Sport Fighting Won’t Teach You Self Defense

Out in the real world, there are no rules, whistles, or bells to save you.

The last time I wrote about training for real-world self-defense, I upset a few martial arts practitioners. But the evidence for my message is obvious: all you have to do is watch actual footage of people involved in violent conflict to see that most martial arts training doesn’t translate to real-world self-defense. It doesn’t look anything like the movies, or what you will see in dojos, kwoons, and other places of martial arts training.

But the pendulum swings in the other direction, too. There are many sport fighters who believe that what they teach is self-defense, as well. This lacks critical thinking, objectivity and nuance. Training for a fight isn’t necessarily training for self-defense. 

As a krav maga instructor, most people walk in the door of my club thinking they are going to learn self-defense or how to fight by training a bunch of physical techniques to deal with being assaulted. I tend to challenge that thinking quite quickly.

What Is Real Self-Defense?

Self-defense happens when a confrontation cannot be avoided. There is no consent, and there also doesn’t have to be a reason for the assault. There is no preparation period. There are no weight divisions, protective gear, mats, rules of engagement, or referees. You can’t just tap out, take a knee, get an eight count, throw in the towel, or have the referee call it off. Multiple opponents and weapons are the norm, not the exception. Losing balance and going to the ground can be fatal.

In a real self-defense situation, there is no winner or loser, like on the mats or in the ring. You either survive, or you don’t. And if you do, there are medical, legal, and psychological ramifications that may need to be dealt with.

All these things are in direct opposition to sport fighting.

The same problem of applicability is found in fight training as in martial arts. The root of that problem is in practitioners being delusional about what it is they are training for.

An Ounce of Prevention

Your success or failure in most realistic self-defense situations is determined by what you do at the earliest possible stage. One of the most important things to realize about real personal safety training is that it starts way before anyone lays a hand on you. Before things become physical, self-defense has already started, in what is commonly called the pre-confrontation and pre-fight stages of a conflict.

If you are unlucky enough to be ambushed by a predator that has attacked you out of the blue, then these stages can be bypassed and things can get physical straight away. But in most situations, there is a build-up, like an emotional pressure cooker, until things kick off.

The pre-confrontation stage occurs when the likelihood of an assault is greater than normal, or where danger is present. It might be the feeling someone is watching or following you, or there is a group of drunken guys walking down the sidewalk towards you. Awareness and avoidance of any confrontation is our best strategy here.

The pre-fight stage is where things haven’t become physical yet, but it could include eye contact, a verbal exchange or posturing. This stage could last only a few seconds, or in the instance of a work dispute, it could have lasted years. Our strategy here is de-escalation and defusing.

In both of these stages, the goal is the same: no violence. This means our aim is to not let any confrontation go beyond the first two stages.

Threat Response Choices

In any given threat situation, we have a number of potential threat responses that include one of or a combination of:

  • Flight or escape
  • Defuse, de-escalate, or negotiate
  • Comply
  • Posture, threaten, feign compliance etc.
  • Fight (including control and restrain)
  • Freezing (unwanted)
  • Hypervigilance (unwanted)

Most people go to a fight school to learn just one of the five preferable responses to a threat situation: the fight stage. This is fundamentally flawed. Correct tactical training should also encompass the other preferable generic responses. They can all be crucial to survival. As such, real self-defense training should always include:

  • Preventative and pre-emptive material (including pre-emptive striking), role playing and scenarios
  • Working various timelines (including pre-confrontation and pre-fight)
  • Various force options at each stage of the timeline
  • Situational awareness
  • Assertiveness and boundary setting
  • Active scanning to find exits, weapons, and further threats
  • Finding and using common objects for shields, distractions and weapons.

It should be automatically assumed that the assailant has supporters, is under the influence, and is armed. In this day and age, you can also be fairly sure you are being recorded.

Learning how to outwit predators, not just outfight them, is part of any realistic self-defense training program. It’s not just physical, but psychological warfare too. In order to train the other generic responses to a threat situation, other than just fight, your training must be inclusive of this material. This is all in addition to techniques, aggression drills, stress inoculation, sparring, and contact.

When It Comes to a Fight

Let’s be straight: if a fight is “fair,” it’s because your tactics suck. If a realistic situation becomes physical, then tactically, it ought to be on your terms. Think a little like Sun-Tzu and The Art of War. You go there on your terms, not the opponent’s. If possible, you pick the time, the place, the target, and the terms, not your opponent.

That said, if you think you’ll be able to talk your assailant into some sort of stylistic duel between two practitioners for a number of 2-3 minute rounds, you may want to think again.

It is crucial to be proactive wherever possible, not reactive. Taking the initiative is everything. This does not mean I am advocating violence. What I am saying is that once you have exhausted all other options, have attempted to not let the situation go past the first two stages, and feel that the only outcome is a physical one in order to remove yourself or a third party from a situation safely, then ending the situation strongly and swiftly before it escalates out of your control with appropriate but adequate force is a better strategy than waiting to be assaulted. Pre-emptive striking and other strategies should be trained.

This is not what is taught in most self-defense schools. Instead, for hundreds of repetitions, they allow themselves to be assaulted, before they respond with their technique. In essence, we are training people in self-defense classes to be victims, as they let someone assault them over and over. What a great idea. While real self-defense training should involve pain, fear, surprise, and working from the worst possible positions, it also needs to address not getting there in the first place.

Options of Force

I see many fighters and martial artists who style themselves as “self-defense experts” that teach the only solution to every situation is to strike the offender. This is socially and legally irresponsible. Would you really belt a slightly drunk family member or friend being an ass at a party? Context is everything. I would agree that a balanced, agile fighter, throwing strong straight blasts down the barrel from a tight guard is awesome once things kick off, but sometimes a softer option is appropriate to deal with a lower-level violent threat.

I am a big believer in stress inoculation, aggression training, sparring, and contact. I think it is imperative to the overall development of the real-world self-defense practitioner. So please don’t misconstrue my points here. But if striking is the only self-defense technique you practice, you’ve only scratched the surface of the skills you may find yourself needing.

Learn All of Self-Defense

I have trained both fighters and martial artists for more than 16 years now. On average, most fighters are far more adequately equipped physically, technically, and psychologically to deal with real self-defense situations than many traditional martial artists. They have forged their iron in the heat of gladiatorial battle.

That said, fight training still is not as specific to real world self-defense as we would like it to be. As such, it has limited utility, just as it is for traditional martial artists. There are much bigger dynamics at play. So the 6-million-dollar question is, if you are an instructor or trainee and are training and teaching real-world self-defense and violence prevention, are you teaching all of it? Or just the sexy parts?

If there’s no chaos in your training, it isn’t worth much:

Train for Uncertainty: It’s Guaranteed