Whatever way you look at it, this year sure qualifies as “Interesting times”. The stuff that is happening right now in the US and other places, the protests over the killing of George Floyd, are the latest part of that, and they are the manifestation of issues that impact a lot of people.

If you are like me and most of this does not affect you personally, if you are not a member of a minority community, or a law enforcement officer, or have a stake in an affected area, then I have one, only one, suggestion: Listen.
Specifically, listen to the stakeholders, those who are affected. By the protests. By the death that led to them. By the background factors, the previous incidents, the different life experiences that play into it. It’s easy to try and intellectualise, to think we understand what it’s like, but mostly, if we’re not in those groups, we don’t.

I mean active listening, the way you would- should – in person. For those not familiar with active listening, it’s listening while fully paying attention to what the person is saying, shutting down your inner monologue and processing what they are saying before you formulate a response. There’s more to it, but the rest is mostly window dressing.

The internet is great for getting information, but it’s not the ideal environment for active listening, especially on social media. It’s really easy to start reading something and immediately filter it through existing perceptions and tribalism, to stop reading or watching after the first sentence that triggers those, one way or the other. Almost as easy to jump in with a response.

I think right now the “paying attention and processing” part is really important. Yes, the situation is complex, yes, there are other perspectives, yes, you have feelings about stuff that people are saying, but maybe it doesn’t have to be about that right now.

Listen, process. Then take action, if you so decide. Help if you want, reach out if you like. Speak up and share your opinions if that’s what you choose. If you’re not a stakeholder, just don’t make it about you and your Amazing Journey of Personal Growth (TM). No matter what impression Hollywood gave you, it doesn’t have to be about that right now.

PS: Wait, why is this here? I generally don’t do politics in public, and this is as much as I will budge on that right now. But this also has relevance on topic.
If you are in the martial arts and self defence world, at some point you will be learning from, practising with, teaching or giving advice to people who live a different reality to you, and are vulnerable to different things. Being able to listen to them, and listen well, is a relevant skill. Depending on your personality, not easy. But really fucking important.

The frail old master

The topic of physical fitness for martial arts has come up in a few conversations I had recently. Its relative importance continues to be debated, and there continue to be people who claim it does not matter. Personally, I think that physical fitness matters a great deal. Especially in the way of “being fit to do this particular activity” (see this article by Kasey Keckeisen on the topic). I think that the idea that it doesn’t matter continues to exists in some parts of the marital arts world, especially within internal arts, partly because the “frail old man who kicks ass” has become such a figure of myth. Let’s go and poke at that myth a little bit though.

Yes, there are people who don’t fit conventional ideas of fit who are good martial artists. One of my main Aikido teachers is in her 80s and roughly the size of an underfed hobbit. And she is in great physical shape for her age (at my wedding, she partied and danced until 4am…). I once attended a Systema seminar where the teacher was, whatever way you look at it, clearly obese. His mobility and skill at movement were exceptional though. He was “fit” for what he was doing, if not in other ways. In fact a lot of the “unfit” teachers – the ones who are actually good, not the internet experts who’ve added a rank to their belt every time they had to expand it – are actually not. In particular, they tend to have the types of fitness that relate to their particular activity, usually as a result of being in great shape when they were younger, and of keeping up with practice as they aged.

That is another thing, most of the people pointed to as examples of “he’s old and frail and good, you don’t need anything but technique” have been doing this a long time. Their technique is excellent, and this compensates for their physical drawbacks. Again, compensates. If they were also fit, but kept the same technique and tactics, they would be better. Unfortunately a lot of time technical refinement comes out of necessity, which comes out of physical decline. Many of these people are not unfit by choice (again, the good ones, not the tactical donut brigade).
Older, less fit martial artists also tend to be sneakier in their tactics, again out of necessity. There is also a certain part of this which is deliberate deception. If you read some of the accounts of early Japanese teachers sent to the west, you find instructions on how to use practice methods that negate the strength advantages of bigger, stronger students to make them feel inferior to the teacher (see this for an example).

Similarly, there are a lot of stories of frail old masters beating younger, fitter challengers. While I don’t doubt some of this happened, a lot tends to be somewhat embellished with time, especially by the students of the master in question. The stories notably get more spectacular the less verifiable eyewitnesses there are, and there tend to be less of these stories as we approach the age of the cell phone camera.

Culturally, there is one single biggest contributor to the iconic “frail old master” trope: martial arts movies and other media. There’s a reason it comes up a lot, and that is that it can make for good stories. However, like many other things, the reason this idea makes for good stories is because it is so rare and exceptional. “Big strong fit full contact fighter wins against small old dude” is not interesting, because it is what you would expect. The other way round, more exceptional, more interesting. But because of this, and because so much of our “knowledge” of violence comes from the media, we see it more and it seeps into our idea of how prevalent it is in reality.

With the internet, and the rise of mma in recent years, a number of very unfortunate challenge match setups between young, fit full contact fighters and older traditional martial arts teachers have show the fallibility of the “invincible old teacher” idea. You can make all sorts of arguments about the type of matches or of the people who participate in them, but at the very least they show that the myth does not stand up to reality in that particular context.

The concept doesn’t just show up in traditional martial arts by the way, it’s not that different in the self-defence world. “Badass old men” memes are common, and there are many dangerous people who do not at first glance look like they are particularly fit. But again, often fitter than they appear, lifetime of experience (that you cannot substitute), sneaky, using tools, and not better than they would be with greater fitness. Also plenty of people who share that stuff around or follow their own version of a guru – to live off vicarious badassery, as it were. Many while perpetually being in a constant state of “I need to get back to training one of these days”. Some convincing themselves they are so sneaky/tactical/alpha dangerous badasses that they can get away with eating like the dumpster behind a fast food franchise and not being able to make it up the stairs without wheezing, but are secretly lethal weapons.

