This goes for anyone learning anything: ballerinas train to perform on stage, BJJ practitioners train to win ribbons, karate is learnt to break planks of wood, and soccer players train to play and win on the football pitch.
True self-defence training is completely different to any other type of training. Unlike everyone else who practices an art, a martial art or a sport, we learn how to defend ourselves but we all hope we’ll never have to actually use our skills. We practice what we’ll need only on the worst day of our lives.
Yet no matter how hard we train, how often we practice, it’s impossible to truly simulate the stress of a situation that is, in its very nature, dangerous and unpredictable. We can’t know where it will happen, when, how we’ll be feeling on that day, or how our attacker will react.
There are four major reasons that even the most committed practitioner of self-defence can fail to defend themselves when it matters.
The good news is that if your self-defence school is aware of these pitfalls they can incorporate them into your training regime to prepare you for the unpredictable.
Here’s what you should be looking out for.
1. THE ATTACKS YOU DEFEND WHEN TRAINING ARE NOT REALISTIC
YouTube is literally crawling with self-defence videos. The video below has 2.5 million likes and only a handful of people can tell what’s wrong with it. Sure, it looks good. But it’s not good self-defence. What’s the issue?
The attacker is the same size as the defender. The technique will fail if you are at a size disadvantage. A good self-defence technique needs to account for this and should work on someone taller, heavier, or stronger. If you think about it, no one attacks someone twice their size. An attacker will attack to win, not because they think they’ll get their backsides handed to them.
Other videos show unrealistic attacks, like the one below.
Notice that when the attacker punches, the punch is left out hanging like clean laundry on a line. Unless the person punching you trains in Wing Chun (oh, oops, this one does..) no one punches and leaves their arm out like that.
Often also, the attacker is a very polite and compliant individual who is happy to hang out while the defender simulates punches and kicks and does nothing to protect themselves and certainly doesn’t attack again.
Realistically, if someone tried to attack you once, they’re going to keep going until you render them either unable or unwilling to try again, and not a second before.
I couldn’t even believe what I was watching when I found this.
The reasons why a bad attack breeds false confidence and is more harmful than helpful doesn’t need explaining.
Ironically, in most self-defence schools, compliance is often seen as “being a good partner” but the very opposite is true.
Your attacks are the training ground for your partner and if you are compliant all the time, your partner gets bad training and doesn’t get the opportunity to correct mistakes they may be making in their defence technique.
This neatly leads into the next point.
2. YOU ARE NOT TAUGHT TO ATTACK PROPERLY
Realistic training is hard and its messy. Being a good attacker is difficult and takes as much practice as good self-defence techniques.
People who attack, who assault, who want to hurt others are very rarely trained in anything at all but pure aggression. This is not a natural state for anyone at SGS Krav Maga, and very likely your self-defence gym, too.
So, at SGS, we focus and are trained on how to be good attackers for our partners. This means we recoil our attacks, we train with power (when we stress-test techniques) and we attempt the attack again and again, in a variety of ways and appropriately to the counters that our partner throws down-range.
It is incredibly important to give your partner a good attacking silhouette. This means reacting to their counter-attack in a realistic way.
If your partner knees you in the groin, you bend over. Unless your groin is made of steel, this doubled-over position will change the strikes that follow and your partner will need to adjust accordingly.
If your partner punches you in the face, step back. Your partner’s footwork will need to adapt to follow you without tripping over or losing the control they may have of your hand holding the knife or gun, and so on.
Because being a good attacker takes practice, your instructors should be giving you pointers on how to attack properly, with intent to harm. Even if your attacks are slow in the beginning. You can add speed, power, and aggression as you and your partner gain confidence.
But there’s never a good excuse for a poor, unrealistic, compliant attack in a training scenario.
Your instructors should be well-versed in what attacks on the street look like. These should be studied and passed on to you as a student.
Steve, our Head Instructor at SGS, has valiantly reviewed hundreds of CCTV recordings of real-life stabbings and has made us a few reels to review in class.
