Bring the Ring to the Street: Self Defence Lessons from Combat Sports

Sensei Gershon Ben Keren recently released this excellent blog on what Krav Maga can adopt from combat sports. I thought this was a particularly important piece (amongst his many excellent writings) as it highlights something that is often sorely lacking in Krav Maga, which I touched on here.
Too often martial arts and combat sports are dismissed in the purist self-defence circles (and no, those three things are not the same – more on this here). These criticisms range from painfully accurate to wildly fantastical, but at their core they are mostly the same: ‘that won’t work in the street’.
But there are many things that can be learned from martial arts and combat sports and applied in self defence. I’ve written about this extensively in the blogs above. This is what Sensei Ben Keren highlighted in the piece above as well.

But let’s look at the specifics. What specifically can we learn from combat and martial sports that can be applied in self defence?

Let's look at some things that self defence should, without a doubt, incorporate.

  1. Sparring: Some self defence schools steer clear of sparring because it’s ‘not real fighting’. While that may be the case, there are many, many benefits to be gained from it. Understanding of timing and distance, precision, explosiveness, managing adrenaline, learning to take a hit and working with a non-cooperative partner/opponent with unpredictable responses – these are all valuable in improving one’s overall skills. Better speed, power and timing will improve your self defence skills. Perhaps most important is learning how to take a punch and overcome the fear of someone trying to smash your face in. It will improve your self defence skills without a doubt, cause guess what – if you get in a fight, you’re probably going to get hit.
  2. Rules: unlike real world violence, combat sports follow a set of rules. Each sport will have its own unique sets of rules, i.e. in BJJ strikes are prohibited, in MMA eye gauges and groin kicks are prohibited, etc. These rules are in place to protect the competitors and ensure a fair competition. While, for the self practitioner, these are limitations, they are also an excellent guide on what one should focus on for self defence training. Simply put, if it’s something you can’t do in competition then it’s something you want to practice for self defence. Can’t throw 6-to-12 elbows? Perfect, let’s practice those next session. Can’t use neck cranks to get a submission? Excellent! Let’s see how they affect the body. I find that despite not being overly interested in BJJ competition, I ask more questions about the rules than anyone else class. When the teacher says there’s something we can’t do, I file it in the ‘practice it when class is over’ folder and practice it in my Krav classes.
  3. Resistance: Combat sports train at varying levels of resistance. They do drills with no or little resistance to learn technique, and then try and put those to use against a fully resisting opponent. Where this is a problem with self defence practitioners, in my experience, is that there is often a misconception that the skills are too dangerous to use and so should only be practiced in slow motion, without resistance or with limited contact. While this can be true, it’s also unrealistic. I have heard plenty of Krav Maga instructors saying something to the effect of ‘if I used my skills in sparring I’d kill him’, or ‘I don’t need to know BJJ, I’d just stick a thumb in his eye’. Keep dreaming!
    It’s also common for Krav practitioners to refuse to spar or use hard contact because of those reasons. I believe it shows a profound and dangerous lack of understanding. If you think that simply landing a groin shot or an eye poke on an opponent is enough to drop them, think again. Yes, you may get the shot and it might work. More likely is that you it won’t land exactly as you want and you’ll have to have a follow up technique or strategy.
  4. Game plan: When you look at most combat sports champions, they have a distinct style of their own within their discipline. Generally speaking, they’ll have a small number of techniques which they will use over and over again. Let’s look at MMA. It requires competency in multiple skills – striking, wrestling, ground – in order to be successful. With few exceptions, most MMA fighters are not BJJ black belts, and wrestling champions and boxing/Muay Thai champions. They have one preferred skill set, and they know enough of the others to try and keep the fight within that skill set, i.e. a striker will work on wrestling to defend takedowns and stay on the feet, etc.
    Before all the self defence purists come out firing, yes, I know that MMA and self defence are not the same, or even close. But the principle remains the same. Different body types, personalities and attributes dictate what skill sets will work for different people. We need to know enough of the other skillsets in order to be combatively effective, sure. If you are a master grappler, you need to be able to know enough about striking to close distance. If you have the straight right hand of doom, you need to know how put yourself in a position to deploy it. If you carry a firearm, you need to be able to have the space to use it safely and accurately. And this is another curcial piece of the puzzle. The focus in combat sports is application. Application is, literally, all that matters. If you win the fight via knockout, it doesn't matter if the winning shot was a 'technical one' or not, or if your wrestling skills that kept you on your feet are technically perfect. What does matter is that the other guy is the one who's taking a nap. The results are what matters. This means we need to train with results, rather than techniques, in mind, and focus on the things that will give us those results. The mix, just in like combat sports, varies from person to person (more on this here).
  5. Conditioning: Elite combat sports competitors are physically conditioned (as well as mentally - see point 1 re sparring), and that’s hard to dispute. Yes, we want to develop both technique and physical attributes (more on this here). Some self-defence practitioners neglect this altogether and go back to the ‘I don’t care how big he is, I’ll just kick him in the balls’. While there may be cases where technique may dominate over attributes, if you want to stack the odds in your favour you need to keep fit and healthy. After all, being technical and strong, fast and flexible is better than not. I don’t mean that you need to be at competition fitness 24/7, 365 days a year, but you need to have a base level of fitness. You need to look after your body. It will help if something happens. It will also help with learning to manage adrenaline and exhaustion, both of which are crucial in self defence situations. In addition, it will lead you to have a more healthy, happy and long life in general. And isn’t that ultimate goal of learning to defend yourself in the first place?

I guess the message is, ultimately, that we can learn from everyone and anyone. Having a flexible and open mind will improve your martial art, your self-defence skills and your life. Keep learning!

Stay safe, stay tuned.

Osu/Oss

Last modified on Friday, 01 June 2018 15:06
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Ron Amram

Co-Founder and Co-Director of Combat Arts Institute of Australia. Nidan Gendai Ryu Krav Maga & Jujitsu, Shodan Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, Brown Belt Dennis Hisardut, Krav Maga Instructor, Cert IV Training & Assessment

Website: combatartsinstitute.com.au/
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