So, in my opinion this particular source of the “you don’t need to be fit” idea is a myth. Like many myths, there is a kernel of truth to it. There are amazing martial artists and very dangerous people of advanced age or with physical issues. But it’s not that common, and chances are you are not them. If you try to emulate them as they are now, you will never be that good. Aikido is lousy for this, because common images show O’Sensei as an old man, rather than in his prime.

There are for sure things to admire about some of the old or out of shape master that do exists. Perseverance in the face of physical issues. The technical excellence that comes from a lifetime of practice. The sneaky tactics that let them keep up with younger, stronger folks in some ways. When we look at them as examples, this is what we should emulate. We should not point at them to falsely proclaim that physical fitness is irrelevant, or even a hindrance. To paraphrase a conversation with one of my teachers: “The idea is to use skills and tactics like a sneaky old person, and move like a fit young person, not to move like an old cripple and fight like a young idiot”.

Do we even need that “harmony” stuff?

With personal development being advertised as a training goal in Aikido and other martial arts, the question of its usefulness does come up. If our primary training goal is self-defence, do we still need personal development and philosophy? Are they useful towards that goal, or a secondary consideration at best? The answer as usual is the entirely unsatisfying “it depends”.

Personally I think they are useful, even necessary to some degree for one simple reason: While some people show up to class and only really need martial skills and knowledge to defend themselves, this is not the case for everyone. Many people who starts a martial arts class do not already possesses the mental and emotional skills that are essential to self-defence. To a large degree, self-defence is a mental skill. It requires us to have the emotional capacity to take the necessary actions, whether that is to not get sucked into a conflict, de-escalate an argument, or put hands on another human being and use force to stop them. Therefore, if we want to teach self-defence, we need to be able to help people develop those skills as well as tactics and physical techniques.

Let me first explain what I mean by self-defence being a mental skill. In order to protect ourselves, it is likely that we will have to take action in a stressful situation. We need to be able to be under stress and still make good decisions. We can have the best technique in the world, but if for example someone screaming insults in our face throws us completely off our game, it’s not going to help much. We might know what to look out for, but without the ability to control our attention and maintain focus, we might not notice a potential danger. We might have good situational awareness, but if we do not possess the ability to resist peer pressure, we might not act on that awareness when we’re about to be pressured into something unsafe. Without the assertiveness to set good boundaries, we might end up being manipulated into a situation of such disadvantage that no degree of physical skill will save us. There are some people for whom even the fundamental thought “I am worth defending” is a goal to reach, rather than a reality. This is not even taking into account creeps and other low-level predators that are most effectively dealt with by using soft skills, and who prey primarily on people without the emotional capacity to deal with them decisively.

Additionally, a lot of the skills we are taught in self-defence run counter to our social conditioning. Many of us have been taught all our lives not to be rude to strangers, not to hurt people etc. While in normal circumstances, these may be appropriate, there is no magic button that makes all of this conditioning disappear in a self-defence situation where we need to be rude to the predator circumventing our boundaries, or to hurt the person attacking us. One of the great things about martial arts in general and Aikido in particular is that they provide a fun and comfortable environment to practice dangerous physical skills with friends. It is a very different thing to use the same skills outside the dojo, and the emotional difference needs to be addressed in training.

Lastly, the flipside of the above is that some people, young men in particular, might have trouble walking away from a confrontation. We’re naturally inclined to fight other young men for social status, a tendency that can be reinforced with social conditioning. Things as utterly trivial as an insult to our favourite sports team can suck us in and escalate into physical confrontations. For many of us, even if we avoid the fight, unless we can blame it on external circumstance – friends holding us back being the most common – we feel the pull of an unfinished script from the fight that didn’t happen, and it bothers us. A natural consequence of good training should be the disappearance of the insecurity that drives this, and the ability to walk away unbothered.

These are just the martial considerations, of course good personal development through training should also make our lives better in general. Better mental health and happiness, plus the ability to deal with difficult situations that fall outside of self-defence are very real benefits. For most of us in fact they are far more valuable than self-defence skills as such. But even from a purely martial perspective, unless a school has serious preselection of students – which almost always excludes those people who actually need the skills – these aspects of training are really important.

For the Love of Books

It looks like many of us are going to have a lot of time to read on our hands in the immediate future, so I want to talk about books a little bit. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life for me. When I was younger, that mostly mean fiction novels, a great escape from everyday existence. Over the last decade, I mostly read non-fiction on various topics of interest. A lot of self-defence, martial arts and psychology stuff, but also random other books. I go through big gaps where I read no fiction, and then usually I start again when I have a long flight or train ride, and catch up on books series I used to read for a while. Fiction gives me a sense of calm, relaxing pleasure. I can immerse myself in the books world in a way that few other forms of media can match (works for audio books too).

For non-fiction, it’s a little different. I can enjoy the reading itself, and the quality of the writing is a major factor in that, but I get most of my pleasure from the learning aspect of it. The amount of information we can access nowadays is mindbogglingly awesome. The internet is a big part of that, but books are probably still my favourite way to consume knowledge.

So for non-fiction, I can enjoy the reading itself, but more importantly the information. Sometimes it’s learning something new, perhaps about a domain that I have little or no experience in, or sometimes a window into the mind of a high-end expert in a field I have some minor background in. For martial arts, it’s not remotely the same as training with someone, but a genuinely informative book – as opposed to one of the “this is how much of a badass I am”/”this is the gospel of my martial cult” books – from a genuine master of their craft from anywhere in the world is a treasure. For self-defence, good quality information is a huge aspect of it, in the beginning perhaps the most impactful part for personal safety. And it’s something that people used to rely on their instructors for exclusively. Which is fine if you’re lucky enough to have an instructor who knows their stuff, but also makes you vulnerable to misinformation or propaganda, and by default limits you to your teacher’s level of knowledge.

