Reality Based Knife Training

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 30th Jun)

Knife Disarming

I don’t really believe in Knife Disarming, and to be honest I never have. I believe it is a dangerous tactic/strategy to follow on the street – in reality – and that it leads to bad training practices on the mats.

I have trained at many schools, where the disarming of a knife or other weapon signifies the end of the fight. Really? In what world is this true? If you believe that when you disarm somebody of a weapon the fight ends you are very much mistaken; maybe in the movies but not in real life. Take a moment to consider the realities of a knife fight, where an aggressor is in such an emotional place that they are prepared to pull a knife and repeatedly shank it into your body; now imagine that by a great deal of luck and training you have managed to wrest the knife of them- do you seriously believe that they’ll wake up from their emotional trance, take a look at the “new” situation and come to their senses and apologize for their heinous actions against you. Of course not. Most times when you take a knife of somebody they’ll not really comprehend what has happened other than that they are now in a fight for their own survival, and they’ll continue fighting.

Martial Arts and Self Defense training has to tell “the story” when training. Too often it teaches everything according to the “Happy Path” i.e. you do this and then this happens and then you’re safe. This is not reality, this is the imagination of the self-defense instructor who is so convinced by the power of technique and technical ability that reality can be forgotten. In reality unless you do something to physically impress upon the other person that the fight is over, they won’t understand that the fight is over. The reason they are in a fight is because their reasoning brain has shut down, and they believe the only/best option open to them is to engage physically with you. They are not suddenly going to become rational whilst you are holding their knife, and they’re certainly not going to view you as a person of moral upstanding character who is going to put their knife away and tell them to go on their way. They will see you as a threat and want to deal with you.

Self Defense training should always end with a conclusion; every time you practice a technique there should be a conclusion e.g. if you practice an escape from a hold, you shouldn’t just escape and turn round to your partner and ask them to apply it again, rather you should take a few steps to emulate running away, turn to strike them etc. You should train to an end and a conclusion, so the technique you practice has a context. You should also put in the preceding parts i.e. how you ended up in such a control or hold.

When you train Knife Disarming – and there are situations and occasions where you should disarm, though these are a lot fewer than you might imagine – you should train different responses from your partner. Have them continue the fight/training as if they haven’t realized that they’ve been disarmed – check your response(s). Have them behave as if they have realized that you have disarmed them, and that they are now fighting for their life – check your response(s). Get yourself a real knife stand on the mats with it close your eyes and imagine having to deal with it, then imagine disarming it (imagine having been cut, the frenzied nature of the attack, the look on your assailant’s face etc.) and hold it and think what your next step would be, and what your assailant’s response would be. Then consider if the way you train reflects this.


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Sparring Training

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 23rd Jun)


Many schools use sparring as their method of “replicating” the dynamics of a street or real-life fight, and whilst there are moments and elements of sparring matches which contain some of those experienced in real-life incidents of violence, the differences between the two are greater than the similarities. This is not to say that sparring doesn’t have a place in training just that its place is not to try and replicate real-life violence.

Sparring has its place alongside pad-work, stress testing and other drills, it is neither, less or more important than these other training tools and should not enjoy anymore real significance than them. If sparring becomes such an event in training that people are tense and nervous about it, then there is something wrong with the way it is being conducted. Too often I see people padding up to an unbelievable degree, squaring off and then wailing at each other for a couple of minutes, before collapsing exhausted, anxious and terrified, as if they’ve just spent 20 minutes in a washing machine on the spin cycle. This is not sparring, this is just a train crash that both participants walk away from congratulating themselves that they survived.

Reality Based Self Defense systems, such a Krav Maga, need to recognize that not every training experience has to try and emulate reality. Working the pads does not reflect reality, yet pad-work is recognized as a good way to generate speed and power in striking – it trains a particular component of fighting. Sparring trains other components. When you engage in a sparring match, and set the rules, you need to define what components you are trying to train; if you want to concentrate and train throwing your sparring should largely resemble a Judo contest, and you should spar under rules which encourage participants to throw, if you want to predominately train your kicking then you will need to spar under rules which encourage and reward kicking. Setting your goals are important in all aspects of training – when you do pad-work you should concentrate on a particular element e.g. when you train punching with a kick shield you should work on power, with the focus mitts, speed etc.

The most important element for me of sparring is relative body positioning and movement; how do you position yourself relative to your partner, where you are in a strong attacking position, and they are in a weak or disadvantaged one. It’s also about recognizing these moments when they occur and responding with the correct tool e.g. punch, kick, throw or takedown etc. If you believe sparring is about conditioning and learning how to take a strike, then you should dedicate specific training time to develop this element of your game e.g. have your partner spend a few minutes punching and kicking you before or after class, rather than have this be the emphasis of your sparring. Will you get hit in sparring of course, but you should never get hit so hard, or fear getting hit so hard, that you spend all your time tensed up, as this will restrict your movement and your ability to recognize and take advantages.

