1 in 3 Expert Martial artists are out-of-touch with the reality of interpersonal violence

Some times ago, I conducted an informal survey on a number of Martial Arts online forums and pages; I asked a simple question: "If you had only one self-defence technique to teach, which one would it be?"

 If you had only one self-defence technique to teach which one would would it be?

Candidly, I thought I would end up with a list of techniques that could be organized/ranked by popularity and then I would be able to elaborate on the top 10 self-defence techniques

Well, as you probably guessed by now, this didn't go as I had anticipated. What I actually got was much more perplexing but also much more.

Of the people who replied to my question, only 62% offered technical solutions. Yes, only 2/3 actually answered the question!

The rest had different views:
  • 12% said 'avoidance' including “running away as fast as possible
  • 8% said 'awareness'
  • 1% said 'de-escalation'
  • 8% said “the question is silly” as learning only one technique is useless. Among these, a number suggested “get a gun” or “a knife” or “pepper-spray
  • 8% of all answers were not applicable because they were silly jokes

"If you had only one self defence technique to teach which one would would it be?"

Initially, these “non-technical” answers were puzzling as I had clearly asked for technical solutions but they also raised a number of interesting issues.

Let's start with the triad 'avoidance', 'awareness' and 'de-escalation'

'Avoidance', 'awareness', and 'de-escalation' are not strictly speaking self defence techniques.

Sure, they should all be part of every good self-defence programme but they are more soft skills, common sense, or "mindset" than techniques.

To be fair, though, 'de-escalation' can be quite technical. Well, actually there is a whole academic field that concerns itself with conflict resolution. It's also real jobs such as diplomat or police negotiator.

Would 'de-escalation' be easier to teach/learn than a proper self defence technique?

I have my doubts.

Besides, we have to admit that there are situations, unfortunately, when diplomacy doesn't work and peaceful options have all been exhausted.

The problem with eluding technical answers and offering only 'avoidance' or 'a' as a reply, is that it assumes troubles won't find you if you're not looking for them

Sure, 'avoidance' and 'awareness will reduce the odds but still, shit happens.

Remember the 2004 tsunami in Thailand? Over 180,000 people were confirmed dead.

Were they really taking any inconsiderate risks?

I don't think so.

Of course, according to the principle of avoidance, the odds of dying in a tsunami drop to zero if you live secluded in the mountains and never visit the seaside.

On the other hand, in the mountains you're more likely to die in an avalanche. Shit happens.

This brings us to one essential principle of self defence:
“Don't think it will only happen to others”

The trouble with 'avoidance' in particular is that it rests on the assumption that escaping is always possible.

Although “escape as soon as the opportunity arise” is definitely a good advice, an escape route is not always readily available as the CCTV footage below shows.

an escape route is not always readily available

And guess what, you might actually have to fight your way to the exit point.

Another interesting point, is that 'avoidance' answers quite often assumed that running is the best option. What if your aggressor runs faster than you?

"I was walking home by the Gowlett on Amott Road when I was attacked by two guys with hoods. Tried to run away though they chased me down and kicked me in the face and chest..." TommyF

Keep in mind that running away also means turning -and thus giving- your back!

Here is what Martial Art Illustrated Hall of Famer and security specialist Scott Caldwell had to say about the “run away” credo:
“If you see it coming [fight], you MUST act first! Too many teachers don't understand the true essence of real violence. They have never seen it! They learn their techniques and receive their certificates from others of the same ilk on matted floors in safe dojo's. They shy away from 'strike first' because they have no understanding of the laws of protecting oneself. They tell you, 'run away'! Run away? Fuck off you absolute conmen! If someone wants to learn to run then I hear Linford Christie is looking for work and he would certainly be better qualified to teach sprinting than me! Run away? What and turn your sight, your weapons, your main chances of survival from someone who would do you harm, not knowing if you're quicker than them? Really?"

Still, some commentators fiercely contended that learning to run fast(er) is easier than drilling and acquiring a self-defence technique.

Clearly they never did any serious sprint training.

Improving your running speed requires not only a lot of physical training but also an awful lot of technical work.

But all this doesn't really matter.