The internet has the opposite problem, there is too much information, and a LOT of it is bad. Like really bad. Of course there are bad books as well, but there are plenty of good ones, and for so many people – myself included – the first step to looking into self-defence and asking the important questions was reading the right books. Frankly, even if you are an instructor looking to make your students safer, you could do a lot worse than picking up a good book on self-defence and including the information in your training.

It’s easy to just read stuff in your area, but if you love learning for it’s own sake, it’s worth picking up books on other areas. There is also a surprising amount of stuff that carries over between specialities, especially on the mindset side.

There are books that, while enjoyable and interesting, fall down a bit on the actionable info part. There are books that have nuggets of information in what is mostly a bunch of mediocrity. My personal pet peeve is when the authors can’t keep themselves from soap-boxing on their politics every three pages – I know the youth of today irritates you, but I got this to read about systems thinking not your views on man-buns buddy… (that was in pretty much the only self improvement book I read that I thought was actively bad).

I don’t set a lot of new years goals (I have a different end-of-year thing I do), this year I have two. One is fitness related, the other one is to finish my non-fiction reading list. The current situation might actually help with that one, small silver lining…

Now I’m a pretty fast reader, and have taken some speed reading classes to improve that further. But since the last time I made any significant progress on that front was a few years back, and to help with my goal, I recently got a new course and am working through that now. It’s interesting, because the method is slightly different to what I had previously learned, and this means initially it’s slowing me down until I get used to it (or not, in which case I’ll stick to my old one). The real benefit I’ve experienced so far is in retention of information and note-taking, both things I’ve wanted to work on.

The book I’m using to practice is also fascinating, and has so far given me one good way to describe something with training I had struggled to put into words, and one really interesting insight into a mental process (yes I’m being vague on purpose, if I get into it I’ll ramble, so I’ll save it for a later post or two). I’ve read a previous book by the same author, which was interesting but really fell down on the actionable info part, so I’m reserving judgement until I finish it.

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 3

In the last two posts I wrote about variable drills, and how & why they are important in learning how to “see” in a martial context (part 1 & part 2 here). What I’m advocating in these articles is that, if we are interested in developing functional skills in a reasonable time frame, we have to make space for variable drills in a our practice. This time -last one on this topic, for now – I want to talk about one particular aspect of this, which is working with failure and resistance.

In the “classical” model of practice we get a specific input and then perform a specific technique in response. The assumption generally is that everything will happen as intended. This is in part so that any failure is due to us doing things wrong rather than environmental variables, thereby supposedly isolating the development of technique. While that is fine for teaching certain aspects of technical skill, it should be clear that everything does not always go as planned, and we need to address that in our training.
There are a few different ways of doing this. Of course the simplest is to improve technical ability and/or physical power to be able to negate resistance and reduce the chances of failure. I’m not going to go into that one too much here, because it doesn’t fit the overall topic and discussing it – and the dysfunctional relationship a lot of the martial arts world has with it – is it’s own big can of worms. Just know it’s one approach, and getting better and stronger never hurts, but it should not be the only approach taken.

Assuming that we are not so incredibly awesome that we can do no wrong and just ignore any resistance, an important part in dealing with failure and resistance is being able to feel when it’s happening. Developing the skill to feel when a certain tactic or technique isn’t working is absolutely crucial, because it stops us from getting our asses kicked while we are desperately trying to make that one thing work. Once we know what it feels like when something works and when it does not, we have a cue to make us switch tactics. Also depending on what exactly is happening, we might switch to different things, and the better we are at reading the situation, the less we have to pause and re-orient, which would give the other guy more time to act.

Sense of touch is faster than sense of sight for this purpose, and in a physical confrontation that small difference in speed can make a considerable difference. This alone would be reason enough to develop the ability to tell by feel whether a technique is working or not. As we notice something isn’t working, we can adjust. It is my belief that we need variable, live-ish practice to be able to develop this skill to a viable degree with a reasonable time-frame.
Going deeper, with enough of the right type of practice, this can extend to being able to tell why something isn’t working, feeling exactly what has gone wrong. This in turn will give us more options for the response, as we can react to the specific problem.
These are different points in a progression, I am a firm believer in training skills that are applicable at the current skill level of a student. In this case, I think it is fairly pointless to teach a student 10 different ways to overcome resistance to a technique depending on exactly which way the opponent resists, while they do not even have the ability to differentiate between “it’s working/it’s not working”, let alone why. This can occasionally manifest in a truly comical manner, with tiny, largely irrelevant details as triggers for picking from an overly specific Rolodex of techniques, which only seems work when practising with people from the same school/style *insert gasp of surprise and shock here*.

So one approach to overcoming resistance is to practice switching to variations of a technique, or to a different technique altogether. There are different apporaches to this, with different strengths and weaknesses. One common one is: “I do a technique, it doesn’t work, I do a different variation/different technique as a result, and so on and so on”.
About a decade ago, I went to a couple of seminars with one particular teacher. The style was a form of Jiu-Jitsu, I cannot remember which one. This teacher was skilled, but notorious for putting together long chains of techniques during his seminars very quickly, to the point his own students couldn’t follow, and glossing over technical details. The method was exactly what I described above, you do one technique, then if it doesn’t work you do another, and so on. But there was one problem I realised even then, and it’s been one of my personal pet peeves ever since: There was never a reason for the original techniques to fail. So what ended up happening is that we put a lot of reps into half-assing techniques so that we could get to the next part of the chain. The reason this is a problem – aside from repeatedly practising doing techniques wrong – is that it does not in any way address feeling when something is or isn’t working! Instead you are running through a choreographed sequence of half-assery, while your partner stands there like a dummy, occasionally throwing you a new feed. The only redeeming feature of this training to me is that it can be quite fun, otherwise I find it a counterproductive waste of time.