Sparring is something that you should enjoy and look forward to, not something that you fear or are frightened of. If you find yourself tense and nervous, sparring will benefit you little, as your mind and body will not be free to work; your decision making and threat recognition significantly impaired. If you want to have your sparring replicate reality, good luck. Real life violence is a very scary proposition with extremely high stakes, that are impossible to replicate in training, and so it would be naïve and unrealistic to try and do so. What sparring training is excellent at though is training relative body positioning to set up attacks, and to avoid danger, all in a dynamic fashion.

There will be those that disagree with me and try and have their sparring training develop and train multiple components of fighting, such as physical conditioning, and whilst such an element is important it can be developed in other and better more concentrated ways. The fact that a fight often involves multiple assailants and weapons means that other training methods need to be used to empathize and train weapon defenses and tactics for dealing with more than one person. Sparring training by nature recognizes that it doesn’t train these elements and shouldn’t make any excuses about that; it is a specific form of training to develop certain specific skills.


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Intervening on Behalf of Strangers

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 16th Jun)

A friend of mine was recently involved in a situation where he intervened on behalf of a stranger who had been given one hell of a beating by a group. He then became the target of the group’s leader who went to assault him with a bottle. By a show of force and posturing further violence was avoided, and the group ended up assisting the person who they’d assaulted (a friend!), and walking off with their tails between their legs, after having been given a lecture on the inappropriate use of violence. Whilst the whole incident when condensed into one paragraph may seem to contain the message that violent and aggressive individuals will respond to a stern talking to by a confident and obviously knowledgeable and capable individual (though multiple assailants would test such capability to its most extreme limits), it really raises two questions: when and how to intervene on behalf of strangers who are the victims/targets of violence?

In my experience (and experience is a limiting factor), of the times I have intervened on behalf of others I have always found that the individuals involved knew each other, and had “legitimate” grievances against each other – there was never a case of one or a group of individuals beating on a complete stranger (I’m not saying this doesn’t happen just that I’ve not experienced it). On one occasion in Sunderland – a very tough city in the North East of England – late at night, a friend and myself, came across a man repeatedly bouncing a woman’s head of the glass windows of a shop front (probably the only time I’ve ever seen a classic Bart Simpson two handed choke applied to a person’s throat). My friend asked if we should intervene and I said that we really didn’t have a choice as I didn’t want to read in the paper the next day that we’d witnessed a killing and done nothing to intervene.

This is a matter of conscience and personal choice. You fight when you are not prepared to live with the consequences of not fighting. This is the rule I apply whether it involves defending myself or others. If you can live with the consequences of walking away from a fight, where the violence and aggression was directed at you because your ego can handle it, and you can live with the consequences that is fine, if you can’t you will have no choice but to fight. This is why I teach people to hand over their wallet to a mugger as an act of control, not an act of subservience – when you control the situation and make the choices and decisions governing it, you will not live the rest of your life questioning whether you should have handed it over. When you can “control” the situation through your actions, and walk away without having to “rise” to the apparent challenge made to you, you will be able to live with the consequences of not fighting – there are none; you applied an effective strategy that allowed you to survive the situation.

Put out of your head the idea that the martial arts exist to teach you how to dispense justice on others, they are there to teach you how to survive. Is it wrong that a mugger can take your wallet at gun point? Absolutely. Does your training exist to teach said mugger a lesson? No. Is it wrong that a person can be taken hostage and demand money for their release? Absolutely. Do government agencies and the like pay ransoms to such groups? Of course they do. There is a time for justice and a time for survival. Don’t confuse either the time for each or the role(s) you play in them.

I would argue that when you see a woman being smashed around and in immediate danger you have an obligation to intervene – this incident occurred pre-mobile phones, so there was no opportunity for my friend to call the police (and an ambulance) whilst I attempted to deal with the immediate danger. My course of action was to tap the guy on the shoulder and in a polite but firm tone, say “Excuse me sir, if you could stop doing that we’d like to talk to you.” This is the type of language and tone that the British Police use, and I wanted to try and break him out of his frenzy as he was highly emotional. Immediately he stopped and as he turned around he said, “Thank f*ck you’re here this bitch has stolen my keys”. It turns out – he told me all of this before it finally dawned on him that we weren’t police – that the woman, who was his girlfriend, didn’t want to go on to a nightclub with him (this was when pubs and bars in the UK shut at 11 PM), and was refusing to give him back the keys to his house, that he’d given her to look after earlier that evening. This had resulted in a drunken argument and the ensuing violence. As he was telling us all of this his girlfriend realized that we weren’t the police (we’d both just come off working door security and so were dressed in the mandatory black pants, white shirt and jacket), and started to scream and shout at us. This has been another consistent experience of intervening on behalf of others; that they quickly side with their assailant, whether they are their partner or simply a friend – this is a simple matter of survival – they don’t want to be the reason that their assailant, who they have some long term relationship with, takes a potential beating. This would potentially be another notch against them and another reason for further later abuse.