Because, ultimately, you still need to run faster than your aggressor. And if you don't, well, you'll have to fight!

'Awareness', as an answer to my initial question, presents another issue:

On the one hand, 'situational awareness' is key. Being able to spot troubles early on will go a long way in keeping you out of arm. With good 'situational awareness' you're also less likely to be picked as a victim.

Although, there are some drills to improve 'situational awareness' (see here for example, but they are quite limited; see also How you can improve your self defence awareness with natural threat detection mechanisms)- 'situational awareness' is a mindset, not really a technique that one can simply drill once and acquire.

The main issue with 'awareness' though is that “threat detection requires effortful allocation of attentional resources, which become depleted over time” (Parasuraman & Galster, 2013).

In other words, attention is a finite resource. This means it is impossible to be aware all the time and it's impossible to be aware of everything.

Worse, as I explain in details in another article (What too much emphasis on situational awareness does to your brain), high levels of 'awareness' / constant awareness, can easily ramp up anxiety to a point where cognitive resources are hijacked and perception is altered.

Too much 'awareness' can actually have adverse consequences on our physical and mental capacities to detect and react properly to threats.

In my experience, people are quite good at sensing troubles (as long as ego, alcohol or drugs don't get in the way)

People should trust their instincts as security expert Gavin de Becker explains in his book "The Gif Of Fear".

The truth is we, human-beings, are expert at reading people. We intuitively evaluate people and situations all the time. We're trained to do it from the day we're born.

So, the idea that it is better to insist on avoidance' or 'awareness' instead of teaching a self-defence technique is deeply flawed.

Particularly because unconsciously most people already practice 'avoidance', and also because the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from reading him.

Did you know that 80% of sexual assaults are committed by people known and trusted by the victims such as friends and family? The vast majority of sexual assaults occur at the hands of people the victim knows, often within about a mile of their home or at their home.

People's natural fighting instincts, on the other hand, are really bad.

What is commonly called “good fighting instincts” is in fact acquired-skills nurtured through experience, training or, eventually, mimetic process (seeing/watching other fight) and are not actual innate “natural instincts”.


See how many people, without any prior boxing experience, quickly turn their back (effectively rendering themselves defenceless) when they are overwhelmed by their partner during a sparring session?

See how many people try to block low kicks with their hands leaving their face unprotected?

I won't even mention most people's reaction when they hit the ground and have to fight there (“Welcome to the shark tank!” as the BJJ folks say).

In a way, human-beings natural reaction to threats is more that of a herd animal. We panic and run amok, hoping to end up in the right statistical category.

So, no, insisting on 'avoidance', 'awareness' or 'de-escalation' instead of teaching a proper self-defence technique doesn't necessarily make people safer (although these three aspects should be taught alongside proper fighting techniques in any good self-defence class).

A surprise for me was to realize that many people claimed that learning only one self-defence technique would be useless.

Their three main arguments were:
  1. Learning only one technique would make things worse because “it would make people overconfident”, “giving them unrealistic confidence might do more harm than good.”
  2. Time constraint: training techniques “takes time because the point of them is that you have to do them right” or that “teaching a single move besides running away and 'de-escalation' techniques is pretty useless considering that it would most likely be due to a time constraint and that means not enough time to drill it enough to be second nature.”
  3. Need for a complete and comprehensive system. In other words techniques make sense only within the whole system.

To be honest, I fail to see how training/drilling only one fighting technique could make anyone over-confident!

In years of experience as a self-defence instructor, I've never seen someone getting cocky as a result of training with me.

As an instructor you have to push your students to give their best. You have to support them so they grow their confidence. But you also have to remind them of the grim reality and unpredictable nature of interpersonal violence.

You need to push the students on the edge of their comfort zone.

When a good grappler is becoming over-confident, I pit him against a better boxer (and vice-versa). Complacent big guy? Confront him to a much faster opponent, preferably smaller. Can't find anyone better? Work on multiple attackers scenario or knife attacks.

In my view, pressure testing ensures that people stay humble.

The second point -time constraint- has to do with the idea that a technique should be drilled until it is second nature.

This does not come as a surprise as one of martial arts most repeated motto is "don't train until you get it right, train until you can't get it wrong".

