I am often asked which is the best martial art for self defense.
My feeling is that the skill of self defense involves more than just the act of learning to throw a punch or breaking a headlock. There are so many situations that could take place; it’s impossible to cover all the scenarios in the martial art process.
There are a set of assumptions that must be made:
- The attacker will be aggressive
- He will try to impose his will and his game plan over you
- The confrontation will also include unpredictable movement and action
- The situation will not subscribe to the rules of “fairness”
- The attacker’s method may vary, this may include verbal attacks to intimidate you, strikes, pushes, grabs and attempts to restrain you pin you to the floor
- The incident will be very stressful to you
When, where, how many and with what will all depend on the spectrum of scenarios that is called life. The martial art you choose must have an answer to these assumptions. Furthermore, it must give you a set of fundamental principles that allow you to solve the various situations that unfold. There also will be times when fighting is not the best option to guarantee your survival. To find the right martial art, and develop a comprehensive self defense skill base read on…
Self Defense is More Than Just Martial Arts
The conversation usually goes something like this: “Don’t do Karate, it’s not based on reality; or “Krav Maga is the way to go; they only focus on self defense” … and of course the inevitable
“You have to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because on the street most fights go to the ground.”
But these answers cast an over-simplified cloud over a solution that is far more rooted in an ancient biological process.
Learning to fight is only one quarter of the self defense options available to you. So, before you put on a pajama suit and learn to count to ten in a foreign language, let’s explore some other choices.
Imagine this scenario. You are taking a jog one sunny morning, when suddenly a man leaps out of the bushes and tries to grab your arm. Without a thought, you pull free and run the best half mile of your life. Or, you swing your fist and savagely connect with his nose. Or, you see that he is armed with a gun so you stop and stay dead still while he helps himself to your iPhone and wedding ring.
In the interview Munsey quotes the Polyvagal Theory, which explains that we have three involuntary reactions to danger.
We freeze, we fight or we flee. Now this idea is not new to us, but Munsey adds that evolution has given us humans the ability to use cognition. With training we can use cognition to neutralize the threat.
As we become more self-aware, we take command of our bodies and can choose the best path forward. This may include a violent reaction, or simply taking a deep breath and talking your way out of the situation.
But what has all this got to do with your initial question?
The truth is that when we were born, Mother Nature preloaded us with fight, flight and freeze software. This is because in a natural environment, human beings need some self defense tools to survive.
In our man-made environment, childhood may have included a parent, teacher or mentor who added some conflict management skills to this self defense package. So, if we are going to be good at self defense, we might as well get good at using all the tools at our disposal and not just the fist swinging one. Let’s discuss the others and then we will get to your question.
“Come on. Let’s run away.”
Rincewind sighed. He’d tried to make his basic philosophy clear time and again, and people never got the message.
“Don’t you worry about to,” he said.
“In my experience that always takes care of itself. The important word is away.” – Terry Pratchett, Eric.
When you are outgunned, overpowered and out numbered, a strategic retreat is a good idea. Initially this may involve you pointing your body in one direction and then making your legs move as quickly as possible. However, you can increase the efficacy of your retreat with a little strategy and skill.
- Find the exits: The airline industry has been doing this for years. They know that once blind panic sets in people are more likely to find the way out to the emergency exit if you do a little preprogramming before the flight starts. When you enter any type of building; a house, an office block, a shopping center or an entertainment area, note the emergency exits. This sets your escape up for success and may protect you from a stampede in a mass emergency situation.
- Take up running: That’s right, practice the art of flight. Test yourself. Could you pick a direction and run full tilt for 60 seconds? Would you be functional after that dash? This doesn’t sound like a big distance, but a lot can change in 60 seconds in an urban environment. If you can’t do this, it’s time to do a little road time jogging. I’m not talking the London Marathon, just a few miles a week. The Park Run movement has been instrumental in getting thousands of people comfortably running five kilometers at a time. Add some sprint interval training while imagining a large disheveled man or zombie, who wants you for his next victim, is breathing down your neck. This is self defense training in action!
- Flight and driving: You may need to escape from a situation in your car. Rather than blindly driving into oncoming traffic, you need a plan. Direct your vehicle towards a place of safety. Unless you want to bring danger to your front door, do not drive home. Pick a police station or a place where you will find security personnel. If you live in a country where you drive on the right-hand side of the road then make your first one or two turns to the right. This gives you a quick turn without having to face too much oncoming traffic (the process is reversed in left hand drive countries).
The instinct to freeze is an ancient mammalian strategy. A wild hare spots a prowling jackal and it instantly freezes. The laws of camouflage dictate that movement gives away your position.
