My purpose in writing about this is not to force my opinion on which martial arts styles are the best - only you can decide what suits your reasons for wanting to learn. I'd like to explore what self defence really is and what one needs to learn in order to defend one's self. This is a topic where no one should have the wool over their eyes - knowing what self defence really is and being able to identify whether or not you're learning it might one day save your life.
So why do we train? To coin a term from a famous and epic movie: "So I won't have to fight." After browsing an excellent self defence website the other day I have to agree with the author that the primary goals in learning any kind of self defence art should be these and in the following order:
1. To avoid trouble, being assaulted or even bothered
2. To recognise trouble well ahead and actively avoid
3. To discourage an attack using non-violent means
4. To be able to neutralise an attack that couldn't otherwise have been avoided
I would probably also add to that last one 'with the least amount of force necessary and minimal harm to yourself or your attacker' but it's not a perfect world at the end of the day. Coming out alive is the most important factor.
So, how many clubs skip right past points one, two and three and head straight onto four? One could argue that this is perfectly acceptable as classes often only deal with the physical aspect of martial arts; however, the student should at least be made aware that the first three options exist in my opinion.
How many classes will teach you a knife defence move without telling you to run away first, hand over your wallet second, get hold of your own weapon (a stick is probably best) third and only as a very last resort to try an empty handed technique? Students should not be allowed to think that they will be able to catch the knife hand and execute a stylish arm lock and disarm without getting at least cut, if not seriously or fatally wounded. Has it been pointed out to you by your teacher that a knife is a short range weapon and therefore putting obstacles between you and the attacker might mean the difference between survival and death?
I could wax lyrical and tell anecdotes about knife attacks until the cows come home but let us return to the heart of the matter at hand and move onto what kind of training is should be provided.
It's all very well learning "A Self Defence Technique". Without drilling, reflex training, pressure testing or random attack training can a student learn the mechanics of a technique, go out into the street and effectively defend himself against a real life thug? No, probably not. Will the student be able to face a mugger, select an appropriate move from his mental arsenal and defend himself successfully in the time it takes the mugger to raise his arm and punch him? Unlikely. Consider this: Have you always drilled your moves knowing what you're going to be attacked with? Yes? A mugger probably wont be considerate enough to tell you what he's going to do before he does it.
With this in mind, students need to utilise unpredictable attack and defence training if they are going to defend themselves against a random attack on the streets. This means that your teacher gives your uke (partner) license to come at you with any attack and whatever that attack may be, you defend yourself. Many teachers will boast that this is unnecessary because attackers on the streets are 'unskilled' - in my opinion, this is exactly what makes them so dangerous. Have you ever noticed that trying to perform a technique on a novice is a lot harder than trying to do it on a veteran?
When I learned Ju Jitsu as a youngster at Leigh Self Defence Studio, my teacher used to do a fantastic game where he'd turn off all the lights, stand you at one end of the training area facing the wall and have someone sneak up behind you and attack you. He went to great lengths to make our self defence training as realistic and unpredicatable as he possibly could within the realms of safety and for that he has my eternal thanks and gratitude.
This neatly brings me onto the third section of my article. Is there a way to take some of the unpredictability out of a street attack? The short answer is yes, although not entirely. The best way is to learn the Attack Rituals of predators. At the risk of sounding clichéd, know your enemy. For more on Attack Rituals please read the amazing Geoff Thompson's Dead or Alive, but for now I will give you the simplified version. There are three kinds of attack ritual:
1. The Duel
2. The Talking Distance (Agressive OR Passive)
3. The Ambush
The duel is the massive elephant in the room reason that so many experienced martial artists go out onto the streets and get their butts kicked. In the dojo, when we know what attack is coming, we are training for the duel. Muggers wont duel with us - it's far too fair.
(NB: Learning to duel isn't necessarily a bad thing - it all depends on what you want to gain from your chosen martial art... Aside from self defence there are many other advantages to martial arts that your style may be suitable for such as fitness, confidence, co-ordination, flexibility and competing.)
The talking distance is when the attacker uses either friendly or agressive dialogue to disarm us, close the distance and wipe us out. By knowing the ritual we can recognise this and either get away, be ready or pre-empt the attack by closing the distance on our own terms and neutralising the attacker.
With rgards to the ambush, the main advantage to knowing the ritual is to help us avoid it. If you are ambushed then you're going to need that unpredicatable attack training that we discussed earlier.
There is one more important thing that you need to know: Real Self Defence does not look pretty, flashy or stylish like it does in the dojo or on the silver screen. It's messy, dirty, underhanded and desperate. The only thing that it really needs to be, at the end of the day, is effective enough to keep you alive.
Ask yourself these questions and then decide if you're really learning 'Self Defence':
1. Are you being taught to use violence first and your brain last?
2. Are you being made aware of all the non-violent options you can utilise first?
3. Are you under the impression that defending yourself on the street is going to be easy and that you wont get hurt?
4. Do you know what an attack ritual is?
5. In class are you learning to duel or are you being put under real, unpredicatable attack pressure?
6. Does your style cover all forms of attack? E.G. strikes, ground attacks, grabs, chokes, drags, weapons etc.
7. Are you encouraged to feel invincible and untouchable?
This should help you assess your best options if you decide to learn self defence or you are looking for self defence classes for your family. Self defence does not always go hand-in-hand with martial arts! Do not assume that every martial art is an effective form of self defence. When it comes down to learning something that might save your life, you deserve to have a clear understanding of what you need to know, learn and pratice. Don't be afraid to challenge the instructor on this - a good teacher welcomes challenges and questions.