Monday, February 25, 2008

Is your traditional training going to get you killed?

I'm going to get in some hot water from traditionalists for this, but that's OK, considering the importance of the subject. I think that I'm qualified to state that most traditional training in the US consists of:

  • Kicks and punches only - some have traditional weapons forms, and have added grappling or MMA as a sideline to increase their relevance and revenue
  • Classes of 45 minutes to 90 minutes long, two to three times a week
  • Techniques performed in the air (no contact) or on pads
  • Most schools have students remove their shoes and practice in loose-fitting, comfortable uniforms
  • Forms (poomse or kata) being a large part of the focus and time spent
  • Sparring with light to medium contact, and with restrictive rules for safety

I believe that most modern traditional schools (an intentionally paradoxical statement) do not prepare students for real self-defense, but to get hurt. Where I'm going to get into trouble is with the term "traditional" because that's a wide-open term, with different meanings to different martial artists. I believe it applies, based on how I defined the type of training in the bullet points above.

The question I asked in the title to the post is: "Is your traditional training going to get you killed?" The answer I'm sure to get is, "Well, maybe in other schools, but my tradition is tougher than what you're talking about!" In the example above, a student will spend at least 90% of his time in doing things which don't prepare him for what he's likely to face - an armed, vicious single attacker, or a pair or group of attackers who are similarly vicious and armed.

I was reviewing old comments to a previous post, "Check and move," featuring video of multiple opponent sparring prompted me to make the following comments regarding real fighting:

  1. As was stated so well in the comments, "Real fighting isn't pretty!" The sparring in the video was obviously an exercise, but simulated an "anything goes" fight versus two opponents who were unrestricted in the type of unarmed technique they could use (the only exception being joint strikes). We wore goggles to allow eye jabs and gouges, knee and elbow pads to allow contact with both techniques (strikes with knees and elbows), and the padding also meant we didn't need to use mats for falls. Takedowns were allowed, and even encouraged, and the idea was for the attackers to grab, take down, or otherwise immobilize the defender, then pound him. The only restrictions were on the level of contact - it was medium (to me, that means you'll feel a "pop," but you shouldn't see stars).
  2. Doing a drill like that (or seeing it) makes you realize how "range-centric" most sparring is: from boxing to TKD, to point karate, we all are used to rules which encourage a particular fighting range (like 2 points for kicks, and one for punches), or discourage one (such as the restrictions on clinching in boxing and TKD), and train us to get comfortable in that range. Additionally, in sparring within our style, we automatically assume that range, almost by consensus when sparring. I've read comments from MMA fans watching boxing and screaming at the TV, "He's open! Take him down!" The danger in this is that in real fighting, range is fluid - there's no clear definition of any range (it's the transitions that get you), nor are there any agreements "on the street" to use one range or another. Almost all of the fights I've seen (usually consensual) start just outside of punching range, but end up in a clinch or on the ground. I think the difference in my skill set is primarily that I am better at controlling that range, plus not hurting myself (I can strike, fall, and grapple without accidentally damage to myself more than an untrained person).
  3. To build on the previous point, you need to build the ability to close to, or stay at, the range that you're most effective. My short (5'9"), stocky build (currently around 220#) makes me an effective infighter against most fighters standing (I love hooks, elbows, and knees), and very effective striking versus shorter or similar sized opponents. My shortcomings [intended] have been exposed on occasion when trying to use the same tactics versus taller opponents as I do with my shorter foes.
  4. Another fatal mistake from "traditional" sparring is that we are used to the feeling (and reality) that our opponents have the same intentions that we do - to learn, develop, or to just bang around and have fun. Real encounters of a violent nature nearly always involve some type of disparity. Violent muggers are, by definition, intending you harm. If I were a mugger, I wouldn't want to give my victim a chance to think or react, but put him down and get his stuff before he knew what hit him! In seven years working at a PD (as a civilian), I read countless incident reports, press releases, and heard anecdotal accounts of violent muggings, and in most cases, the victims were taken completely by surprise by either multiple opponents, or multiple opponents brandishing a knife or gun. I don't think we adequately prepare students for that in most dojo (or dojangs). I'll admit, when I ran three commercial schools, we didn't cover that type of material. I hadn't learned it very thoroughly (more of a one-step, unrealistic, pattern-based weapon defense), and thus didn't prepare my students well for the same. Are we really teaching self-defense if more most attacks are more than one-on-one, and are armed encounters? Nope. That's one of the reasons I surveyed some the Convocation of Combat Arts to determine what they're learning or teaching. My impression? It may be a good foundation for one-on-one empty-hand fighting, but is probably giving the students (and even the instructors) a false sense of security regarding their real prospects for surviving a violent encounter.
  5. Real fighting almost never takes place on a padded, level, surface without shoes. I have never seen or heard of a fight or mugging that took place where both opponents (notice how I slipped into the one-on-one mindset?) are barefoot. Why on earth do most schools have you take off your shoes??? A couple of reasons: 1) the styles that we predominantly teach in this county originate in either Korea or Japan, where removing your shoes indoors is a custom, and almost all training is held indoors, 2) it's easier and cheaper to keep your school clean without having to worry about what gets tracked in from outside, and 3) it helps prevent injuries. I am all for both of the last reasons - I like a clean surface to train on, and like to prevent injuries, but I hate the idea that we're teaching our people to ignore the fact that a work boot is more likely to kick us than a bare foot. Have you ever tried to block a work book? How about just cover up? I guarantee that if you have, you'll modify your sparring style! I will admit that I train in soft shoes, but on a realistic surface, whether soft (grass or dirt), or hard (concrete or blacktop). I realize that a lot of this is logistics (hard to create a sloped surface in a storefront school or pour sand on your hardwood), but again, are we trying to save lives, or not?
  6. Uniforms are great, and I understand the idea behind them (uniformity, taking off the old self and putting on your uniform and belt changes your mind set, etc.), but kicking in street clothes is completely different than with a dobok or judogi. Same with grappling. I've tried grappling in tight jeans (not that tight, honest!), and you can't execute a good closed guard or triangle in them. Many "reality-based" or self-defense-oriented schools require shoes and street clothes for good reason. You learn to deal with the limitations of your apparel. Have you trained on concrete in a parka? How about grappling in the grass in shorts and t-shirts? Why not? Strikes in (or against) heavy clothing and grappling without a gi top make a big difference!
  7. Lighting conditions are probably not going to be ideal! I doubt many schools would turn off the lights before practicing one-step sparring, much less free sparring. But chances are, you may be stepping out of a movie theatre (I'm always blinded then), and jumped by the kid you shushed an hour before, or otherwise have to defend yourself when it's brighter or darker than your average MA school. The types of techniques you'd use aren't the same if you don't know your lighting conditions, or if you know you won't be able to see. I have a good amount of video of sparring with my guys in the parking lot of the PD where I'd steer them, check, or "cut off the ring" so that the sun was in their eyes. Only after a few rounds did I fess up, and they tried to use it on each other and me from then on. Makes a difference. Can you do that in the gymnastics school that your groups meets at?\
  8. Finally, if most of your self-defense situations are likely to be versus armed, multiple attackers who are vicious, how much of your training is geared toward that? I'd hazard that most have less than 5% tilted that way. We need to work toward getting at least 50% of your training in that direction, and increase the intensity as soon as your students are ready. My opinion is that we need to do more of what combatives (military martial arts) are doing, with a focus on these mixed weapons and numbers. Do you know how to disarm a gun, to fire one? Do you have any specialized knife or club training? Get some! When we're talking about self-defense, we need to address the totality of combat, not just the least used (single, one-on-one, unarmed) aspects.

