Flash Mobs & Civil Unrest

(Gershon Ben Keren - Wed 29th Apr)

When I present on Travel Security, one of the topics I cover, but often do not go into great detail on, is “Civil Unrest” e.g. what to do if you find yourself in a foreign country, when demonstrations, and riots occur. Generally what we advise is not going to those locations or areas where protests are taking place. However if civil unrest occurs in the city or town where you live – as is playing out in Baltimore at the moment – you may end up finding yourself in the middle of a flash mob. This blog article looks at some of the things you can do to help you come away unscathed.

Recognize the warning signs. If you simply walk into a full scale riot, your awareness level is at zero e.g. did you not hear the noise? – The police sirens, the demonstrators chanting/shouting etc. Backing away, and retracing your route to wherever you’ve come from is your safest option - and doing so with a sense of urgency/immediacy will increase your chances of coming away from the situation unhurt, unscathed or inconvenienced (being picked up or contained in a location by the police or security services). If you are in a situation, where an angry mob seems to be developing leave – it’s as simple as that, and it matters little whether you agree with their cause or not; it is not a good idea from a personal safety perspective to be caught up in a “peaceful” protest, that turns into a riot; it is likely that you will either get hurt by a protestor, or by members of the security force employed to contain, manage and break up the riot.

Seemingly peaceful protests can go bad, knowing what to look out for is key; if you want to disengage from the situation before it turns bad. Most protests, or demonstrations that end up as an angry destructive mob, are orchestrated by a few individuals or groups – sometimes the way the police act and behave may allow small groups to exploit these events and to turn the crowd into a mob. Be aware of situations where a police presence seems to increase – contrary to popular opinion security services don’t just congregate or build up a presence in an area for no reason; they may do so because they have received intelligence that something is about to kick off, or because the situation resembles previous ones where the end result has been a riot. If police/security forces numbers start to increase, your best bet is to leave the area.

Recognize when “groups” are starting to form. Riots and Civil Unrests are rarely caused by random individuals coming together, but when pre-existing small groups draw individuals to them, and then unite. If a situation seems to be developing where groups are forming, think about leaving as quickly as possible. If people stop acting as individuals and start acting as members of a group, leave the situation straight away.   

When you exit the crowd/protest go with the flow of traffic, making your way to the sides of the moving mob and look to peel off down a side street, in order to get away. If you move in the opposite direction to the crowd, it will take you longer to make any head way, and it may appear as if you are opposed to the rioters. As you do this stay away from windows and any glass store fronts, as you may end up getting hit by missiles and/or trampled by looters, look to head towards brick buildings that lead on to minor side streets, where you can peel off from the mob (having a good understanding of the area you are in will help you to do this). Rioters normally look to control major roads and intersections, so looking to exit down side streets and minor roads etc. is a good strategy to adopt. Your goal is to break away from the crowd, and not remain part of it. Understand that the security forces will want to contain the crowd, so the sooner you exit the better.

Don’t make your exit look too obvious – running will immediately mark you out as somebody who has a reason to leave quickly and will mark you out to both protesters and security forces. Your first response to finding yourself in such a situation, may be to panic, and try and get yourself out of there as fast as possible however you should move as fast as you can, whilst maintaining the general pace/movement of the group. Sometimes moving slower, will allow people to move around you, and slow down your advance into an area where the security forces will be trying to funnel you – often protesters feel that they are in control of where they go, but more often than not it is the security forces, giving the crowd room to move, before gradually closing the group down and containing them, so moving away at the earliest opportunity is always your best tactic.

If you are part of a group, stay together. Unless you have been involved (or found yourself) in a march, demonstration or protest, it is hard to explain how easy it is to get separated, or lose somebody in the crush of movement. Holding hands, and linking arms may seem over the top, however it is a simple measure that sees everyone stick together, and doesn’t put you in the unenviable position of having to re-enter the crowd to find somebody.

