One of the main reasons why “self-defense” is a misnomer is because it implies that there is a list of static attacks that the enemy can use and that if you know the counters that you can be superior to them and win the fight with ease as you become a “master”. While it is true that there are a limited number of attack angles, methods and timings and that each has various counters which can be executed (with counters to counters as well, which for brevity sake I can’t get into), focusing upon memorizing static attacks and counters with the thought that it prepares you for combat is a dangerous erroneous notion.
In the end, tactics, strategies, weapons and various skills cannot win a fight for you. You have to employ them to win the fight. Remember, it takes a fighter to win a fight, it takes an animal to fight an animal. Whether you think of yourself as one or not, everyone has a part of them that is an animal, simplistic and instinctive. This is not the part that we should use in most of our daily living in civilized culture, but it is a part that we may have to default to at any moment when the afforded protections of civilization fail us (i.e. we encounter a person who does not live within those rules and targets us).
When an untrained street fighter gets into a fight, much like an animal, they just have the intent to fight and they instinctively employ whatever coordination and understanding they have to attack the enemy. This is known as the stage of “No Form”. After that if you start to study martial arts, combatives and self-defense you start to study various refinements to your natural instinctive responses. This is known as the stage of “form”. It takes some work to see the big picture but it can happen early or late or never in training that you get through the stage of “form” and you arrive at the end game solution of martial arts study and known as the stage of “no-form” which is representative of spontaneous effectiveness.
In a fight there is obviously no time to think and this is why often those with no training while having no real training or knowledge about what to do may end up doing as well or better than those whose training is still stuck in the “form” stage. While those in the “form” stage may have considerable knowledge, they still have to think things through and there is a lot of complicated reactive “technique thinking” which cannot be employed in a timely fashion in the midst of a fight.
Technique thinking is: “if they throw a right punch, then I will …; if they throw a left then I will …, if they…then I will…” type of thinking. It is really representative of a divorce of your thinking from your fighting instincts and ending up in an intellectualization academic type process to deal with a fight. In short, it never can keep up with a fight and so it leads to a lot of disappointment and embarrassment for those who at times have spent years training when what they learned could not be employed in an actual encounter.
Fighting is dynamic chaos. Simple tactics and strategies coupled with instinctive response is what keeps up with it. Training is not about replacing instincts with techniques, it is about supplementing and upgrading your instincts. The transition to spontaneous effectiveness as a stage has no set point to occur. It is when you figure out that your natural “beginner” way of processing a fight, of just responding instinctively is what you will still rely on in a fight and then you use training to progressively refine and adjust trained reflexes.
It has the feel of letting go, of forgetting what you have learned to get there. Often you just get sick of the whole “martial arts” type of step procedure to doing what you do. You get sick of doing static techniques that you know would never work when the enemy is really fighting back. You find yourself wanting to “just fight” like you “used to”, which to you seems like going back to the stage of the beginner at first, but really it is the completing of a cycle of training, a process that can be repeated many times in a lifetime of study.
For example, if someone suddenly swings a bat at you (or similar object), any untrained person will instinctively stick their arm out in an attempt to block it. They do this at the right time and typically aimed in the right direction. However, almost always, they will do it while staying in place and not bursting in to close the gap and thus often fail and get their arm broken and worse. Training helps this by giving relatable experience for your instinctive processes (synonymous with sub-conscious processes) to refine off of. You have training weapon swung at you several times and if you don’t move in you recognize that you get hit on the arm or worse. You recognize immediately the advantage to moving in and further, your instinctive response starts to refine as it finds what angles of movement work best against various attacks, etc. Instinctive processes have a way of instantly switching to a better method as soon as they are convinced of the superiority and so simple, realistic training experiences are a vehicle for upgrading your instincts.
