Saturday, August 01, 2009

Is your traditional training going to get you killed? A repost

[This was originally posted in February, 2008 and elicited a lot of comments. What do you think? Let me know in the comments here.- Nathan]

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.


Urban Samurai said...

Hey Nathan. All the points you made were very valid. As someone who comes from a traditional background I can back up what you are saying. Most traditional schools do not teach proper self defense for the street. I believe in order to train for the street you have to train completely differently, make the training more intense and more true to life. Street fighting isn't pretty and neither is the training you have to do for it. Usually you end up getting hurt, but that is part of it, learning to take a hit.

In my own training (which is Kempo Jujitsu) I make a distinction between art and reality. I practice traditional technique for the sake of the art and the enjoyment of actually doing so and working at perfecting it. Even with Jujitsu though, I am under no illusions. Most of the techniques are not suitable for street self defense. For that I just keep things simple- simple strikes,simple locks and chokes etc.

Really it depends what you want to get out of martial arts at the end of the day. If someone wants to learn how to defend themselves then they should do Krav Maga or some other reality based art. If you just want to learn an art, then go traditional. I believe as long as people make the distinction between art and reality they won't get themselves into trouble. A good grounding in the basics is pretty much all you need for street self defense, technique wise. After that it all comes down to personality. How confident are you? How well do you respond under pressure? Can you actually hit someone and put them down? These are things that specialist training can improve to an extent. The rest you have to get from real live situations. Get a bouncing job, put everything to the test.

One final point. Most people go through life without ever getting into a fight on the street. You can over emphasise the self defense aspects if you're not careful. Yes, you should be as prepared as possible, but also strike a balance and don't let the percieved need to know how to defend yourself overtake your life. Some people get very obsessed by it all. That's why I think people should garner an appreciation for the art side of things as well, to provide a balance in their training and also to help them along mentally and spiritually.

When it comes to self defense, paranoia is not productive. Keep thingss in perspective.

Excellent post. Well done.

Adam @ Low Tech Combat said...

Great post Nathan!

Those that know me will be able to predict my view that I completely agree with what you are saying. Many Traditional schools are participating in more of an Asian cultural practise than any real and current Martial activity in todays world. If that is what they want, that is how they should advertise themselves, not as a solution to todays violence. They are risking their students lives by this false advertising.

The very first thing a new student should be taught when they walk into a martial arts school is how to survive a likely attack from a likely attacker. This should ALWAYS have priority. Train these early days in a students study as though they WILL be attacked in exactly one month. Teach only what is useful and use the very best training methods available. Yes, controlled pressure should be implemented as part of that process. Begin slowly and comfortably and gradually increase intensity and discomfort factor as the days progress. This will reinforce the training and learned reflexes will be ingrained and will work when under stress...

After that one month, more time can be spent teaching and learning more of the subtleties of human to human combat and gradually expose them to the traditional aspects of the individual art they are studying. But this needs to come AFTER they have been put through a type of RBSD course for the first few weeks.

Ive rambled enough. Great post, it got me fired up. I love reading this sort of thing, it gets me excited that this training philosophy is spreading and I hope it continues to do so.

KarateYellowBelt said...

KarateYellowBelt ("KYB") on, "Is your traditional training going to get you killed?"

Nathan Theodoro, your points speak to the gap between traditional martial arts training programs and the 'reality' of unpredictable actual self defense situations, which no sensical person can deny.

The trap, so to speak, for traditional martial artists, is to get in the rut of 'ritualistic' training where they are mindlessly repeating the in-class training routines. This is a real danger.

However, KYB disagrees with your perspective that traditional martial arts training, as described, is necessarily ineffective in real-life situations. To KYB, you seem to take the postion of so many applied-fighter types who's goal is to be so good at fighting, that you Criticise rather than Analyze.

The traditional karates have a lot of flaws and drawbacks; their purpose is not to produce an 'instant-super-killer.' Furthermore, a lot of karate practitioners do not have the time or energy to really delve into the training full bore, but can still benefit from the type of practice you describe above. This is better than no training.

If you are able to devote the necessary time and energy in traditional karate training, it will give you a base of abilities that the average person will not bring to a conflict; thus you will have an 'edge.' It is this base of ability that traditional karate training seeks to give its practitioners; not make them authorities on the numberless myriad of self-defense scenarios.

Contrary to the, and your, conventional wisdom, KYB abstains from in-class free-style sparring whenever possible. Contrary to most students at my karate school, KYB does not incorporate boxing into his fighting strategy. Instead, KYB rigoroulsy practices the other elements of the traditional karate regimen, including kata or poomse. Consequently, KYB has a strong karate base.

The correct viewpoint is that traditional karate training is a Progression towards higher and higher levels of skill. Your focus on the 'reality gap' ignores the great value and necessary step of that strong karate base provided by properly training in traditional karate.

The very last free-style sparring session KYB had as a yellow-belt at my current karate school was against a protege of a golden gloves boxer, also a student at my school. On a stricly points basis, I lost the match. However, it was not supposed to be a tournament.

Based on a training objective, KYB essentially completely shut down the skilled boxer's aggressive offense, using defense only. That's right, I defeated the applied fighter-boxer type using DEFENSIVE [Karate] TACTICS ONLY!

If you don't understand traditional karate training's purpose and effect, and / or don't do the proper training; then tradtional karate will get your killed, no question!