Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Do You Really Have To Be In Shape In Order To Defend Yourself?

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved

My articles are published in several martial arts publications and they are generally seen as somewhat controversial. I believe that is just because I see things a little differently than most people do in that I tend to focus on the context of martial arts as opposed to the content. The context of the martial arts is simply that someone is trying to cause serious injury or death to you and you intend to prevent them by causing serious injury or death to them first; the content is simply how you get that done. The content of the martial arts include all your punches, kicks, blocks, throws, disarms, and every other technique and weapon in the martial art arsenal, and that is where most people tend to keep their focus.

Tae Kwon Do is a fine example of this; I studied Tae Kwon Do for about 3 years and, despite that I found it to be a lot of fun, I was disappointed in that it was nothing more than a library of kicking techniques and forms. To get my black belt I had to learn so many punches, so many kicks, so many hand techniques, so many stances, so many forms, spar so many people, and break so many boards (and also write so many checks) and voila...I am now a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. In the end I knew a lot of techniques but I still didn't know how to use them. My training had been 100% content (how you get things done) and 0% context (learning how to use violence to cause injuries). By ignoring the context of the martial arts that Tae Kwon Do school that I attended was cranking out black belts that had no idea what the realities of violence and injury are and therefore stand a very poor chance in actually defending themselves from a real attack.

I understand why people don't focus on the context of the martial arts and that is because 1.) people don't understand the context, 2.) people are happy with the content and don't care about the context, and 3.) the context can be damn scary and people don't want to acknowledge it. The content of martial arts is a lot of fun and the reality of the context is not so much, but still is has to be addressed if you ever want to be able to defend yourself. One of the great things about the context is that it is really easy! The content of the martial arts can be very complicated and hard (I never could do a jump spinning hook kick) but the context is causing injuries to people and that is incredibly simple.

Causing injuries to people is so simple that anyone with a fairly functional use of their body can do it. So, here comes the big you have to be in shape in order to defend yourself? The answer is both yes and no and depends on the context of the defense. If I want to step into a ring and compete with someone to find out who is better then I'd better be in shape if I want to win, but if I'm walking down the street and some punk sticks a gun in my face it really doesn't matter what condition I'm in because I’m not going to get into a boxing match with my attacker; so the answer is no you don't have to be in shape.

I understand that that flies in the face of what every single other martial arts instructor will tell you, in fact in a recent issue of Black Belt Magazine noted security expert Kelly McCann, aka Jim Grover, stated, "It's laughable when people who are completely out of shape think they can defend themselves". While I respect his opinion because he is a very competent man, he and the majority of other instructors are focusing on the content and competition. They are in a paradigm where the confrontation starts with two people facing each other in fighting stances but that's called competition.

I've stated this many times before in my articles and in my classes, if you take an honest look at violence, if you look at the data compiled by the FBI, footage of attacks in prison, and security camera footage of real crimes being committed you'll see that no where are fighting stances used. If you are in a competition like a tournament, sparring in a dojo, boxing, mma, or "stepping outside" to see who is tougher then you will most likely start by sparring off in fighting stances; but in an actual instance of criminal violence the criminal is not going to square off with you and duke it out, they are going to walk up to you and just attack, then if things don't go their way they'll most likely run for safety.

If I'm squaring off with somebody and I'm going to attack and defend and he's going to do the same then it would benefit us to be in top condition as the fight may last a minute or even a few depending on our ability and what the rules will allow, but real violence, a real fight, generally lasts less than 10 seconds and the attacker seldom does anything defensive but run away if he gets hurt. An attacker who wants to punch you will just walk up to you and swing and his focus will be on taking you by surprise and injuring you and not on defending himself. A real criminal will stand there and attack you; he won't be in a fighting stance, he won't be bobbing and weaving, he won’t be dancing on his toes, he won't be trying to block your blows or counter you, he'll just be standing there attacking you and he'll run away if he gets scared or hurt.

