After working the door outside some of Johannesburg’s roughest nightclubs for several years, some perennial truths about defending oneself against an assailant have stood out. Below I outline some important considerations to take into account when thinking about learning to defend oneself. Some of these may seem painfully obvious, but if that was the case 99% of all self-defence schools would need to close their doors for business.
Know the Reality: Real fights don’t look the way they do in Hollywood, in fact most demonstrations in self-defence (on places like YouTube) don’t resemble what a real fight would look like. As obvious as this sounds, most reality based instructors are counting on a persons perception of how fights are won via the Hollywood model, and secondly, they count on the fact that most people entering into a reality based school don’t typically get into fights to begin with. In other words, if you don’t have MULTIPLE real life experiences with interpersonal aggression, someone could likely make you believe anything they want. This allows self-proclaimed experts to position certain self-defence approaches as valid, even though real fights look nothing like what is taught.
Drills and Demos, Only Half The Truth: I am the first one to admit, that in order to convey to the ‘general public’ what kind of approach they should take against a potential threat, one needs to show a visual example. This may be via a demo video, or taught on the mat via drills. But the truth is, in the end, real fights are untidy, almost never go to plan as you would like, and regardless of how much you have trained, your reaction to that violent encounter will always be at best, an approximation to what you practiced in training.
Most Fights Are Won Before They Happen: Awareness of your surroundings, and making sound choices on where you find yourself at any given time — are key to survival success. In many instances, there is often an opportunity to exit oneself form a potential threat, or not to be in a known trouble area in the first place. Often though this doesn’t happen because of ego. Not loosing face in a potential violent encounter is strongest among men (but woman can be prone to it too). If the situation you find yourself in, is truly about self-preservation, then losing face has nothing to do with that. A person should always seek to exit a potential threat — be that before, during or after an altercation.
Fights Are Fights: Most real street fights, especially those with empty hands resemble at best a boxing match, at worst something akin to mixed martial arts. I think the whole sport vs. street debate is absolute nonsense. Anyone with ten minutes to spare could go up on YouTube and watch a dozen recorded street situations and will see exactly what I just mentioned.
In order to be able to actually protect yourself against an opponent, requires then that you learn how to fight. The only place to practice this is in sparring, against uncooperative opponents. Contrary to the misinformation spread by reality based self defence instructors, most fights on the street resemble bad versions of boxing, kickboxing, MMA and or wrestling. The bottom line, train that way, because that’s likely how fights will look and go down. Of course there are some considerations and adaptions that need to be made from those delivery vehicles to self-preservation use (we do this ourselves in the Combat Intelligent Athlete program) — but the gap between sport vs. street is not as massive as self-defence instructors would like people to believe.
You Can Only Defend Yourself With Self-Preservation Knowledge [Not!]: Absolute nonsense! Every day, every second, someone, somewhere in the world is defending themselves right now and surviving — and they have never taken a day of martial arts training. You have, as everyone else, an evolutionary imperative to survive. While you may be stuck behind a cubicle all day, and no longer hunt on the grassy plains of the Savannah – your survival imperative still remains. It may be hidden, but it is there. The trick is to take an honest look at what REAL fights look like, and then ask, if what you training resembles that? If not, then you are overriding what is natural in your survival system, and replacing it with something completely unnatural. The outcome? Expect to lose a violent confrontation.
Weapons Change The Odds: Once a weapon is brought to an altercation, such as a blade — the favour turns towards the person who possesses that weapon. If you are not armed, then your number one priority is to seek an exit, while remaining aware, and safe. While I teach my clients on how to defend against a weapon, I also make them realise that there is a high probability that they will get hurt. Most people don’t want to hear this, but this is the reality on the street.
However just because someone gets stabbed for example, doesn’t mean it’s the end. Your desire to survive must always outweigh the will of the person trying to hurt you. If faced with a weapon, try and find an equaliser, or place a barrier between yourself and an assailant, especially if escape is not immediately possible. Only when all options are exhausted should you attempt to take on a weapon wielding assailant. Of course I realise this is largely due to situation, and there may be times where going hands on with a weapon wielding assailant is required from the onset.
Context, Context, Context: The three C’s are crucial. Okay it’s actually one word repeated but you get my point. Let me give you an example, in most self-defence demonstrations, one person attacks, and the other counters. Typically the attacking side, attacks once, allowing the defender to do as he pleases. The truth is, no fight looks like that. Training in that context as a method of preparation for the actual event, will be a rude awakening to anyone believing that is how it works.
The funny thing about fights between two people (or more) is that the attacker will actually fight back, fight back hard, and will continue to fight until he is unable to (or doesn’t want to anymore). Unless you were able to stop and neutralise the threat on the first blow (which almost never happens) you will find yourself in a fight for your life.
Killer Moves: Most self-defence programs teach eye gouging, face ripping and kicks to the groin as the ultimate moves to stop an attacker. I am not saying these are not valid, but to bet your life on these is a mistake. The human body is amazingly resilient to violence. The amount of punishment a person can take, and keep on coming back for more in fights is amazing (I have seen this first hand, 100’s of times working the door). This applies not only to yourself, but the person attacking you (I have experienced this too). If you look at most fights on the street, self defence or otherwise, almost never do you see any of these ‘killer moves’ and if you do, they almost never stop the fight (I have used them, and found out the hard way).
A couple of things stand out here. For one, fights are chaotic, fights are almost never stationary, and distance in fights change rapidly. What does this mean? Even if you want to kick someone in the groin, you still will need to be able to apply it in the midst of overcoming your own fear, and lose of motor control. You will still need to apply it against an opponent who is trying to hurt you, and hurt you with multiple strikes from a variety of angles. You will still need to apply it to the changing circumstances (context) as the opponent moves at varied speeds, and varied distances (or suddenly all his buddies jump in).
My position is this, if you are not sparring with people every week, which is the very place you are able to learn to deal with distance management, timing precision, chaos, unpredictability, and of course a resisting opponent — what makes you think you can land anything then (groin kick included) when someone on the street does the same – but you have only trained out of pre-rehearsed, often stationary training encounters? (like the one punch attacker mentioned earlier).