There is, however, a certain level of confusion around this concept.>

It does not mean that an imperfectly-trained technique would not work. It means that ideally a technique should be trained until perfect.

The fundamental reason behind this is 'damage limitation'.

Obviously, you have much higher chances of success and much lower risk of accident with a technique you get right 100% of the time, than with a technique you can only pull off approximately.

Not only you're faster, stronger and more precise when you've mastered a technique, but the risk of something going wrong, along with the associated and usually adverse consequences, is vastly reduced when a technique has become "second nature”.

Nonetheless, it still doesn't mean that a technique won't work if it's not perfectly assimilated/executed

Let me illustrate this point with an example:

Consider double-leg takedowns.

In street context, they should be done with the top of the forehead against the tummy of the opponent; not with the head on the side of your opponent because there is a risk you might fall and if you fall, you don't want your head (or face) to hit the floor. Additionally it helps preventing a guillotine choke.

It also provides more leverage as you can see in the video below:

This, however, does not mean that a double-leg takedown done with the head on the side, or a bad back position (or wearing a sari) won't work:

It's just more risky. Or, to put it differently, the risk things go wrong is increased (and as we know, according to Murphy's law, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong").

Ultimately, though, you're not going to wait until you've mastered all techniques to defend yourself if needed?

Whether you've mastered a technique or not, it would be ridiculous not to use it if you're getting attacked.

What's more, drilling a technique until it is second nature does not guarantee a quick or proper reaction in a stressful 'live fire' situation.

This type of situation is well described by Robert Twigger in his book Angry White Pyjamas.

Twigger recounts his year training in the intensive Senshusei aikido course taught to the Tokyo riot police.

He happened to be there when the founder of this particular branch of aikido died. He was able to participate in the traditional mourning 'pub crawl' when the highest ranks of this system drink their way from bar to bar.

He got to watch them get into a mass bar fight. These were some of the highest ranking aikido practitioners in the world, extremely skilled and trained people of a system that has constant interaction with officers who test it hands-on.

What Twigger saw was these masters rolling on the floor and swinging wild punches (sure some of them were already quite drunk!).

A similar situation occurred recently at the 2016 European Kung Fu championship when a massive brawl kicked off between Armenia and Azerbaijan:

Where were all the fancy, deadly, Kung Fu moves gone?

Personally, I've seen too many good martial artists freeze during pressure tests (or real life fights) and too many average-Joes without much training react properly.

This tells me that there are two different cognitive processes at work here.

So, sure enough drilling martial arts techniques until they become second nature is better, but techniques must be pressure-tested.

A couple of month ago, one of my student who works as a paramedic for London ambulance service was assaulted by a drunk guy during his night shift.

Thanks to his training, Liam was able to take the aggressor down and restrain him until the cops arrived.

Now, what you should know is that this happened on the night following his second class! So the technique he used had not been practiced 10,000 times. Still, it worked.

And it worked because Liam's ability to defend himself, his ability to the use the technique under stress and while fatigued had been properly pressure tested during the class.

Pressure testing has to be part of the training in order for the techniques to fire up with adrenal response; only pressure testing can give you some familiarity with the chaos of interpersonal violence.

In a way, you have to get it done before you get it right.

Surprisingly, in the debates and subsequent answers I had over my question, very few people mentioned the key importance of pressure testing.

The third point -the need for a comprehensive fighting system- is actually a counter-intuitive one.

The issue seems to be that “the amount of likely attacks you would face can't possibly be covered by one technique”.

Or, in other words, “you can't choose one technique because you don't know what of many different situations you are defending against. If someone is trying to grab you and push you in their car, you would do something different than drunk uncle Joe throwing a drunken overhand at you. Too many variables that would affect what you do and one technique doesn't cover all scenario's.

In a way though it is not surprising that at least some people who spent countless hours honing a huge technical corpus would cringe at the idea that learning only one technique could be helpful. In their highly technical environment, it simply does not make any sense.

The first objection I have to this is that, although it would be ideal to know also how to escape a kidnapping attempt, say, why on earth would just training drunk uncle Joe' scenario be worse than no training at all?