Real violence is much, much, much simpler than the martial arts make it. If someone is actually attacking you he or she will be wide open the entire time and all you have to do is step in and cause an injury. For example, let's say that a criminal is stalking you and he intends to stab you repeatedly and then rob you. He walks up to you and says, "Excuse me, do you have the time?", so you stop and look down at your watch as gets closer and pulls his knife. Out of the corner of your eye you just happen to see the blade come out of his pocket as you begin to read your watch, so what do you do? Do you step into a fighting stance and try to counter? No, by the time your hands are up you'll have a knife inside you. Instead all you have to do is immediately take a big step into him and punch him in the throat. He's going to be just standing there getting ready to stab you so he'll be completely open, and as soon as you drive your bodyweight into his throat he won't be able to stab you because he'll be traveling backwards from the force of your blow.

Most people, even seasoned military trainers, get competition and actual violence mixed up. If you're going to compete with someone then you better be following a strict diet, doing your pushups, and dong some intensive cardio a few times a week. However, if you are going to injure a criminal who is standing right in front of you completely wide open in an altercation that is going to last 10 seconds or less, then all that exercise really is optional. Some of the best students I've had were overweight or even obese, as they had so much bodyweight they could easily end a confrontation with a single blow.

Now please don't think that I'm trying to say that you can ignore your physical health because being in shape will only benefit you. Also let’s not forget the value of being able to run away from danger when you need to. The only point I'm trying to make with this article is that being in shape is a great thing but if all you want to do is be able to defend yourself then you don't need to run three miles a day.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Karate's Dirty Little Secret

by Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2006, All Rights Reserved

Most people are unaware of this little fact, but Karate, and the other martial arts as well, do in fact have a dirty little secret that they try to hide from the public. I first became aware of this little secret when I was a teenager attending classes at my local Taekwondo school. I remember I had just finished a class and was tired and sweaty from all the punches, kicks, blocks, and forms when my instructor said something that shocked me. She said, "Next weekend we're having a self defense class and we'd like you all to attend. If anyone is interested the cost is $30."

To say that this confused me is an understatement. If I'm taking martial art lessons then why would I have to take a self defense class? Let alone pay extra for it? I figured that it was probably just a special class for beginners but I was wrong. When I went to the class I looked around and I did see beginners, but the majority or the participants were black belts, and not just from my school but from several other schools in the area. My surprise was increased when I saw that the instructor for this class was not our instructor, and what he taught was not Taekwondo. This "new" instructor that I had never seen before was teaching pressure points, leverages, and other things that I knew were not taught at our school.

This class was a big eye opener for me and it taught me two things. First, it showed me the difference between an "art" and "self defense". What we were learning at our school was the "art" of Taekwondo. We were learning to do big fancy kicks that were supposed to be head high, or higher for some reason, and all kinds of fancy punches, blocks, and forms. In contrast, during the self defense class we were taught totally different things like kicks to the knees, finger jabs to the eyes, and ways to get out of various holds. I learned that day that there are certain things that you do when training in a martial arts school, and quite different things that you do when someone is trying to take your life.

The other thing that I learned, the dirty little secret that martial art schools try to hide from the public, is that when it comes to learning to defend yourselves, black belts have to take self defense classes just like everyone else. Sure, they're not always called self defense classes but that is exactly what they are. Today I am a self defense instructor and the majority of my clients are martial arts schools. Martial art schools in areas all over the state contact me and pay me to come to their schools and teach classes on self defense, knife defenses, gun disarming, groundfighting, and defending against multiple opponents.

But here is the ten thousand dollar question...why do people with black belts have to take self defense classes? Isn't a black belt supposed to know how to defend themselves? After all, a black belt is someone proficient in martial arts and martial arts are self defense, aren't they? The simple answer is not typically. The truth is that most martial arts schools really don't teach anything other than punching and kicking techniques, and most black belts aren't taught anything other than how to throw punches and kicks. Some schools do teach knife defenses, some teach knife defenses but not gun defenses, and some teach gun defense but not knife defenses and so on.