Be aware what the civil unrest is about, rioters/protesters, and people in the crowd may ask you questions and if you can’t answer, and show knowledge about their cause, you will be looked on as somebody outside of the group, which is a dangerous position to occupy. If you find yourself in the middle of a group of protestors/rioters you need to blend in, and appear as if you are one of them. Not understanding “why” you are seemingly part of a group, is a good first step in isolating yourself, and appearing as someone who is opposed to their actions – you don’t want to be seen as someone protesting the protest. Applying or causing sympathy is often a good way to allow protestors who may have a better knowledge of the environment to assist you. Telling a “fellow” protestor that a relative has just died and you need to exit the demonstration (which you were 100% committed to), may cause them to offer help and explain the best and most sensible route to take – in light of the circumstances.

Keep up to date with events on social media; protesters and those reporting on events often announce which roads have been closed, and where the flashpoints are that you want to avoid. This coupled with the use of google maps, can be used to find the safest route out – you may also be able to google the protest/unrest to find out why people are marching in the first place (if you were unaware).  

Many security professionals advise carrying solutions, such as lemon juice, to soak garments in, so as to act as filters/protection against tear gas, and pepper spray that the security forces may use against rioters/protesters etc. as well as advising that you carry solutions and sprays to help you deal with the effects of these sprays and gases (and these are all things which work). To be honest, if you are thinking of carrying such items, then it is likely that you are looking at putting yourself in harm’s way by visiting the locations where such civil unrest is occurring. Don’t, avoidance is by far your best safety strategy; if you think you need to carry things to counter act security measures the security services may be implementing, then you are heading in the wrong direction, and should avoid those areas.

This may be a hard one for people to accept, the police and security services don’t have the time or the resources to register you as an individual, even if it wasn’t your intention to become part of a protest or riot; you are in that location, at that particular time and will be treated accordingly, despite the events/situations that lead you to be there. Understand that if when you explain your situation, officers appear unreceptive, it is because they are dealing with a much larger problem i.e. containing the crowd. Be prepared for a possible long wait, as the crowd is first contained and then dispersed. If you do end up being picked up by the security forces, carrying ID will help expedite any interaction you have with the authorities, and will also look like you are not trying to hide or cover up your identity. 

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Natural Surveillance & Bystanders

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 26th Apr)

People are often surprised to hear about violent assaults happening in “broad” daylight, and expect violent encounters to be restricted to out of the way/deserted places, late at night etc. There are several reasons why assaults happen in well-trafficked places, during daylight, and the purpose of this blog article is to examine some of them.

I break violent encounters down in to two types: pre-meditated acts, where the assailant has planned to use aggression, the threat of violence or violence itself to accomplish a pre-defined goal e.g. a mugger, who has planned to approach you and stick a knife to your stomach, in order to get you to hand over your wallet, and spontaneous acts of violence, where an individual has become aggressive and potentially violent based on your actions and behaviors, whether real or perceived; you spill your drink, over somebody – or they think you spilt your drink over them – and they become aggressive and violent because of this.

Criminals who engage in pre-meditated assaults, also will commit violent acts, in plain sight. Even though “natural surveillance” is a great deterrent, it is not an absolute one. A busy, fast moving road, may have plenty of “eyes” that can potentially see what is going on, at the sides of the road, and the sidewalks/pavement that runs alongside it, however many drivers may be totally focused on the traffic around them, and not notice what is happening in plain sight of them (it is often passengers that notice such events). Also in fast moving traffic, people don’t get the time to study and assess, what is actually going on e.g. a quick glance at a physical altercation, as a person drives by, might not present them with enough information, to identify what they saw as an act of violence – they may explain what they saw away, as some friends “mucking about”. Denial, is a state of mind that allows us to not have to face the realities of what we both see and may experience - At a corporate seminar I conducted a few years back, a woman told me of how she had been mugged by two men, as her next door neighbors, stood and watched through their living room window. When she later quizzed them as to why they didn’t call the police or intervene, they told her that they though the two men were friends of hers, and that they were all just joking around. Denial is a strong thing, and nobody wants to make a wrong call and embarrass themselves – criminals understand this, and know that bystanders rarely act and intervene, when they see a crime or assault being committed.