When we did variation training at my old dojo, we implemented two important changes to the training method. First, in order for the technique to fail, there has to be a reason. That means either 1) nage messed up or 2) uke does something to stop it. We usually focused on 2), meaning for the drill nage does a technique, and uke does something to counter it (usually something simple, not some elaborate, beautiful countermove). This gives uke something to actively practice, teaches them how to counter certain techniques effectively, and allows nage to develop the feeling for what resistance feels like. If the variation we switch to is an appropriate one, the whole thing also ends up feeling more intuitive.
Related to that last point, the second thing we did is that our training is principles first. Note that I mean fundamental, underlying mechanical principles like “leverage”, or “this is how a joint works”, not jargony martial arts sayings that take a while to make sense. Having an understanding of these principles together with the ability to feel when something goes wrong creates a baseline of adaptable skills that allow for more variable training and the practice of improvisation.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that rather than turning resistance or failure training into a slightly more complicated version of choreographed practice, we need to be introducing variable, reasonable elements of resistance and progressively building the skills to deal with it. Developing the ability to “feel” what is going wrong using variable drilling is a crucial part of this process. One beautiful thing about it is that – while obviously essential for self-defence – it also enhances more traditional practice, because it allows us to understand where the different parts of our art fit in far better than just going through memorised motions does.

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on variable drills and developing perceptional skill in training. In part 1 I talked about why variable drills are necessary for the development of those skills. This time I want to give some examples of what kind of things we can learn to “see” better.
I want to talk about two specific perceptional skills in this post:

  • Visually seeing range, distance and movement
  • Feeling position, movement and balance through touch

The first one, seeing range. This was one of the big themes at the sword seminar with Maija Soderholm. The reasons are simple: In the context of a sword duel, we need to know when we can reach a target, and when the opponent’s weapon can reach us. This is one of the most fundamental skills for that context, and a huge amount of the tactics of various weapon arts are absolutely based on understanding both our own and our opponents range very, very well. With sword styles, the nature of the weapon – sharp – means that being in range to be touched by the weapon is bad news. Probably my favourite drill of the seminar was a form of play both using and developing this skill. After learning basic cuts, blocks and footwork, we did light free play with a partner, the purpose being to not get hit, but also to learn when we need to block a strike and when it’s going to miss anyway so we don’t need to deal with it. Of course we got it wrong a fair bit (or I did anyway…), but that’s how you learn, and it really gets you better at this quite quickly – plus it’s a lot of fun.

For any art where “not being hit” is a big part of the tactics (like, I don’t know, Aikido…) realising what it takes for the opponent to be able to hit us is the first part of developing the skills to not have that happen. In order to do that we need to have a pretty decent understanding of range from the other side, which is one reason I tend to advocate including striking drills in our practice. It’s an area where many of us could use improvement. There are very popular “practical” aikido videos out there with shockingly bad ranging, and from the comments few people realise it.

With unarmed arts, touch is part of ranging, but there’s a bit more to it, power generation for example. Whether or not we can hit the target AND have an effect are both important there.
It’s not that complicated to begin to develop this skill. We can move around with a partner – in a pattern or freely, depending on the drill – and see at what relative distance we can touch the targets we want. One person begins to see what their range is, the other when they are in range. We need to do it with different body types, and repeat a fair bit in order to flesh out our understanding, but if we don’t get weird about it, it’s not complicated. When we’ve got a basic understanding of power generation (see point 3 further on), we can slow down and add that in. And, if we do padwork and are decent at it, include moving pad drills – carefully, don’t go full force, the injury potential does go up when the pads move.

Once we have developed some skill at seeing range and angle, it opens up options for our evasions and offlining. We’re no longer doing certain evasions because “that’s how the technique goes”, we’re doing them because we understand what puts us at risk of being hit and what does not. And, like with swordplay, we can start to use deception. If we’re clearly out of range, there is no reason to attempt a strike. But if we present an obvious target that appears to be open and reachable, then maybe we can draw something we want.
So that’s one thing to “see”. Another perceptional skill is developing our ability to feel what is going on by touch, so that when we have hands on the other person, we can know what is going on with their body. How they are positioned, where their weight is, how they are moving and so on. Touch is considerably faster than sight, and with a style like Aikido, we’re generally trying to get hands on as quickly as possible, and keep contact once we got it. For Aikido to have any chance of working, this skill is absolutely crucial, because the information it gets you is extremely helpful to “seeing” gifts that we can use in time to take advantage of them.

If you do any grappling or body manipulation art for long enough, you will get decent at this pretty much by default. Having said that, there are ways of speeding up the process, and especially if you are training for self-defence, you might not want to spend years doing something else just to develop this skill. In general, the more free play and the less strictly proscribed technique, the more this will develop. Having one partner move the other around, with the “rag-doll” being various levels of compliant is a great one, since one partner feels what they need to do to move a body, and the other learns how it feels when someone is applying force to move them. You eventually add stuff to it, using the force the mover is applying to throw them. Which will sometimes work, and sometimes not. Blindfolded drills, one-step or grappling are great for this. The simplest way to speed up the process is to draw attention to it. Start actively looking for this information in training, even when doing “classical” paired practice.

An example from last month: I was teaching a class at my old dojo. Was asked to do some self-defence basics, so we did that for a while, then I gave people a choice on which skill we would work on. They chose balance and balance breaking. So we went over some of the theory: base; centre of gravity; cone of balance. You break balance by moving the centre out of the cone. I demonstrated some of the ways of doing that and then we played with it. One of the cues was to practice feeling the point when the partner’s centre of gravity moves past the base. Didn’t take much for people to start picking up on it. And put it into practice in the training game we used (one-step, for those of you familiar with it).

It works pretty much the same for feeling movement, feeling where structure is strong and weak, where there are “empty” spaces we can use and so on. This becomes really important when dealing with resistance, which I wanted to write about as well, but this is getting long again, so there will be part 3. Next time I’ll talk about resistance. And rant about why I both love (when they’re done well) and detest (when they’re done badly) “failure” drills .

