I know you are thinking how could practicing my self-defence techniques 1000s of times be dangerous? Or people say rather than learn ten different self-defence moves, you should perfect a couple by practicing them repeatedly. Practice until they are drilled into your head, become second nature, or become part of your muscle memory. This is a dangerous way to train your self-defence. Why? Several reasons include.
You are practicing becoming very good at how to demo a self-defence move, not defend yourself. This practice is just a tiny fraction of the self-defence model. You will see the “attacker” and the “defender” begin their first of countless reps in training. At some point, they may become almost bored repeating the same attack and defence over and over. To the point where it is a recurring loop of attack/defend, attack, defend until the person defending is almost defending before the attack comes. When repeating a particular attack repeatedly, the student becomes very good at reacting to a pre-planned, systematic attack from a partner telegraphing the already known attack. And the majority of the time, there is no dialogue, just attack/defend, attack/defend. This approach offers little to recreating reality.
Most self-defence instructors will claim they train their students with full intensity, no compliance, and realism. It is impossible to do this. You can come reasonably close but can never truly replicate actual violence. And my experience is that most people are terrible at playing the role of the attacker. They feel uncomfortable or do not want to make others uncomfortable. But guess what? Violence is uncomfortable.
Many instructors will claim that this approach is used to help build confidence in the student. I would politely argue that a false sense of confidence is often instilled to keep the student happy, feeling like they are making progress, so they return month to month paying their fees. I get it, and you want the students to enjoy the training and wish to return, but do not fool yourself or, more importantly, the student by telling them you are preparing them for an actual attack. I am not suggesting you go full bore all the time with all students, but there are ways to maintain honesty to reality, even if not always going full speed. And when you do specific drills to recreate reality, you aim to have the students release the same chemicals in the brain that they will release in a violent encounter.
So, is there a better way to prepare students for violence than practicing particular moves or techniques thousands of times? The key for anyone from the beginner to the so-called “expert” in self-defence is to make LOTS OF ERRORS, screw-ups, and mistakes. It is critical that in our training, we make errors. How can making mistakes be a better training format than perfecting your defences to particular attacks?
The brain’s plasticity expands, grows, and learns from errors, not the same practice repeatedly. How can we make a lot more errors in our training? By constantly and consistently introducing new stimuli into our training. The brain understands when we make errors that it needs to adapt and learn new strategies.
We often hear of the beginner’s mindset coming into any new skill with an open mind which is fantastic. But many people will quit when frustration is met learning that new skill, where others will persist, resulting in growth and learning. You need to know as a student that there should be lots of frustration in real self-defence training. Your goal in self-defence should not be to master anything but to increase your chances of survival. The instructor’s job is to manage the students’ frustrations and explain their value to the small victories in the training.
If the student can attach a deep purpose and meaning to the training, they are less likely to let the frustration win. In my opinion, there are not many activities that can have a deeper purpose than self-defence training. That purpose and meaning have life and death consequences. With the serious incentive of getting home safely to our families comes massive plasticity in the brain if the training is of quality. The brain will want to change and change and adapt, but only if we make lots of errors in our training. All this applies to learning an instrument or sport, but with those activities, the consequences are much less severe, so self-defence is the perfect activity to attach purpose.
Rather than having a dull, never-ending hour of the same repetitive drill with little to no value, instead introduce that new stimuli, constantly keeping your students wondering and experiencing the unknown in their training so it can be discussed and analyzed after. And it is a lot more interesting to keep the content fresh. There are many ways to introduce new stimuli. Think of all our senses and how you can introduce new and multiple variables.
Create unique scenarios that the students may encounter in their lives seeing different. To practice defence against a choke without context is limiting. The scenario may occur outdoors with few obstacles or many. It may take place on a subway, bus, on elevator. It may happen indoors in a bed, up against a wall, etc. There are an unlimited number of obstacles you might introduce if you put some thought into it.
This blog post is not specifically about offering this type of training but its importance. If you are interested in more ideas, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Managing Director, SAFE International