Training high impact martial arts while maintaining low injury rate

Image courtesy and Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010

Martial arts are mostly designed and conceived as fighting systems.  Fighting is about hurting other people so it is about delivering intense blows to another person; anybody training realistically risks hurting or getting hurt during sessions.  Some styles like Judo were in fact conceived to reduce the risk of injuries by removing the most dangerous techniques from its ancestor: Ju Jitsu.  Other styles limit the teaching and practicing of dangerous techniques to advanced students or simply avoid full contact training or sparring.  Realistically speaking training with a certain level of contact and impact is necessary for anyone competing at full but also light contact level.

Training “full on” and maintaining a safe training environment creates a dilemma that troubles many martial arts clubs and some of them take one position in the spectrum of the impact vs. safety curve: some on the safe and sometimes unrealistic, particularly for those who want to use martial arts for self defence while others take it to an extreme and have a very high number of injuries some times serious ones.  Kickboxing and many other styles that are practiced wearing pads offer the advantage of covering some of the “weapons” like fists and feet so that they ensure a safer training practice.  In my experience of over 3 decades of training Kickboxing and other martial arts I definitely seen many incidents but, considering that we spend several hours per week kicking and punching each other, often at full power, the number of serious damages is negligible.  In the over 13 years I have been running CARISMA, my club in Cambridge, I can remember very few (3-4) broken noses, a few broken or cracked ribs (less then 10), a couple of swollen feet.  We obviously have the occasional, once per month or less, black eye and regular bruises, mostly on the arms when people receive attacks and block with their guard.  All in all I am sure we are safer than most football or rugby club.

Some Kickboxing clubs spend most of their times hitting focusing mitts and Thai pads; that a great way of practicing power while minimising the risk of injuries.  Personally I am a strong believer in one-2-one training combining attack and defence techniques and combinations that emulate the sparring environment.  I find that pad work is mostly conditioning body and mind to simply face a passive opponent that invites you to hit a target.  The pair training also helps improving defence reflexes together with blocking and parrying skills.

In my experience a proven formula to ensure a safe full contact training environment is to teach people to actively block the attacks they are subject to by using active blocks and parries rather than passively accepting blows on their guard.  This last strategy is taught as the last resource that people should use when in extreme difficulty.  When teaching blocks to beginners we always start from the technique with bare hands to show the exact mechanical movement involved and how to minimize the impact on one’s body while deflecting as much and possible the forces rather than absorbing them onto his/her own body.  Then, when gloves are worn, they add extra safety to the whole situation and further minimise the risk of bruises and scratches.  Many thousand repetitions later all movements become instinctive and automatic and they can work even at full speed and power.  Sparring obviously increases the risk of incidents and injuries but, once more, if students have very clear ideas about precise blocking the whole process becomes as safe as it can be although never 100% incident free.

One-off Self Defence lesson

MarkerPenHaving been training martial arts for over 3 decades I struggle to consider the concept of a one-off self defence lesson for an untrained student but last week I tried delivering one.

It all started when my friend Vicky asked for help after being attacked by an ex colleague, a large and tall guy with some serious mental issues.  After several episodes of increasingly violent verbal abuse on the street he finally decided to swing a punch at her.  Vicky was fast enough to dodge the attack and nothing else happened but she was obviously very shaken and scared when it happened.

When she asked for my help I was obviously prepared to offer my knowledge and expertise but I immediately clarified how martial arts need to be learnt and assimilated over a long period of time so the right kind of reaction becomes automatic and natural.  Apart from technique and reflexes martial art also offer two key factors:

  • the mental training to rationalise a dangerous situation in order to react in a calmer and more effective way
  • the necessary fitness and physical conditioning to fight back

I though I could try compressing a few basic concepts aimed at helping Vicky to increase her level of personal safety and security, all in one hour session.  Vicky is in her early forties, physically fit by spending regular time in the gym but she never practiced any martial art or fighting sport; she is medium built, about 1.70m tall and she often wearing shoes with high hills.

