The following is a piece I wrote a while ago regarding a topic which I felt I wanted to express my feeling on, I didn’t really have a proper outlet to share it before but now feel it appropriate to put on here
In recent times I have seen a topic crop up repeatedly within Martial Arts circles, specifically levelled at the Self Defence side of the arts, a subject which I feel compelled to voice my thoughts on as I feel I am indirectly on the receiving end of criticism levelled. That subject is of people who teach reality based self defence, who have not been involved in street fights or in professions that involve exposure to violent encounters, and the claim that people to whom that applies are not really qualified to teach self defence as they don’t have first hand experience of the realities of the street
I would first clarify that I don’t claim to be any kind of authority on this topic, merely someone who has trained in martial arts and self defence systems for long enough to have established some opinions on the subject which I am willing to put out there, opinions which I am also quite willing to discuss and concede if I am proven wrong
I would also like to clarify that a lot of the people I have noticed to be vocal on this subject are people for who I have the utmost respect for both their skills in their field and in the value their experiences in the real world bring to their self defence teachings. I have never and would never question the value that exposure to violence brings to a teacher’s understanding of the realities of the street, however while many would maintain that unless you have that experience you can’t possibly have a good enough understanding of reality to teach self defence, I do not believe it is as black and white a subject as that.
I think a large part of where this perception of a requirement to have seen the real world of violence first hand stems from, is from a worrying trend in the martial arts world nowadays where a person can go on a weekend course and immediately pick up a certificate that says they’re a self defence instructor. Not only that, but in the digital age it’s all too easy for an unqualified person to saturate social media with videos claiming to be of street effective technique demonstrations, which are in fact either shown entirely in the wrong context or are just total rubbish. I totally get the frustration real instructors feel at this sort of thing as it is a bit of an insult to those who genuinely know their stuff when you have muppets out there making the whole martial arts industry look bad. So, I can understand why people become vocal about it, but within the reality based self defence space it seems to have generated a backlash that has extended to people who do actually know what they’re talking about, but maybe just approach the subject from a slightly different angle or have acquired their knowledge from a different background to that which a lot of people seem to have deemed ‘correct’ for reality based self defence
One question I feel often goes unasked when people talk about self defence and whether or not someone is a credible instructor, is what exactly do they mean by self defence? That is to say, do they mean the context of an average person wanting to learn skills and thought processes to avoid violence if at all possible, and just make sure they get home to their families safely in the unlikely event they are ever forced into a bad situation which they can’t avoid? Or do they mean street survival for someone who finds themselves in sticky situations with some degree of regularity? I personally feel there is a big difference between these 2 interpretations of reality based self defence, which in turn has a big impact on whether or not someone is qualified to teach it. Does working the doors for example make one better qualified to teach the full spectrum of the self defence topic to the masses, or does it simply make one better qualified to teach application of techniques to that particular environment?
First hand exposure to violent situations can obviously give a person an understanding of psychological effects, which many of us haven’t experienced and would hope never to have to, and in turn allows one to convey that effect to students. Surely though to say one can’t understand enough to teach unless you have been there also insinuates that one can’t understand enough to apply what one has learned, which would in turn apply to any students who haven’t been in fights before. So is that to say that students should go out looking for fights in order to test their training or else they aren’t qualified to apply it? Of course not, one of the first things any respectable self defence instructor will teach is to avoid trouble in the first place, so instead of encouraging testing oneself for real, sparring and/or pressure testing drills are used in classes as the closest thing possible within a safe environment. Can a student ever be 100% prepared to face a violent encounter using such drills? No, the only way one can ever be fully desensitised to such encounters would be repeated exposure, and that is obviously never to be encouraged unless one works in an industry where it simply comes with the territory. So, if we say that pressure testing drills etc. are the closest we can get to prepare a student for reality, then why can’t those same methods be used to train an instructor? Provided of course the person training and qualifying them as such is suitably credible themselves, and all involved are honest enough to admit to themselves and their own students that it is not a guarantee of full preparation and is merely the best one can do within the confines of a controlled environment
Some would argue that the controlled environment is a problem in itself, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but let’s be honest, I would be willing to bet that a fair number of students wanting to take up self defence classes, aren’t going to be meatheads looking to be thrashed on a regular basis to toughen themselves up for a fight, they’re going to be average people just looking to learn enough to get home safely, quite possibly people with normal office jobs, for whom it would be frowned upon for them to be limping into work battered and bruised the morning after a class.
To make a comparison, I am 5’8”, 10 1/2 stone, and distinctly average build. I like to think that 15+ years of training in martial arts means I can generate a decent amount of power for my size, but at the end of the day I’m a pretty normal guy, I’m no powerhouse, and no matter how hard I might have trained over the years to reach a level of competence, I’ve still probably got my work cut out for me against anyone notably bigger and/or stronger than myself. Now, if I suddenly decided I wanted to learn more about grappling for example, I’m far more likely to pick a class run by a martial artist of my sort of build who I can tell understands the details of techniques and how to use that to their advantage, rather than to seek out some hulking wrestler who knows how to use his power to his advantage, as the former approach would be a better fit for me. The reverse might well be true of course if I myself was a big guy who struggled with subtler approaches. By a similar token, if an average person of no particular stature wanted to learn self defence from the perspective of simply making sure they get home safe from the pub on a Friday night, are they more likely to feel a connection to the teachings of a heavyset experienced doorman, or of someone closer to their own size and background. Obviously this is a very subjective thought but one worth consideration I think
So, does exposure to the reality of the streets benefit a self defence instructor? Yes I believe it does, it gives first hand insight into a world many of us hope we never have to see. But is it a requirement? I don’t think so. While I think it is harder for someone who hasn’t had that experience to reach a credible level of competence sufficient to be a coach, I believe it is entirely possible, with the right training, attitude, and honesty with oneself and one’s students, for someone who works a normal office job and has avoided real world violence all their life, to teach reality based techniques, logic, mindset and methodology, just so long as they don’t try to claim to be something they’re not