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 1

Having some thoughts on training sparked by last month. I had a busy October. Several seminars, as student and instructor. Briefly, what I’ve been up to: 5 days IDC/Infighting/Scenario Training with Rory Miller in Germany; teaching a 2 day self-defence course for university students in Scotland; 2 days Visayan Corto Kadena Escrima with Maija Soderholm in England; teaching one class at my old dojo in Cyprus. I’ll write more on the specifics later. Some common threads running through the classes, and some thoughts I want to put down.

When we talk self-defence, or even in traditional martial arts, we talk about awareness a lot. Awareness can mean different things to different people, but fundamentally it means having the ability to both perceive and understand what is going on, and – if it is to be useful – the ability to act on it. In one context, this means what is going on around us in our daily lives, to avoid unpleasant or dangerous situations. In another it means spotting opportunities. But it also applies to the physical training itself.
Mostly drawing on the stuff we did with Maija here. Everything we train to do in a confrontation works under certain circumstances (OK, that’s a lie. There’s plenty of stuff that will never ever work, when I say “everything” I mean everything decent). Timing, distance, momentum, position etc. have to be right. A tangent: Right not perfect. The more robust a technique, the more wriggle room. The more anti-fragile the concepts it’s based on, the better it adapts under chaos. But that’s a separate issue and a separate post for later.

So, everything works under certain circumstances. The principle of using gifts, incidentally the martial aspect of the “Aiki” concept, is based on this. Gifts can be many things, body position, distance, limb position, timing, momentum. What I can do in a fight, every technique, has certain criteria of these things that make it work. Gifts are mostly the other person doing as much of the work to get to that point as possible. Many techniques that look complicated out of context are only complicated because it takes a lot of work to get to the right position from neutral. Neutral is not what we’re interested in if we’re training for application. Stuff happens in fights, the other guy is going to be doing bad things to us, and these in turn create the circumstances that make certain things easier to do.

The first step to being able to do the right thing under the right circumstances is being able to recognise the right circumstances when they occur. It should be really obvious, but in order to develop that particular skill, it needs to be practised. In order to practice finding the right circumstances, there has to be some level of variability in the drill. There has to be a degree of change in the circumstances, so that we can learn to recognise the right ones when they occur, and the wrong ones when we try and fail.
In a lot of, let’s call it “classical” practice, the circumstances are handed to you. Your partner or uke does the exact thing that you need for the technique to work, in the exact same way, every time. While you can get really good at some aspects of technique this way – although it’s not ideal for learning, more on that in a bit – you absolutely do not learn how to see opportunities. Oh, sure, there is some minor aspect of timing, but as anyone used to more variable practice will tell you, it’s not remotely the same thing as a fight or even sparring. And this can create more problems, because there are plenty of people – often with decently high rank – who have exquisite timing in the very particular circumstances of a particular pre-set attack, and are convinced that this means they have exquisite timing in all circumstances. That is very rarely how it works, specific closes-system skills in timing do no not carry over particularly well to open systems and chaotic circumstances, largely because the related skills of recognising opportunities and decision making are underdeveloped.

This is one of the reasons I think having drills and training games as part of our practice is really helpful. If we introduce drills where the circumstances are changing dynamically, success starts to require good decision making. Good decision making starts to require recognising opportunities. This starts to develop the ability to “see”. I’ll illustrate with an example. We can practice throws by going through a number of different techniques in response to specific attacks. This is classical practice, and has it’s place. We can also use dynamic drills to practice “seeing” the time and place for throws. “French Randori”, Judo style sparring, responding to feeds from moving pendulum footwork, throwing from random committed attacks and so forth. There’s a huge variety. I’m not a big fan of using only one single drill, because all of them have safety flaws and tend to be good for slightly different things, and I’ve sometimes seen people throw a single drill like this in training on rare occasions to “tick the box”, which really isn’t the point. In my opinion open practice like this should be done every class.

There are good reasons for it from a motor learning point of view as well. There is considerable evidence to suggest doing practice like this that includes variable inputs and decision making speeds up learning considerably compared to simple repetition. It increases practical skill acquisition as well, because the goal shifts from doing something right to doing it well. Because things get a bit messier in these drills a lot of the time, it becomes less about the aesthetics, and more about the essential mechanics, about whether something worked or not. On that, one of the limiting factors to introducing variable practice is that it increases the rate of failure considerably, even for experienced people. The worst hit tend to be people with a lot of skill in the classical methods but little experience with variable practice. This increased failure rate is not actually a problem, unless we’ve internalised that we should never fail – there’s no cost to failure in training. In fact it increases the rate of learning quite a bit. According to some research in fact, being successful in practice all the time results in a learning rate close to zero. So the problem is entirely one of ego and training culture. That’s a whole different can of worms, not going to get into it now, just be aware of it.

There are other points I want to make and some I want to expand on a bit more, but I think that’s enough for one post. As you can tell I’m a big fan of variable practice and dynamic drills, and I think they should have a central place in our training. They help accelerate learning, make training more fun and are absolutely crucial for developing perception and decision making skills for physical conflict.

Research Breakdown: Behavioural Response to Threat

The amount of research that is out there on the topic of self-defence is limited, and a lot of it is not necessarily very accessible. I’ve spent a lot of time going through the existing papers as part of my own research project a while ago So I thought it might be interesting to break some of them down on this blog every once in a while. These are a lot more work than most other posts, so I’m not going to do this all that often.
This time I’m going to look at a paper from 2015 by Anderson and Cahill, titled “Behavioural Response to Threat (BRTT) as a key behaviour for sexual assault reduction intervention: A critical review“. It’s quite a large paper, mostly looking at other studies. Because this post is quite long, I’m including a bullet point overview, and you can read the full breakdown below.
The paper deals with sexual assault and focuses on the behaviour of the targets of such assaults. Be aware that this is the topic of this post.