We started the lesson as a set of conversations where we discussed scenarios and possibilities.  I often teach that the best physical self defence could be considered when you can run away; wearing high hills reduces this possibility by a fair amount.  I suggested having a conscious awareness, when walking, of the type of floor she is walking on to understand how slippery it would be if a fast movement, sprint or other action was required.  The very best self defence is to avoid the danger altogether so we started enlisting how to improve personal security when travelling, when at home and when out both for work or socialising.  Increasing awareness about the environment and where a potential attacker could be hiding will reduce the chance of an attack to the absolute minimum.  Without becoming obsesses we should mentally rehears situations when an attacker could be behind a corner or in a dark alley or in a park behind a tree; this will gradually educate the mind to consider and evaluate various what/if scenarios.

For practicality I suggested to consider having handbags with a long strap so they can hang from a shoulder and both hands could be available at all times for both attacking and defending. Some people suggest having an acoustic alarm, a pepper spray and/or a small object that can be used as a weapon when things get difficult.  A pen could be a good weapon; I have nothing against it but it can easily break (unless you use a metal one) and, if used to hit the wrong place it could potentially kill an attacker… a bit too extreme.  For me a big and thick permanent marker (or whiteboard pen), used in a hammer fist punch, could be a great weapon reducing the risk described above.  In general the law states that each self defence action should use reasonable force… a very grey area indeed. I warned my one-off student that any action she takes against an attacker could have legal repercussions for her if she injures the other person.

Vicky and I then started playing a bit physical; we first worked of the very attack she was recently victim of.  Most street attackers, when untrained in martial arts, will attack by swinging punches in a very broad and circular motion.  For the untrained person that is what feels as the most powerful attack.  I am always pleased to have this theory confirmed when, once in a while, I witness a street fight, usually late at night, among drunken.  The swinging punch could be dangerous if it hits you in the face but, luckily, it is very easy to block or even to dodge as Vicky already demonstrated.  For the swinging punch I suggested using blocks similar to Pak Sau from wing chun.  By turning the centre of gravity and walking slightly toward the punch we can actually neutralise even a very strong punch delivered by a much heavier opponent (as it is usually the case when a woman is fighting a man).  It took just a few minutes for Vicky to pick up the technique and apply it well and with the right timing.  It took a bit longer for her to relax when she saw me attacking her with increasing power, despite the attacks were controlled and would not hurt her even if she completed miss the block.

We then tried to familiarise with the concept that an attacked could sneak out of a corner and grab her with the intention of pulling her toward a concealed place or in his car; we worked on a couple of defences from wrist/forearm grabs.  We also briefly worked on a strangling position from behind.  To simply explore on attacking technique I showed how a hammer punch delivered in a descending motion toward the head, face or collarbones could be more effective and devastating than a jab or a cross that would require months or years of training and conditioning.  I here realised how for Vicky it was painful to hit the palm of my hand with medium strength so presumably delivering a really hard blow it would be excruciating.

I completed the session by suggesting to have a friend to practice these techniques and rehears them until they become second nature; I invited her to come back to me with questions as all the concepts clear and fresh in her mind at the end of the session would quickly start fading and become blurry and less obvious as time passes by.

Being used to teach to students which are with me for the medium or long period I always like to approach each concept gradually and ensure that the student can assimilate it well.  Here I had to really squeeze lots of concepts in a very short time.  I noticed how strange it could be for a person not used to martial arts training the simple concept of being grabbed, held, punched and other violent situations that are somewhat familiar and everyday practice for people that are training martial arts regularly.

Knife Defence

Whenever you see in a movie a guy fighting one or more attackers armed with knives don’t believe what you are seeing: most of the times it’s rubbish.  I have seen lots of knife defence that simply won’t work when, in the street, a random guy (or girl) pulls out a knife and try stabbing your guts or slashing your throat.   I am sorry to say but too many teachers out there give to their students a false illusion about how easy it may be disarming an attacker carrying knife and bad intentions toward you.

At the same time there are a few styles that seem more realistic about how to deal with armed attackers.  In fact I am inclined to follow the logic that a style that trains weapons to start with, like most styles from Indonesia and the Philippines, and move toward bare handed fighting at a later stage (e.g. when you loose your weapon you should/must carry on fighting).

