Sunday, March 01, 2009

Discerning Self-Defense Techniques


Rank doesn't mean anything, an instructor of mine once said. It's what you know that counts. Knowledge really is power. Making your knowledge work when it counts is the bottom line. But how do you know what you've been trained in "works"?

One of the big knocks against modern martial arts is that some of them have been debased with downright ineffective self defense moves that may seem plausible in the dojo, but would likely get you maimed or killed in an alley. Aside from the fact that most practitioners aren't trained or conditioned to be actual fighters, I'm referring to "techniques" that simply don't work. Personally I've spied on my share of adult instructors who - while they may seem sincere and well meaning - have no place teaching due to incompetence. If you're going to take the title of sensei, you really should be up to snuff with your skills. Kyoshi Bill Hayes of Shorin-ryu karate tells a story of a recent shopping trip where he witnessed "the winner of the 'Worst Demo I've seen in 47 Years of Training!' award." Realize how many people offer martial arts courses without being held accountable for rendering inept teachings.

A while back I posted a story about a magazine article touting The Ultimate Self-Defense Move. It was a bit of a stretch as most of my readers (myself included) had some doubts about the merit of this particular technique. Sometimes part of the problem with self-defense drills is having an uke (attacker) who's just going through the motions. Have you ever been guilty of this? Even if you're working viable, effective techniques, having a training partner who's not attacking with realistic intent (very important!) isn't going to help anyone. But if you feel that what you've been shown hasn't been proven effective or is below par, it may be time to move on.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

How many people do you think are teaching martial arts as self defense, who have never had to defend themselves? If they've never really had to use the techniques they're teaching, upon what basis do they have to judge whether the techniques they are teaching really would be effective or not?

8:02 PM  
Blogger Man of the West said...

It can, occasionally, be problematic to know when to step up the resistance level to a technique; still, as partners get to know one another better, it seems to me that they have a better and better sense of when they can successfully resist. Certainly, that's been the case with me and my principal training partner (that's not my instructor). We go through the motions at first, and then, as the comfort level with the technique increases, we--carefully!--start increasing the level of resistance. Usually, we quickly find where the bigger flaws in our execution are.

As far as how we know the techniques are effective without having had to use them--that's a valid criticism, seems to me, but short of experimenting via deliberately picking frequent fights (something I'm told Choki Motobu actually did for a while), I'm not altogether sure that you can solve it completely. All you can do, I think, is to make your training as realistic as you can, keeping in mind that no manufactured situation is ever going to perfectly reflect reality. As my instructor says whenever teaching us a new technique, "But nothing will ever happen that way."

When trying to answer questions like this, I often turn to a subject most of us know well: driving. We are all taught how to deal with sliding on snow, but none of us know it will work until we try it for the first time. Likewise with avoiding a wreck. I well recall an incident a couple of years ago where someone pulled out in front of my Bronco II. It wasn't until later that I realized that I had simultaneously taken my foot off the accelerator, stomped the clutch and the brake, looked in my mirror and then over my shoulder, and swerved a little to the left. Never rehearsed it as a complete "technique," but somehow, all the components were there and it worked.

I tend to think that martial arts is often the same way. Diligent practice of basically sound techniques will generally give the desired results under pressure.

10:39 PM  
Blogger Blackbeltmama said...

Kyoshi Hayes is amazing. If you ever get the chance to work with him in person, DO! His self defense techniques are simple and effective, the very best kind. The simpler the better when it comes to self defense. Complicated moves will only get your hurt. It's not like you get a do-over in a real life situation.

10:50 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Rick:

How many people do you think are teaching martial arts as self defense, who have never had to defend themselves?

I have no idea.

If they've never really had to use the techniques they're teaching, upon what basis do they have to judge whether the techniques they are teaching really would be effective or not?

I'm going to assume you meant to say "upon what basis do we have to judge whether the techniques they are teaching really would be effective or not?"