  • The paper is a review paper and mostly looks at a variety of other research
  • The area of focus is sexual assault, specifically the effect that the responses of potential victims may or may not have on the outcome
  • The existing research on this topic is quite inconsistent in terms of methodology and terminology, which means it’s hard to make really valid conclusions
  • The authors are trying to introduce a term they came up with: “Behavioural Response to Threat” to make the terminology more consistent


  • According to the authors, the outcome of assaults is affected by the threat perception and the threat response of the potential victim
  • The authors conclude that based on the existing research assertive responses by the victim result in more favourable outcomes
  • They suggest that internal psychological factors may play a larger role in determining the responses than environmental factors
  • The environmental factor with the largest effect on the response of the target was the relationship with the perpetrator
  • Previous victimization was also found to have a correlation with risk assessment and threat response, therefore being a risk factor for more likely re-victimisation
  • Regarding interventions such as self-defence training, the authors state that they should work, but that there is some evidence against that, partly because of a major mistake with a reference they used.
  • Due to the scattered and limited nature of the existing research, more is needed before any firm conclusions can be drawn


  • The paper is valuable because it reviews a huge amount of existing research done in a variety of ways, making it a good starting point for getting into SD research
  • For a self-defence instructor, the focus on potential risk factors is really useful
  • Especially the focus on acquaintance assault – we really tend to overdo the stranger danger thing in SD – and how it can impact victim responses is great
  • Everything in the paper needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as there is little solid evidence for many of the statements made in it

Goals and nature of the paper

The paper seeks to provide a review of the existing literature on the nature and impact of the different responses of potential victims to the sexual assault threats. The goal of the paper is to introduce a term the authors developed for the potential responses of someone targeted for sexual assault. The term is “Behavioural Response to Threat”, or “BRTT”. They -correctly – point out that the existing terminology is inconsistent, and want to introduce the term to provide a better framework to be able to do things like compare results across studies. To this end they review a large chunk of the existing literature on the subject, looking at both qualitative and quantitative studies, describing some of the methodologies used and results obtained.
This is quite fascinating, as the nature of the subject limits truly empirical studies severely. The most common way studies are done is with questionnaires or interviews asking if women – like most existing research on self-defence, this paper focuses exclusively on women as potential victims – had been assaulted and about their responses. There are two commonly used questionnaires (“Victim Response Strategies” and “Response Questionnaire” if anyone is interested), although the authors point out that they are often modified for individual studies, making comparison difficult. There are also numerous well known issues with the reliability of self-reporting, particularly with sensitive subjects such as this one.

There are other ways research is conducted, often with hypothetical scenarios, using story vignettes, role-playing or even virtual reality. These are really interesting and innovative, and give some insightful results, though of course they come with their own caveats for reliability.

Different responses

What the research seems to suggest is that the responses of the target, in particular their ability to assess threats and the nature of their responses, have a significant impact on the outcome of the assault. It also suggests that assertive responses, both verbal and physical, are the most effective at deterring assaults. One study (Clay-Warner 2002) found that only a physical response predicted avoidance of a completed assault. The authors seem surprised by the relatively high (29% in a hypothetical scenario and 35% in epidemiological studies) percentage of women listing non-assertive responses or no responses. This should only really be surprising from a deeply academic point of view, as things like freeze reactions, socialised beliefs about the viability and consequences of resistance etc. impact this number. A caveat here is that the limitations of the existing research make it really difficult to assess details such as under which circumstances different responses may or may not be effective.

Predictors” of Responses

For these different BRTT’s, the paper also examines research regarding any predictors of them, i.e. what factor affect how people respond. There are some caveats here: While the authors frame it as “predictors”, upon reading I personal think it might be more accurate to say that these are correlates, I think there’s not quite enough empirical data to support a direct causation. This section is also written a little bit inconsistently, I suspect because the different studies they look at give different results. For example, at one point they mention that high relationship expectations are predictive of more diplomatic and non-forceful responses, while two paragraphs further they state that there are few predictors of non-forceful responses. Again, I think this is simply because they look at a wide range of studies and it’s difficult to synergise them consistently. If you read the paper, it’s just something to be aware of.
The way the authors model the factors is based on existing research (Nurius & Norris 1995), dividing them into background, interpersonal and intrapersonal factors.

For background the only thing that they really look at, and that seems to be a strong correlate is victimisation history. Some of the studies (Craford, Wright and Birchmeier 2008; Messman-Moore and Brown 2006) suggest that previous victimisation is linked to less threat awareness, lower response to risk – e.g. leaving a threatening scenario later – and less forceful responses. It is not clear from the presented data how the causation plays out, whether the effects are due to the previous victimisation or previous victimisation is more likely in people where the above factors are present.

For interpersonal factors, the most substantial effect on the response is the relationship of the potential victim to the perpetrator (Clay-Warner, 2002). This is hugely important, as acquaintance assaults are more likely than ones by strangers. Any tacticool “murderdeathdefence” techniques we teach might go straight out the window in such a situation, and we need to be able to take this into account in our training. The severity and exact nature of the assault may also play a role, but the evidence is still inconclusive. An existing relationship, as well as high expectations about that relationship, and concerns about it correlate with less forceful and less effective behavioural responses. This holds up even in some of the research with hypothetical scenarios which is remarkable.

The authors suggest, based largely on one study (Fisher et al, 2007) that intrapersonal (i.e. internal psychological) factors play a greater role than external environmental ones in determining the responses a target will be able to utilise. This is quite a controversial statement, and the evidence is definitely not conclusive. However some of the data points strongly towards this, and it is definitely something to keep in mind when teaching, as it suggests that mindset and psychological conditioning are major factors in successfully resiting assaults of this nature. Higher levels of assertiveness, (shockingly…) correspond to more assertive responses. Feelings of anger, lower concern for injury, less fear and less confusion, less self blame and lower concerns about the relationship all correspond to more forceful and effective responses. The inverse appears to apply as well. Also feelings of sadness correspond with less forceful responses.

