Failing & Failure

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 26th Jul)

I remember a joke I was once told. Not a good one but it makes a good point. A man is watching a group of runners taking part in a road race, when a man comes up to him and says, “Why are they running?” he responds by saying, “Well, the person who comes in first gets ten thousand dollars”, to which the other replies, “So why are the others running?”

Winning, success, failing and failure can be confusing concepts for us to get our heads around. These were things that I struggled a lot with in my youth as a competitive Judoka, who was good, but ultimately not good enough to make it as a professional athlete, and are still things that at times, get me confused, depressed, angry and every other emotion under the Sun. What my rational self knows, although my emotional self often finds it hard to accept, is that failing is not only natural but productive and that the process of failing, does not equate to seeing yourself as a failure.

Judo is one of the most unforgiving arts/sports on the planet when you first start out; making good throws during randori (“play” sparring), is the exception rather than the rule – however when you get the odd occasion when you make a good, clean throw it is exhilarating. When you take up a martial art such as Judo, you have to accept, that you are going to fail at most of your attempts, and keep going despite this. I have great respect for the true, genuine culture of BJJ, where “tapping out”, is not seen as failing, but as an integral part of the learning process – when I used to train BJJ, you could tell the individuals who would not stick at it, because they didn’t understand this, and if submitted, saw it as failing rather than learning. Such individuals see failing, as equating to them being a failure – something that they can’t accept and need to run away from.

I see people’s fear of failing in class all the time; that somehow it will make them appear less in both theirs and the instructor’s eyes – I especially see it when a “higher” belt is practicing with a “lower” belt; ultimately this fear of failing, causes them to fail, as they put effort into all the areas they shouldn’t put effort into, and forget the purpose of the activity they’re engaging in. Fear of failing, also keeps people in their comfort zone, and stops them trying new things, or it may keep them from giving up that which isn’t working to try something different instead e.g. I have seen people in groundwork class, doggedly holding on to a control position, which is obvious that they’ll soon lose; failing to hold on to this position, and being prepared to move on to another position, is about learning how to handle failure and move on, rather than dwell on it – that’s learning rather than failing. Persistence, is really only persistence, if you are learning from it, otherwise it’s just stubbornness.

To accept that failing is productive, is to put your ego in check and accept that it is part of the learning process. In the martial arts, and self-defense, it is also about recognizing that skills and attributes that you thought may have been relevant, may not. I remember many “big” guys starting Judo, who were strong and well-muscled, thinking that throwing was similar to lifting, and that their strength would be to their advantage. They would progress quickly through the lower belts, and then stall at the intermediate ones. Because they used their strength to break balance, or simply didn’t break a person’s balance but over powered people instead etc. they’d failed to learn how to properly break a person’s balance using movement and technique. Now they were fighting more skilled Judoka, they found methods didn’t work, and instead of taking the time to go back to basics and relearn, most gave up and left. There are proper ways to do things, and more often than not, they involve failing; substituting these methods just to get something to work i.e. not wanting to fail, will ultimately halt your progress.   

Krav Maga is perhaps one of the martial arts, which is most guilty of not recognizing or admitting that failing is a positive process. It prides itself on the fact that it is, “simple and easy” to learn, without saying that although the techniques are uncomplicated (rather than simple), being able to pull them off is a real-life confrontation is far from easy. Because of this instructors shy away from putting their students in a position where they fail, because in their eyes they risk students believing that what they’ve been taught doesn’t work. It’s one of the reasons that I believe that many instructors spend so much time and focus on two-handed chokes, practicing them from all conceivable angles etc. Two-handed chokes are possibly the most unlikely attacks, that anyone will ever face, however they are easy to deal with, and nobody in a class room setting is likely to “fail” at them. Compare this to a push that takes your balance, followed by a swinging punch (a much more likely scenario), which is a much harder attack to deal with, as the individual will be disorientated, surprised etc. Increase the difficulty, by having a student stand with their eyes closed, and be pushed from any direction and you’ll see people fail to make an adequate defense and response. Keep doing it, practicing it, and they’ll learn – but they’ll fail first.