Depends on who's observing. That's why I included the story about Bill Hayes. Of course, most of us aren't in a league with this person, but I do think most of us (as experienced practitioners) can figure out a legit teacher with authentic skills from a fraud, even within the confines of a school or a public demo.
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MOTW:

I believe in training with a certain degree of realism, depending on who you're paired up with. How you train is how it happens, so even when the heat is on, no-thought or mu-shin operates (kind of an oxymoron) and one responds instantly, without reservation, like in your near-miss auto accident episode.
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Hi BBM.

I agree that the simpler, the better. It makes total sense, especially if your under pressure. (Someday I'll go to a Hayes workshop. Still haven't gotten his book.)

11:27 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I guess what I'm getting at is that there aren't that many instructors out there that really know whether what they are teaching will work or not. The ones who would get some regular feedback from their students would be those who are teaching to law enforecement.

For myself, the best strategy I can pursue I think is to keep a clear mind. When my mind is clear, I tend to respond, rather than react, and I also seem to just have more time. It's not that time slows down, I just seem to have more of it.

Great topic.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Charles James said...

In self-defense, drilling repetitively is so important (not this once a month stuff but as close to daily as possible). Beginners should be allowed to have pliant Uke until they get the technique down then Uke MUST start to implement resistance to the technique or its worthless.

A mistake most make in valadation of a self-defense technique is they try it and the uke resists so they say "it don't work" while if they tried it with a pliant Uke and then took time to "get it right" then applied the resistance until they can do it full force, both tori and uke, then they will know if it works or not.

Excellent Post Vesia Sensei!

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Ikigai said...

I would like to have heard that story from Hayes Sensei!

2:39 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks Charles.

Yes, training partners should always start cooperatively. Uke at first should be pliant to get the movement and mechanics down correctly. This is seen best in Aikido, where nage (tori) and uke engage in a kind of dance, which serves as criticism by many to seem unrealistic. Originally, this was done so uke wouldn't end up with a broken arm! But as you well know, many techniques actually work better when the attacker is applying (resisting with) maximum force.
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Ikigai:

Got it from his quarterly newsletter.

12:04 AM  
Blogger "oldman" said...

John,
I have taught both MA classes and separate SD classes to women. I have had women from both encounter assaults after having gone through classes. Each and every one that encountered violence ranging from verbal aggression to all out assault got through their situations unharmed.When I first started teaching I taught mostly the physical components. As I learned more, I incorporated handling verbal aggression, physiology and psychological aspects. We do full on padded assailant training. We also cover reporting and seeking help and support to process any violent encounter.

In the years that I taught primarily physical things, students if assaulted used physical solutions quite well. One woman, a green belt dropped an attacker in a Walmart parking lot and pinned him there till police came.

The more interesting point is that since I have chanbed my cirriculum the women that has reported back have all been able to deescalate or use firm physical and verbal boundries to end their situations safely.

Each has been fortunate and understands that things could have gone badly or gotten much worse but each was thankful to have option when the stuff hit the wall.

6:17 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Oldman:

...all been able to deescalate or use firm physical and verbal boundries to end their situations safely.

I believe the best martial arts techniques are to be found in preventive measures, not necessarily in some block-and-strike move. Thanks for stopping by.

12:12 AM  
Blogger Krista de Castella said...

Great post – and I’ve really enjoyed the discussion.

I posted on this topic recently too: http://memoirsofagrasshopper.blogspot.com/

I agree whole-heartedly that all too often ‘bunkai’ and applications are practiced in ways that are ineffective and would be down right dangerous if used in self-defense. But, that said, I think sometimes we can also be a little hasty in criticizing techniques…

There are many kata applications that I completely dismissed over the years as too slow, akward or complicated when it was in fact me that was making them that way.

I agree with blackbeltmamma that self-defense must be simple. Until techniques are effective and instinctive they should probably be avoided at all cost outside the dojo.

But, for those techniques that don’t work ‘yet’, maybe it’s worth suspending judgment, doing a little more ‘realistic’ practice and exploration, and asking ourselves whether it’s the technique that's ineffective or whether we’re ineffective at using the technique.

