Training for self-defence: Do or do not.

by Ryan Gregory, March 24th, 2012

I am currently reading the outstanding book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller. It is one of the best-written and most honest books I have ever read about the martial arts. It is also very eye-opening. Consider the following passage (p.55-57), quoted at length here because I think everyone should read it:

The four truths: Assaults happen closer, faster, more suddenly, and with more power than most people believe.

Closer. One of the most common and artificial aspects of modern martial arts training is that self-defence drills are practiced at an optimum distance where the attacker must take at least a half step to contact. Real criminals rarely give this luxury of time. They strike when they are sure of hitting, positive that their victim is well within range before initiating the attack.

That half step of extra distance allows many things to work that are hard to pull off in real life. Blocks and evasions rarely work in real encounters. Even in the dojo, if you stand close enough that you can lay your forearm on your partner’s shoulder (nearly optimum striking range) and allow him to strike with either hand to targets of his choice, you will not block the strikes in time unless he telegraphs badly. Distance is time, and blocking takes time.

The attacker always chooses the time and place for the attack, and he chooses a range at which he can surely hit hard and his victim will have the least possible time to react. This means he will be close. Often, the ambush place will be an area that hampers the victim’s movements — a toilet stall, between two parked cars or slammed into a wall. Will your favorite move still work without room to turn or step?

Faster. Because the threat has chosen the time, the place, and the victim, he can attack all-out, with no thought given to defense. The speed of this flurry, the constant rain of blows, can be mind numbing.
When your martial arts students are sparring, use a stopwatch and time how many blows are thrown in a minute. Even in professional boxing, the number is not that impressive. There is a give and take to sparring and subtleties of timing in defense and offense that are integral to making it a game of skill.

Then time them on a heavy bag … Completely untrained people usually do four hits a second. Eight to ten times a second is reasonable for a decent martial artist. Thirteen to fourteen is the fastest I have done.

An assault is conducted like this flurry, not like sparring. A competent martial artist who is used to the more cautious timing of sparring is completely unprepared for this kind of speed. Even the people who strike ten times a second can’t block ten times a second.

More suddenly. An assault is based on the threat’s assessment of his chances. If he can’t get surprise, he often won’t attack. Some experts say that there is always some intuitive warning. Possibly, but if the warning was noted and heeded, the attack would be prevented. When the attack happens, it is always a surprise.

This is one of the hardest aspects of an ambush to train for. The very fact that you know you are training removes the element of surprise. The unexpectedness of an attack can negate nearly any skill. You psych up for training, for competition. You have time to use breathing techniques to adjust your adrenaline balance in class, but an assault happens while you are in your nine to five mind; when your brain is dealing with bills or shopping lists or lost car keys.

More power. There is a built-in problem with all training. You want to recycle your partners. If you or your students hit as hard as they can every time they hit, you will quickly run out of students.

Truthfully, the average criminal does not hit nearly as hard as a good boxer or karateka can hit. They do hit harder than the average boxer (because of gloves) or karateka has ever felt.

Being hit is part of the normal environment of an attack. More often than not, the first strike in an ambush lands. So do many others. It can be a sharp and stinging pain, not like the dull ocean roar of a boxing hit or a kind of wincing where part of your face wants to curl over the point of impact. Good martial artists, good ring fighters often freeze for a second because the attack doesn’t feel like training. If anything feels, sounds, or smells different than you have trained for, your body will be aware that it is a new experience and might freeze. Fighting with a concussion doesn’t feel like sparring.


Over at the blog KarateByJesse, you can find the same sentiment expressed with similar frankness:

All you “get” is something blurry in the corner of your eye, and if you’re really lucky perhaps a glimpse of a furious face – before a flurry of fists comes flying your way. And hey, that’s not even the worst case scenario. You might be attacked without even noticing that much beforehand.

The thing is, in self-defense, or on the infamous ‘street’, only one person is ever prepared for what’s about to go down – and you’d better believe that’s never going to be you.


Because if you are, you won’t have to resort to fighting in the first place.

It’s like when this brown belt from our dojo once asked me why we never practice self defense from the usual kumite range he sees on YouTube (WKF Sport Karate style). So I said “please, let me demonstrate”. As soon as he got into the traditional ‘kamae’ ready position a couple of meters in front of me, I immediately turned around and ran out of the dojo in silence.

He stood there completely speechless.

Because that’s what you do.

It’s the only sensible thing.

In fact, if you have the luxury of facing your opponent square on, from the usual dojo kumite range, with your hands up, while being fully aware that something is going to happen any second now, then every moment you’re not running away to safety is another moment for somebody to get a first class ticket to the hospital.

Or, even worse: the mortuary.

Let’s pray that’s not you or your friends/family.

But of course, you already knew this. You know it, your sensei knows it, and his sensei’s sensei knew it. We all know that if somebody is going to attack you (again, on the mythical ‘street’), it’s probably never going to be straight punch trauma to the solar plexus (what we in Karate refer to as oi-zuki, or jun-zuki.). More likely, it’s going to be wild, swinging punch trauma to the left side of your face, somewhere in the triangle formed between your ear, chin and temple. After that, it’s grabbing time, and then it’s rolling time.

It is a fact that if you are ever going to get attacked in real life, it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in the average Karate dojo anywhere on this planet.

Both of these authors are martial artists, so obviously they don’t think training in traditional martial arts is useless. The important point that they make is that martial arts exercises by themselves are unlikely to prepare someone for a real self-defense scenario that is very different from the circumstances experienced in the dojo.

Their argument, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that either you supplement your traditional martial arts training with more realistic self-defense training (“do”) or you train in traditional martial arts for other reasons besides making yourself an effective street fighter (“do not”). I have said before that I think training in martial arts can contribute to abilities, both mental and physical, that can be useful in a real conflict situation, but if you really want to be prepared to defend yourself or your loved ones, you need to train for it. In principle, all you need is a willing partner and some guidance on how to defend against common attacks from non-martial artists. A sucker punch or an angry roundhouse swing from close range. Or an attack while you are sitting or in a confined space or facing a different direction. Working on your ground game would be a very good idea, too.

But remember, the best self-defense method is avoidance, and the point of martial arts training is not to fight.

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