport), kung fu, boxing….. is a TRAINING METHOD.  It is conditioning of the body & mind AND WILL NEVER provide all of the solutions for a street situation.  Unless you have a class full of people happy to be bitten, stabbed, maimed, killed, blinded and hospitalised each and every week THERE IS NO WAY THAT YOU CAN TRULY TRAIN FOR A REAL SITUATION!  We live in a civilised society, have day jobs and are answerable to the law (yes you can be charged with ABH and GBH within a training session!).  So many would now be thinking “what is the point in training then?”, and this is a valid question to which there is a simple answer:

1 – to train your body to be fit, strong and malleable

2 – to train your body to obey your minds commands

3 – to train your mind to observe and react in the shortest possible time

4 – to train your will to do what it takes, if you get involved in a situation you have to see it through to the end

5 – to learn how others react and gauge responses

6 – to attain a level of manipulation/control over others in order to gain advantage in a violent or potentially violent situation

Obviously some of these aspects can be tried and tested in the ring/dojo/class but others can only be put to limited use while training.  A good example is 3, 5 and 6… if you train in a particular style without very much interaction with others then you will already recognise the approach of your opponents in class, therefore the requirement for you to react is less important than on the street where everything will be unexpected, due to training in the same style you will already anticipate how they move etc.  (one of the regular problems I have been told about is when involved in a street situation a karate guy may pre-empt a certain attack, only to be caught out by something they have not encountered in the dojo).

Varied training is the key to self-defence, this does not mean throw out your syllabus and train in 5 different systems/styles.  It purely means train hard, spend a lot of time on your defences and stress test them against many different attacks, even those not practiced in your regular training.  Learn the theory of the psychology of attackers and defenders by listening to those who have been in those situations.  Apply everything to your training where you can, but do not forget your main goals from training, if your goal was to win competition, get fit or perfect 27 kata then those goals should be concentrated upon with your self-defence being an addition (making sure you are aware of any limitations caused by your number one goal or the system you practice).

If your goal of training was to become proficient at self-defence then yes, mix it up, stress test everything and learn all holes and limitations in your training before looking to fill them.  Accept that there will be unknowns that you cannot prepare for and work the statistics, there is no point spending 45% of your time working upon gun defences if you live in an area where gun crime accounts for less than 1% of all violent crime.  Focus on a few techniques that cover as many situations  as possible, make them work.

Of course the number one weapon in self-defence is your attitude.  Use it to avoid the situation, where there is no alternative then you must win, there are no other options.

Read specific details on the myths and issues with MMA/BJJ and grappling in Part 2.


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