(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 18th Sep)

At its root, martial arts and reality-based self-defense training is about intent; recognizing our partner’s, or aggressor’s intent whilst disguising/masking our own. Before I started training in Krav Maga I was – and still am - a Judoka (Judo Practitioner). A large part of Judo, is recognizing your partner’s intent i.e. what are they thinking about, and preparing to do, etc., and then formulating a response. At the same time, you want to prevent your partner from recognizing your intent, as this will allow them to formulate a strategy/response to prevent you succeeding, and possibly countering you. The earlier you can discern and recognize their intent, the better prepared you will be to deal with their attack e.g. you will have time to create space, position yourself, and generally get yourself ready to meet their attack. The better you are at hiding or masking your intent, the less time you will give your partner to formulate a response, and their only recourse will be to react – with training and the appropriate skills and attributes this may be enough, but their chances of making a better/more effective response would have increased had they been able to recognize your intent sooner. In a real-life encounter, the sooner you can recognize the intent of an aggressor (who may be trying to disguise it), the better your survival chances. If you can also disguise your response/intent then you will be equipping yourself with the advantage of surprise.

The martial arts are full of tales and stories about the great masters, recognizing an attack before it occurs. There is a scene in The Seven Samurai, where one of the swordsmen who is being recruited refuses to enter a room, because he believes he is about to be ambushed as part of his test, as to whether he is good enough to be considered part of the group. In the film, it is portrayed that he has a 6th sense for danger. If we unwrap the idea and the mystery of such a “6th Sense”, and look at what it actually is, we’re left with a high-level ability to discern intent. In a real-life scenario, it may be that the person who is about to enter a room where another person is concealed, may see the person opening the door glance towards someone/something in the room, and/or “feel” their anticipation and nervousness, or simply hear the other person’s movement, etc. All of these things are signals of a person’s intent. There isn’t any mystical power at play, just the experiences and abilities of a highly-tuned individual, who is able to read the intent in a situation.

We are naturally equipped with an ability to discern intent. Most of us have had the experience of walking into a bar/pub, or a social gathering where things have not seemed right or have felt out of place, etc. At the time – or even afterwards – we may not have been able to identify the cause of our unease, but we have picked up on the harmful intent within our environment; at base, this is what situational awareness actually is – the recognition of harmful intent in our environment. It may be that our fear system subconsciously picks up on a number of factors, such as someone (or a group) in the room looking at us a fraction of a second longer than would be normal, or a brief pause in conversation whilst those in the room size us up. If we were to consciously pick up on these signals, we would be identifying “target glancing” (occasional glances in our direction), scanning (predator(s) looking around, for cameras, to see if others might intervene with them/against them, etc.), synchronizations of movement (movement that puts an attacker in a position to make/launch their attack), “conspiratorial planning” (different attackers within the group, assigning roles and discussing their attack – possibly signaling to others of the group if they are spread out), etc. All of these things during the “Conflict Aware” phase of an assault – especially when combined – signal harmful intent within the environment, and should be signals to disengage, and/or not enter room, etc.

During the Pre-Conflict phase of a violent encounter, when an assailant has put themselves, or is in the process of putting themselves into a position where they can cause you harm, and you have discerned that they have harmful intent towards you, you have one of two engagement options: you can wait for them to launch their assault (having prepared yourself, possibly moving, changing your stance to limit their attacking options), or you can pre-emptively attack them. If your decision/strategy is to go pre-emptive, you will need to hide/disguise your intent, or your assault will lack the element of surprise – this may give your assailant the opportunity to counter it, or at the least turn on their pain management systems so that they can prepare themselves to deal with the pain. If you decide to wait to respond to their attack, your assailant may still try to hide their intent to physically assault you, however there are certain clues and indicators that demonstrate a person’s intention to punch/strike you. One of the most common is turning away and loading weight onto the rear leg; this preparatory shift in weight identifies their intent to bring it forward to add power to their punch/strike, and looking away can be an attempt to not show you the emotional change/intent in their face as they get ready to act violently towards you. Turning away can also make it look like they have lost interest in the confrontation, as well as giving them a chance to quickly scan for others, security, etc, before they launch their attack.     