The bystander effect, sometimes referred to as the “Genovese Syndrome”, after the murder of Kitty Genovese, in Queens 1964, is a well-documented and studied phenomena (ironically the actual incident involving Kitty Genovese is actually a poor example of said phenomena). The basic idea, behind the Genovese Syndrome, is that the more people there are who witness a crime/assault, the less likely someone will intervene and act. This is because everyone witnessing the event passes on the responsibility for intervening to the other individuals who have seen the incident. A busy road, with many individuals witnessing an assault, may mean that each person seeing the incidents believes that somebody else has reported it etc.

Natural Surveillance, is most effective, as a deterrent towards criminal activity, if the criminal believes that those who see the crime/assault being committed will act in some way, either directly intervening, drawing attention to what is happening (either directly by shouting, or by informing security and law enforcement), or gathering evidence that could potentially be used against them e.g. cell phone footage. This is why when redesigning community housing projects to have better “natural surveillance”, part of the redesign, involves the creation of small communities who are likely to be active in maintain and promoting safety.

Most violent criminals have a history of acting violently, and understand fully what they can and cannot get away with; they understand that most incidents they are involved in occur in under 5 seconds, and so a bystander’s time to act and respond in order to be effective is extremely limited. Natural Surveillance is generally far effective where a criminal has to spend a longer time committing a crime, such as breaking into a home, or carrying out surveillance, on a car in a parking lot, waiting for the owner to return, or if they are working a series of crimes in a location – a mugger hanging around a parking lot, looking for multiple victims etc.

In spontaneous acts of violence, people become emotional and aggressive, because they don’t have any particular outcomes in mind, other than acting violently, that would satisfy them (part of the de-escalation and conflict resolution model, involves getting them to an emotional state, where they can consider alternative, non-physical, outcomes). When somebody is in, such an emotional state, seeing no other way to right the injustice(s) committed against them, such as having a drink spilt over them, they care little for what is going on around them; their whole being is committed to righting the wrong. It doesn’t matter who is around, the location, or what time of day it is, in their mind violence is necessary. In fact if other people witnessed the injustice, they might feel a greater need to exact retribution.

If we fool ourselves into thinking that we will only be assaulted, late at night, in unpopulated areas, we are extremely mistaken, and have an unrealistic view of how violence is committed. Accepting the possibility that we might be assaulted on a sunny day, in plain sight, is something we have to acknowledge, and so not let our levels of awareness drop, when we are in such situations.

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Marathon Weekend

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 20th Apr)

Tomorrow in Boston, the 119th Boston Marathon, takes place. Two years ago, the Finish Line was the target of a terrorist attack, which saw 3 people killed, and injured at least 264. With Dzhokhar Tsarnaev awaiting sentencing, having been found guilty on all charges – the Marathon Bombings are extremely fresh in everybody’s mind. It is worth remembering that it is almost impossible for an individual to predict violence which targets the group they are part of e.g. nobody who attended the Boston Marathon in 2013, could have predicted that an act of terrorism would take place. Violence and criminal acts which target people as individuals, however, are largely predictable. By not focusing on or looking out for specific crimes, but instead raising our general levels of awareness, we will be able to not only identify those individuals who target us for muggings and pickpocketing etc., but also potentially identify other actions and behaviors, which may represent harmful intent towards the group we are part of (we can then communicate this to the relevant authorities).

To have an awareness surrounding our safety in crowds, we must have an understanding of the ways in which criminals conduct themselves and commit their crimes. In this blog, I want to look at the types of criminal activities that can occur when you are part of a crowd. One thing to understand about your personal level of situational awareness, when you are in a crowd, is that it will by default drop/be reduced. When we are alone, we are solely responsible for our own safety, and so maintain a higher level of vigilance than when we are in a crowd; as we transfer some of the responsibility for identifying danger to those around us. If you are going to the Boston Marathon, or similar event, as part of a group, assume the role of responsibility for the group’s safety, as this will naturally elevate your own levels of awareness. If you go on your own, then assume that you are the watchdog for the people around you. This is not to say you are personally responsible for everyone’s safety, but that you will stay vigilant on their behalf.

Rather than try and identify “people” who may fit a profile that meets your ideas of what a criminal looks like, look for actions and behaviors that are out of place for an event like a Marathon. Take a glance around every now and again, to see who is more interested in members of the crowd, than in the Marathon itself. If somebody is there to watch the runners, their eyes should be – for the most part – looking straight ahead at those racing, not at people or their possessions. Identify those who are not acting similarly to other members of the crowd.        