Training should mean learning, and learning should result in development, and development is built on failing; it’s a process. The sooner we allow ourselves to fail, and stop revising these failures to in fact be something else, the sooner we will start to take the lessons, apply them and develop. The sooner this lesson is learnt the better. We may not be the guy who wins the race we think we're taking part in. That's not important, the race we need to win is our race, the one that has our goals and tarhets, and we must be honest participants in it, recognizing when we don't take first or even second place, because through failure comes success.    

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Assault & Abuse A Legal Perspective

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 19th Jul)

I try not to get caught up in conversations about use of force, and what is and isn’t legal etc. for a few simple reasons. Firstly I’m not a lawyer, so I can only offer my opinions and understandings as a lay person, and if I don’t have expertise in an area, I’d rather let somebody more knowledgeable than myself speak on the subject, and secondly, if you have done everything possible to avoid a physical confrontation, you should not be worrying about the legal consequences of your actions, as you are effectively in a fight for your survival, where doing what is necessary, and being decisive is more important than weighing up the pros and cons of a decision, from a legal perspective; something your assailant is certainly not wasting their time doing. However, when teaching a class today, I was asked if somebody pushes you does it constitute assault, and so I think it is worth spending some time examining what an assault is, along with what can be considered physical abuse – as the two share some similarities.

Whenever I look at things from a legal perspective, I try and frame things more from a moral than legal angle i.e. the law represents what we as a society have generally agreed on to be right and acceptable (maybe a little naive, but it helps me to think about violence in this way, rather than from a more analytical viewpoint). One thing many people don’t understand about an assault – and physical abuse – is that there doesn’t have to be actual physical contact. If you are walking along a street, and somebody by their persistent and continual body positioning prevents you from passing, this can be considered as an assault; if they were to restrict your movement, and then hit you, the criminal act they committed would be assault with/and battery. Many women who are physically abused by their partners, may not define what they are experiencing as “physical abuse”. Too often people think of physical abuse, within domestic violence, as actions which result in pain and injury, however physical abuse can take other forms. If a partner prevents you from either entering or exiting a room, then you are being subjected to a form of physical abuse – despite there being no bruises or broken bones etc. It is very easy for us to dismiss actions and behaviors which are actually “assaults” and “abuse”, because they don’t result in actual physical harm. As you can probably now guess, somebody pushing you, definitely constitutes an assault.

It is worth understanding this, because it lets you know when you should and shouldn’t act e.g. if somebody is shouting at you but allowing you to move freely, then you are probably not justified in attacking them pre-emptively (or will have a hard time convincing a jury that you were right to do so), however if they don’t let you pass, and prevent you from moving to wherever you want to go, you will have a good argument, as to why you slapped their groin, struck them in the eyes etc. before disengaging, and moving away. However, if you raised your fists, and adopted a “fighting stance”, your assailant may have a good argument, as to why they decided to attack you i.e. you posed an obvious threat to them – this is why I’m a huge advocate of adopting an “Interview” Stance, where your hands are positioned palms out/forward, gesturing that you don’t want any trouble, and that you want your aggressor to stop/back away. In doing so you have not compromised your ability to throw strikes, or defend yourself, but have demonstrated to your aggressor that you are not a threat to them. If you can combine this with backing away, if things do go legal, it is pretty clear who the assailant in the situation is.

It is worth remembering that you get convicted for what you say, not what you do; or more importantly what your lawyer says you did. Being able to construct a story that explains your actions is key to being successful legally. If you can demonstrate – and witnesses can testify to this – that you were trying to de-escalate the situation, were in a non-confrontational stance, were trying to back away from it, and were in no way overly aggressive to your attacker, the chances are – unless your assailant has a top flight lawyer, who knows how to work the legal system –a jury will return the correct decision/verdict. However if you have made a statement to the police before you talk to a lawyer, you may jeopardize your chances of doing this. You have a right to remain silent when charged, and if after a violent altercation the police decide to arrest you this is not the time to start talking, you need to consult with a lawyer first. You may believe that the incident you were involved in, obviously demonstrated that you were the victim, but any prosecuting lawyer will attempt to pick this apart, and show that their client was in fact right to act the way they did. A poorly worded or clumsy sentence that you made as part of your statement, can and will be used against you. With all due respect to law enforcement officers, they are not the best legal advisors you can have in such situations.