Once the physical fight is underway, you will need to understand the intent behind your attacker’s movements and attacks e.g. are they moving forward into space that would make your kick or punch more effective i.e. they are walking on to it, etc., are they moving away, and is this disengagement genuine or is their intent to get you to move forward onto their punch or kick? Discerning their intent, and hiding/disguising yours now becomes a physical thing.

Our survival in any confrontation is about discerning and recognizing a person’s intent. Often, predatory individuals will try to mask it however few individuals are truly skilled at hiding the intent behind all of their actions and behaviors. There are times when part of the intent is obvious, such as the anger and high emotion that an individual who you have spilt a drink over demonstrates as they stand there, shouting and making threats towards you – now it is a matter of discerning the intent behind the threats e.g. are they preparing to attack, or simply sounding off? Again, if we know what to look for, the intent becomes obvious and apparent. Once the physical fight begins, we must try to identify the intent behind an assailant’s movement, and how we can take advantage of it – whilst hiding our own intentions. Distilled down, reality-based self-defense, and the martial arts, are lessons in and demonstrations of intent. 

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Training With Partners

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 11th Sep)

The most important piece of training equipment you have is your training partner. The way the two of you interact together is an integral part of both yours and their development. To get the most out of a training session both of you must be “working” together, however this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s because one partner adds an objective that they feel the instructor forgot to mention, such as adding in undue resistance so that their partner gets to experience how a real-life attacker might react or respond (something that at some point needs to be practiced, but not when first learning the mechanics of a technique), or that a drill needs to have a competitive edge added to it, etc. These are often honest mistakes that partners make, believing that they are assisting their partner’s development, rather than hindering it. In this article, I want to look at a few areas, where well-intentioned partners go wrong, and how and why their approach to training won’t actually help their partner learn and develop.

When you learn or train something, it is no good if you always and only fail; you need some wins. If you’re never able to make a block, because your partner is feinting before they throw them, you are soon going to lose confidence in yourself, and the system you are training. Your partner may genuinely believe that feinting before throwing a strike is helping you, however if you keep failing to make a block because of it, you won’t be getting to practice your blocking, which would be the purpose of the drill you are engaged in. Most training drills shouldn’t involve trying to catch a partner out, or be seen as a competition where your partner needs to feel that they make more successful blocks than you do, etc. If you are working with somebody who is not able to complete a technique because you are working too fast for them, or applying too much strength, dial it back until your partner can get what they are practicing too work. If they are learning something for the first time, you may have to dial it back quite a bit e.g. I’ve had students on occasion, pulling a gun back as soon as they see their partner try to practice a disarm for the very first time, arguing that this is what would happen in real life, etc. This may be the case, but all their partner is getting to practice is not doing a disarm. Yes, at some point dealing with an attacker attempting to retain their weapon has to be practiced, but if an instructor doesn’t tell you to try retaining the weapon (unless your training at a level, where this is expected), then you probably shouldn’t take it upon yourself to add this component in. Stick to the drill, and have confidence in your instructor’s teaching structure and approach; it’s highly unlikely that they’ve simply forgot to mention something that you think should be included.

At my school, we do a fair amount of dynamic pad-work, and often when people partner with somebody who’s a different height to them, they forget to make the appropriate adjustments to the way that they hold the pads. I have had taller people make the argument to a shorter partner that they need to learn to punch upwards, as this will be their experience in the real world. Again, this may be the case, however to prevent bad habits from developing it is better to first learn how to strike and punch well, against somebody your own height, rather than learning to punch upwards (or downwards). For a straight punch to have maximum power, the shoulder must “sit” in the socket, rather than be raised or lifted. This allows the arm a certain degree of structural integrity when delivering power, and it also allows the back muscles to be relaxed (another important part of power development – engaged and relaxed back muscles). Only when you can punch well at your own height, should you try varying your striking height. If your partner keeps raising or lowering the pads, instruct them otherwise.

