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Self Defence Combatives Martial Arts Violence Crime Training Sport Fighting Proactive


Before I begin this article let me get a few things straight about its content. I will be discussing the training methods behind the hard skills required for what I see as efficient self defence. I will be setting down three very general performance criteria, which I think are fairly easy for a club to comply with if they are professing to teach effective skills for self defence, civilian combatives or anything else that falls under the category of realistic self protection.

This article is not primarily concerned with the soft skills side of training; an area I agree is easily more important as far as self protection is concerned. I have addressed this regularly and will continue to do so, but not here. As the old saying goes, hard data will always push out soft data, just as short-term will always push out long term. I am not interested in presenting the long term self defence view in this article. I do not feel the need to have to reiterate the importance of awareness, attitude and all the other non-physical building blocks that will either stop you from having to resort to hard skills or put the edge on them. This is to address what happens when matters becomes unavoidably physical.

It is true that you are more likely to be injured or killed by something other than interpersonal violence, but it also true that you are less likely to be killed by fire and yet every workplace and school covers defence against this on a regular basis. Health is very important and I accept the fact that bad health is more likely to affect you than a violent person, but good health should be a by-product of good hard skills training anyway and besides it is not the point of this article.

Finally the aesthetic quality of techniques is not a criteria point here. We can all go Oscar Wilde when we are looking at art for entertainment’s sake, but when we are discussing self-preservation skills let’s measure a system by its immediate efficiency. So, with all the above cleared up it is time to delve into the performance criteria I believe need to be met in order for a class to deliver practical, realistic, short-term, physical skills.

So, Is Your Self Defence Training any Good?

I often get asked my opinion on one martial art or another as to whether or not I think it is “any good” for self defence purposes. Interestingly this opinion is often asked after some has trained in one of my lessons. My optimistic side tells me that this individual is asking so that he can test various schools and bring back useful data to help improve his overall performance. My more realistic side tells me that what he is actually asking is whether or not there is an easier or prettier way to learn efficient self defence hard skills. Having been given the question many times, both by ex-students and also just by people I have met on a social basis, I realized I needed a simple answer containing a criteria that would help guide my questioner with his choice of school.

For reasons that are outlined in my Martial Arts Scepticism article on “Stylism” it is not accurate to simply say one martial art is more valid than another. A straightforward and generic performance criterion is a far more robust way to decide whether or not a school is any good for your needs. The following are three general aspects I believe must be taught in order for a school to have a complete approach to self defence hard skills.


Action beats reaction. It is as simple as that. If your system focuses completely on block-and-counter and emphasizes that you have to wait for another person to execute a technique then it is missing a big point. Most wars were won by means of pre-emptive striking. Most duels that had a very high risk of one person being serious injured or killed rely on the speed of a person’s actions rather than their reactions. Think about it. Successful invasions are large scale examples of pre-emptive striking. Battles won by trickery or stealth are often battles won by pre-emption. In Greek mythology the Trojan horse was a pre-emptive strike. In the American west it was a case of who was fastest on the draw. In Europe there are scant records of pistol duellists who relied on a strategy of waiting until his opponent fired so he could counter. Likewise the medieval art of Iaijutsu (the forerunner to today’s iaido) in Japan saw samurai perfecting the art of drawing their sword ahead of their opponent to deliver the winning cut. Japan’s most famous samurai, Myomoto Musashi had pre-emption down to a fine art. Anecdotes of his duels speak of him actually ambushing his opponents rather than being hamstrung by the niceties of a straight duel. Prevention is better than the cure, so when all soft skill preventative measures are exhausted and you cannot avoid violence you might as well bring the harm to your would-be assaulter.

Pre-emption is a counter-assault delivered before an antagonist has had a chance to execute their first physical “technique”. Without pre-emption you are counting a lot on your ability to be able to guess exactly how and when someone is going to attack you and your ability to stop this assault. The space where this assault will occur does not favour the reactive/block-and-counter type fighter.

An assault is not an unarmed duel. As I have described before, armed duels with a high risk of injury or death prefer the pre-emptive strike, but unarmed duels don’t always favour this. Compared to most other animals, humans are quite pathetic when it comes to unarmed combat. It is far more difficult for a human to kill or even incapacitate a fully resistant fellow human without the aid of a weapon. Humans raced up the food chain through their ability to use their brains to develop the most effective and efficient tools to compensate for their lack of horns, antlers, speed, agility, strength, claws, wings, venom, large teeth and so on. The unarmed duels they engage in with each other are same-species dominance matches not designed for the killing or even serious injuring of another human. It is theorized that the purpose of these fights were to decide primitive mating rights, practiced first by children in play bouts. They have their equivalents across the animal kingdom – from piranhas who duel with their tails and not their razor sharp teeth to antelope that butt horns rather gauge from the side.

This is fine when it comes to play fighting or sport, but the modern world has made our society a little more complex. Through time human predators have emerged. Criminals who prey on other humans as if they were another species don’t play by the alpha male or female rule. They do not seek dominance for the sake of pride, but rather view their prey as a consumable they are going to use. Therefore they approach their human prey in an entirely different manner than they would someone a human they want to “compete” with.