When faced with danger, you may find that you have involuntarily frozen. This reaction may save you from stepping on a snake, but for self defense purposes the story does not just end there. Freezing needs to become a voluntary strategy to increase your chances of survival. Or the freeze reaction can be a transition into another strategy such as fight or run.
To learn how to freeze voluntarily and not out of sheer panic, take a deep breath in and then purposefully breath out. Now you have a micro second to assess the situation and consider your choices.
- When freezing is good: Many people have survived armed robberies by freezing or deliberately adopting a passive strategy. If you find yourself in the company of an aggressive armed attacker, the assailant is most likely to be full of adrenaline. Perhaps he is scared of being caught. In this case any resistance on your part is going to provoke a violent reaction that could have tragic consequences. By consciously adopting a passive attitude you have the opportunity to de-escalate the situation. In this way the robber feels he is in control and you part with your possessions and leave with your life intact.
- When freezing is bad: There are instances after voluntarily freezing where you may instinctually know that you need to get away or fight. For instance, you are a single woman jogger and a man is trying to drag you into a secluded area of a park. There have also been active shooter attacks such as the Christchurch massacre, where victims have deliberately played dead but the shooter has returned to make sure that his victims are dead.
Houston, We Have Cognition
In their podcast, coach Blauer and Ryan Munsey discuss the fact that a self defense scenario is going to start with an initial shock or surprise. You are attacked and you react. Tony Blauer says at this point your “startle flinch” reaction is activated. With some training it is possible to re-calibrate your reaction from “startled mammal” to “thinking human”. Now your brain is able to make choices. This gives me the opportunity to introduce the topic of “The fight”.
Often the debate about which martial art is the best, is orientated around the scenario of “one-on-one” street fighting. Or “you bump a guy’s drink and now he wants to fight you”. I would argue that these circumstances are not about self defense but rather “ego-defense”. To explore this further let’s look at the time-honored gentleman’s game of rugby.
This little scrap has all the hallmarks of the classic ego-driven street fight. The brain’s emotional panic button, the amygdala, has been activated on a mass scale. Energy used for the thinking neo-cortex is rerouted to the part of the brain required for primal survival. Neanderthal-like macro muscular punches are thrown. Headbutts, shoves and ground fights are added to the mix. The problem with this is that peripheral vision and the ability to assess threat has been forfeited.
The fact is that there is always someone faster, stronger and more aggressive than you are. And maybe you didn’t see his friend standing behind you who is willing to grab a beer bottle and smash it on your head. The principle is simple:
Fights that can be avoided, should be avoided.
To do this you need to snap yourself out of caveman mode. This cannot be done by thinking logically. You need a physiological solution. Here one is:
- Take a step back and open your hands.
- Breath in and then breath out.
- Ask yourself, “how can I avoid this”?
- Ask your co-combatant a question. Your goal is to get him out of caveman mode too and to activate his thinking brain. Try something like “Do we really have to fight?” and work it out from there.
On rare occasions, talking or running is not the solution. You want to be best prepared for this situation.
In order to answer the question about which martial art is best for self defense, I am going to steer away from discussing specific systems or styles. Let’s discuss the characteristics of a good self defense system. That way you can make your own choice. There are numerous styles out there.
Nowadays martial arts have divided into factions. There are traditional arts like Kung Fu and Karate. And there are functionally based contemporary systems, which cover a spectrum of mixed martial arts (MMA).
The quality of instruction can radically differ from one school to the next. The ability to inject context into a movement, gives a movement meaning. Without this you might as well be lifting weights or applying makeup.
When choosing a martial art for self-defense, I suggest you visit a few schools in your area and look for the following characteristics:
In 2005 martial arts innovator and founder of the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) Matt Thornton, introduced the concept of “aliveness” to the world. Thornton reasoned that for combat training to be alive and functional, it needed to include energy, timing, and motion.
Since then SGB has introduced some great martial artists to the world; including a fighter called Connor McGregor. When you watch a martial arts class, look out for exercises that include the following qualities:
- Energy: This shows the quality and intent of the exercise. The participants must offer a level of uncooperative resistance to one another. If the opponent is compliant and allows his training partner to have his way and execute his move, the exercise has no fighting energy. It will not translate into proper self defense
- Timing: Timing is developed when the practitioner faces an unpredictable and uncooperative opponent. Patterns and set routines will need to be discarded to achieve this
- Motion: In all true combat exercises, there is constant motion. Whether fighting on the feet or on the ground, movement must take place. This can be in the form of footwork, wriggling, pushing or pulling. If the practitioners are running drills from a stationary position, they will not be properly preparing for battle. If you don’t believe me, watch the rugby game again
Ranges of fighting
Consider the rugby game. There was pushing and pulling and then headbutting. The fight progressed to punches and some wrestling on the ground. A good self defense system will cover all these aspects of fighting, including kicking. If you can’t find a school that covers all these ranges in their system; then choose the one which covers one of these ranges well, with a lot of aliveness.
