Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Basics of Self-Defense Training

[This was built from one of my first serious attempts at passing along practical information from this site, rather than using it as a training diary in 2004. It was originally posted as Practicality in Training. It still encompasses much of my outlook on martial arts training. Comments are appreciated.-Nathan]

I've always looked at martial arts, in general, as an equalizer, much like the Colt 45 in the old west. I believe that you can improve your chances of survival in all self-defense situations if you have some training. For that training to be effective, though, you have to train as if you're in the situation.

This brings to mind something saw last winter at the skating rink near our home. As we were waiting for one of our kids' lessons to begin, I watched as the figure skaters were warming up in the main lobby area. Some of the competitors were just stretching and moving around, but a couple of them were practicing their jumps and spins in the air, then landing on the floor in tennis shoes. I realized that they were not only practicing some of the mechanics of the technique or jump, but from the focus, they were visualizing being on the ice.

That's how we should utilize the components of our training - everything can, and should, have a practical component. How often will we use a technique? Hopefully, never. If we need to, I don't think it's as important as being prepared to usewhatever we have ready. By this, I mean that if I have very heavy boots, restrictive clothing such as jeans and a winter coat on, I probably won't be kicking very high, if at all. But, I should have full use of my hands, and can count on some protection from my clothing as well. If you've ever worn bag gloves, you can attest to the fact that you can hit a lot harder with them on than with them off.

What's more important than what I wear is that I have mental preparation and confidence that I can avoid or handle something. So how can we prepare?

How can you make your self-defense training more practical.

  1. Train with self-defense in mind - How can I actually use this block, kick, punch, or grappling technique to save my life? Every technique, once learned properly, should be filled with intensity and purpose. Take nothing for granted. It could save your life.

  2. Drill scenarios like being attacked as you get in or out of your car; pushed from behind; grabbed from behind; tackled and pinned; in very light or dark conditions. Have you ever started out a grappling or groundfighting session on the ground, lights out or blindfolded? Drill being at an ATM and getting approached from behind. Practice in the parking lot. Read the crime blotter in your local paper and build scenarios from it.

  3. Train outdoors in street clothes. Make your training environment more realistic by wearing what you normally do. If it isn't appropriate, wear something close. As Bob mentioned recently, and I have many times, training wearing footwear is completely different than barefoot. Why on earth would you think that you can pivot, slide, or move the same with street clothes as you do in near-pajamas? Why do you think the military trains combatives in body armor, helmets, etc? Take a lesson and get it in gear!

  4. Train in confined spaces. Use a parking lot area marked off and surrounded (against a car), simulate an elevator or office area (or really use one if you make sure it's OK).

  5. Mentally rehearse. Inconspicuously look someone over so that you could identify them. Go from head to toe: height, build, skin color, facial hair or other distinguishing characteristics, clothing, footwear. Listen to his voice. Accent or anything else that stands out? Could he have a weapon? Think about what you would do versus an initial move or attack by that person.

  6. Think of escape routes. Never a good idea to turn your back, but, can you get away without being exposed to potential danger? One of your first moves when going in to a location is thinking of how you would get out. Much like defensive driving, knowing an escape route is key to being able to avoid dangerous situations.

  7. Practice the dynamics of fighting, not sparring. There is a very big difference between fighting and sparring. As you may know, sparring can be pretty, rhythmic, clean (technique-wise), and can take a while. Sometimes in sparring, you need to pace yourself. Fighting is all-out, vicious, and messy. It doesn't have a discernable rhythm, and there is no referee, or clock, so you don't have rules, and sometimes pacing yourself is going to mean you give your opponent more chances. Fight like you're in a toughman contest with only sixty seconds to win the whole bout. Sparring has it's place, but reserve time for serious fighting drills as well. Contact is critical to training to survive. If you aren't used to getting hit pretty hard, you're probably not going to make it outside the training hall.

  8. Train to survive fighting more than one person. Try to spar, at first, with more than one person until you get pretty competent at it. Then try to fight against a pair of partners that are working together to try to tackle or pin you. If you're really brave, try this against 3. Escalate the intensity and difficulty just a little past what the "defender" is ready for occasionally. Afterward, sit down and discuss what worked, what didn't and why. Learn from your losses and wins. Open up with different objectives, like the attackers are really pissed, or only want your wallet, or are just out to hurt you.

  9. Train to defend and survive an armed attack. Introduce weapons into your training as early as you can. There should be clubs, edged weapons, and handguns in your training. Add them into your skill set, then learn to defend against and use them. Add a club into the mix, or a blade, when sparring. Have someone pull a training pistol or squirt gun during drills and see how you handle it. It will, more than anything else, open up your mind to how your current skills need improvement. Who cares how many guys you can tap if someone else can double-tap you in the chest with a pistol because you aren't looking for it.

  10. Use your environment to survive. Dr. Jerry Beasley said that one of the first things he looks for in every self-defense situation is for something to throw. He wants to make sure he can blind, stun, or injure an attacker so that he can get away. A great approach. Also use objects in your environment to put between yourself and danger, anything that can give you a millisecond more to react if there's a threat. I think it was Hock Hochheim that wrote about some of the subtle things that officers do to maximize reaction time, like standing behind a fire hydrant or up on a curb. Are there any objects in your vicinity that your could improvise with? A broom could make good use of your bo skills. Similarly, I love having a short umbrella in my hand because I know that my Arnis training will let me make short work of most attackers, even a knife-wielding one.

In short, most of us start training with the idea that what we learn will help us in self defense. In many cases, it won't. Unless you train like your life depends on it.

Photo source: Wikipedia Commons


Craig Willits said...


Excellent post on the physical aspects of training for self defense.

However, there's an entire dimension your post didn't address.

First, it's not enough to train the physical. Actual hands-on confrontation is only necessary a small percentage of the time. A self defense curriculum that doesn't train the non-physical aspects (awareness, avoidance, verbal deescalation, escape/evasion, etc.) can't be considered complete.

Second, to be "self defense" the training needs to be taught in legal context. Use of force is not only for LEOs. The tactical decisions you make need to end the threat without landing you in jail.

That's just a quick take. You can find my complete thoughts in this MAS post from a couple months ago.


Martial Arts Spectrum

Nathan at TDA Training said...

OK - let's see if this works!
First, thanks for the comments - they are spot-on. There are numerous aspects to self-defense, and the "physical" are only a part.

My attempt here was to cover mindset, tactics, training methods, and, to a small degree, technique selection, but it was beyond the scope to include legal.

This was a first attempt at putting "on paper" what I was teaching at the time. FYI, as a log of blogs do, this has morphed from being simply a training diary and reminders to my students and training partners into a means of sharing knowledge and eliciting information via discussion (as your comment proved).

We all know some, but none know all.

BTW, I've added your Twitter feed to my follow list, and RSS to my reader so I won't miss anything. Welcome to the blogosphere - great start!