At the end of the day, when the fists start flying, you need to put away any legal considerations, and ignore your internal debate(s) about use of appropriate force etc. These were things to consider in the pre-conflict phase, where you possibly had the time to rationally decide on an appropriate course of action. If you have genuinely attempted to avoid a violent situation, and can explain (or your lawyer can explain), your methodology and the decisions you took systematically, it is unlikely that a Jury will find you guilty of breaking any law. There may be exceptions to this – and everyone has heard of a horror story when an innocent person is found guilty - however these are fewer than people would have you believe, and if you are attacked, your first priority is to survive that situation; legal survival comes afterwards.


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Becoming An Active Bystander

(Gershon Ben Keren - Tue 14th Jul)

On July 4th, in a train carriage, ten people watched as a passenger stabbed and kicked another to death (there were apparently 30-40 stab wounds on the victim), without anyone intervening. It would be east to judge these bystanders, for doing just that, standing by, however when we start to break down these situations, we should not be so surprised that nobody intervened, or be so sure that we would if placed in a similar situation. 

Firstly, it is worth painting a very clear, and vivid picture of what these bystanders experienced; violence on a level that they had never experienced before, something that the media, can never actually portray, because it is beyond most people’s imagination and comprehension. When an attacker starts to stab someone, they are not looking to simply injure or intimidate them, they are looking to finish them - this is a big difference between stabbing and slashing actions/behaviors. Someone who is repeatedly stabbing somebody 30 to 40 times, is in an emotional state that most people have never witnessed before or believed possible for someone to adopt. Most of us have not witnessed and aggressive, frenzied, emotional assault where it is clear one person is intent on killing another. None of those on the train were emotionally or mentally prepared to accept what they were witnessing.

Secondly, their individual survival was not tied to that of the passenger being attacked. Our survival instinct is a strange thing; it is exists to ensure the survival of the species, not the individual. When a herd of Elk are attacked by a pack of wolves, it is every animal for itself i.e. you don’t see all the elk turn on the wolves and force them back through force and weight of numbers, instead they run, and one gets singled out and killed. I am not trying to make a direct parallel, with the actions of a herd of elk and the passengers on the train, but rather to suggest that from a survival perspective, every individual acting on their own, and not intervening was the most appropriate survival strategy. If the assailant had kept turning on members of the group, and it became inevitable that he would have killed them all, then those left would probably have realized that their best survival strategy would be to engage with their attacker. However until, an individual realizes that their only survival strategy is to engage they will usually sit tight and do nothing e.g. the passengers on Flight 93 only engaged with their hijackers, once they had heard what had happened to the two other planes on 9/11, not before.

Thirdly, in high stress situations, people get caught in a denial, deliberation and decision loop, initially denying that what they’re seeing is actually happening, or is as bad as it is e.g. maybe the knife isn’t actually going deep enough to cause harm, or that once the victim can receive medical help everything will be okay etc. Once reality hits - and 10-15 frenzied stabs could have occurred in this period – a person goes into a deliberation loop, trying to work out their best course of action (for their own survival), which may involve contemplating trying to intervene, however they will start to weigh up this option against all their others, doing a certain level of cost-benefit analysis e.g. is trying to enlist help a better option than trying to intervene, is directly intervening better than staying out etc. if someone is with friends/family members these individuals will affect a person’s ability to make an effective decision. Once a decision is reached, the person needs to action it. Let’s say that one of the individuals on the train, did decide that they wanted to act and intervene. If this was the case they would be subject to some very strong mental/emotional reactions to this decision.

