I’m going to go out on a limb here and just say what needs to be said…most martial arts, including mixed martial arts (MMA), UFC type cage fighting, etc. is not effective for self-defense.
There, I said it.
I say this as a 35+ year martial artist with not just black belts, but master level ranks (4th degree black belt and higher) in 4 different martial arts. Please understand, I am not putting down martial arts. I LOVE the martial arts and all the benefits that they can give. They are amazing for helping a person (young or old) learn discipline, focus, respect, patience, self-control, and a long list of other life skills. They can excel at providing a positive outlet for physical fitness and stress relief. But for street effective self-defense, most of what is taught in typical martial arts classes in this country is ineffectual and unworkable without years of training under the proper conditions.
The biggest reason I believe this is that the martial arts, from which self-defense has been historically based, use principally what is called “symmetrical” training. Symmetrical training means that safeguards exist to equalize the training experience. This happens, for example, when students are paired up with partners of similar size and skill level, or when there are rules or other constraints to make things more “fair.” Sparring is symmetrical competition designed to replicate fighting. But it falls quite short in preparing for real life applications because of its rules. Even the UFC is symmetrical fighting. Although no doubt quite adrenalizing, it is still an agreed upon event with rules, referees and limits. Most importantly, both combatants are physically, emotionally and psychologically prepared to do battle. This is not how most real altercations occur.
Police and FBI statistics show very clearly that most assaults are typically asymmetrical events where the attacker has the psychological advantage of surprise and often of physical strength or some other element that would give them the advantage (i.e., weapons, multiple attackers). In fact, it is the very nature of a predator to use stealth, ambush and deception when it hunts. There would be few predators left on earth if they fought fairly. Human predators use these same asymmetric tactics and mind-set when selecting their prey.
After just a cursory search for some video footage – there is plenty out there on YouTube – of real life attacks, here are just a few for you to see for yourself:
Neither MMA nor traditional martial arts use asymmetric tactics or train in asymmetrical ways. There is a famous quote that many Sensei use, which is that “Karate is NEVER for attack.” Let me tell you something – if I knew that someone was about to do bad things to my wife or children, or to me and I couldn’t get away, I would, without reservation, use karate for attack. It would be foolish to wait until the bad guy makes the first move. You know why? Because ACTION IS FASTER THAN REACTION!
It is both naïve and foolish to think that anyone can train for an asymmetrical event in a symmetrical way. The bottom line is that you will do as you train. If you train symmetrically, you will be at an extreme disadvantage in a real-life self-defense situation. Don’t be fooled by MMA fighters touting their skills in the ring as some sort of proof that they know or can teach effective self-defense. I have never seen an MMA fighter ambushed in the ring by a second attacker or hidden knife, and I have never seen an attack that looks anything remotely like the over-exaggerated telegraphed strike or swing you’d see in a typical martial arts demonstration.
Please understand that this is not a criticism of those who train in MMA or martial arts. I admire the athleticism and strategy necessary to compete in these matches. I enjoy watching these sporting events just as much as the next guy, and I enjoy training in them. But I recognize them for what they are – sports – games and activities for amusement, entertainment and demonstration of individual skill. These are just a very different animal from self-defense.
I am not saying that a person can’t get any self-defense benefits from MMA or martial arts. There is plenty there that can be helpful – footwork, timing, understanding angles, body mechanics, the feeling of being hit, etc. But one of the most important pieces to learning effective self-defense is the instruction; the scenarios and methods used to learn, acquire and practice these skills. If the instruction is regularly set up in a symmetrical way, the training will likely prove to be ineffectual in self-defense.
That is exactly why we added asymmetrical training systems like Krav Maga and FAST Defense to what we do at my martial arts school. As a long-time martial artist, I realized the limitations of traditional training and went looking for something that would provide a link between martial arts done in the studio environment, and self-defense done on the street. Krav Maga and FAST Defense provided just that – the missing link – with a solid foundation of asymmetric scenario-based adrenal stress training.