There are some people who only have one speed when training, and that is full out. This often involves their partner getting hit, or having to experience pain, when they train with them. The problem with this, is that their partner will become hesitant, and pull and hold back their attacks for fear of getting hurt. This will mean that they start to make unrealistic attacks e.g. if they keep getting hit hard in the groin every time their partner makes a defense, they’ll start to make their attacks with the hips held back, so that they can protect themselves, etc. This doesn’t make for a realistic training experience, as an attacker would not position themselves in this way. To make/practice a good defense, you need your partner to make a good attack. If they are nervous, reluctant and hesitant to engage with you for fear of getting hurt they won’t do this, and you will have deprived yourself a training opportunity. It is often those individuals who train in this way who wonder why their ability to perform techniques is inconsistent, and that their success in making them work depends on who they train with i.e. they are good against those individuals who “gift” them the technique for fear of getting hurt and/or who attack in a non-committed fashion, but not so good against those who aren’t hesitant and make proper attacks.

We all respond to motivation differently, and not everybody will respond to the things we say, as we might. You may respond well to somebody telling you that you are not punching hard enough, or that you should be punching harder, etc. Other people, especially if they are beginners, may take your “encouragement” as criticism, or even belittlement. It can sometimes be a fine line, between motivating someone and “trash talking” them, regardless of your intentions. We learn best when we are comfortable in our training environment(s), and if when you are motivating someone they don’t seem comfortable, and are not responding positively, the answer is probably not more “encouragement”. People need to practice, and practice takes time. Few people have the learning capabilities to remember more than a few basic teaching points when initially practicing a technique. Trying to keep reminding a partner about everything they should be doing is neither helpful nor constructive, no matter how well-intentioned. Advice and motivation, could well be overwhelming, and come across as overly-critical, to the person you are training with. When you motivate, see how your partner responds, when you offer instruction and help, keep it simple (and make sure you follow your own instruction – there is no better way to confuse a partner than to tell them to do something, and when it is your turn fail to do it yourself).

When training reality-based self-defense, we are all in it together. We are not training for sport or competition, where we may feel the need to demonstrate where we are in the school “pecking order”. Rather, we are looking to train ourselves, as well as those we train with, to be able to protect ourselves from attacks in the real world. Our goal should be to help each other, as well as be helped by each other, and a large part of that means being the best training partner you can be.           

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Subtleties & Fine Details

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 4th Sep)

It is very easy to get bogged down in the fine details of something, and miss the point. A visiting student from another school, once tried to engage me in a debate, about the orientation of the fist when punching. His argument against me fully rotating the fist – so that the thumb is positioned down, at the “bottom” of the fist – was that this was unnatural, and that if you raised the arms straight up and made a fist, it would be at a 45-degree angle. I explained why I punched this way e.g. fist-to-wrist alignment, engagement of the shoulder in the strike etc. whilst at the same time, not trying to counter his arguments and reasons for striking/punching the way he did (if something works for you, I’m not going to try to convince you to do something else – there are people who teach and deliver their roundhouse kicks, differently to me, and with the same amount of power; I’m not going to try to teach them a different method, if the end result will be the same). Unfortunately, his goal was to try to get me to change the orientation of my fist when punching, by simply repeating his argument. Eventually, I asked him to demonstrate what his punching looked like. Like he said, his fist was at a 45-degree angle, however his hips hadn’t turned, weight hadn’t transferred forward, the back muscles hadn’t engaged, the hips hadn’t “sunk”, etc. There was so much to work on, before the “debate” on fist orientation was to be had, however the fixation on one component, was making him blind to everything else. He was focusing so much on 5% of what he was doing, that 95% of what goes into making a good punch/strike was being lost.

