Self-Defense Techniques are Always Flawed

Some martial arts styles focus on learning techniques as a way of developing martial arts skills. They train students in specific methods or sequences that the student employ to deal with a given type of attack. For example, there may be a defensive technique that deals with someone grabbing you in a headlock. There will be a specific set of blocks, grabs, movements, strikes, locks, throws, and or kicks that help to overcome an opponent who has attacked you in such a manner.

These styles teach techniques for every conceivable type of attack. There are often multiple different defenses taught for each type of attack. For example, there may be ten or more different defenses taught to defend against someone throwing a right hand punch. Some of these will be relatively rudimentary defenses while others will be more advanced and complex.

I taught these types of techniques for a great many years. The thing I like about them is they teach very useful motor skills, particularly skills that allow someone to flow seamlessly from a block to a strike to a kick to a control hold to a throw. These are marvelous skills to learn and master. These motor skills can be difficult to achieve in any other way. But I believe techniques can be misleading.

The problem is that the techniques will seldom work as advertised. This is not because the techniques are flawed, but rather because there are too many variables to make the techniques applicable outside of a very small range of circumstances.

When a student first learns a technique they practice it by themselves, usually with guidance and input from an instructor. Eventually they practice the technique on someone else and realize that their mental picture of what is happening is completely different from what is required when the technique is used on a real person. Almost invariably the student did not properly consider the position of the shoulders, which leg is forward, that an arm may be in the way, how their training partner has twisted or not twisted his or her body, the location of the head, etc. These are all good things to experience as they provide a good solid introduction to the variability of potential attacks.

But even after a person has become experienced with a particular technique and its use against others, problems still persist. One of the first indications of this comes when, as the person doing a technique, you tell the attacker to punch higher so the technique will work properly. This clearly indicates the technique has specific input parameters and that it will be less effective or perhaps unusable against an attack outside the range of acceptable parameters.

Some will argue that this is why there are several different techniques for each type of attack. Surely one of these techniques will address nearly any conceivable type of attack scenario. The first problem with this thinking is which technique I should use in any given attack. If I have ten from which to select, which is the best one to use? Granted, some techniques would not be considered because the nature of the attack made them irrelevant, but nonetheless, there may be several viable options from which to select. Which would work best? Does it matter?

The second problem is that there may not be an optimal technique at all. If you consider that there are nearly an infinite number of possible attack scenarios, how can something like five hundred techniques account for them all?

Anyone who has taught martial arts using techniques is well aware of these issues. They will argue, as I have done in the past, that it is unlikely you would ever use any single technique in its entirety. You are much more likely to use part of one technique, and then parts of two or three other techniques during a conflict. It is the training and the motor skills that are important. How you put these together in a specific attack situation will naturally vary with the circumstances of the attack. Right on!

But what this is really saying is that any given technique, in and of itself, is less likely to be effective than will a series of practiced motor skills applied to an adaptive situation. I think this is exactly right. To be clear I am not bashing these martial arts styles and I do not think what they teach is useless or ineffective in the least. I trained in and taught these arts for many years and can attest that they are quite effective and very brutal when needed. I have known numerous people from these styles who have been attacked, sometimes with knives, who to a person did extremely well in vanquishing their attackers. They always did it with a variety of these motor skills and never once utilized a specific technique in its entirety.

So the lesson to take away here is that self-defense techniques are a viable vehicle for teaching a wide range of specific motor skills. The movements are generally easy to remember because they are associated with a given attack scenario. Techniques commonly have creative and suggestive names that help the practitioner recall how to perform the requisite movements. Techniques are also often quite effective in the specific situations for which they are intended.

But all techniques are flawed. They make too many assumptions about where the opponent will be, what type of attack is initiated, how large the opponent is relative to yourself, how your opponent will react to your actions, etc. There are far too many variables to be accounted for completely. As a result techniques always have major limitations. The skills you learn in techniques are quite valuable, but the technique should be considered a training vehicle and not a specific defense to be used in a specific situation.

While there is no doubt a technique could work well in a specific situation, it may not work well in a situation where only a couple of variables are different. As my wife demonstrated for me once it is possible to completely reverse a technique if some of these more critical variables are not addressed. What is interesting (at least to me) is that at the time she had no martial arts training. I was simply demonstrating this amazing new technique I had learned. She, without thinking, reversed it on me. Since then I have noticed I could easily reverse this same technique (and several others) on nearly every practitioner who knows it. If you overlook just one variable a technique may fail completely.

In your previous belt curriculum you studied the Kuikku Bouei Kata series. Each of these three forms is essentially comprised of a series of techniques. The techniques are completely irrelevant. You should understand that the techniques will fail completely if the opponent moves in an unexpected manner, releases his or her grip, has a different leg forward, or violates any of the numerous assumptions these (and all) techniques make. The motor skills you learn while performing the techniques are what is important.

We encourage you to study techniques. Study those in the Kuikku Bouei Kata to understand both when they will and the many cases in which they will not work. Study the techniques from other styles so you have an appreciation for how these work and the situations in which they are unlikely to be useful. Study the optional techniques that can be found in our Tensoku Ryu Techniques Manual. Practice techniques on others so you understand both how they can work well and the many circumstances under which they will fail. Knowing how they fail is perhaps much more important than knowing how they might succeed.

Keep in mind that while the technique may fail, the motor skills they teach are often quite useful. Put the various skills found in each technique in your toolbox. Like many specialized tools, you may not need them every day. But when the need arises it is great to reach into that toolbox and pull out precisely the right tool for the task at hand.

This brings us full circle. Earlier we mentioned that most experienced practitioners in these martial arts styles understand that a technique is unlikely to be performed in its entirely. Instead many practitioners realize that utilization of portions of various techniques is more realistic. This is what these practitioners are doing. They use segments or sections of techniques as motor skill sets that they can apply in varying situations. No specific sequence of movements is useful in any single situation, but there are appropriate tools that can be applied in nearly any circumstance. Never rely on a specific sequence to address a problem. Learn to be adaptive and to apply an appropriate action based upon the variables you are encountering at the moment. Flexibility and motor skill sets are both important. Only apply a motor skill set when you know it will work in your exact circumstances.

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