Many pickpockets will take advantage of the fact that the majority of the crowd will be stationary and looking straight ahead. They will also know that in a tight knit crowd, people will expect and accept some degree of jostling and being bumped into, etc. This allows pickpockets to mingle unobserved, and get easy access to any bag that someone is carrying behind them or to their side. A dipper/pickpocket, can easily move behind someone, put a coat over one arm, and use it to cover both the target’s bag, and their other arm, whilst they open it up, and feel inside for anything that might be of value. By carrying all valuables in your front pockets, and making sure any bag you have with you is to your front, you will reduce the risk of being targeted considerably (consider not taking a bag with you, as this will be one less thing for the security services to deal with, in terms of either checking it and/or taking note of what you do with it, etc. This will allow them to focus resources on other areas).

Be aware of pairs and groups that stand, talking amongst themselves, behind the crowd. There is little reason for such groups to stand around in this fashion, for much more than a few seconds. Pickpockets and Muggers (as well as terrorists), often operate in groups, and will congregate to discuss potential targets/victims, and the best way of accessing them. Knowing that most people will be looking at the event rather than having a 360 degree view around them, they will often feel fairly confident that they are acting unobserved.

Criminals are also aware that the transit networks will be full of individuals who are preoccupied with getting to and from the Marathon. It may seem improbable that you will be mugged in such public spaces, where there are many bystanders; however a skilled mugger will know how to use your body and theirs to obscure from those around you that they have a knife stuck to you; as they demand your wallet and/or other possessions. They also know, that even if someone does see what is happening, they are highly unlikely to get involved, or even highlight what is going on.

Lastly (and this is not about identifying criminal activity but about being a good citizen), respect and obey any request made by a law enforcement official. This is not the day to be arguing or debating the rights and wrongs of what you are being asked to do. Identifying criminal activity at such a large event is a difficult task, and even if there is no “logical” reason as you can see it for being asked to move to another location, or having a bag or item of clothing checked, every moment you engage in debate, and don’t comply, is a security resource that you are using up, which could be allocated better elsewhere.

It is easy to focus on worst case scenarios, such as another act of terrorism, however you are much more likely to be the victim of a lower level crime, such as being pickpocketed or mugged. By upping your general levels of awareness, rather than focusing on specific ones, you are much more likely to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of any crime you may face.


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Always Room For Improvement

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 13th Apr)

It’s a relatively long time since I’ve been involved in a violent confrontation, and I’m also not a great fan of martial arts instructors “war” stories, however if lessons can be learnt from mistakes, then I thinks there’s a benefit to telling them. My first caveat, is that when real-life violence does kick off, it’s a mess, and what I’m recalling, is my remembrance of the event, so things might have actually happened somewhat differently.

So this happened, on one of the first nice days that we’ve had in Massachusetts. As luck would have it, my car had broken down on me, and wouldn’t start. I called AAA, and they couldn’t start it. Since it was a Sunday, and none of the garages I’ve used before were open, I decided to not have it towed, but leave it where it was, as it was perfectly safe, and about 500 yards from a Nissan dealership. I’d resolved to sort it out the next day. I mention this, because it put me on foot, and also meant I was mentally preoccupied, thinking about the car. I had decided to head to a Starbucks and do some work for a bit, so I grabbed my laptop case, and started to walk.

As I was walking there, I noticed two guys sitting on a bench, but they were a long way off. Whilst they were still a good distance away, they got up, and started walking in my direction. Due to the distance between us, when this happened, it wasn’t particularly obvious whether they’d got up, in relation to my movement, or if they had moved because they needed to be somewhere else, or because they were just ready to start walking again. If I’d have been a bit more aware, I might have picked up on them talking, turning their heads towards me, turning back into talk, and then turning to look etc. before getting up and walking towards me. Having identified individuals in my environment, I should have taken a closer note at what they were interested in, and what they were looking at/observing. In hindsight, it’s obvious that they must have spent some time watching me, and discussing, however briefly, what they were going to do before moving towards me. A good lesson in always being aware, whatever other issues in life you have to deal with.