It is often these little differences, that are seen to define systems and styles, and lead people to conclude that what they are doing is right, and what everybody else is doing is wrong. When delivering a punch, with as much power as possible, whilst remaining stable and balanced, there are certain things that have to happen bio-mechanically, and if every instructor sat down together and discussed these, we’d be largely in agreement; there might be some nuances, and some exceptions and caveats noted, but by-and-large we’d all agree, on the components that need to be in place. This is because several factors, that we’d all agree on, make up 80-90% of the power of the punch, and this is the same for many techniques.

I remember having great difficulty, in my early days of training, determining whether a gun positioned to the side of my head was in front of the ear or behind it (under the real-life stress and duress of having a live firearm placed there, I’m not convinced I’d be able to make an exact determination of its position). The idea being that if it’s positioned forward of the ear, the gun should be pulled forward to reduce the amount of time, that your head is in the line of fire – and if behind, backwards towards the aggressor. It’s also worth noting that these preferred methods, may not be possible, depending on where the aggressor is positioned, and how they are controlling you with their other arm; your body movement may be restricted so that you are unable to move in the direction you’d want to, etc. Whilst the position of the gun is a factor, it’s not as important as your ability to move the gun away from your head as fast as you can. A faster hand movement in the “wrong” direction is in fact more important than a slower hand movement in the “right” direction. If the success of your survival is wholly dependent on determining whether the weapon is half-an-inch, forwards or back from the ear, it is probable that you don’t possess the ability to make either technique work. It is important to understand which skills and abilities are needed to make a technique successful, and which components are the most important to a technique’s success, and to work on developing these.

In real-life scenarios, certain details aren’t available to us, which might appear to be in the training environment. In a “controlled” sparring environment, picking targets to strike/hit, is a luxury that the relative time and space given to you, allows you to do. In a real-life assault, no attacker(s) will afford you this luxury. Many years ago, I attended a seminar, where an instructor was talking about where to aim on the jaw/chin, and at what angle to strike, in order to guarantee a knock-out. I’m not going to say it’s not possible –  and you can increase your chances of landing such strikes, by positioning yourself in the pre-conflict phase of a confrontation and/or striking pre-emptively – but being able to put all of those pieces together under stress and duress, and get the timing right, is extremely difficult. My default advice for striking the face, is to aim at the center of the thing, which floats above the shoulders – that’ll give you a good chance of connecting with the target (and that can be a lot harder than it seems when you practice it in the training environment – which is why I’m an advocate of large striking surfaces, such as the forearms and shins, against relatively large targets such as the neck/trapezius and legs). Specifics and details are important, but they’re not as important as those things and components, which power the technique, or increase the chances of a technique being successful.

Fighting rarely comes down to subtleties. Training, sparring? Yes, there are subtleties, but real-life fighting? Almost never. That doesn’t mean we should neglect the details in training, or not break techniques down, etc. but it does mean we should understand the “few” things that make a technique work, or increases its likelihood of success, and prioritize our emphasis on these. These are the foundations that support everything else, and without them, we will have nothing to build on or develop. Good foundations on their own, will support us much better, and increase our survival chances, more than anything else.  

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De-escalation, Reflective Listening & Non-Complimentary Behavior

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 28th Aug)

I was bullied as a child. I was constantly told by my teachers, my parents, and other people in authority, who I looked to for advice, that if I ignored my bullies they would go away – I tried it, and they didn’t go away; in fact, it made it worse, because the more I ignored them, the greater the lengths they’d go to, to get my attention. Nobody responds well to being ignored. When working door/bar security, If I was on my own and I had to separate two aggressors, whilst I was talking to one, the other would become frustrated that I wasn’t talking to them, and end up getting more emotional – he/she was invested in the dispute, and had no intention of walking away from it. It sounds a simple strategy: ignore them and they will go away, but deep down, we all know it’s fundamentally flawed, and will often escalate situations rather than de-escalate them. I have written a lot about de-escalation in this blog, however I’d like to talk about some proven methods that can be used effectively, in the right circumstances.