The truth is that regardless of whether a particular school may teach an "art" or teach with more of a focus on self defense techniques, or whether they teach knife defense or not, if you're actually talking about self defense then all your fighting techniques are secondary. Why? Because if you try to "fight" with a real violent criminal you will lose. Real criminals set things up so you never have the opportunity to fight back. First, they set you up so that when they attack you, you will be trapped. Second, criminals don't stand there and trade punches with you like in a sparring session, instead they rely on sucker punches and surprise attacks so that you'll never see the attack coming, and as soon as they strike they try to completely overwhelm you. Therefore, it doesn't matter if you are a 7th degree black belt, or how good your spin hook kick is, because if an experienced criminal attacks you, very seldom you will never see it coming.

According to statistics, very few people who are attacked every actually see the attack. Sure, they might know that they are getting repeatedly punched in the head while it happens but very seldom do they ever see the attack coming, and while its happening they're too busy reacting to the attack to even look at their attacker. Also, around 97% of stabbing victims report that they never saw the knife that stabbed them. Most victims thought that they had just been punched really hard and they didn't know that they had been stabbed until after the attack. So if criminals like to attack by surprise and most victims never actually see the punch or the knife that injures them, how are you supposed to "fight" off a criminal?

The truth is that you can't. Since you probably won't be able to see the attack that is used on you the only thing you can actually do is try to see the criminals and recognize them before they strike. Very seldom does a criminal just jump out and attack a random person; what they do do is go to a place where people are, look around, size everyone up and look for specific vulnerabilities, then carefully pick their target, and then wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. Usually they will follow you until you come to a secluded area or an area that provides concealment, like a parked car or tree, and once you get there they surprise you from behind. Or they may learn your rountine and position themselves along your regular route. For example, if you take a walk around the block every morning, they might learn your rountine, show up early, and be waiting for you behind a tree.

If you want to be able to have any chance at defending yourself you have to be able to look around you and detect the criminals that are sizing you up. Once you detect them you have to know what signals to give them that show them that you don't have the vulnerabilities that they are looking for. Only after you learn how criminals think, how they pick their targets, what vulnerabilites they are looking for, and how they commit their crimes can you then start to think about using self defense techniques.

Even if you are doing everything correctly you can still be taken by surprise. In the same way that most victims never actually see the attack that got them, most real self defense situations will actually start with you being grabbed, hit, stabbed, or shot. The attack may actually start with you being struck in the back of the head and being knocked half unconscious, then falling face first onto the floor and breaking your nose. Even if you do do everything right the first sign you may get that it is time to defend yourself may come while you are on the ground, face covered in blood, with someone standing over you. Unfortunately that is quite realistic.

The reason that even people with black belts have to take self defense classes is that very few martial arts schools know or teach all these things. Like I stated above, the vast majority of martial arts educations consists of punching and kicking techniques and little more. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to make the martial arts look bad because I actually love the martial arts, I'm just stating the truth. When I go to teach a self defense class for a room full of black belts its quite obvious that they have never been taught about any of this.

One thing that I do in almost every class is demostrate the violence of a real knife attack with my assistant instructor as he does a common knife defense technique. Everyone is expecting me to dance around and try to cut him, with a rubber knife of course, but you should see the sheer terror in their eyes when instead I run over to him and start violently "punching" the knife into his torso before he can even do his technique. Then after I knock him on the ground I continue to violently stab him as he trys to control the knife. All in all the demonstration is about 15 seconds long and I stab my partner, who is actually trying to stop me with his technique, at least 10 to 15 times. After the demonstration I turn back to my class and watch their faces go from a look of sheer horror to uneasiness because they honestly don't know if the could do any better. This demonstration is a great tool for showing people the actual violence involved in a real attack.

I know several people who make a very good living by giving self defense classes to martial art schools. I even know a guy who makes a good living by teaching the exact same 3 night self defense course just once a month, and every single month his class is full and according to him almost every single student is a black belt. The only techniques he teaches are a poke to the eye and a kick to the knee, but the reason that black belts, capable of far more advanced techniques, show up for his classes is because he actually teaches HOW to use the techniques against a violent attacker.

The point I'm trying to make here is not that the martial arts are ineffective because they are actually very effective. The only problem that the martial arts have is that they spend all their time teaching you how to DO techniques rather then what it takes to actually USE the techniques.