In 2013, Amy Lord, a 24 year old South Boston resident, was abducted and taken to a number of ATMs to make a series of withdraws, before being taken to a secluded area, and then stabbed and burnt to death. What surprised many people that Amy was allowed to get out of her abductors car to go to the ATMs, but never once tried to escape, when she seemingly had the ability to do so. There could be a number of reasons why she never took her chance to run, but I’ll explain one possible one, that will also demonstrate why a person who is not being assaulted will find it very difficult to intervene in an assault. One of the things we do know that happened to Amy Lord, was that she took a vicious beating in her apartment before she was taken to withdraw money. As she was sitting in her assailant’s car, she was not experiencing pain, whilst she was walking to the ATM she was not experiencing pain. Our natural human condition tells us not to do anything to alter this state, even if we know later on, we will experience further pain. One thing Amy Lord knew was that if she didn’t comply there was a good chance she’d experience pain; as long as she was complying she wasn’t – even if eventually she would. This is something that the bystander on the train, would have to overcome; whilst they were not intervening they weren’t experiencing pain.

As can be seen, there are a lot of understandable reasons why none of the other ten passengers intervened, and before we pat ourselves on the back and say we’d behave differently, let’s acknowledge that we’ve probably seen minor or less devastating acts of aggression and violence involving others where we haven’t intervened, despite feeling that we perhaps should have. We should not simply assume that because we are witnessing the murder of another individual, that we would easily shake off all of the objections and excuses we made when we talked ourselves out of intervening in these more minor disputes. However let’s say that we have decided that an incident we’re observing, of a similar severity of that in the train carriage, is one that we feel compelled to do something about.

Sheer weight of numbers does help, and can decide a lot. If there are others you can recruit to assist you then do so, however be aware that this might not be an option. If the attacker were to hear you as you attempted to organize assistance, you may become the target of violence, before you’ve recruited anyone to your cause. Also be aware that nobody else may want to get involved – for all the reasons listed above. You should also be aware that whilst others may assist you, it will be you who is expected to make the initial assault on them. If there is a group of you, your job/role should be to try and control the knife arm, and restrict the movement of the knife, whilst another tries to make the disarm. This may involve bear hugging your attacker, clinging on to their arm etc. as someone else tries to pull the knife from their hand. You should then attempt to get them to ground face first, and pin them there. In all of this accept that somebody, maybe all/both of you will get cut. 

If you are on your own, your best position is to get behind them, and either try to control the arm in order to disarm them, or control the knife whilst they hold it, and use it against them. Understand as well that if you are on a moving train, a lot of your skills will be compromised by the unstable platform you are on. Another solution, is to try and take the attacker out in one move e.g. come up behind him and pull backwards on his head to slam him into the ground – people will often let go of what they are holding as they try to break their fall. For every solution there is, there are a number of problems, and the best way to mitigate these, is to be aggressive, decisive and not hold back anything, because you are now in a fight for your life.   

We may want to do what we believe is right, and we may expect others to do what is right e.g. intervene on the behalf of somebody being killed, but the truth of it is, that we are not mentally or emotionally motivated to do so, unless our survival, or someone’s we care about, is at risk. If we want to live in a society where people intervene on our behalf we must take active steps to build it, and take responsibility for actions and behaviors that detract from this goal e.g. next time you cut somebody off in traffic, jump a queue, put your needs above those of somebody else, asks yourself if you really could expect that person to come to your assistance if you needed it. If we want to build a society, which takes a collective approach to responsibility, we need to buy into and invest in that.


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Not Wanting To Hurt People

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 13th Jul)

This Blog Post carries on from last week’s. This wasn’t my intention however something a prospective student said to me after a class, this week continues to demonstrate how some people view self-defense and their right to defend themselves. After a class, I was asked (I am paraphrasing), “I want to learn how to defend myself, so I’ve been watching clips on Youtube to see which system might be best for me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is either Krav Maga or Aikido, but I’m leaning towards Aikido because I don’t want to hurt anyone.” So firstly, a nod in the right direction, the individual sees the need to defend themselves, and to enact physical solutions, recognizing that some conflicts and confrontations need a physical solution, however they don’t want to hurt the person attacking them etc. This is a noble ideal, and one which I do have a certain amount of time for, though at the end of the day it’s practically unrealistic, and I want to explain to anyone who thinks that you can prevail and survive a violent assault without causing some degree of pain to your attacker, that this is really not possible. 