Is this an attack on traditional training? Yes. I believe, however, that the older traditions of training in what you've got on, outside, and with mixed weapons are more valid - I'm just advocating getting back to more of that. I've gained so much from traditions, but which are most important - the ones that make it comfortable and orderly, or the ones that save your students lives? Think about it.

UPDATE: There's now a thread at the Convocation of Combat Arts on this subject- HERE. Please head over and put in your $0.02! 



Rick Fryer said...

Another excellent article by Nathan. As a self-proclaimed “Traditionalist,” it would be very easy to be offended by his observations, but like it or not, he makes some very good points.

Nathan’s assessment of traditional martial arts clearly shows many of the problems inherent in this type of training. However, I believe that traditional martial arts also provide many substantial benefits. In the interest of fair and balanced perspective, I’d like to describe some of the advantages to traditional training.

Traditional Martial Arts:

- Emphasize proper body mechanics

- Drill muscle memory through consistent repetition

- Build speed, power, and accuracy into the practice of techniques

- Improve the coordination and balance needed for self-defense

- Utilize underlying combat principles and strategies (two-way action, complex torque, variable pressure, redundancy, etc.)

- Instruct in the proper use of vital and/or pressure points

- Develop the muscle structure and flexibility needed for effective self-defense

- Allow students to practice dangerous techniques in a reasonably safe manner.

Still, the traditionalist cannot ignore or dismiss the critical observations of Nathan (and others). Instead, we should be asking, “How can we improve our training to account for these observations?”

For example:

In response to Observations # 2&3; Can we somehow make our sparring sessions less “range-centric” to allow us to practice at different distances?

In Observation #4; How can we change our self-defense drills to better simulate an encounter with an attacker who fully intends to harm us? Can we safely increase resistance to a self-defense technique? Increase the speed or intensity of the initial attack? Use multiple attackers? Etc.?

For Observation # 5,6,&7; Can we occasionally train in unfamiliar environments and/or train in street clothing? Can we safely train in dark or confined spaces?

Observation # 8; How can we incorporate surprise weapon attacks into our class drills and sparring sessions.

With careful thought and some creativity, I believe that most traditional schools can modify their training methods without loosing their “traditional” identity. We can maintain a traditional approach while also continuing to challenge and scrutinize our training.

That’s my thoughts on this provocative subject. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.



Nathan Teodoro said...

I was impressed by the thought you put into this. I started a thread over at CoCA for this - please go back to the original post for a link or jump to the thread here:

Anonymous said...

Hello Nathan,

I never thought I would be in the position of defending formal stylists but I feel the need to point out the (what I thought was) obvious.... Formal karate in its day may have been used on the streets, but now a day (just as boxers of old had to learn) fighting has changed.

I think there is value in learning the low-horse stances, punching and kicking drills, katas as well as the stylized rules in each sporting event. But I would argue that has and has always had little to do with fighting.

In my hey-day I was a point tournament fighter that had modest success in So-Cal. The fact that my punches and kicks striking points and force were limited did not impair my ability to fight in a bar as a bouncer for a couple of years at a bar. The two types of fighting actually complemented each other (I also have not been hit in a real fight because of my understanding of critical distance) because in the real fights I could do what I wanted to in the sport matches (and I did not get disqualified for excessive contact). :)

Anyway I would also like to say that real fights happen when you are sick, injured, drunk or otherwise at a disadvantage... the fact that you don't often train that way should not preclude you from surmounting any obstacles during the real deal.

This was interesting... I did not reply on the other thread because I don't like taking the time to join stuff to spout off my opinion.

Here is a link that speaks to my roots in karate: - My instructor Dick Willett always injected common sense realism into the lessons and promoted some very successful fighters.

Please don't misunderstand my comments to say I don't understand your concern but I think every martial art - even some of the flowery ones, have their place and worth...

Kind regards,

John W. Zimmer