The human predator stalks, pursues and ambushes his prey. He uses the tools of deception and/or aggression to get what he wants. These are the tools of the game that the pre-emptor needs to use. The pre-emptive “defender” will strike when he can confirm that the threat is physical and he will strike first!

Proactive Training

A single distinguishing feature between a “match” or dominance fight and an assault is that there is little if any to and fro motion in the latter. An assault will be a barrage of force not intended to be returned but designed to completely neutralise the victim. Therefore the counterassault, whether delivered pre-emptively or as part of a contingency plan, needs to be a constant and uninterrupted flow of endless assault. It should not be dependent on anything the aggressor is going to do. Working around likely instinctive responses are fine, even helpful, but the more you base your tactics on a series of choreographed techniques the further away you get from self defence. Drills can be useful for developing attributes, but as the pragmatic traditional karateka Iain Abernethy says, once you get comfortable with a drill the best thing to do is dump it!

When you are training people for short-term self defence your student needs to understand that the onus is on completely taking charge of the situation. The situation they are taking charge of isn’t a competitive fight. It is a fight for survival. It is about completely turning the tables on your would-be or actual attacker. The idea is to give the predator a sudden identity crisis. He thinks he is a tiger taking down a deer, but instead suddenly finds he has been dreaming and he is, in fact, the deer who has enraged a real tiger. Unfortunately your average victim, if not completely overwhelmed by the predator, makes the mistake of thinking they are being attacked by another deer and responds in kind.

Being proactive and applying forward pressure means that you do everything to get onto the proverbial front foot and continue on this path until the threat is successfully subdued. Tactics that rely upon a set series of techniques or are derived from a stylistic situation, such as feigning specific moves, should be reserved for attribute training. Your directive for frontline civilian hard skills fighting strategy is to attack the attack and keep on attacking until you are out of harm’s way.

Pressure Testing

There are different theories about when you should pressure test. I believe it should be done as early as possible regardless of age, ability or health. Some schools like to get the techniques down pat before applying pressure. Personally I like to start early with the pressure to see what a person does and then quarry and sculpt what we find. Regardless of what you do, if you are still hanging around a club that hasn’t done any form of resistant based training within the first couple of months they are not teaching you efficient self defence.

Imagine turning up for swimming lessons and never getting into the water. That is what a self defence system is like without some form of resistance-based training. Everything outside of pressure testing is wishful thinking. It is an ideal. It’s good to teach positive ideals, but stay there too long and you start developing unrealistic habits. You learn to love the compliant drill rather than learning how to embrace the chaos that is real-life violence.

A pressure test, unfortunately for many, needs to be full contact in nature. This is the only way to a get feel for the intensity of a real life situation. Full contact combat sports may contain the to and fro style of fighting, but at least they help develop the hardiness required for a conflict. They understand that other humans will be unpredictable. In “Bulletproof Mind” Lt Col. Dave Grossman lectured on how a top MMA coach coped with fire arms pressure testing. Initially the coach dropped his gun early on and was a liability. This proved the relevance of specific training – you train how you fight. However, Grossman then added that the coach picked up the skills at a far faster rate than an untrained person. The pressure testing the coach had endured in MMA fighting had enabled him to adapt quickly thus demonstrating how training under any sort of high intensity pressure can help teach someone across the board how to adapt to different environments. I will address the importance of distinguishing between front-line pressure testing and full contact sparring in more depth in another article. Suffice to say that apart from some distinctive differences the mentality derived from the latter is a whole universe better than what you will get from compliant or touch contact style fighting.

When it comes to self defence is your system a martial arts or partial art?

The question really should be “Are your self defence hard skills comprehensive?” Many clubs and services provide good self defence training, but they are only good in one particular area. This partiality, I argue, can then have an effect on the rest of training.

A common occurrence we have seen since the acceptance of the pre-emptive strike reached mainstream martial arts are coaches that just seem to stitch this part onto a system that is clearly based on reactive and stylized training. The pre-emption gets lip service or is completely out of sync with the rest of training that works specifically off what another person is doing to you. Proactive training with the emphasis on forward pressure should be a continuation of pre-emption. After all, you are being proactive when you are being pre-emptive. You are taking control and taking the initiative. The rest of your front-line support system should continue to maintain the pressure with an interrupted flow until you have subdued or escaped the physical threat. However, neither pre-emption nor proactive tactics are going to be worth anything without any form of testing. Pressure testing gives the student and the coach an honest idea of how the student will respond when they have to apply their skills for real.

A club that pressure tests without promoting pre-emption erroneously trains students that he will have time to block an assault and has ineffective link to good soft skills. The student is not being prepared for the human predator that will ambush his prey with relentless ferocity, leaving little or no time for the prey to play catch up. A club that pressure tests without proactive training fairs a little better, but it can fall into the trap of interpreting anything that follows pre-emption to be a game of dominance. You can get away with this on a one-on-one situation, something that is getting rarer and rarer in assaults, but try a pressure test where multiple aggressors attack together. Trying to spar or dominate several people at once is a nightmare. Your instincts will scream at you to look for a means to escape only to have your training over-ride this. We see this again and again in our “scramble drills”.