Our self-defense classes take the experience of learning and adds a layer of realism to it. By realism, I don’t mean that we’ll be using real, sharp knives, guns, chains, etc. But the way we get the body and brain to feel will be real. One of the interesting things about the human brain is that it is very difficult for it to distinguish fantasy from reality. So, when you immerse yourself in an asymmetric scenario, it feels real. And to your brain, if it feels real, it is real. The chemical, hormonal and physiological reactions are the same. Fear is fear and the body’s response to fear is the same whether that fear comes from a real street situation or has been intentionally elicited or manufactured by a trained instructor.
When safeguards exist to equalize the training experience, you remove the realism. You end up with a bunch of nice people (not psychopaths) training nicely (using courtesy) and intentionally trying to not hurt their partner (control). No one wants to get hurt in a class, but there’s an old adage – you will play like you practice. If you don’t practice actually hitting a live body with intent to destroy it, you WON’T do it when it counts. There is no magic switch to turn on. You’ve either experienced it and it will come out of you, or you haven’t, and you’ll freeze. This is why I have seen black belts in martial arts get their butts handed to them in a real fight, not because they lack skill, but they lack real experience.
So how does one get this most valuable experience, safely and quickly? Through the asymmetric, scenario-based training of our Krav Maga and FAST Defense classes and being able to strike full force on the trainer in the Predator Armor. When you fully engage in the scenarios and fights in a class, you are training the correct part of your brain to harness the fear and adrenaline and use it for fuel to power you to success. Also, being able to hit a live person (who is safe in the Armor) gives a tremendous sense of confidence because you will see the result of your strike or kick in real time and you don’t have to worry about pulling your strike to not hurt your training partner.
Effective self-defense should prepare you for the realities of the street, as well as the natural emotions that accompany conflict in all its forms. It should also include the legal ramifications of turning someone into a pile of goo. Buyer beware when you're looking for a good class.
Tina, a well- and highly-trained karate student, was out on a date with her boyfriend. You know, dinner, drinks and dancing. They were out having a good time when, at the end of a nice night, they found themselves in her boyfriend's car - alone. After some light conversation, Tina's boyfriend starts to make a move and get a little "handsy." Tina becomes uncomfortable, but not seeing her boyfriend as a threat, and not knowing what to do to stop him, freezes.
She thinks to herself, "I like him, but what he's doing is making me uncomfortable. I want him to stop, but I don't want to hurt his feelings. I don't want to make a big deal out of it. Maybe it would just be easier to go along with it and get it over with. It will be over soon anyway."
Let's face it. Statistically, you are much more likely to have to defend yourself from someone you have a relationship with than from a stranger. The scenario of the "scumbag jumping out from behind the bushes" is admittedly a scary situation, and one we should try and be prepared for in the off chance it happens. But the reality is that 3 out of 4 attacks against women are perpetrated by someone they know.
That tends to change things.
It's easy to separate feelings from action when there is no relationship. Protecting ourselves by doing damage to someone else is much easier if you don't have any feelings for that someone. Using our voice, being assertive and "standing up for ourselves" can be much simpler when you don't care what this other person thinks or how they feel about you.
The situation above with Tina is so very common these days. Many of us struggle with boundaries and how far we let people go - not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. These decisions are ours to make and handing control to another person by shutting down will never make it better.
We also don't want to make things worse by being aggressive. Often we see idolized depictions of women "standing up for themselves" by being belligerent (or snarky, rude or sarcastic), posturing or trying to "show up" the other person, or even using foul or abusive language to demean or put down the other person. This often happens because either our buttons get pushed and we "see red" and lose control or we are really afraid but don't want to show it so we overcompensate. (The latter is often what happens with men.)
So what's the answer? How can we maintain control of the situation but still assert appropriate boundaries?
Self-defense always begins with the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in our own head.
