24 July 2010

I Don't Like Your Self-Defence

Whenever I look at self-defence requirements in most martial art syllabi (including Taekwon-Do) I am left with much concern. Where do these requirements come from and how are they relevant to us, here and now, to my students?

One of the first self-defence requirements in the syllabi of most Taekwon-Do and other martial art schools is a release from a wrist grab. One has to wonder why this is so? Surely this is not the most common attack, is it? Ask ten people who have been in physical confrontations and see how many of them were actually grabbed by the wrist. Of all the students I’ve taught, only one has told me of having been grabbed by the wrist. Maybe another reason for this self-defence technique being taught for a beginning martial artist is because it is such a simple manoeuvre? Merely pull the arm free at the grip's weakest point, namely the thumb. Even so, the simple wrist grab scenario is never that simple.

In a real life situation, the wrist grab is usually just a set-up for a more serious self-defence scenario. If an attacker grabs your wrist / arm / clothing, it is usually a setup for another attack. At least three scenarios come to mind: (1) the attacker grabs you to keep you close so that he can pummel you with his free fist; (2) the attacker has another weapon, probably a knife, pressed against you and has taken hold of you so that you cannot easily move away from the weapon; (3) the attacker has taken hold of you in order to pull you away for better positioning, so that he can continue his assault somewhere else. In only one of these three scenarios is the wrist grab release the first priority. In scenario #1 the first priority is not escaping from the grab, but defending against the attacker’s free fist. In the second scenario the first priority is the weapon in your side. And even in scenario three, where a release from his grip is priority, the type of self-defence technique taught in most schools are not taught against an opponent that is forcefully pulling you, with you most likely being off-balance. I’m not saying that students should not learn how to escape from a wrist grab; what I am saying is that the actual wrist grab is seldom the most pressing issue when the arm is grabbed. It is the rest of the attack, the associated punch, the weapon by the side, the pull, which are the more important problems and unfortunately these are seldom considered.

What is generally taught as self-defence is actually Model Sparring – a form of pre-arranged sparring that demonstrates idealised defence against an attack. The instructor tells your training partner how to attack you, and tells you exactly how to defend against this particular attack and also which counter-attack to exactly which vital spot will work best for this specific positioning of yourself and your training partner. When done properly, pre-arranged sparring is often quite pretty to watch, and seemingly very effective. But Model Sparring is not how a real life self-defence scenario plays out. In an actual violent encounter you seldom expect the attack, which is completely opposite to Model Sparring. You seldom know when the attack will happen or what type of attack it will be. And it would probably be better to talk of attacks (plural), rather than attack (singular), because the attacker is likely to do more than just grab your wrist and stand there waiting for you to do a wrist grab release.

When we as instructors teach Model Sparring and call it Self-Defence, we are misleading our students.

I had a student, whom I’ll call Ruth. As far as Self-Defence went, Ruth was one of my star students. During promotional tests I would tell the attacker how to attack (sometimes Ruth would be privy to what attack would come, sometimes not). Ruth would guard herself from the attack and then counter with strong successive counters, probably thumbs to the eyes, attacks to the throat, elbow strikes to the side of the head or knee strikes to the groin and thighs. Afterwards she would retreat sufficiently, not merely stepping back in a ready posture. Ruth’s self-defence demonstrations were never pretty, but anybody witnessing it would agree to its efficiency. She always convinced me that if she was to find herself in a violent assault situation that she would not be an easy victim and I therefore always gave her high scores on the self-defence section of her promotional tests. However, I also knew full well that if another instructor – one used to pretty wrist releases and picture perfect counter attacks – were to grade her, that her score would be far less than what I gave her. The reason would be not that she is bad at Self-Defence but that her Self-Defence did not resemble Model Sparring.

Since I do not always test my own students, I eventually started to teach them two types of self-defence techniques. The first type of "self-defence" techniques are based on Model Sparring:

The attacker grabs your wrist. You step forward into a walking stance, releasing your grabbed arm by turning it out in the weak part of the attacker’s grip and counter-attacking with a punch to the solar plexus with your other hand. You may include a kiap for effect. Step back into a guarding stance.

This type of self-defence is better called something else; maybe "Model Defence"?

The second type of self-defence techniques are based on likely real life scenarios.

The attacker grabs you and start pounding you with his free hand. Defend yourself.

For the first type of “self-defence” I teach specific attacks with specific counter techniques. The aim is to make it look effective. For the second type I teach basic principles for surviving an unexpected attack. There are usually no “blocking” techniques, merely guarding. Counter-attacks are not prescriptive, rather general suggestions are made based on the weakest points on the opponents body and the best attacking tools that require the least amount of conditioning. The eyes and throat can easily be injured even if the attacker is well conditioned. A palm heel strike is better than a fist (which could easily break against the hard skull of the attacker). Elbow strikes and knee kicks are very strong, even for physically smaller people.  The aim is not to make it look effective; the aim is to be effective.

I think that what is considered self-defence requirements are often traditional or cultural. Many Oriental martial arts, for instance, have self-defence techniques based on people sitting on the floor. While these are interesting to know, they are quite irrelevant to my particular students who hardly ever sit on the floor. Self-defence requirements should also have a certain profile in mind. Women are more likely to be grabbed; hence women need to learn more defences against grabs. However, most students training in martial arts are men; why then are such a big percentage of self-defence techniques taught grab releases?

The self-defence requirements for martial art syllabi should always get serious thought. Requirements should reflect the likely violent scenarios practitioners are to expect within their own society. Focus should also be given to the most likely victims of violent encounters, statistically speaking that is young men. Furthermore, pre-arranged sparring (i.e. Model Sparring) should not be confused with proper self-defence training.

I like the two videos below, directed by Master Alexandris, as they are much more reflective of actual self-defence than what is typically labelled self-defence.

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