The most important thing when developing functional unarmed fighting skills is this…it’s not what you train but how you train! In other words, doing realistic training and having the right mindset is more important than knowing thirty different joint locks or having a funky skull logo t-shirt to show the world that you are training in the latest over-hyped Supah-Killah™ secret-military-turned-civilan system. It is unfortunately still quite common, especially in our fairly civilized part of the world, to see an over-focus on physical techniques while the psychological aspect of dealing with brutal violence is overlooked. I still cringe when I think of a conversation I had with a gentleman who was very insistent that all you really need in order to effectively defend yourself is knowledge of how to apply a finger lock and nothing else.
What we are going to briefly discuss in this FAQ article are two important basic components of any real self-protection program. These are your toolbox and your mindset. What will be discussed also needs to be understood in the right context, that of a violent encounter which has already started. We are not talking about the other side of the coin, training your awareness and strategies for avoiding violent situations, at this time.
Your personal toolbox contains all the combative principles and techniques that you train on a regular basis. It needs to be very slimmed down and adaptable. It has to work in high stress situations and should provide you with a very simple set of guidelines and techniques that can be used in a myriad of different situations including one or more aggressors, armed or unarmed, different environments, different levels on intent behind the initial attack, if you are alone or have to protect others as well etc.
Simplicity is key because it will reduce your response time, think of applying a modified version of the well-known OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) on a very personal and up-close level. First you need to recognize, at a sub-conscious level, that you are being attacked, and then your nervous system has to trigger the beginning of a counter-attack and finally you must direct this counter-attack as you start to categorize the specific attack that is coming at you. Is it aimed high or low, hand or foot, left or right side, linear or curved? You should be able recognize this instinctively. These are all triggered reflex actions, there isn’t any conscious train-of-thought involved during your initial response. The techniques themselves need to be very few in number, rely on gross motor skills and be based on your natural reflexes while still adaptable enough that you can use them to counter anything the aggressor might throw at you.
In the VIDAR training courses, we focus on developing body methods over specific techniques. These body methods provides the entire physical framework for every move we make against the aggressor and provide both full body power generation and natural shielding against incoming attacks. The methods are simple enough to be learned by anyone and perfectly usable while wearing heavy gear or clothing. The same techniques used for our empty hand fighting are also used with a knife, pen, keys and other improvised weapons with only minor modifications since they are still driven by the same core body methods.
For those who work in close protection or other security roles, it is worth considering that many military fighting techniques are inappropriate for use in a low risk, civilian environment due to their violent nature. You are not a soldier on the battlefield but a security professional and appearing on a tabloid front page with your elbow slamming into an overly enthusiastic fan’s neck while your principal looks on in horror would, in most cases, not be considered a successful publicity stunt. You are always protecting the image of your principal, your employer and ultimately yourself. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if you are operating in a hostile environment, where your standard toolbox includes an assault rifle and a semi-automatic, that short range elbow to the neck probably won’t do you much good either. So your personal toolbox always needs to be tailored to the specific role that you are serving in.
Also on the topic of weapons, if you carry a sidearm, make sure to integrate your weapons training with your unarmed combatives. This goes for weapons retention drills as well as weapons access and usage in conjunction with secondary weapons and empty hand skills at short distances. Incorporate training sessions wearing your standard working clothes and equipment. Civilians should train in regular clothes too because you need to be comfortable applying your self-protection skills in your everyday environment. Don’t allow the training drills to become a routine where you always do the same action over and over in the exact same manner, in the same environment, starting in the same spot on the floor. Mix things up to keep it interesting. And never ever just hand your training partner his weapon back after you’ve managed to disarm him. If he wants it, let him try to take it back!
We do not teach the use of straight punches during our foundation courses. First of all, it is very easy to injure your hands this way and while it might be very macho to say that you can keep on fighting with a “boxer’s fracture”, it is also somewhat silly since you rely on your hands during your work and everyday life. I’ve fractured my fist twice during my martial arts training and last time it took six months for it to become pain free and almost a year before the fingers were moving normally again, no fun at all. So we teach palm strikes instead, they are just as effective as closed fists and the risk of damaging your hand is much lower. Open hand strikes also look less violent in the eyes of the public (and in any spying paparazzi lenses). Never forget that someone is always watching your every move, especially if you are working. Going back to the gentleman with the finger locking skills, while joint locks and take downs are great to have in the toolbox, we always teach our participants to soften the aggressor up first before attempting to apply them. There is a huge difference between trying to control a training partner, even if he is resisting, compared to actually restraining someone who is hell-bent on ripping your face off with his teeth. I am sure some of you guys and girls out there can do it but most of us will get torn to bits if we try.
There are a few basic exceptions to the “hit first, lock later” tactic mentioned above. The first one is if you are unfortunate enough to be in a profession where you are absolutely forbidden to strike or injure the other person. In that case, make sure to perfect your grappling skills and maintain excellent physical conditioning but also spend extra time on team work drills with your colleagues. In fact, the second exception is if you have team-mates assisting you, although sometimes you still need to pre-soften the aggressor up before restraining him. The third exception is probably the most important one and it is if the individual has a firearm pointed in anyone’s general direction. In that case, we seek to control the firearm first. Never hit the hand or forearm that is holding the weapon, this can disturb the antagonistic relationship between the muscles in his arm causing an accidental discharge.
Violence is ugly and normal people tend to experience strong fear during a violent confrontation. Proper training creates mental triggers that, in addition to initiating our physical response, also help us go into a fighting state of mind, as opposed to flee or freeze. We prefer to use intense scenario-based training methods where the participants are forced to go beyond their normal comfort zones and fatigue barriers, this helps them get into that mental space where new triggers are easier to install. There is no time to hesitate, doubt or “make your mind up” when an attack occurs. You need to work all that out during training. This is why pressure testing with uncooperative training partners are so important because it gives you confidence in your own abilities and the knowledge that your training will work when you need it the most.
During our courses, we always train the participants to use the overkill principle. From the moment we spring into action, we launch a series of counter-attacks until we perceive that the threat is over. This also requires us to install yet another mental trigger that makes us stop and resume a “normal” state of mind. We need to be able to instantly snap in and out of our fighting mindset in order to make informed decisions about our next course of action. For many people attending our training, this is much harder compared to just entering a combative state of mind alone. Realistic training scenarios that challenge not just the participant’s physical skills but also present them with increasingly difficult tactical problems are quite useful in this case. What overkill does not mean is that we always pound people into the ground until they stop breathing. In some cases, it is just one or two moves until you register that you don’t need to continue and your trigger snaps you back into a normal mental state.
A final note on the mental preparation side of things is that you need to plan for what happens after a violent situation has been dealt with. This includes administering first aid to yourself and others, having a list of contacts who can help you, knowing what to do afterwards and where to go, dealing with law enforcement, legal issues, proper etiquette during court appearances and so on. Remember the seven P’s. Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Never leave anything to chance because bad luck usually visits the unprepared first.