Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Traditional Martial Arts And Self-Defense/My Kid Didn't Get Into A Fight At School

There's an ongoing discourse regarding traditional-type martial arts such as karate, kung fu, and ju-jitsu and their effectiveness in "real" self defense. It's quite an interesting debate, if you lean that way.

Before I talk any farther about the nature of the debate, I'm going to relate something that involves young Genghis at school last week. Apparently, there was a bit of disagreement during the regular lunchtime cricket game. Genghis denies doing anything to irritate the other party... but I know Genghis, and I'm quite sure he said something, or did something, that must have pissed off the other kid mightily.

That doesn't excuse the other kid, though. The boy in question shaped up, approached, and threw a fist at Genghis's belly. At which point, according to both Genghis and at least one onlooker who actually noticed, Genghis sidestepped and said very clearly: Please don't do that.

I'm sure he wasn't being polite, mind you. He has a very good "I'm extremely pissed off" voice that he uses on his mother regularly, and she hates it. I'm quite sure that he was warning the other boy in a very blunt fashion. And indeed, that was the end of the 'altercation'. The boy who wanted to throw the punch packed up his tents and his camels, and the game of cricket went on.

Now, as a father and a martial arts instructor, I couldn't be happier. This is almost to the exact letter what I hope for from my students. (It could only have been better if Genghis hadn't managed to piss off the other kid in the first place. But he's not quite eleven years old, and he's a bit small for his age, and he's fiercely competitive and he loves his cricket. I expect that at times he's not a perfect angel.) To break it down, Genghis

  • Identified an incoming threat
  • Avoided the attack 
  • Used the motion of avoiding the attack to place himself in a superior and defensible posture
  • Maintained his distance 
  • Did not respond aggressively
  • De-escalated verbally
  • Used his voice very clearly, so that onlookers would know he was not the aggressor
All of that is textbook self-defense in this kind of situation. And depending on your style of traditional martial art (some are a bit more gung-ho about blocking incoming attacks and about counter-striking. Personally, I prefer the minimum necessary force approach. That's why I practice ju-jitsu.) this is an excellent example of training in action. 

Genghis' response differs from an untrained kid in several very important particulars, almost all of which are inherent to the list above. His training permitted him to identify an aggressor by posture, and to recognise an incoming attack from the aggressor's balance and movement. Many untrained people fail to recognise an incoming attack until it's far too late.

 Likewise, his training gave him the ability to move confidently and quickly to a safer position. He didn't need to think about his footwork or his body position: we train those in every class, over and over. And of course, picking a safe position from which to negotiate requires a knowledge of attack ranges and attack types. It also requires a confidence which is most easily acquired by training aggressively on the mat. 

The ability to ramp down the violence verbally, and to avoid responding physically -- both of those require confidence in one's ability to control the situation. It's very difficult to do these things if you're frightened of confrontation, and of the consequences of being hit by your opponent. Genghis has years of experience in rough-and-tumble on the mat, and many hours of training in precisely this kind of thing.

So: altogether, a 9/10. An excellent response, carried out quietly and cleanly enough that no teachers got involved, and most of the other kids didn't even realise anything was going on. That being the case, you might well ask -- what's the debate? Clearly, the training has worked.

The answer is complicated. First, I need to point out that there are many traditional styles, and they are taught differently. Many of them are taught as physical arts -- like ballet, if you will. They are taught as sequences of action and motion, and not effectively grounded in some kind of awareness of the real potentialities of conflict. When a student is taught in that fashion, it can be extremely difficult for the student to "make the jump" mentally, and recognise that the time has come to put their dojo training into real-world action. What I'm saying: fights don't start with someone taking a neat stance, and launching a textbook attack -- and if that's what you're trained to respond to, you will be hit by the unorthodox, wild swing.

I'm fairly sure I don't teach in a traditional manner. I teach to a curriculum for the purposes of belts and gradings because it makes the kids happy, it makes the parents happy, and it gives the Australian Ju-jitsu Association some means of gauging the content of my classes. But in keeping with what I learned from Shihan Mark Haseman, and what I've read from folks like Rory Miller, I spend a great deal of time grounding martial technique in what I know (which I admit to be limited) of real-world matters. 

The second issue involved in the debate comes from the rise of MMA as a sport and competition. The MMA people train very hard, and they train 'live', with lots of resistance. They do a great deal of sparring, and there is a mindset amongst these people that says any other kind of training is pointless. Even if you point out to them that sparring calls for rules and protective gear, they still insist that "live, full-contact sparring" is The Best Way To Train. 

I don't really need to buy into that, myself. Except to say that I had a guy once show up at the class who was quite proud of his Muay Thai thigh kicks. (Muay Thai is a staple of the MMA scene.) They were pretty good, too: fast, accurate, plenty of power. We talked, and I tried to explain the difference between the ring and the street, and he was all confidence, all denial. So... in the end, we agreed to a friendly, light-contact bout with an 'open' rule set. He set up. I set up. He moved... and I borrowed from a ninjitsu practitioner I met at a knife seminar years ago. I cleared my throat and pretended to spit in his face.

He blinked. I tapped his testicles with my foot. Game over.

MMA is very strong. A good MMA practitioner is much, much better at fighting than I am. 

I don't pretend to be a fighter. In fact, fighting is the absolute last on my list of defensive techniques. I respect the MMA community and the practitioners of MMA fighting tremendously, and if I ever have to get into a real conflict with one of them, I am going to cheat scientifically and mercilessly, and with luck I won't have to fight at all. 

The third issue under debate is the nature of the attack itself. Here, the hardcore self-defense people come into their own. These are people who train against the attack that comes by surprise, and is nigh overwhelming: the guy who comes at you from behind while his mates engage you from the front. The person who steps out of the shadows and breaks your shoulder with a club in the first swing. These people insist that the Trad Martial approach of front-on training against a known, visible attacker is pointless. 

Well -- against the kind of attack they insist is waiting for you, they're quite right. On the other hand, if Genghis had shielded his face with his arms then screamed and driven elbows and knees into his attacker... yeah. That would have been really good, right?

Trad Martial may not suit every occasion. And to be fair, in my class we do train against the bad-ass attack. We work inferior positions. Surprise attacks. Surprise weapon attacks. Multiple attackers. We put furniture and walls into the picture. We posit disabled limbs, and insist on effective one-handed defenses. We train to make the natural 'flinch' response into an effective counterattack, as far as possible.

But that's not all we do, is it? 

Yes, these attacks do happen. But they're not particularly common, and they can be avoided by not going into places and situations where such attacks are likely to occur. Far better to avoid them than defend against them, I assure you. 

In the meantime, most of us don't have to deal with anything more aggressive than the primate-pack bullshit that Genghis defused so ably. Of course, it's best to avoid those attacks too, right? But when you're in an institution? When you're in school, day after day? When your workplace includes wannabe alpha-males who insist on playing primate politics, including the chest-thumping and intimidation?

There is a place for traditional martial training, when it's done properly. I think Genghis just ended that debate for me.