07 November 2014

On Teaching Self-Defence Drills

Teaching self-defence skills to people is always a tricky business because it is difficult to say what will work or not. Sometimes I teach a particular skill to students, and while it might work for nine out of ten of the students in the class, there might be one person struggling with it. I can walk them through it, and they might get it the technique to work under guidance, but when they do it by themselves they just fail to get it right. Generally I avoid overly complicated techniques for self-defence training, keeping in mind adrenalin dump and the loss of fine motor coordination during a violent conflict. Therefore, I don’t think the “fault” lies in the technique, but is more likely just that the particular skill just doesn’t come naturally for that particular student.

Now, another instructor, convinced of the effectiveness of this particular technique will insist that the student practice it repeatedly until they “get” it. I’m of a different opinion. If the technique doesn’t work for a person with a certain degree of “naturalness” at the student’s current level of proficiency, then the technique is even less likely to work in a stressful context. Also, I don’t want students to become fixated on one particular technique. Of course, we do try and practice particular techniques and try and improve their efficiency, but I seldom hammer on just one technique as the ultimate (i.e only) self-defence skill for a specific situation. Instead I try to provide students with a skill set—a series of related options that are founded on particular martial principles (for example, positioning). I may teach a few techniques and principles and then tell the students to experiment and find what they find to work for them against different opponents. Without being prescriptive, I then comment on what they come up with. For instance, if what they are doing puts them in a vulnerable position (rather than an advantageous position and the opponent in a disadvantageous position) I would point that out and make some suggestions or have them come up with an alternative.

The problem is simply that a violent encounter is dynamic (i.e. chaotic) with only limited predictability. Fixating on one technique, and insisting that it should work is limiting and unrealistic. The ability to quickly adapt and find other solutions is a much more important skill than doing something because that is how their instructor taught them.

Paradoxically, when I started teaching this way I at first threw out all “pre-arranged” drills because I believed they were unrealistic and there is no use in teaching things that are unrealistic. I didn’t make students memorize any sequences or specific combinations. I just taught principles, but not particular techniques and expected them to come up with their own combinations within a dynamic context. What I found was that students could not apply the principles in coherently effective ways. They simply didn’t have the “vocabulary” – an appropriate arsenal – to deal with the situation. I soon realized that for beginners there is much value in fully pre-arranged sparring drills, even though they are unrealistic. Pre-arranged sparring drills are a great tool for teaching a “vocabulary of fighting”. Once the student already built up some arsenal of appropriate techniques and combinations, should one decrease the abstraction (by adding more “reality”).

When taught properly, ITF Taekwon-Do is supposed to provide a continuum that facilitate a progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practice. In other words, at first things are predictable while students get to practice particular techniques and strategies. Then the abstraction level is decreased, and the variables are increased. Things are less predictable and the student needs to literally think on their feet. The more variables there are the less prescriptive do I as the instructor get. Ultimately I have to give free reign to the student and allow them to do whatever works for them in that situation.

Facilitating such a progression from high abstraction, low variables (very prescriptive pre-arranged drills) to low abstraction, high variables (unscripted drills) can be difficult, particularly when you have students who are at very different levels. For instance, in a recent class I had one black belt (2nd Dan), a blue belt, a yellow belt, and white belts. They are all at different places along the continuum. Making sure that each one is practicing (and reviewing) appropriately at their level requires some nifty pedagogic negotiation on the instructor’s part. The instructor often has to improvise his or her lesson to fit the dynamics (levels) of the class that can change on any given day.

Nevertheless, this part of the class—working along the continuum with the aim of self-defence—is what Taekwon-Do is for me. If Taekwon-Do is—as it defines itself—“the Korean Art of Self-Defence” [호신예술]—then working towards self-defence is ultimately what all training boils down to.

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