Firstly, I would like to make a strong defense of Aikido, and talk a bit about the history of the system e.g. how it’s practiced and trained now and how it was in pre-war Japan. When I demonstrate techniques in Krav Maga, I don’t do them full force, and if I throw somebody, I choose someone who I know can break-fall, and I give them the time, space and room, to fall safely. When you watch an Aikido demonstration, you are watching just that, a demo, where Uke (the person being thrown, is done so in a manner where they are not hurt. Substitute that individual for one who doesn’t know how to fall, and the soft mats/tatami, for concrete, and suddenly you are not watching an individual being thrown and getting up again, without injury, but a person who is being dropped head first into the concrete. Much of modern day Aikido might be practiced without the intent to harm, however its techniques and movements are very much able to be used for this purpose. I spent about 18 months studying Yoshinkan Aikido (as used by the Japanese Riot Police), and I have been thrown harder in training sessions than I was at National level Judo contests. A person watching an Aikido demo on the internet may be easily fooled in to thinking the idea behind the system is to let the person being thrown get up unhurt, but that was certainly not the intention of the system as it was developed in pre-war Japan – here it was not for demonstration but for the inflicting of pain and injury.

In my experience there are really only two ways you can end a fight (once it has started and avoidance is not an option): You can attempt to physically and mechanically take the person out of the fight e.g. break a limb, choke them out, knock them out etc. so they are physically unable to continue, or you can cause them such a degree of continued pain, that they no longer have the emotional stock to continue fighting. Both of these methods involve some level of pain i.e. hurting your attacker. Pain is what prevents them from continuing to assault you, without it they have no reason to stop their assault (unless there is some time constraint that they are working too). From my own experience when people are subjected to continuous, relentless pain, regardless of whether it is injurious or not, they will often back away from the fight. It doesn’t matter if they are still physically capable of fighting, they are unable to emotionally.

I understand this well. As a Kid I was bullied, and the worst part was not the physical pain, but what the violence represented; hatred of me as a person. The physical stuff I could take (even though at times it was pretty extreme – I remember being pushed down and stomped on by a group, till my back was just one mass of cuts and bruises, and I had extreme difficulty breathing), it was the emotional component that went with it; that people willingly and actively wanted to do these things to me. The parts of bullying which often get overlooked, are the name calling, the rumors and the gossip mongering, along with the social exclusion – because these don’t result in physical pain or injuries they tend to get overlooked and ignored however as any bullied kid will tell you, these components are the most painful. They represent emotional violence, and it is this which most people are not prepared to deal with; the sheer disbelief of what they are being subjected to. Most street fights end in under 5 seconds, not because one party is unable to continue but because they don’t want to.

If you get lucky, really lucky you may knock somebody out with a punch, and if you are both lucky and particularly skilled you may also break a joint, or choke or throw somebody so that they are mechanically unable to continue fighting. These instances are rare. In reality you must meet violence with extreme violence, and inflict the level of pain on your assailant so that they emotionally crumble. Nothing else will stop them. Don’t be fooled that other martial arts take a different approach, they just try and inflict different levels of pain in different ways - Japanese/Okinawan Karate may propose “one punch one kill”, whereas systems such as Wing Chun and Kali, look to overwhelm an aggressor with a multitude of strikes – all have the same goal though. Aikido as it’s practiced may look like nobody is getting hurt when they’re thrown, but in a real-life situation, those throws are designed to inflict heavy falls, and to physically and emotionally break somebody. When you look across the martial arts landscape Krav Maga isn’t that different in its goals and aims, to other fighting systems.

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Justification For Violence

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 6th Jul)

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with people who tell me that they don’t believe in violence, and that they don’t believe in the use of physical force etc. Usually these statements are said is a self-congratulatory and judgmental tone that suggests the person purporting these views has somehow come to a higher level of understanding, about how various conflicts and confrontations can be solved, and that there is never a need for a physical solution. I respect everybody’s views and conclusions on all subject matters, however I feel the level of education that such individuals have around real world violence is so poor, unrealistic and out of touch, that they would do well to reconsider their viewpoint and entertain the possibility that there are times when physical force and violence is necessary.