This entire topic is very complicated, as well as highly sensitive, so I don’t think any of the above should be taken at face value. It’s interesting data, but more thorough research is absolutely necessary. Things like the interaction between different factors, or the impact of multiple response strategies are not examined at all.

Existing Interventions

The authors also look at existing interventions to reduce sexual assault, including self-defence training. This part of the paper is a little iffy however. They do include some recent studies (Rowe, Jouriles and McDonald 2015) and a review paper (Anderson and Whiston 2005), pointing out an apparent paradox: Based on their previous results, interventions that improve risk assessment and teach more assertive threat responses should reduce assault risks, but while some studies show such outcomes (Senn et al 2015), the review paper ( Anderson and Whiston 2005) shows an insignificant impact. While there really isn’t a huge amount of conclusive empirical evidence that self-defence training reduces assaults, in this case the reason for the contradiction is more simple: The authors made a mistake! The review paper they reference does not actually review self-defence training, but rather sexual assault education programs, which are quite different. In fairness to them, this is not immediately apparent on looking at the review paper, but not being able to tell the difference does suggest that either a) they were superficial in checking their references or b) their understanding of the subject matter is rather limited from a practical standpoint. They do reference other papers which show positive outcomes, but correctly point out that in most cases the outcome measures fall short in some ways, for instance in that there is usually no assessment of the skill improvement of individuals who have received training.

So is the paper useful to SD/MA instructors?

Overall I think the paper is quite valuable, and if you are a self-defence instructor – or just interested in the subject – it’s worth a read if you can get access. The number of studies it reviews alone are quite useful, and depending on how familliar you are with violence and the responses to it, you can get a lot of good information. There are a few things that are a bit iffy, and reading about the varied methodologies used in other studies you begin to understand that a lot of this data is not very reliable – so you still have to think for yourself! There various suggestions for future research, which I sincerely hope somebody will follow up on to get us more accurate data.
I have a few main takeaways from the paper. First that it’s really important to address the psychological and social aspects of acquaintance assaults and how that affects responses in training. Also it supports the view that we need to address mindset, it’s not enough to teach physical techniques. Training needs to include a spectrum of skills, and we need to also help build people’s inner strength in order to be able to utilise their training appropriately. Also, from an aftermath point of view, several of the referenced studies show that there is quite a wide reange of responses to these situations. If we have survivors in our classes, we can use this data to help them come to terms with their own responses, because they may feel that they “should have done something else”. Finally, I really like the “threat perception and threat response” idea as a model, and I’ve incorporated it into some of my seminar programs.

Stuff you really don’t need for SD

Last post I talked about what to do if we want to do self-defence training as part of our martial practice. This time I’ll keep it a bit shorter, and mention a few things that you really don’t need to do to make your training self-defence relevant:

  1. Scowl fiercely when performing techniques
    Look, I get it, you want to show that you’re not like those other pansies who are all relaxed and actually having a good time when they train. You’re a warrior TM for crying out loud! This is serious. Ah, suuuure. Except it does absolutely fuck all to make your training relevant. Looks mighty fierce on camera though, so if it’s just part of your marketing effort (or you have resting scowl face I guess) good for you.
  2. Do stuff faster and harder
    Doing the wrong things faster and harder is not making them better (martial arts is a lot like sex in this regard, really). Just because you’re single handedly responsible for your training partner’s addiction to painkillers does not make what you do actually relevant. Don’t get me wrong, training fast and hard can be important and has its place, but doing stuff to a compliant uke is not that place.
  3. Have a skull in your school’s logo
    Is it a dojo, is it a metal band – who knows? Despite reports the skulls, knives and other warrior branding of choice do not actually impact the abilities of practitioners in any way whatsoever. Some of these do look really cool though.
  4. Do three moves for every one your uke does
    Ok, admit it, you saw this on Jason Bourne and thought it looked cool. Here’s the deal though – if you have to move three times every time your partner moves once, then a) your being very inefficient and b) what your showing might work if you’re attacked by a turtle approaching retirement age. Seriously, they don’t even do this in the better action movies these days.
  5. Be a dick to your students
    No, it doesn’t make you edgy and realistic. If it walks like a dick and quacks like a dick, it’s probably a dick. Yes, I’ve read Angry White Pyjamas too, and no that part is not worth replicating. Yelling insults at your students is not coaching, assaulting them teaches them nothing except that you are not to be trusted.
  6. Say “On the street”
    Please for the love of deity-of-choice, don’t! Just don’t! Unless you are literally referring to the physical difference between the dojo and the pavement covered area outside, this is a good way to get anyone who has a clue to instantly turn off.

What does training for self-defence even mean?

Self-defence is a loaded term in the martial arts world. Everyone kinda has their own definition of what they mean by it, and this leads to a lot of people talking past each other when they try to discuss it. (As an aside, it’s absolutely the same in the – limited – academic research that exists on the subject).
It’s technically a legal term, and there are worse things than to use it that way. For the sake of a more universal definition, and for clarity in what I am about to write, I’ll give the simple definition I used in my dojo:

” In self-defence, the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence on us, and to go home safely at the end of the day. Preferably uninjured and in no legal trouble. “

When we are training for self-defence – and we aren’t always, there’s plenty of other stuff we can do in the martial arts that has little relevance to it – that’s what we are training for.