Firstly, de-escalation is rarely if ever successful in premeditated confrontations, where the aggressor has come to, or orchestrated the incident, with a goal or outcome in mind e.g. if a mugger demands your wallet, they are only going to be satisfied with one outcome – walking away with your wallet. If, however, you spill a drink over somebody, or act/behave in a way that causes them to become aggressive i.e. it is a spontaneously aggressive/violent situation, they may not have a goal/outcome in mind, and this is where de-escalation has its place.

If you’ve ever been in a heated/aggressive argument or confrontation, you may have had the feeling that the other party wasn’t listening to what you were saying – strangely enough, it is likely that they were feeling the same way. When people become angry/aggressive it is because they believe that they are in the right, and are justified to express themselves in the way that they are (even if this constitutes an assault – there doesn’t have to be physical contact for someone to assault you). By arguing back, and/or trying to make/state your case, you will be perpetuating this feeling in them, as they become baffled by the fact that you are not listening to them or taking them seriously i.e. you should be responding to what they are saying, not making a counter-argument. One tactic to get around this is to use a strategy known as reflective listening. With reflective listening, rather than trying to state your own case, you acknowledge your aggressor’s emotional state and position e.g. you say, “You seem really angry, why is that?” this gives an aggressor the chance to acknowledge their emotional state, and rationalize it. When they give the reason as to why they’re emotional, you may be able to validate it by agreeing that this would make you angry too…if that was in fact the situation; allowing you to start introducing some logic and reasoning into the confrontation. If they respond emotionally/aggressively to what you say, again you can reflect, by stating that you can see how they might see it this way, etc. De-escalation is a process. There are no silver bullets, but by helping the aggressor acknowledge their emotional state, there is a chance that they will respond positively.

One de-escalation strategy that has recently gotten a lot of attention is something called “Non-Complimentary Behavior”. This method involves responding to an aggressive individual, by acting/behaving in a way that doesn’t reflect the way that they are acting/behaving e.g. if somebody acts in an aggressive/nasty way towards you, you respond by being non-threatening and nice, etc. The aim of the strategy is to take away the aggressor’s justification for their angry behavior; it isn’t “fair” to be aggressive towards someone who is being nice/kind. The success of this strategy depends upon the emotional state of the aggressor, as well as the relationship they have with the person they are targeting i.e. they have to care about being seen to be fair, and to a certain extent reasonable, something that is more likely if they are still in control of their emotions, and care about how their target – and possibly those around them - perceives them.

It is important to note that ignoring someone isn’t a non-complimentary behavior. An example of a non-complimentary behavior, would be to bring in doughnuts to work, and offer one to someone who had been extremely rude and aggressive towards you – almost shaming them of their actions and behaviors. Ignoring someone at work who you had a dispute with, wouldn’t be a non-complimentary behavior, it would just be ignoring them, and if you actively and deliberately ignored them, it would in all likelihood make the situation much worse.

However, the concept of non-complimentary behavior has been used to justify an intervention strategy, that involves ignoring an aggressor, when intervening in a hate crime. There is a poster campaign around Boston at the moment, advocating that a person who witnesses an incident of religious/racist abuse should intervene by talking to the target about frivolous topics, such as the weather, movies they have seen, etc., until the aggressor/abuser gets bored and walks away. It’s a nice idea, but it is neither an effective strategy, nor an example of non-complimentary behavior. Just as with bullies, ignoring somebody who is invested enough in their view-point to publicly, verbally assault someone, is not going to see them go away, and may in fact escalate the situation.

Non-complimentary behavior can be effective, but usually only when that person cares about how they are perceived by others – not the case in most incidents of spontaneous violence, where de-escalation can be used.

Nothing comes with a guarantee, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution where de-escalation is concerned. Having a number of different tools in your toolbox, that can be applied in the appropriate situations, is your best survival strategy.




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