If you were to see an animal repeatedly being kicked by someone, would you say something? If after saying what you did the individual kept assaulting it, would you walk away, keep trying to talk to them, or recognize that the only way to stop the animal from experiencing further pain was to intervene physically? Replace the animal, with a baby. At what point would you give up protecting either creature’s right to enjoy a life without being physically punished, and experiencing pain. If you believe that you can argue, debate and convince the individuals that carry out such acts, to change their ways, you have little experience of dealing with entitled predators who act without conscience, and a very elevated view of your own set off negotiation and conflict resolution skills. Don’t think that because you are good at resolving disputes at home and in the workplace that these skills naturally transfer to real-life violent situations; I’ll tell you now that they don’t, what works in the boardroom/office does not work on the streets – these are two very different environments with very different characters.

I remember during my academic studies, reading about a sexual predator who would create wounds in small babies and then rape the wound. At the time I couldn’t think of a more violent act (unfortunately I can now, and there is little limit to the methods of causing pain and torment, that I can imagine – and that’s one of the depressing elements about studying violence), however I know that many people who believe that violence can be dealt with through non-physical means, aren’t thinking about and imagining such extreme acts. If such people were to be in the same environment where such a barbarous act was taking place, would they really not forcefully intervene, would they really believe that a good talking to would suffice? I find this very hard to believe, and would question their humanity, if they would stick to a non-physical approach because enacting physical force against another human being is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about individuals who feel they should intervene on another person’s behalf but don’t feel they have the ability to do so. I am not taking a harsh stance against those who would like to be able to defend themselves against others but are scared and lack the way withal to do this. I am talking about those individuals who believe that fighting, in all its forms, is wrong, that there is never a time when it is justified to use physical force (and I’m excluding lethal force for the sake of this argument) against another.

Violence and survival is in our blood. I truly don’t believe we are beings that exist upon a higher plane, where we have dispensed with our animal instincts and have somehow evolved to a higher existence – neither do I believe that there are an elite few who have. We are animals plain and simple, albeit animals who have the ability to understand, make sense of and articulate our emotional state etc. and survival is in our blood. If someone was to hold your head underwater you would naturally fight to try and gain air, because every cell in your body would want you to get air and survive – you might give up sooner than others if you felt resigned to your fate, but your initial response would be to fight for air. It surprises me that those who feel they are somehow above fighting an attacker, who wants to cause them or somebody else harm, doesn’t acknowledge that in this instance they would fight to survive, but if faced with an armed assailant wishing to kill them (or others) would claim that it is wrong to fight. There is a big difference between being scared and not wanting to fight, and trying to claim that somehow we have moved beyond our animal instincts to fight, and to survive.

The Nazis killed 5-6 million of my people in a systematic and calculated fashion. The Nazi regime was ended not by negotiation or be compromise or by talking but by force, and extreme violence. Was any of this pleasant, nice or easy? Of course not, but there was no other way. If various parties had not decided to use violence, there would be no Jewish people. There are situations where violence is acceptable, necessary and justified. Will ISIS change its ways because of debate, reasoning and rationale? Only a fool would think so. An ideology that crucifies children, is not operating rationally or intellectually but emotionally. Whilst there may be many ways to prevent, deter and convince individuals not to join the ranks of ISIS, there is only one way to actually finish such an entity, and that is by extreme violence.

Just because I believe that there are situations where a violent response is necessary doesn’t mean that I teach or promote this course/route as a first response. Anyone who has trained with me, read my book, watched my videos, read this blog etc. will know how much stock I put in the prediction, prevention and avoidance of violence, how I stress disengagement and acquiescence where appropriate etc. However when it comes to survival, not ego (put your Tapout T-Shirt away), of myself or those I care about, there is only one response and that is extreme violence. If somebody has a response that exists on a higher moral plain than the one I exist on, and believes I am wrong, you are welcome to that opinion, but your DNA will end, and mine will go on, because that is how the survival of the fittest ultimately works. Your arguments and views may exist for this moment but ultimately they are not pervasive.

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