So to break that down a little, self-defence focused training means a couple of things. First, if the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence upon us, that is quite different from the goal being to win fights. It means that we acknowledge that a lot of the time the easiest way to do that is to head off the violence before it happens. The old saying that prevention is better than the cure definitely applies here. OK Dan, sounds good, so we want to train for the avoidance of violence, what does that mean?
Well, to avoid it, we first need to know what it looks like. That means we need to look at the problems that we or our students are likely to face. Of course those are quite different for each individual, so we need to develop a decent understanding of different types of violence and how they occur, and what dangers each student might face, based on demographics and lifestyle. We need to understand how the victim selection process for criminal violence works, and what the factors are that lead to fights breaking out. OK, so now we know what can happen, what else do we need to be able to avoid violence?

Well, it does kinda help to see it coming. So we need to work on awareness. What are the warning signs of the above? What does a potential approach for a mugging look like, when is someone gearing up for a fight, what are the red flags that suggest a relationship might be turning sour? We need to work on the relevant knowledge, and train awareness skills such as attention control. Note that I say “train”, we actually need to practice this stuff. Now let’s say we’ve done that. Very good. That’s a nice start, and to be fair if you had limited time you could do significantly worse than just learning those things for self-defence. But it’s not always possible to avoid everything, so as responsible trainers – or students- we shouldn’t stop there. What do we do when we are surprised, or our efforts at avoidance have failed? De-escalation or deterrence seem like a good start. So we go back to the different kinds of violence that we looked at above, and practice how to talk them down. Usually apologies for the social stuff, the fights over status and sports teams. The opposite for the predatory things, we train to set and maintain boundaries, and signal that we are not going to put up with crap. OK, so far so good. Does not work 100% of the time though, does it? So we need more.

We need tools for if avoidance and de-escalation don’t work. Then we come to physical options I guess. We’ve already looked at how violence happens, so we know what we need tools for. We need something to help us recover from a sudden attack we didn’t see coming, and we need to understand the effect such a thing can have on us, like triggering a freeze response, and causing an adrenaline dump. This is also where it gets a little tricky not to get our wires crossed as martial artists. Physical is our toy box, and boy do we love our toys. We need to be careful that the toys we pick are appropriate for the goals we’ve set. We want to go home safely at the end of the day. OK, one of the best ways to do that is to go home really fast right away, aka escape. So we should train for that. First we need to work on the mindset of doing that early and often, and second we train to do that as the end point of our physical tactics. Again, we need to practice it, not just pay lip service. Telling ourselves or others to run away is all well and good, but there are skills involved which need actual practice to be useable.

OK, so now we have physical skills that might get us through the initial phase of an assault and we’re practising to escape, we can look at what to do when that’s just not possible. In those cases, we need skills to make our attacker unable to hurt us, which means physically disabling them. So we need to understand what that means – usually they are unconscious, badly injured or in a position from which they cannot hurt us any more. So we need to practice doing that decisively. Now we are in the part most of our martial arts tools are really designed for, with one big caveat. We need to go back and take another look at what actually happens, and then make sure we are practising to use our tools for those problems. If we’re looking at knife attacks for example, we might have a really good tool for dealing with someone trying to stab through armour with their backup weapon in feudal Japan, but a modern knife attack might look a little different. Which doesn’t invalidate our technique – and more importantly the principles behind it – but it does mean that if we want to train for self-defence we need to make some changes.
We also need to acknowledge the areas where maybe our toolbox isn’t so strong. For Aikido, we might not have a lot for when we get dragged to the ground, or when we need to hit someone.
So then we have a choice, we can acknowledge that and get the training somewhere else, or in the case of our students, refer them elsewhere (as an aside, if you are not willing to do that last part even where it would better serve your students, kindly fuck off out of the self-defence sphere). Or we can acquire tools through extra training and adaptation of other things we have. We don’t need to be experts at everything, but we need to at least have some basic tools for the most common things that happen in a physical assault.

Then we need to make sure that those tools are usable under realistic conditions. That means a certain degree of stress testing, “live” practice and simulating realistic conditions to a degree that is practicable to our circumstances. That’s a whole big topic all by istself, so I’ll put a pin in it for the moment. The last thing I’ll say on the subject here is that a lot of the serious violent assaults we want to train against look very different from consensual, mutual fighting, and if we’re drawing on sources for training inspiration, we need to be a little bit careful what we pick.
One more thing we have to cover when we talk about the physical skills begin applicable is the emotional component. I’m not talking about the whole “rah rah channel your inner warrior and be empowered” stuff, I have issues with that for a number of reasons. No, what I’m referring to is that a lot of the stuff we’d have to do is icky, hurty and breaks a bunch of taboos (not to mention people). And that requires some work to deal with. It’s all well and good to be all tacticool and practice super special neck breaks, but if we completely ignore the emotional component of doing something like that (not to mention ethics and, you know, the f***ing law!) we’re setting ourselves and our students up for a potential freeze, or a really shitty aftermath.

Speaking of aftermath, this is also something we need to address. What do we do after something happens? Succeed or fail, if we’re not dead, we need to deal with what just happened. A lot of this is outside the scope of a martial arts class, but we need to at least address basic self-checks for injuries, immediate medical care, that people should get long term help if they need it (you’d think it wouldn’t need to be said…). Practising articulation to be able to talk to first responders. Things like that. It also really helps to have covered the legal basics of self-defence for wherever we live, and the ethics and potential social cost of using violence.

So that’s the thought process that goes into the frame for self-defence training. Or an overview at least. If we cover all of that to a decent extent, we have self-defence training. If not we don’t really. Notice how there is some overlap with traditional martial arts practice, but it’s not all that much. Our toy box of physical training is nice, and can be very useful, but it only really applies to a small part of the problem.

And that’s the biggest thing: Self-defence is about solving a problem. It’s less about accurately transmitting a system, even less about the traditions and cultural aspects of said system. Like in all such cases, it really helps to solve the actual problem the person actually has, rather than the one we so conveniently happen to have the right tool for.

If you want to get a more detailed dive into the necessary aspects of self-defence training, I highly recommend Rory Miller’s excellent book “Facing Violence“.