The first movement I was aware of that caught my attention, was when the two of them started to separate, and spread out a little, whilst the one on the right started to move closer towards me, asking if I had the time (I was carrying my bag over my right shoulder). This is often referred to as “fanning out”, where multiple assailants, spread themselves across your path, and attempt to move to your sides. I was also suspicious of two people in this day and age not having a mobile phone between them, and needing someone to tell them the time. In retrospect this should have been the moment I tried to line them up properly, as there was a huge expanse of grass to my right which would have given me the room to do this, but my ego wasn’t letting me back away to do this, so I moved more to my right, and took a small step back, to try and create some distance, and also see who moved first to fill that space. As I did this I apologized, for not having the time – after all I’m British, and politeness is in my blood, and I do that as default. It was the one on my right who moved closer, the one on the left actually moved a bit further away, and to the side of me. Those two movements, snapped me out of any state of denial I was in, and I knew they either wanted something from me, or were just intent of giving me a beating etc. I’d decided then that my best chance was to act pre-emptively, and that I’d be best going for the guy on the right, as he seemed to be the main aggressor/instigator.

I let him come closer, waiting for him to come into range (I’d had my hands up in my Interview Stance, from the moment the first question was asked), and was ready to throw the hardest rear punch I could, when at that moment the guy on my left said something to me. It was a real rookie mistake; as I turned to look at him, the guy on my right lunged in for the laptop case on my shoulder. The rest is pretty blurry, but I remember throwing in some form of Hammer-Fist with my left (which felt very clunky, demonstrating that I need to get more comfortable generating power with my left) and moving with the pull of the bag towards the person, unfortunately for me, my right arm was all tangled up in the bag and I couldn’t free it, but the person I was hitting was backing away, and covering – the bag had now dropped to the floor. I was aware that the second person was coming up from behind me, and turned. I made some form of blocking action, but it wasn’t fully formed, and I ended up getting hit hard on the side of my head – I have a mouse on my temple where he connected. As I was turning I managed to connect pretty solidly with my right, and I just remember pushing him backwards with one hand, and punching him several times, before he too backed off. As I turned to see what the other person was up to, he was bending down to pick up the bag. I should have left it, but instead I just charged into him (I may well have thrown a knee towards him, because although it’s not bruised it hurts like hell), and knocked him backwards – I then picked up my bag and ran, in the direction they’d just come from. This all probably lasted 5 seconds top.

My biggest mistake from a confrontational perspective, was not lining them up from the start, and it was ego that prevented me from doing so – I should have just stepped on to the grass, and then moved to pre-emptively hit the nearest person to me. But I was reluctant to back away, which I would have had to do, to move them into line. As a consequence, I ended up getting stuck in the middle. I’m not aware of getting hit by the person who went to grab my bag; he was too intent on trying to pull it, and only let go, when I started hitting him (showing extreme aggression, will often take the fight out of a person). If I hadn’t been in the middle, I wouldn’t have ended up getting hit from the guy behind me, and he landed a really solid strike, which I’m still feeling the effects of now. However once he started to get punched, he backed away. Neither one of them wanted to actually fight, that much is pretty obvious, and both backed away as soon things didn’t go their way – in that respect I was extremely lucky, because if they had been committed to their cause, it would have most likely been a very different ending. 

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Training for Reality - Putting the Pieces Together

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 12th Apr)

You can’t simply create reality in training; unless as a “surprise” element, you invited a street gang in to attack your students, without warning – and then you’d only be creating a certain type of reality, as this wouldn’t resemble every potential situation a person might face etc. To train for reality, you need to put several components together, sometimes training and developing them individually, and sometime blurring the lines between them, and combining them. A short (but not exhaustive list) is offered below:

  1. Techniques & Technical Development
  2. Skills & Attributes
  3. Physical Fitness & Aggression Training
  4. Threat Recognition & Decision Making
  5. Situational Training