The point I am trying to make is that if you are honestly looking to defend yourself don't immediately rush out to a martial arts school. Instead look around for a self defense class first. Check with your police department, your yellow pages, your local parks and recreation department, and local gyms and you probably can find a self defense class in your area.

Also, be very weary of self defense classes offered by martial arts schools because I can tell you as a martial arts instructor myself, most instructors look a giving self defense classes as just a way of trying to get you to enroll as a student in their school. Also add the fact that if the instructor has no other self defense education other than his karate training he or she is probably not going to be able to teach you all the things I listed above that you need to know about criminal behavior.

If all you want to do is learn to defend yourself I recommend finding a self defense class with an instructor that only teaches self defense classes and doesn't also teach martial arts, because if he or she does they might only be offering classes as a marketing tool. I also recommend that you take one or two self defense classes before you consider joining a martial arts school to learn self defense. That should help you be able to distinguish the difference between and "art" and dealing with "real violence".

So if you are considering learning to defend yourself please don't rush out to your local martial arts school. Often the instructor at the self defense class will be more educated about real self defense then a martial arts instructor, its probably cheaper than attending a martial arts school, and if you take a self defense class you just might end up sitting next to your local martial arts instructor anyway.

Friday, May 2, 2008

What’s Wrong with The Martial Arts?

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved

If you’ve studied martial arts for any length of time you’ve most likely had someone express the opinion that you are learning “crap”. The general opinion of the martial arts by the public is that the martial arts are quaint at best. What most people know about martial arts is learned from watching TV where it is portrayed in a manner that is comical at best. Even shows like “Walker: Texas Ranger”, which is supposed to show martial arts in a good light, make them look ridiculous

On top of that many people know someone who knows someone who knows a guy who was a black belt and got beaten up by some “Average Joe”. I’ve studied the martial arts for 20 years and I know several skilled martial artists who lost fights to non-trained individuals, even fair fights. I had a friend that got into a fight with a boxer one day in a parking lot. They put up their hands and my friend, who had lighting fast kicks, threw a right roundhouse kick at the guy’s head, only to have his leg grind to a halt when his jeans refused to stretch the last few inches and he ended up stumbling off balance. This gave his opponent the opportunity to land a roundhouse punch to this temple and knock him out cold. A seasoned black belt knocked out by a boxer with one punch.

With incidents like this and TV shows like “Walker: Texas Ranger” I can understand why to most people the martial arts are a big joke. Though the question show be asked, why are people trained in the martial arts often not able to defend themselves? Why do people, instructors included, say that the martial arts were effective 500 years ago but are not effective today? What is wrong with the martial arts?

My answer to this is that nothing is wrong with the arts themselves; the problem is the people who study them. To give a more well rounded answer let’s address the notion that while the martial arts were effective long ago they are not today. To begin, we have to dispense this notion that people that lived 100, 500, or even 1000 years ago were really different from us. The truth is they weren’t and we are really no better than them.

The one difference between the people living today and those living 1000 years ago is that today we have more knowledge and more technology. There seems to be this notion that people who lived 1000+ years ago couldn’t think as well as we could today. Those that lived long ago were just as smart as we are, just as driven as we are, and just as violent if not more. 1000 years ago people roamed the land murdering, raping, robbing, stealing, and enslaving just as they do today. The only difference is what tools they used and what distance they did it at.

Long ago you might kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a knife, sword, or axe; today you might kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a knife, sword, or axe but you might also kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a gun. It really is the same violence accomplished by the same types of people.

Now we have reliable records from the orient saying that 500-1000+ years ago martial artist not only could defend themselves but they were considered very deadly. In fact, people who knew martial arts were treated with respect because of their abilities. We have records of masters defeating 5 or more people at the same time and often the men were armed. Long ago the martial arts were not only considered effective but they were national treasures.

So if people and the violence they wage haven’t really changed in the last 1000 years, and back then the martial arts were quite effective, what changed? Logically it would have to be the martial arts themselves. But wait, we have the arts passed down from that time and records that can prove it. We can say with a fair amount of certainty that we are doing punches, kicks, blocks, and even forms the same as they were doing them 500-1000 years ago. The other day I was doing a form that was 300 years old.