This is particularly puzzling since we know from police reports, CCTV and various studies that some situations are more common than others.

What happens during a violent street confrontation though is much more simple.

Most street fights start with a right punch

The most commonly cited study is a 2001 article titled Condition Black: assault in progress, in which the late Jeff Nash presented data on inter-personal violence based upon evidence taken from Europe.

Here are the 10 most common street attacks (Male on Male, Close Quarters) listed in frequency order:

  1. One person pushes, hands to chest, which is normally followed by the pushee striking first, to the head
  2. A swinging punch to the head
  3. A front clothing grab, one handed, followed by punch to the head
  4. A front clothing grab, two hands, followed by a head butt
  5. A front clothing grab, two hands, followed by a knee to the groin
  6. A bottle, glass, or ashtray to the head
  7. A lashing kick to groin/lower legs
  8. A broken bottle/glass jabbed to face
  9. A slash with knife, most commonly a 3 to 4″ lock blade knife or kitchen utility knife
  10. A grappling style head lock

So, if we have a decently good idea that the most common attack (by far) is “drunk uncle Joe throwing a drunken overhand at you”, why not teach/learn a technique to respond to that situation? Surely it would be better than nothing, wouldn't it?

For many commentators, the underlying issue seemed to be whether little training would increase fighting effectiveness or not.

Some people argued that teaching one technique “would be like teaching one word in a language”.

In my view, possibly because I've extensively traveled abroad, one word is always better than none. Knowing how to say “thank you” in a foreign language, for example, can go a long way in getting help, say, when visiting that country. ('awareness' though should remind you that according to 'avoidance' you wouldn't need any of this if you'd stayed at home).

Fundamentally, what many commentators missed is that it does not have to be a sophisticated technique.

Drilling natural reactions, such as a kick or knee to the groin, to make them more effective does not require a lot of work and could go a long way in terms of self-protection.

“There are some basic principles you can practice that will increase the effectiveness of any physical self defense you might need to employ” Susan Schorn (susanschorn.com

One supporter rightly contended that in any case, most martial arts were probably “never intended for people to master or make use of every technique [...] they are intended as a buffet where you try a few things but ultimately take what you like/find useful. As such reducing techniques down to what you personally like is a useful exercise […] Also the log-jam effect of having too many techniques that, when under pressure, get in the way of decisive action. There too it can pay to reduce techniques down to a few reliable favorites.

Browsing through videos of real life fights, it is quite clear that the technical level is mostly poor.

Actually many of these videos are more often used to show what should not be done than to illustrate the perfect technique (see the popular Youtube channel Gracie breakdown).

From a purely technical point of view, most of the times the moves are far from perfect; yet, they get the job done.


Violent intent.

People with good experience of real life violence, such as Richard Grannon (Street Fight Secrets) or Neil Martin (Combative Mind) among other, would say that the most important thing -before technique- is 'violent intent'.

In a street fight, more than technique, you need violent aggression and determination. You have to have the absolute desire to annihilate the person who wants to hurt you.

Aggression is not trained the same way as technique.

These are two different things. Two different cognitive processes. Techniques are important because they allow us to channel aggression and make our motor skills as efficient as possible under stressful conditions.

The self-defence / martial arts industry is riddled with misconceptions and fantasies.

One telling illustration is the reply I got regarding the usefulness for a girl to train just a little bit of self:

If attacked, she'd better just “cover and scream” was the commentator's advice.

That's just appalling!

Studies show that this would actually be counterproductive.

In case of sexual assaults, it has been found that the only self-protective tactics that appear to increase the risk of injury significantly were those that are "ambiguous and not forceful, such as stalling, cooperating, pleading and screaming from pain or fear".

Along with numerous examples, considerable evidence now exists that fighting back is an effective strategy to thwart a sexual assault as shown in the article Are women safer when they learn self-defence.

So, if untrained women can efficiently fight off aggressors, how on earth would a little training not be beneficial?

I personally think that even only one technique could make a difference like it did for Liam.

That's why I initially asked the question: "If you had only one self-defence technique to teach which one would would it be?"

Here is the list of self->defence techniques experts would choose if they had only one to teach