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Using your Martial Art to 'Defend' Yourself

Below is an excerpt from the book, Error Detection that we co-wrote with Tristan Sutrisno. In the "Real World" chapter  we introduce you to the problems of  attempting to apply your martial arts training in a violent confrontation.

Before you even think of using your martial art for self-defense you must be aware of two fundamental problems that you face. The first is: If it works. The second is: If it doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, we’re not being flip that these are both major problems.

Let’s start out optimistically and assume that your martial arts training does work in a self-defense situation. On this subject we have some great news. Despite extensive argument on martial arts forums and sales pitches from instructors trying to get you to sign up for their school, one simple fact remains: Any martial art can be used for effective self-defense

By this we mean to get yourself out of being attacked. You can use any style’s block as a shield to protect yourself while you get away. A simple strategy of blocking and shooting an elbow as you run to safety can get you out of all kinds of trouble. It's called "Stun and Run."  This non-macho/macha approach is not particularly glorious, nor does it gratify one’s ego. It is, however, a very effective, and proven, self-defense strategy against a wide variety of threats.

Having said they can be used for self-defense, martial arts are not good for fighting.

On the internet, people are constantly arguing over which martial art style is best for fighting. What they fail to realize is it false argument. Starting from a misconception, people are now arguing over which is the best mistaken idea. They might as well be arguing over which style is the best for walking to the moon. Yet, misconceptions and fantasies about fighting are so well entrenched in the martial arts world that they are considered truths. The authors are constantly asked “which martial art style is best for fighting?”

Our answer is: None.

To start with, the martial arts are not fighting styles, they are training styles. They do not “teach you to fight” they train you how to move your body. Just because you know how to move your body doesn’t mean you know how to fight. If that were true, then both ballerinas and football players would be great fighters. More to the point, sparring is not fighting. Nor is stepping into the sports ring. In a “real fight,” there are no judges, juries, and rules to protect the participants. There are no disallowed moves. Whoever is still standing is the winner. The loser is probably hurt and doesn’t remember a thing or dead!

While this may sound all kinds of exciting and macho, remember, at least half of the people involved in fights lose. That means, despite all your training, there is a 50/50 chance that the person on the ground will be you. The reason is very simple, you aren't the only one who has stacked the deck. Your opponent has also put some tricks up his sleeve. Unfortunately, these tricks often include surviving multiple violent encounters previously. You may be trained, but he's experienced.

Having said that, the real reason we say no martial art style is good for “fighting” is all fantasies about defeating a horde of attacking criminals in a blaze of martial art mastery aside, there is one undeniable fact that exists about using your martial arts training on another human being:

Self-defense is legal, fighting is illegal.

Self-defense is doing what you must do to prevent yourself from being harmed when unjustly attacked. For example, walking down the street and someone unexpectedly jumps out of the shadows to attack you, would be self-defense. Fighting, on the other hand, is you actively engaging in an extended, aggressive and most importantly, consensual altercation. For example, an argument that escalates into an exchange of blows is not self-defense, it’s a fight – even though both participants will claim it was self-defense. This is why both are going to jail and both will end up in court.

Now granted these are overly simplistic examples that are subject to many caveats, exceptions and extenuating circumstances that can only be sorted out in court, but they do show the basic difference between self-defense and fighting.

This difference between fighting and self-defense is built into legal definitions in every state. Why is knowing this difference important? Because, violence always has an aftermath. And your actions  before, during and after a violent episode will affect the aftermath.

The bottomline is: If you are fighting, you are part of the problem. And during the aftermath you will be treated accordingly by the legal system. No matter what you thought you were doing, your behavior regarding the altercation will be considered and judged in this light. If you are found to have crossed certain lines, then even if you win the physical altercation, you will lose in these other ways.

Unlike a criminal, in order for you to “win” a violent encounter you must come out ahead on four different levels. Not just one or two, but all four. 1) overcoming your fear and performing, 2) defeating the attacker, 3) not being criminally prosecuted and 4) winning in civil court when you are sued by your attacker for injuring him.

Coming out ahead is a big enough challenge if you were defending yourself, if you were fighting it is impossible. What’s more, passing these four criteria requires much more than just knowing a deadly fighting art. It requires self-control, knowledge and awareness of things beyond just the physical act of punching someone correctly. In these four areas there are a lot of ways you can lose – even if you win the fight.