On the other hand, if you start to intellectualize the process and think about fighting like some sort of math problem then this is actually making you worse than where you started. It takes a fighter to win a fight, it takes an animal to fight an animal. Self-defense should be learning to fight, but learning about a specific type of fighting applicable to unregulated street type combat where there are no rules, referees, weight classes or protective gear and where weaponry and surprise attacks are likely to be involved. It should not be learning about prescribed static attacks that have prescribed static solutions which if memorized will make you able to “defend” yourself.
I have often said that self-defense as a term is misleading. It capitulates from the beginning that you are some sort of a prey animal hoping to fend off a predatory animal. It breeds the most defensive of mindsets. Rather, you must turn the tables on the attacker. Once escape is not an option, you do not try to “defend” against them, you don’t have notions of wanting to get away, you don’t try to “survive” them, you make them try to survive you.
With this mindset, you then use training correctly. It is not something meant to replace instincts but to allow instincts to develop and refine, or to upgrade if you will. When you fight though, you let go of the training/learning mindset and get into an execution/application mindset, you go to work on the enemy and you get the job done and END the threat appropriately. Your approach returns to the same instinctive animalistic processing that you had as a beginning, but now coupled with knowledge of targeting, power output, weaponry, striking methods, deception strategies, illusion etc. You don’t try to think of all those things. You just fight and let whatever bled through in training bleed through, just focusing purely on the intent to survive and prevail.
This allows you to be spontaneously effective to your maximum level. As training continues your spontaneous effectiveness becomes more spontaneously effective. This is important to recognize, otherwise training may become a hindrance rather than an asset. The most important assets you needed for fighting, you brought with you day 1 in training, which is you and your instincts. You may be asking yourself, why train then? Your enemy has those assets as well and attackers will utilize natural and unnatural advantages to then stack the deck on you. Attackers, formally or informally train this stuff too, that is important to remember.
Movies, unfortunately have really created the wrong expectations for many martial artists. There are a lot of people that if I could just get attackers to attack as cooperatively as they do in movies, I could easily get them to dominate a host of enemies as you see in the movies. It creates the notion that a martial artist should have some sort of Godlike advantage in a fight. Unfortunately training often reinforces this as people don’t want to experience struggles and failure in training. A 10% advantage of any variety is a big deal in a real fight.
In a fight you need to remember the gravity of what you are undertaking. You are working to bring down a hostile animal of comparable or greater size. When people imagine fighting a pit bull for example, they would not expect to walk over a fully enraged pit bull, they would expect resistance and if skilled they would be prepared to mitigate and take advantage of such resistance with their tactics and strategy. While fights can end quickly with brutal and effective access of targets, real mental preparation means knowing what you are walking into and having the right expectation of friction. Expect the opponent to be determined, tough and skillful, if they are not then be happily disappointed.
Remember that survival is victory in a street fight and this often means being able to survive an ambush, drive the enemy off and make an escape. People often rationalize not learning about or thinking about self-protection saying: “I would just run”. Escape is not something that you can just get, it is a tactical option you have to earn. Trying to run away when the enemy is within 5 meters for example will likely end with you never making it up to speed before the enemy runs you down, especially if you try it on a reactive basis and you have to turn to run while the enemy comes barreling in at you.
Remember that fighting never looks like the movies where bad guys are punched and then fly back on staged wires, with squibs going off and people breaking vegetables off set so that the strikes sound hard hitting. Consider that even when shot by a shotgun enemies don’t fly back. They are only hit with the same blunt force that you feel in the recoil of the weapon if you understand the physics of it. Don’t let misguided expectations developed in unrealistic training set you up to be easily deterred in a fight or to expect the fight to come to an early end.
Avoid fighting if at all possible, but if cornered or unable to avoid and escape, fight like an animal, following up continually until the threat stops and/or you are able to break contact and escape. Don’t let training replace this simplicity, but rather enhance it with effective application of knowledge and thought. Real fighting is dynamic, alive and adaptive, it is not static. It takes a fighter to win a fight, it takes an animal to fight an animal.
Tang Wei Martial Arts Association