Don’t be afraid of a system that involves contact. Learning to deal with being roughed, pushed pulled and punched is all part of learning self defense. The more comfortable you become with contact, the less shocked you will be during a real-life attack, and the quicker you can progress to the cognition part of the conflict. Watch the class and check these questions:
- Is there an element of “good spirit” and respect between the participants in the class?
- Is the level of contact introduced in a progressive way?
- Is safety gear used?
- Does the instructor demonstrate in a way that people learn; or are the demonstrations used as an opportunity to bully and inflict pain? If the instructor does this, his students will most likely follow his example. This is not an environment conducive to learning.
Lastly, If the instructor tells you that it’s not possible to train using contact because his moves are too lethal; suppress your laughter because you don’t want to insult a lethal man! Walk out the door and never return.
Competition Is Not Self Defense
There is an element of truth to this. Martial art competitions take place in padded and sterile environments. They don’t take place in jeans or cocktail dresses.
You never see competition venues in bathrooms, bedrooms or parking lots. That being said; an attack requiring self defense can be very traumatic. If you freeze up and are unable to cope with the stress, it is unlikely that you will be able to execute the moves that you have learned.
Exposure to controllable stress helps you to immunize yourself against uncontrollable stress events. Scientists call this “behavioral immunization”.
Competition allows you to test your fighting skills in a different kind of stressful environment. Each time you compete, it allows for self-reflection and improvement.
A stress inoculated combatant has a distinct advantage over a person who has not faced this type of stress. There is also nothing stopping you from getting together with a buddy on a weekend and running a practice session at home.
Test your moves on hard surfaces and in cramped environments. This gives your self defense knowledge depth and versatility. You will soon discover that some moves are only possible in the gym, and that smashing your knee on a concrete floor can be a life changing event.
Ignore The Bling
When you walk through the doors of a self defense school, do not be fooled by medals and trophies on the wall, or pictures of the instructor posting with his master outside an Asian temple.
Likewise, you may find the instructor has discarded his traditional martial arts suit, usually called a Gi, and has replaced it with a camo outfit. Neither of these appearances give legitimacy to the self defense system. The exercises should incorporate an element of science and common sense.
Knuckle push-ups will not keep you safe on today’s streets and ultimately give you arthritis. But a fit and conditioned body is a significant advantage. Watch a class or two and get to the bones of the system.
Are the exercises alive? Will they help you to deal with stress? Could you transform from a shocked mammal into a human and can consciously implement a tactic? Last of all, will you have fun learning the system? It’s the fun and camaraderie that keeps you coming back for more, and will develop you into a competent self defense practitioner.
References & Further Reading
Blauer, T., & Munsey, R. (2019). Ryan Munsey – The Science Inside the SPEAR System. Retrieved from Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/321374115
Ellifritz, G. (2016, December 19). Playing Dead? Retrieved from Active Response Training: http://www.activeresponsetraining.net/playing-dead
parkrun. (2019, March 2019). Welcome to parkrun. Retrieved from parkrun: https://www.parkrun.com/
Porges, S. (2018, April 23). Dr. Stephen Porges: What is the Polyvagal Theory. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec3AUMDjtKQ
Pratchett, T. (1990). Eric. United Kingdom: Victor Gollancz / Corgi.
Santiago, N. (2019, March 28). Examples of Interval Training. Retrieved from lovetoknow: https://exercise.lovetoknow.com/Examples_of_Interval_Training
Scicurious. (2012, November 6). It’s not the stress that counts, it’s whether you can control it. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/its-not-the-stress-that-counts-its-whether-you-can-control-it/
Shutterfinger. (2011, February 17). A Punch Is Just a Punch. Retrieved from Shutterfinger: https://shutterfinger.typepad.com/shutterfinger/2011/02/in-martial-arts-as-in-life-you-dont-win-the-trophy-without-a-fight-before-i-learned-the-art-a-punch-was-just-a-punch-an.html
Thornton, M. (2005, July 30). Why Aliveness?. . . . Retrieved from mattthornton.org: http://mattthornton.org/why-aliveness/
Thornton, M. (2017, May 16). It’s Aliveness – Still. Retrieved from mattthornton.org: http://mattthornton.org/its-aliveness-still/