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“.

12 Aikidoka you will meet online

#1 – The Preacher

Has a topless poster of O’Sensei in their bedroom. Thinks O’Sensei is a god and their sacred duty is to spread his divine teachings. Often speaks in nonsensical quotes taken out of context.  Will occasionally come up with their own Aikido poetry using a random motivational poster generator.

#2 The Lethal Weapon

Thinks Aikido is not in the UFC because it is too lethal and would win too easily. Knows all about the street because they lived in a bad neighbourhood once. Tried to register their hands as lethal weapons. Owns a pair of Tacticool ™ camo pattern Hakama.

#3 – The Archaeologist

Everything was better in the 1920s. Everyone but them has wasted the last 100 years, because Aikido, its warm-ups, its training methods and life in general peaked then. Will die of preventable infection, because antibiotics were invented in the 1940s and are therefore fake.

#4 – The Pacifier

Believes that mastery of Aikido would let them resolve any situation effortlessly and without the slightest risk of injury to either party. Is convinced that people who have to cause anyone the slightest bruise to defend themselves are just not skilled enough. Has never been hit.

#5 – Anger Management

Has a lot of stress in their life, and hence is deeply angry. His commitment to the art of peace prevents him from having a healthy outlet for this, except when people are wrong on the internet about Aikido. Channels all his pent up rage into online rants.

#6 – The Innovator

Read a self-defence blog once, then realised that nobody in the history of Aikido has had the insights they had, and if people only listened to them everything would be so much better. Comes up with “ingenious” new techniques and training methods, most of which are low quality copies of other martial arts. Has a green belt.

#7 – So Fed Up With This shit

Usually older. Did Aikido for a long time, then discovered people talk about it on the web. Signed up to have productive, friendly and mature conversations about their favourite hobby. One week later, started drinking heavily.

#8 – The Aiki-Bro

Responds to criticisms of Aikido and the allegations that Aikidoka are easily offended and immature by challenging people to duels via social media – provided they live on another continent and are unlikely to take him up on it. Challenged Master Ken to a fight once, still isn’t convinced Enter the Dojo is comedy. Says “Osu” a lot, doesn’t know what it means.

#9 – The Critic

Thinks the problem with Aikido is that no one trains correctly any more. When pressed, displays extreme skill at never stating explicitly what “training correctly” means. Often says “you will get it after 20 years”, mostly because that’s how long it too them and if other people did it faster that would be embarrassing.

#10 – The Questioner

Asks questions online that they should be asking their instructor instead, so they don’t have to see the judgment in their eyes. Has “obnoxious question of the day” toilet paper, and apparently irritable bowel syndrome. Started training last month.

#11 – The Cultist

Is convinced Aikido is the greatest martial art on the planet, and will announce so loudly and obnoxiously. Loves lecturing people on how proper Aikido should be practised, and on the true meaning of Aikido’s philosophy. Is already planning their dojo and seminar tour. Started training last week.

#12 -The Tapout Troll

Doesn’t actually do Aikido, but feels it is important to educate Aikido practitioners about how fake their martial arts is and how they can’t fight. Has street cred because they got into a shoving match in a bar once, and “if my friends hadn’t held me back man…”. Gets into flame wars with Aiki-bro.

What is Aikido?

What is Aikido? If you ask online, you will get any number of answers, simply because there are many different organisations and approaches to it. Often these answers are sprinkled with very strong opinions on what is True AikidoTM.

Looking through moving boxes from a few years ago, I came across a number of old magazines of mine. One of them is the October 2011 issue of Blackbelt Magazine. I used to read that, though only infrequently, because there was a single kiosk in one specific train station that had it. This particular issue had an article on Aikido that I quite enjoy. It’s about Aikido’s place in the modern world, and includes some insight into the views of the current Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba. In particular, it’s about whether the martial or the philosophical aspects of Aikido are more important. Which one represents “the True Aikido”?

His view as presented in the article, based on what he said at a dojo re-dedication in Hawaii, is that both are valid, that it is up to the individual instructor. He points out that he focuses on the philosophical aspect rather than martial – and so, one presumes, does the organisation he is the head of. However different practitioners have the choice to focus on martial aspects instead, without it being any less valid or part of Aikido. I have a great deal of respect for this viewpoint.

If you know me personally, you know I’m definitely one of the people who are more focused on the martial aspect. Specifically I’m interested in how Aikido can be applied to self-defence. I’ve trained and taught with this goal in mind for a number of years now, and this blog is where I’ll put some of my thoughts on the matter in writing.

The thing I want to lead with is that not everything that we do in training is useful for every purpose. It’s not that “focusing on the philosophy of Aikido” necessarily means that the training is not martially effective, but it does mean that a lack of martial effectiveness is a possibility, and the training can still be valid for its stated goal. Assuming of course that we can acknowledge what we are and aren’t doing, and do not delude ourselves. Similarly, if we practice with martial effectiveness as our primary goal, that does not mean we necessarily ignore the philosophical aspects, but it does mean that ignoring them is a possibility.

We also need to be careful to acknowledge that martial arts training is not the same as self-defence training, even if we have great martial effectiveness. Self-defence is a very specific goal, protecting yourself from criminal violence while staying within the law. The parameters of this are different for each student, and one-size-fits-all approaches are entirely inadequate. If we want self-defence in our training, we need to work on it specifically.

So with all of that in mind, what I want to write about here is both aspects, the Harm (martial effectiveness and self-defence) and the harmony (mental and physical development). There are of course other things that are involved in Aikido, such as cultural trappings and the social aspects. As far as those are concerned though, I want to finish with something that was said to the late Alan Ruddock, founder of the Aikido organisation I am a part of. When he left Japan after training with O’Sensei for some time, Ichihashi Sensei took him aside and said to him:

“Remember, all these things we do like bowing and sitting in seiza are Japanese – not Aikido. You know better than we do how to teach foreigners. When you go back home, respect the ways of your country, remember to teach aikido your way.”