(And why you should avoid them)

It may be a biased view depending on how you interact with social media and the internet, but there seems to be a proliferation lately of people offering self-defence “courses”. These are a short term (usually 6 to 12 weeks) run of sessions that give you the opportunity to learn a range of techniques that will help you be safer and physically defend yourself should the need arise. It may well be the case that the people offering these courses are well intentioned, and possibly even highly skilled themselves. They may also make people aware of various day to day habits that can be formed that mean you will be less likely to find yourself in a physical confrontation to begin with. All good so far.

Where there is need for much more caution is around the idea of short term skill training, and the need to recall those skills under extreme pressure. It has been claimed that any skill needs 10000 repetitions, or 10000 hours of work to be mastered (Ericsson, 1998), and those hours need to be of high quality, deliberate practice. Whilst there will be some variability around those hours depending on both the skill being trained and the capabilities of the individual, it is none the less an undeniable truth that complex skills require a large amount of repetition and commitment, particularly if they are to be applied against a non-compliant attacker. It’s the reason that people spend a lifetime learning and refining martial arts skill. When measured against this reality it starts to become hard to concede that functional martial skill can be learned in a few weeks.

If we were to put those points aside, and assume that somebody could walk away with various well trained skills within that time frame, does that then leave them able to physically defend themselves? In short, no, and for two reasons. The first is that if not maintained, learned skill degrades over time, and the speed of that degradation correlates strongly with how much training was carried out in the first place (Gardlin & Sitterley, 1972). So the lower the number of repetitions, and the shorter the length of training time, the more rapidly the skill will disappear. Secondly, it is very well documented that under stress conditions even well trained skills are prone to reduced efficiency or even catastrophic failure (Beilock, 2010). A quick search for CCTV footage on YouTube will quickly demonstrate just how high stress a self defence situation or physical confrontation is, and the effects of adrenalin produce exactly the kind conditions where familiar skills will, at best, function below previous standard and, at worst, elude you completely.

Collectively, the points above lead us to the conclusion that short term training in martial arts skills will likely not produce a skill set of a high standard, that whatever skill is gained will quickly degrade, and that under the stress of a confrontation those skills will be further degraded or entirely inaccessible. Compounding this is the fact that completing a self defence course can give people a confidence that they can defend themselves, and therefore lead them to make poor personal safety decisions that they may not otherwise have made.

I fully understand that people want to have the confidence that they can defend themselves, and that learning a martial art isn’t for everybody. It takes time, money, and a lot of commitment. But there are no short cuts to learning complex skills that you hope to apply to overcome somebody who is attacking you with no regard for their own safety. If you can’t commit to orthodox martial arts training get yourself a heavy punch bag and spend at least a couple of hours each week learning to hit as hard as you can. As far as physical tools are concerned that will serve you far better than a handful of techniques that will not be there when you need them.

Sifu Dave Bright

November 2018


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