There is probably no more contentious area in the reality based self-defense world than the discussion over techniques i.e. what will or won’t work on the streets etc. and yet to my mind this is perhaps the least important of the five components I’ve listed. I have heard so many times people from one system or another make loud proclamations, about why one technique or another taught by another system/program will not work. What most of these individuals fail to realize, that it is the physical skills and athletic attributes that an individual has who practices this technique, which makes it work for them. Can a high kick work in a real-life confrontation? If you have the skills and attributes to make it work, of course. I personally don’t have those skills, and have better developed skills in other areas, so high kicks are definitely not my first option, but it is not for me to proclaim that these techniques don’t work. Certain weapon disarms, might at first glance, seem crazy and illogical to me, but then my initial position is could I do that, not could another person with the appropriate skill set and training, pull it off? Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are techniques, which stand a better chance of working than others when operating under high stress and adrenaline, but what makes a technique really work, is the skills and attributes of the person performing it.

I teach Krav Maga. Krav Maga techniques by and large try not to rely too much on the development of skills and attributes in order to get them to work i.e. they’re largely simple (but not simplistic), and rely on innate skills, such as the flinch reflex, grabbing/clasping arms and hand that grab the throat and neck etc. rather than skills which must be developed. As an entry point, and a quick grab at some “easy” solutions to dealing with attacks, this approach is fine, however to improve a person’s chances of getting these techniques to actually work in a real-life confrontation, a person’s skills must be developed. Blocking, circular strikes (such as swinging punches, wide arcing slashes etc.) using a flinch response is largely effective, but if an individual’s movement skills, control of range and reaction time can be developed, its likely success rate will improve dramatically. Many people judge their progression through a martial arts or self-defense system by what they know, rather than what they can do.

To the annoyance of many reality based self-defense instructors, I will add that the best methods to develop skills and attributes, usually come from “sport” and “traditional” martial arts. I use a lot of range control drills that are taken from western boxing, and a lot of power development drills and methods from the traditional martial arts. This doesn’t mean I am teaching MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), but that I am using methods and approaches to develop certain skills that will enhance an individual’s ability to make their Krav Maga techniques more effective e.g. want to punch harder? Look at the training methods boxers and Karatekas use to develop this skill.

Some of the skills than may need to be developed, will be determined by the realities that a person is likely to face. A large number of bar fights, start with a heavy push before a punch is thrown, putting techniques aside, is a person can’t regain balance, and stability after being pushed, it doesn’t matter how technically competent they are. Recovering from a push, when surprised, may be a particular and specific skill that somebody training for reality may have to develop.

I combine physical fitness and aggression training together, despite them really being two separate sets of attributes, as they offer a good demonstration how different components can be combined. Giving someone a good physical workout, and taking them to fatigue, and then practicing a technique, develops several things. Firstly the person training is improving their fitness (having the gas in the tank, is required even if you have all the appropriate skills and techniques), which is extremely important when looking at the things you need to survive a real-life violent encounter, however they are also getting to train a technique when fatigued, which is also important. When the effects of adrenaline starts to wear off, a person will start to feel, tired, exhausted, weak and generally fatigued, however if they are in the middle of a fight, they can’t just give up. This is where sheer will power and an aggressive mindset, really come into their own. Developing a “Never Give Up” attitude is an extremely important attribute to have, especially when you consider that most fights end because one person, although physically capable of continuing, emotionally crumbles and gives up.

Perhaps the most underestimated skills needed for real-life confrontations is threat recognition and decision making. When you train in a combat sport, the different number of threats you have to recognize is limited by the rules. Boxing is a good example of this, as there are a limited number of potential punches you can face – what makes boxing challenging is the high skill levels, behind those few techniques/threats, and the way that different punches are set up, however a boxer knows that they don’t have to worry about somebody being behind them with a knife etc. In a real life confrontation the potential number of threats is infinite, and so being able to quickly assess the dangers that a situation has, and act accordingly becomes a skill that needs to have more time devoted to it, than in martial arts and fighting systems, where the rules of engagement are stricter and more defined.

Coupled in with threat recognition and decision making is situational training i.e. learning how to understand what is happening in a situation, what pre-violence indicators are present and different strategies and tactics for either avoiding violence, or improving your chances of dealing with it. This type of training includes, use of the environment, improvised weapons, the ability to identify entry, exit and hiding points etc. In some ways, this is the equivalent of ring-craft, in a combat sport except that the number of variables is much, much higher. Situational training, can be used to help develop threat recognition and decision making skills through the use of scenario-based training etc.