Here are a few very basic guidelines to tell when it crosses the line from self-defense into something illegal. You or your student become the aggressor if 1) you were an active participant in the creation and escalation of the conflict, (e.g. you were in an argument that turned into an extended punch out). 2) you did not stop attacking after the immediate threat had passed (e.g. he was trying to disengage or had fallen and you kept on attacking) or 3) your response was excessive beyond the threat offered to you (e.g. you knife someone who just punched you). These three standards are far more a reality than what you will hear discussed in martial arts circles about what works in a “real fight.” Once these lines are crossed, it’s not self-defense anymore – even if it started out as such

Are you beginning see why we have such a problem about the very idea of a “best martial art for fighting?” That is a recipe for violating any and all of those three guidelines.

A unifying concept of what has been discussed thus far is the unconscious assumption – by both the teacher and the student -- that the martial artist will always be right “if he ever had to use this.” This assumption regarding innocence of participation and instigation is not shared by our legal system. Because quite simply an overwhelming amount of violence could be avoided if someone simply overrides ego, apologizes and walks away. As such, if the student’s or martial artist’s behavior does not conform to legal self-defense standards, he will be prosecuted as an aggressor and/or participant.

The misconception that the student will always be legally defending him/herself is encouraged by everything being phrased in terms of self-defense in the school; when in fact, the actions being taught and encouraged are anything but, self-defense.

One of the authors actually saw a neck break, from behind, being taught as self-defense. That is not self-defense move, it is a military technique for killing sentries. A combat level move that is indefensible in court. You can play all kinds of “what if” games, but you will be hard pressed to come up with a credible scenario where it is justified to snap someone’s neck from behind while he was helpless on the ground.

We should like to point out that the lack of credibility is not only from a legal standpoint, but that you would not be likely to survive performing that technique. Short of committing outright murder, the weapon in your opponent’s hand (the one that would justify this move) would be used on you while both of your hands were up around his neck. You have to execute your victim before he gets that weapon up there. If you don’t he kills you as you kill him.

This is how out of touch with reality most “self-defense” training is.

Unfortunately, the current emphasis on extreme training, reality based training, cross training, being able to fight at any range, weapon system training and countless other fads and marketing schemes encourage crossing the line between self-defense and fighting. They instill physical reactions that are not effective self-defense, but what would be viewed as fighting moves by the authorities. What’s worse, what they encourage is not a self-defense attitude (i.e. block, strike and run), but rather the idea of staying there and engaging an opponent (a.k.a. fighting).

The nature of this kind of training makes it far more likely the student will cross the lines into illegal behavior. We say this because often, error riddled systems try to patch their shortcomings with extreme aggressiveness. It is almost as though they are saying “Don’t fix the holes in what you are doing, just do it harder!” Whether this extra force comes from an aggressive attitude, belief in the invincibility of the fighting style, an over-reliance on being in peak physical conditioning or a combination of all, depends on the system. What doesn’t change is the grim reality that excessive use of force is often the result from attempting to force error riddled techniques to work.

What is sad is that many of these schools are in fact, trying to do error detection on the traditional martial arts, but they ended up trying to fix problems that they didn’t understand. As martial artists often patch techniques with muscle and speed, many “reality based fighting systems” try to patch errors in self-defense with aggressiveness, overkill and finding the most “deadly fighting moves.” Unfortunately, many of the solutions that are currently being advocated not only fail to solve the errors, but will are flat out illegal.

Unfortunately, self-defense is one of the cornerstones of martial arts marketing. You will be hard pressed to find a school that does not promote itself as being able to teach you self-defense. What’s worse is how often schools that claim to focus on self-defense are, in fact, teaching fighting.

Therefore, it is incumbent on martial arts instructors, especially those who claim to teach an art that is good for self-defense (or a weapon art) to take training in the legal use of force. Not just talk to a student who is a lawyer in the dressing room, but actually attend classes/seminars/training. Fortunately, classes on judicious use of lethal force do exist in the handgun/shooting world and are readily available. Take this information and review your program against the standards you learn there.

And these are just the problems that you will face if it works. The book itself addresses many of the reasons that your training won't work in a live- fire situation.

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