So what started out as me just jotting down some musings on my lunch breaks on the topic of self defence vs martial arts, ended up being way too long for a single post, so I’ve decided to break it down into a couple of topics.
One of the most prominent reasons as to why I believe most martial arts classes these days teach flawed self defence, is compliance. Compliance is an essential training tool, especially for beginners, without it most people would never really learn anything, it allows students to methodically practice to learn the positions and movements required to effectively utilise a given technique so that they can memorise and reproduce it. There comes a point though, where compliance actually harms the learning process. To give an analogy, if I wanted to learn to play Tennis, having never played before, and had aspirations to enter competitions, I’d need to start off just gently tapping the ball back and forth over the net to get the hang of positioning, timing, aiming etc., if a coach started the lesson by firing 100Mph serves at me I wouldn’t learn anything productive as I’d just be trying not to get hit. At the same time though, I’d never progress to competition level if I only ever tapped the ball back and forth nicely, I’d need to start learning to deal with fast balls to prepare me for a higher level of play. The same is true in martial arts, slow compliant training is necessary as part of the learning process, but sooner or later things need to ramp up to put them into context, otherwise a student will get a rude awakening when they realise the slow and methodical move they’ve been practising with their helpful training partner, suddenly doesn’t work when the other guy puts some oomph into the attack or puts up some resistance to the control technique.
Compliance can also carry another level of danger though. There are a lot of techniques taught in many martial arts that look effective, but ultimately only work because the other guy lets it work, either consciously or subconsciously. Take for example the video opposite, the intention here isn’t to critique this particular chap’s ability or the style, it was simply the first video I could find on YouTube showing this particular technique, a technique which I’ve seen taught a lot over the years in numerous styles as a self-defence move (and there are plenty of others I could have picked, this was just the first that came to mind). It is a perfect example of a technique which can look good, and in fact under ideal circumstances is a very painful and effective wrist lock (I spent no end of hours practising it in my Aikido days and can assure you that, done right, it flippin hurts!), but ultimately only really works because the attacker allows it, or you have a size and/or strength advantage to power through and force it.
So someone grabs you and you in reply grab their hand and rotate it over to put the arm in the right position to apply the lock…just like that huh? Try that against someone who has a firm grip and who doesn’t just let you roll their hand over and suddenly it doesn’t go so well, the typical answer being that you’re just not doing it right, but the fact is that if someone is strong, it simply isn’t that easy to just manipulate their arm into the right position for a lock if they hold tight and don’t play along. That’s without even beginning to get into factors like the likelihood of the other hand swinging at your face at the same time, them pushing or pulling you, the possibility of the attacker being high on drugs and not feeling the pain, or dozens of other factors that could affect it. Now there’s always the argument that this is just a slow instructional video so it’s unfair to criticise the technique as it will work better at speed as the opponent will be caught unaware and won’t have time to react, but speed alone won’t compensate for something that simply doesn’t work mechanically without a co-operative partner or a significant strength advantage. There is also the argument that the attacker goes along with it so as to avoid being injured when their partner executes the technique, which is a true to a point, but there is still a big difference between reacting realistically in such a way as to avoid injury, and just reacting the way you’ve been taught is ‘correct’ for the technique in question.
Here is another classic example of a technique reliant on compliance (again, not picking on a particular person or style, just the first video I found which suited the point I’m making), it all looks very nice, but it works because the ‘attacker’ throws a punch, and then stops with their arm held out while the ‘defender’ goes into their flashy stuff. Reality, I’ve never seen anyone throw a punch and then leave their arm out like that outside of a martial arts class, the arm will inevitably retract or otherwise move after the punch is thrown, and I have certainly never seen anyone throw a punch then stop on the spot to wait for the other guy to take their turn. It’s all fine if both participants are playing the same game, but step away from your training partner and try to put it into the context of some thug taking a swing at you, quite possibly charging at you at the same time, and suddenly the rules have changed somewhat.
This is where compliance has changed from a training aid into a requirement, but nobody seems to have noticed, and nobody thinks to ask the question of what happens if the other guy doesn’t play along or the context changes. Yes there are cases where compliance is required, the student allowing their partner to do the move so they can learn, or letting the instructor demonstrate the technique unhindered (in any class it would be bad etiquette to try and catch your teacher out when they’re in demonstration mode), but this can easily lead to subconscious compliance, where the student becomes so accustomed to ‘going along’ with the technique, that they do so automatically, giving their training partner the impression that they’ve nailed the technique when really all they’ve done is found someone who knows the routine and will fall over at the appropriate point for them.
So what is the answer? Compliance isn’t going anywhere, as stated before it is essential as part of the learning process, even in reality based systems there will always be drills and exercises that are learning tools that don’t directly represent reality but are used for building fundamental skills. For me it is simply about honesty, with oneself and one’s training partners, coupled with the ability and willingness to acknowledge where the line is between practising art, and preparing for how violent encounters are more likely to play out in reality.