If you don't first have a solid belief that you are worth defending, then you won't do it, even when pushed. If you don't understand, appreciate and enforce your value as a human being, it doesn't make sense that you would expect others to see and treat you as valuable. Are you aware of the internal voices that tell you you're not worth it? Do you recognize them as lies? Do you truly believe that you are worth protecting? I sure hope so. I believe you are. For more information on identifying and challenging your core beliefs, click here.
After that, it's a matter of clearly defining what your personal boundaries are going to be. What kinds of people and behavior do you want to have in your life? What are you unwilling to put up with in your life? How is it that you want to be treated? Those answers are yours to find on your journey through this life.
You will also need to spend some time learning what your triggers are. This can be a long process of finding out what the buttons are that get pushed that we've developed through our accumulated life's experiences. There are societal buttons too (words, gestures, protective instincts, etc.), but knowing your personal hot buttons can help you be aware of how others can try to manipulate us. There are plenty of resources online that can help you identify your triggers and hot buttons if you need help. Here is a great article on just that.
Once you have a core belief in your value and have decided on what kinds of ways will be acceptable that you allow others treat you, then the last part is then just enforcing those boundaries. I say "just" because this is often much easier said than done. Changing past behavior patterns is difficult. If you've been a passive person with poor boundaries and then you begin to change, you will experience push back from those around you who are used to the "old you." Those who aren't used to you standing up for yourself suddenly find themselves with less power over you than they had before.
There are both verbal and physical boundaries that we can set and finding the middle ground between passive, handing over control and aggressive, getting in people's faces is the key. We call this being assertive.
Assertiveness has a posture and a body language. It's a steady confidence that emanates from you that tends to repulse predators, bullies and manipulators, whether they are strangers or people we know. Studies have shown that predators look for certain cues in their potential victims and that those who display confidence and assertiveness are most often passed over for "easier" prey.
The hard part is changing past behaviors and patterns, isn't it? So part of your life-long learning of self-defense should also include learning how to defend yourself from yourself (your old self) - your old thoughts, your old behaviors, your old actions or inactions. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy.
If you are interested in learning how to be more assertive and set and enforce reasonable boundaries, come check out our classes. They are fun and we have had quite a number of students learn how to write new endings to their stories. You can sign up by clicking here.
When self-defense becomes complicated, it's not self-defense.
In self-defense, rule number one is to stay safe. In order to do that, you have to be able to (in this order):
1. not be there in the first place (awareness and avoidance)
2. run away (get to safety)
3. pick something up to use as an improvised weapon
4. use your skills to stop your attacker and make sure they can't continue
Those first three things are really not complicated. The last one can be, depending on what a person is taught to do, but it shouldn't be.
Our philosophy for teaching self defense is to keep it simple. If it takes years and 1000's of reps to be good at, then it's not effective for real world self-defense. Self-defense needs to work for you today, not years from now, once or after you have mastered the move.
Honestly, it isn't complicated at all to push your thumb knuckle-deep in the bad guy's eye socket. That just takes the belief in yourself - that you are valuable and worth defending - and a will to do what it takes to make it home safe. What gets complicated is when you feel like you need to defend yourself against someone you care about or have a relationship with. That's where we find people freeze up. But that's for another blog post.
Too many times, we have seen "martial arts" teachers peddling complicated karate moves to new students that have so many steps or require that you do it "just right" for it to work. If you learn a move that requires steps "A-F" for it to be effective, what happens when the situation goes off the rails at step C?
I'm certainly not saying that complicated can't or doesn't ever work. If you have been training in a discipline for years, you can probably pull that stuff off. What I'm saying is that when we teach self defense classes, I never just assume that a student will return to train more. Sure, I want them to return. It is my hope they come back and do more. I also don't assume that the student will have or take the time to practice outside of the class I'm teaching that day. So the moves we teach have to work the day we teach them.
Also, to be truly "effective," the skills should be able to be used by the smallest, weakest, least athletic person, just as well as the biggest, strongest. That's why it's important not only what you learn, but who you learn it from.
Concept based systems are much more effective than technique based systems because you can apply concepts to multiple situations. As you search for a self-defense class, keep these things in mind.