At the end of the day, you can’t fully recreate reality, but you can safely train, the various dimensions of a real-life confrontation independently, and put together training drills and scenarios that combine them. Shock and surprise, and recovery from them, can be trained without somebody having to be punched in the face, when they get it wrong and fail to react/respond to an attack. Recovery from being punched in the face, can be trained in sparring, more safely, when a person is both prepared and expecting it i.e. the surprise element has been reduced etc. By splitting the various components of a real-life confrontation out, training them, and then combining different elements, it is possible to get to a point where reality is represented, as close as is possible, in your training.

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Becoming Versatile

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 5th Apr)

Whether it’s sparring, rolling or fighting games, we all have our own personal favorites, whether it’s the techniques we use, or the game-plan we adopt. There are those people, who prefer to come crashing out of the gate at 100 mph, and those who’d rather sit back, observe, and work off the counter etc. Neither approach, is better than the other – they are just different. The problem is, that if we only ever practice the one approach, however well suited it is for us and how effective we are at making it work, we are limiting our own development, and progression.

This is something that animals understand well. If you observe a litter of puppies wrestle and play, the alpha pup, doesn’t just assume the dominant role in a play fight, but will also act submissively, and allow the rest of the litter to dominate him/her. Dogs understand that even if they are the alpha, in their pack, they may at some point come across another dog, who is bigger, stronger and more aggressive than them, and it would be good to have had some practice and experience of how to act and behave, when this is the case. If they’d only ever practiced play fighting from the one perspective i.e. being the dominant dog, then they may find, that they are unprepared and inexperienced to deal with this “new” situation, where they are the weaker party. When pups play fight, their games, equip them for survival, and so they forget their place in the pecking order and “fight” from all roles/positions. This is a good example/training method for us to follow.

There are times even an alpha dog knows that it has to employ a different approach to its normal, default one, and we should be able to do the same. However big or fast we are, there will be someone out there who is bigger and faster, and who can match and exceed our natural skills and attributes. Whilst it is good to play to your strengths, if somebody can nullify them because they are their strengths also, it may be wiser and more appropriate to adopt a different game-plan. If you’ve never done this in training before, you are going to find yourself on unfamiliar territory, and trying out ideas that you’ve never tested before – this is not a good survival strategy. If you’d adopted the “training” approach that young dogs and puppies take, you’d be better prepared to deal with the situation you now face.

When you train you need to play different roles, and put yourself in positions, you wouldn’t normally allow yourself to be found in e.g. if you always avoid training at close range, and prefer to keep your opponent at distance, then sometimes you need to come in, and practice working from this range etc. This way of training means you need to put your ego aside, and recognize that not everything you are going to do will immediately work for you. However the long-term gains/effects are definitely worth it.

As a Judoka, I had very strong pins and hold downs (Osae-Komi), and my default strategy when going to ground would be to work to get a scarf-hold, and pin my opponent down for 30 seconds. It was a very effective strategy for me. The problem was, that I was so focused on this approach, that I missed submission opportunities (Kansetsu/Shime-Waza), that would have finished the fight sooner (and required less exertion), and other pins/holds that I could have established much earlier on. For a period, in my training, I deliberately gave up on using Kesagatamae (Scarf Hold), and tried everything else instead. The result was that I started to see opportunities that before I’d have passed up on, in order to get to my favored hold. Until you start training from a different perspective, all that you will see, is what you’ve seen before. In retrospect I would have benefited from a more balanced approach, that saw me still practice what obviously worked for me, but then that is the ignorance/stupidity of youth.

If you always practice your ground fighting from your back, start practicing a top game and vice versa. If in sparring you’re the guy who only ever goes forward, try putting some lateral movement in there. Broadening your approach, will get you ahead much quicker, and increase your skills and attributes, much more effectively that simply doggedly pushing your existing approach forward. This is not to say, you should give up on that which works, but rather expand your approach, so that you can become more versatile and adaptable, whilst developing a new appreciation and perspective on your existing game-plan and methodology.

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