They are hard to watch and often end tragically, but they help us understand not only how attacks happen, but learn from the mistakes made by others.
And as attacks on the street change, like the hybrid straight stab with a circular recoil seen recently in the Brisbane train station stabbing, we start to train defences against these too.
Any good self-defence school should be adapting as the world changes.
A good attacking silhouette is as important as a good defensive technique if you want your skills to work in the street. Good training means good silhouettes means a well-prepared defender.
3. YOU ONLY TRAIN IN A WELL-LIT, KITTED-OUT GYM
Wouldn’t it be nice if the place we needed to defend ourselves was well-lit and the ground was soft like the mats in the self-defence and martial arts gyms you train in? Will it really happen? Unfortunately, no.
Low-light training changes the game entirely. You lose all depth perception. You can’t use your vision to help you. You cannot tell what kind of weapon the attacker is holding, or often, whether or not they are armed at all.
If you’re used to training in a well-lit environment, adjusting to a low-light situation is very difficult and will mean you make mistakes, some of which may be fatal.
Low-light training fixes this by helping you prepare for a realistic situation: darkness is the attacker’s friend, but it’s also yours. How do you use low-light to your advantage? It’s a skill that you can learn.
Just make sure your instructors give you that opportunity by turning off the gym lights every once in a while. In fact, low-light training is so important that we wrote an entire blog post about it.
In the same vein, tackles on mats are great. No one gets hurt and they’re important for safety in training. We need to learn to walk before we run. But in reality, you may be defending on concrete, uneven ground, slippery surfaces, a narrow space, or in a place full of obstacles (like a restaurant, a train carriage etc). This also takes practice.
You need to learn to defend on mats as though you’re always on concrete. That is, train to protect your joints and your head as you fall, as you tackle, as you defend on the ground.
Make sure your instructors take you to train in places that you are unfamiliar with like parks, parking lots and other open (and constrained) spaces. At SGS, this is part of regular classes and a crowd favourite.
If you learn to execute defences and adjust your techniques to a variety of locations, which is just a matter of practice, you’ll be much better prepared to defend in any environment.
4. YOU ONLY EVER TRAIN IN ACTIVEWEAR
Activewear is great. It’s super-flexible and extremely comfortable to move and sweat in. But it’s unlikely you live in your training gear.
A high round-house kick to the head works a treat in yoga pants. In skinny jeans or a pencil skirt? Not so much. Mistakes in footwork can be corrected in sneakers, but are much more dangerous in heels. Every KMG instructor who is qualified to teach the women’s classes, has trained in heels. Yes, the men too.
Make sure that every once in a while, you train in regular clothing, whatever it is you usually wear. You may notice that some of your favourite techniques are suddenly more difficult to execute. This is fine, so long as you are aware and can adjust when you need to.
But more than comfort, putting on training gear is putting on a mindset. That’s why soldiers and police wear uniforms and it’s why dress codes exist in offices.
Putting on your krav uniform is putting on a training mindset. If you don’t practice in anything other than your uniform, it’s going to be very difficult to change your mindset when your clothing is different. Again, that shouldn’t be a huge barrier, and may not be, but it is something to account for.
In any self-defence scenario, you should aim to have every possible advantage. The ability to switch on the defensive or aggressive mindset is one of these. The more you practice, the easier it will be to do when you need it most.
Self-defence training MaY fail you in a variety of ways in real life. An awareness of why this may happen goes a long way to making sure it doesn’t.
Variety of location, clothing, lighting and so on is time-consuming and often difficult for instructors to offer. Also, if you are just starting out learning a technique, this is best done in a controlled, safe, well-lit environment.
But as you progress in your skills and training, make sure your self-defence instructors are serving you. Make sure they are preparing you adequately for the time we hope will never come.
Real-life attacks are messy, dangerous, confusing, unpredictable, and impossible to simulate perfectly. Your training should be varied and your techniques should be stress-tested whenever you are comfortable and ready.
As our instructors always say: it’s not just practice that makes perfect, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect. Or as close as you can get.