I am personally terrified of edged weapons because of my relatively short experience and lack of continuous practice.  Although I probably have the knowledge and skill to fight and defeat a random attacker from the street in a life or death situation I am always hoping that day will never come.  I have been following Maul Mornie for some time and he never fails to impress me with his very logical, essential and wise defence techniques.  Please have a look at this video and let me have your comments:

How Realistic is Your Training?

Considering that martial arts are, in essence, methodologies for fighting I always consider paramount to perform a reality check of each application. This is to assess if and when a technique or combination can be useful in a self defence or real fight situation.

Please notice that some styles, like kick boxing, tae kwon do and judo are to be considered martial sports and they follow rules that are designed to allow a sport competition to take place without causing serious injuries to those taking part in it. To some extend certain martial sports train full contact and a professional or a serious amateur of these is pretty safe in a fight as I recently mentioned in a previous post.

Certain styles that are pure martial arts, without sport applications, are meant to be useful for real fights and defending yourself. I am aware of a number of masters and instructors that remain pretty theoretical on the way they teach and assume that things will simply work: these people give a false, very dangerous, illusion to their students that risk to be seriously injured or killed in a real fight. It all good stating that one or the other technique will hurt an opponent, it’s another issue practicing it to ensure it works all the times.

So how do you perform a reality check? Here are some hints:

  • Have you tested your punches (or kicks, elbow or knee strikes) for real power?
  • The same strike might knock somebody down if applied to the head but just hurt a bit in certain areas of the body: did you consider that?
  • Have you considered how bad it could be hitting somebody in the face to find out that he hardly noticed the strike? What would you do then?
  • How much power do you think you need in order to knock somebody down or seriously injury them, allowing you to run away?
  • How would you react if somebody is charging you like a bull? Do you have a technique that would allow stopping or deflecting his attack?
  • Do you practice techniques that work at long, medium and short range? What about if the attacker is grabbing you?
  • Striking can be the non ideal solution sometimes. Do you practice techniques to seize the opponent and neutralizing him? Perhaps immobilizing him with a joint lock?
  • If you are below average the terms of body weight and size then you should consider training to defeat bigger people. What’s your body size compared to the average population?

I would be interested to hear comments about these issues.

Martial arts for self defence: are they useful?

When I start thinking about self defence a number of different things come to mind: I firmly believe it’s difficult to feel 100% safe, however strong or skilled in martial arts you might be. A lot of martial arts clubs or schools will advertise themselves as teaching self defence. What is in reality self defence? Many different people, from different countries and cultures, might have totally different ideas about it. Let’s say that if you are on the street, rather then in a bar or a club: somebody might approach you and trying intimidating you for a number of different reasons. Robbery? Sexual abuse? Drunken brawl? Road rage… you name it: I heard of some people that just like going out and punch in the face the first person they meet on their way. What if that person is going to be you?

The best self defence is not being in the dangerous situation all together. Fighting might not be a not a natural thing for many but evolution gave us natural defences. Our natural instinct plays funny games: if you are not mentally ready your brain will release a lot of adrenaline, your heart will start pumping much faster and you might just freeze or became irrationally violent and uncontrolled. Martial arts training can vary a great deal in terms of how realistic and practical is in a self defence situation. In any case I am convinced that practicing martial arts is the closed resemblance to a fight, to various levels of realism. Different approaches will assume you have to punch (boxing), punch and kick (karate, tae kwon do, kick boxing), throw and or manipulating joints (aikido, ju jitsu, judo, hapkido) and so on.

The other important factor to consider if you find yourself in one of these situations is how well you master the art you are practicing: a few months can be useful to understand a few moves; 12-18 months can give you a level of proficiency; 3-5 years you might feel the confidence. It’s always a safe measure not to advertise your proficiency in any martial art: ignorant people out there might want to challenge you and see how tough you are.

Practicing a martial art is not about being tough, it’s about improving yourself with techniques and practices that make you feel better, fitter, more agile and ready for action: that doesn’t mean you should look for it. At the same time if this person did not practice martial arts in the first place he/she would be even more vulnerable.