Sunday, 13 May 2018 14:57

Your High-School Teacher Was Wrong: Thoughts on Multiple Attackers

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In this article (and this video) I discussed some of the things that are important to include and consider when training for self defence. These are principles that are generally agreed upon by most self defence experts. In the previous blog I discussed the concept of no rules (and also my obsession with 80s action movies). In this blog we’ll look at one of the most significant factors that differentiate martial arts and combat sports from self defence – multiple attackers.
I vaguely remember my first time doing two-on-one sparring. The reason I remember it vaguely is not because I don’t remember what happened, but because it happened so quickly. I was trying to think about what to do, threw a few punches and next thing you know I’m on the ground with one guy hugging my legs and the other one wailing on me.

I also remember the first time it happened in real life. It ended much better (for me, at least…).
What is it about multiple attackers that makes things so hard? Why is it so often left out when people teach and train for self defence? What thing should you consider? What are common mistakes when training for multiple attackers?


No, that’s not a typo. Your maths teacher in school taught you lies! Well kinda.
Multiple attackers increase the difficulty of dealing with a situation by more than the number of attackers. Think of it as really, really hard multitasking. What do I mean? Imagine you are learning to juggle. You start by throwing one ball from one hand to the other. Easy as! Your brain can easily track the movement of the ball, predict where it is going and when it will get there, and get your body to respond accordingly. Now you add a second ball…. And all of a sudden no one can juggle anymore. Your brain has to track two things at the same time… but it also has to track the relationship between those two things. You are now not only considering the trajectory of both balls, but also how they relate to each other, will they collide, etc.
When you are dealing with multiple attackers, the number of variables to consider increase by more than just dealing with two people who are punching and kicking. Their relative position and movement, etc. all come into play. In other words, you are not only dealing with two problems, but with how those problems interact with each other.

Oh, and by the way, this all has to happen in a fraction of a second.

Sequenced Multiplicity

In the Dojo Syndrome blog series I talked a lot about some of the common mistakes of training for multiple attackers. You’ll see some of them arise later on, but I’ll start with a very common one.
Often times multiple attacker drills turn into continuous attack drills, where attackers simply line up and attack one after the other. Training partner who are too helpful will kindly wait until you are done dealing with one attack and then attack instead of engaging simultaneously.
Note - there is a time for continuous attack drills. They are great drills, but they are not necessarily multiple attacker simulations.

Now let’s move on to some of other multiple issues…

Relationship Issues

Oftentimes ‘multiple attacker’ drills simply pit the defender against 2 or more attackers. They may have limited attacks to focus on a particular skill set (i.e. only striking, or unarmed, etc.). These are great drills, but they ignore a plethora of other possibilities that need to be considered:

  1.  Friends – no, not that horribly unfunny sitcom from the 90s, though I can think of few better reasons to want to beat someone up than he or she proclaiming themselves to be a fan. No, I am referring to the friends who might be joining your attacker. This is the most obvious of ‘multiple attacker’ situations. It can be a typical pub brawl with friends joining in, or some form of more targeted attack such as a mugging. But even within this situation there are infinite variables and variations. Here are a few examples:
    a. The Alpha – your attacker is the leader of the pac . His minions may have something to prove to him or to the group and so they join in for social status. Many different approaches here. A popular one is that if you take out the alpha decisively and quickly, then the others may decide they don’t want a piece of the action.
    b. The Chihuahua – The main protagonist is not the alpha, and closer to the omega; he is trying to climb up the social ladder by barking lots and lots. The thing about chihuahuas is that while they can be aggressive little pooches, they are also not very brave. Oftentimes they are the ones who start shit while their friends don’t really want to get involved.
    c. The Quiet Type – I often found these to be the worst; they are the ones who will be quiet and nor arc up too much. They will angle and circle while the chihuahua is making noise so they can sucker punch you when you’re distracted. Keep an eye on what’s going on around you, and don’t allow the loudest person to get 100% of your attention.
  2. Bystanders – Maybe something happened between you and someone else, and a bystander got dragged into it somehow. Maybe they were insulted, or pushed, etc. This person has no emotional attachment to either you or the other attacker. As their involvement is spontaneous, as opposed to premeditated, it’s hard to know who’s side they’ll take. However, it may be easier to de-escalate. Their grievance and anger may be easier to understand and if you can placate them they may be happy to leave well enough alone… but also keep in mind that de-escalation requires time and space, which you may not have if you’re already fighting.
  3. Authorities – this includes law enforcement, security personnel, etc. These are individuals who have authority and responsibility in their respective jurisdictions. They are there to help keep the peace (mostly – I’ve known some bouncers who were less than nice). In addition, they may also have force options available to them should you choose not to behave – in addition to support, they may also have tools such as OC spray, tasers, batons and/or firearms. Unlike other situations where you are likely to go to court if you get into a fight, if you are attacking a police officer, even if accidentally, you are sure to have some unpleasant legal issues.
  4. Flip it – in this situation you may have someone helping you against a single attacker. This option is rarely trained or discussed, unless one works in law enforcement, security, corrections, etc. It also has different use of force implications. As you have the advantage in terms of numbers, you will be allowed to do less physically, and in reality many options outside of restrain and control become unavailable from a legal standpoint in this situation. How you communicate with your partner and how you work together is something that isn’t often practised. It is also indicative of another problem – the fact that many people don’t have plans for cases of emergency, and that little thought is given to how one might act in different cases should the need arise.

So there you have it! You can see that dealing with multiple attackers is incredibly dangerous and challenging. Try and play around with some of these variations in your training next time and see how it affects your performance.

Stay safe, stay tuned.


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