The woman’s screaming and shouting, started to attract people, including some of the boyfriend’s friends, and the situation quickly started to change. Whereas before my friend and I had numerical advantage that started to turn against us. The other issue we had was that one of the friends was clearly the more dominant individual and was prepared, in fact looking to get involved. This is something to understand about group violence. The boyfriend had used up his adrenaline by now and was no longer in a heightened emotional state, he just wanted to walk away; there was no real fight left in him and his appetite for violence was by and large gone. His friend however was in a different emotional state. He was just coming to the scene and was ready to go. It is worth understanding that in group situations different people can become adrenalized and emotional at different times, and perpetuate confrontations, which by and large are dead.

I was still talking to the boyfriend but heard my friend say something along the lines of, “well if it’s all under control, we’ll be going”. I then received a firm pull on my shoulder and we both walked off. We’d maybe got 20 yards before the shouting and abuse started; directed at us. Then we heard the footsteps and saw that we were being followed by a large group and ran. Fortunately the group only made it about 20 yards before stopping. They’d proved their point and were happy to get on with their evening and to talk about how they’d seen off, humiliated, made to feel small etc. the two idiots that had tried to cross them etc.

When I look back on such incidents, and the situations where I have intervened on somebody’s behalf I end up getting depressed (however to be fair I get that sense whenever I look back on any aggressive and violent confrontation). Whilst it may at first seem a selfless action, it isn’t. You get involved in another person’s fight because you can’t live with the consequences of not doing so – you have no idea whether the person you are defending is a good person or a bad one e.g. a pedophile who has been raping children in the neighborhood etc. and once you have stood up for them, if you stand down you are condoning the incident you sought to stop. In saying all of that, I have never regretted the times I have stepped in, either as a professional or just a concerned citizen.

In the age of the mobile phone a 911 or 999 call should be your first course of action. Whether you directly intervene to “slow” down an incident till the police arrive, or stand back is your choice, and I would never pressurize anyone to act. If a third person is in imminent danger, and you believe you have the means to prevent serious injury and/or death you need to consider your response and whether you can live with the consequences of not acting – there is no right or wrong answer.



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Environmental Training - Beach Training

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 3rd Jun)

A large matted space is a great training environment. It’s safe and allows you the room to comfortably practice techniques in a productive fashion. However it’s a deliberately artificial environment, and one that doesn’t reflect reality. This is why Krav Maga training has to be taken to other locations, so that an element/degree of reality can be brought into your practice – these “environments” don’t have to exactly replicate the ones you may find yourself in but should emphasize certain environmental factors that are universal to all e.g. unstable and uneven terrain etc. These environments should also challenge some of the key martial arts skills that will be put to the test in a real life confrontation, such as your sense of balance and stability coupled with your movement skills; if you ever have to physically deal with somebody on a moving train etc. these skills will be seriously challenged. What you are able to comfortably do on the mats may be a million times harder to accomplish in reality.

The beach is one of the most challenging natural environments we have at our disposal. Sand is one of the hardest surfaces to train on in terms of balance, stability and power generation. In the studio, the mat surface gives a solid platform from which to launch kicks and punches, sand however shifts and moves, necessitating readjustments and added exertions – to increase power you don’t always need to increase the resistance and strength of what your striking into, you can also do it by changing the platform from which you launch your strikes.

Many people confuse environmental training, with just doing the same Krav Maga class you’d do in your studio in a different place – I see this often in YouTube clips, where what is billed as environmental training is a normal mat class, just in a different location. The point of training in an environment is to use it. Water can be used to provide both resistance and increase emotional stress. If you practice a front kick in water, and get the surface height just right, you can increase the acceleration of the last two phases of the kick significantly. Perform the same exercise when the water is choppy and you’ll also develop your core stability, and supporting leg muscles into the bargain.

Using the water to practice side-headlock or guillotine defenses is a great way to heighten stress levels. The shock of having a choke or lock applied when under water, especially if your head is pulled under as part of the attack, adds to the urgency of the need to escape, and teaches you a great deal about overcoming the natural panic that such attacks in reality induce. Having two problems to solve i.e. the choke and the water, is a great way to learn to accept that everything has to be dealt with in turn, and that trying to do everything at once gets you nowhere fast. These are not things to practice on your own but in a group, with someone experienced teaching/leading the session.

Summer is around the corner and another season of beach training beckons.


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