What has changed? The way people practice the martial arts has changed. Back then skill in the arts could mean life or death and today it’s a hobby or sport people devote a couple of hours a week to. The intent really changed. As recent as 100 years ago people who threw a reverse punch did it with the intent of having that punch hit someone else and inflict injury. Today when people throw reverse punches most do it with the intent of scoring points, impressing their instructors, making a punching bag swing, etc. Back then people revered the arts as deadly and treated them as so; today people treat the arts as a hobby. If you want to see what difference something such as the intent that you train with makes, you can see it at:

Let’s be more specific. In my 20 years I’ve trained with boxers and I’ve trained with martial artists and I’ve seen real fist fights between practitioners of each. I have to say that from my own experience if a boxer and a martial artist fought the boxer would win fairly easily, and I’ve seen that happen on more that one occasion. Now the boxer and the martial arts use fairly similar techniques, so what gives the boxer the edge? Simply that a martial artist trains to throw punches and kicks and the boxer trains to hit people. It’s really that simple.

Today martial artist go up and down the floor throwing punches and kicks but do they ever actually train to hit someone? No. Of course you can say they do sparring but if you really think that point sparring is realistic training then there might not be too much hope for you. However, you do hit people during sparring so even sparring practice does provide a little benefit when it comes to real violence; but sparring alone is not enough.

To really be effective martial artists need to get back to learning how to hit people. 1000 years ago hitting people was a main focus. If you asked someone why they just threw that punch they’d most likely say something like, “to hurt my opponent”. They had a whole arsenal of techniques and they practiced each and every technique with the intent of hitting someone and injuring them.

Now you can say that back then the martial arts were for peace and love and whatnot, but that is really a myth we tell ourselves. Martial arts being about peace and love are a product of the last couple hundred years. If you rounded up 100 martial artists from 1000 years ago probably only 1 or 2 would be training with the intent of self betterment. If you really look at the history of the arts you will see that the arts themselves were originally just a collection of fighting techniques and nothing more. However, the Chinese were mostly Buddhist, Taoist, or students of Confucianism and so they normally mixed those in with their arts, but most of what we today consider to be martial arts is in fact just Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or even Yoga. It would be the same thing if today I taught my son to be a Christian and then taught him martial arts. He might grow up connecting a front kick with Jesus the same way we connect martial arts with non-violence and mediation.

If martial artists want their arts to be effective again they have to start training to hit people and with the goal of hitting people. I know several black belts with great techniques but if they ever actually hit anything with them they’d break their hands or be knocked off balance. People have to work on grounding themselves, using their hips and hitting things. You have to condition your body to drive force into an object. You have to train yourself to look at a human body and see a myriad of places to hit and know how to step in and hit them.

One of my favorite drills is to have one person stand naturally and have a large pad held tight against their chest. Then their partner hits it and knocks him back, then continues it until he has knocked his partner across the room then they switch and go back. This is a great drill because it trains your body to receive roughly the same shocks it would if you hit a person for real. For most people it is a big eye opener. Most people lack the fundamentals to even drive someone back more than a single step.

Another thing I like to do is when my advanced colored belts do one-step sparing drills I don’t have them stop their strikes at their targets. I have the place their punches, kicks, knife hand strikes, etc on their targets and then they have to follow through and push through their targets displacing their partner. This is a great way to learn both balance and why it is important to use your entire body and not just your arm or leg. Most people end up trying to muscle through someone with just their arm and not their hips.

Bottom line, the reason why boxing is effective and the martial arts are perhaps not is that boxers train to hit people and martial artists don’t. I’m not saying that you need to train like a boxer and actually I think that’s quite counterproductive. An upward slap to the groin, a knife hand to the side of the neck, or a ridge hand to the throat will always be more effective that a punch aimed at a general area of the head. So you don’t have to put on gloves and dance around a boxing ring but you still have to focus on hitting people if you want to do it effectively.