2:23 AM  
Anonymous Massimo Gaetani said...

I firmly agree with your post and some of the comments. Far too many people wear a black belt and get called sensei without really deserving it, let alove being able to explain realistic and functional techniques that can be useful in self defence.

From my point of view is better trying to avoid giving false illusions to people and explain that it can very nasty out there.

5:38 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Thanks Krista.

There are many kata applications that I completely dismissed over the years as too slow, awkward or complicated when it was in fact me that was making them that way.

I see where you're coming from. It's funny, but it was certain bunkai that I've seen that inspired me to write this post.

I dunno, Krista. I mean at what point do we say "this technique seems so far fetched, but it's been handed down from antiquity - so I must be doing something wrong"? It might depend what level you're at, but also what works best for the practitioner.

I've definitely seen some bunkai through the years that really seems convoluted and over-worked. Am I being hasty? Maybe. Good counter-point, I appreciate your input.
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Welcome aboard Massimo.

Far too many people wear a black belt and get called sensei without really deserving it...

Ugh! Tell me about it. In lieu of a lengthy response, I just might write a topic about just that.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

Hi there.

in the few occasions I had to actually defend myself, this is what came out:

knee strike to groin,
punch to the side of the head,
hip throw,
locking the elbow

I sometimes do bunkai... and wonder when the hell I'm gonna practice that, especially statically.

While hands move, joints hurt, there's something missing from the body movements in bunkai work. But then, maybe it's the point, right?

I sincerely feel more and more like I have to do something more to understand it. But then, I'm not a black belt yet. So my ideas are not always welcome yet. I hope to change that in the near future. :)

Sometimes, just sometimes, I feel karate need a boot to the ass. Walking through the valley of dead karatekas, I don't want to be ashamed of what I have learned/trained/showed.

:D

9:32 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Hey Mat.

I sometimes do bunkai... and wonder when the hell I'm gonna practice that, especially statically.

While hands move, joints hurt, there's something missing from the body movements in bunkai work. But then, maybe it's the point, right?


This is a point that's similar to one of my earlier posts. Of course it's nearly impossible to work bunkai non-statically (spontaneously). It's like kata, bunkai, and kumite are so exclusive to one another. You learn the kata, but then their applications are like starting over, at least that's been my experience. They (the bunkai) have a different feel - for lack of a better word. And point-matches are devoid of bunkai or any semblance of kata.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Krista de Castella said...

@John:

I mean at what point do we say "this technique seems so far fetched, but it's been handed down from antiquity - so I must be doing something wrong"? It might depend what level you're at, but also what works best for the practitioner.

I agree that holding on to specific bunkai for history and antiquity’s sake is a little silly. I mean historically speaking, bunkai training was always intended to be flexible and adaptable for self-defense. I’m told that back in the days of Chojun Miyagi’s garden dojo, students were frequently given homework of exploring, testing, and inventing new bunkai for kata techniques. I know that Higaonna-Sensei never ceases to amaze me with the number of applications he can come up with for any one given move in kata and he’s always quick to point out that there is no ‘one right’ technique.

You are right though, you do have to draw the line somewhere regarding how effective or ineffective a technique is, but I guess making those judgments to a large extent hinges on the quality of your instructor and training partner. And unfortunately, there are probably as many bad instructors out there as there are techniques – wouldn’t surprise me if you also found them together.

@Mathieu:

While hands move, joints hurt, there's something missing from the body movements in bunkai work. But then, maybe it's the point, right? I sincerely feel more and more like I have to do something more to understand it. But then, I'm not a black belt yet. So my ideas are not always welcome yet. I hope to change that in the near future. :)

Again, good point. I think it's important to constantly question whether or not techniques would 'actually work'. How else do we improve on them? I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss yourself on account of grade. I’ve always felt belts are rather silly things anyways… but then, that's another post...

11:38 AM  

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