Principles vs. Prescription: An Adaptive Approach to Self-Defense

Principles vs Prescription: An Adaptive Approach to Self-DefenseIn my book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground, there are chapters detailing a variety of ways to defend against specific types of ground combat situations, from hold-downs and submissions to kicks to the head and knife attacks. We demonstrate each move in detail, which might lead one to believe that our goal is to provide a form of ground defense that is no more than a “if this, then that” type of prescriptive approach, when it is quite the contrary in reality. While I do go into detail about true self-defense being adaptive, and that the “techniques” I show for defending against various situations are only to serve as examples of the principles in action, it is difficult to make this point clear to readers. The less experienced are more likely to simply take the examples and practice them alone, rather than fully explore the principles behind them.

That is one of the reasons that I’m also offering courses related to my book. There would be no point in taking these courses if all I did was teach techniques “by the book” so to speak. While I do take certain situational examples from the book to serve as a starting point, I expand on them from there, taking students beyond the example, and using the principles appropriately and effectively as the situations change as they inevitably do in live training. While I’m using ground defense as my example in this look at the use of principles vs. prescription, you can apply this to any type of self-defense applications.

Establishing the Principles Behind the Approach

If you’re going to learn a principle-based approach to self-defense, you should first understand what those principles are. In my approach to ground defense, there are two main tools that are used in various combinations as necessitated by the situation: body shifting and attacks to vital targets. These tools make use of a number of self-defense principles. Body shifting, such as shrimping, bridging & rolling, turtling, etc, are used to create space by moving your attacker, or to take advantage of space by moving yourself out of an opening. They make use of principles such as balance breaking and spacial awareness. Attacks to vital targets such as the eyes, groin, ribs, etc, exercise the principle of distraction by causing pain, flinch reactions, obscuring vision, etc, which weaken your attacker’s ability to control you. In combining these tools to respond to an attack, we also teach protective principles like guarding the head and neck areas (against strikes and chokes), keeping limbs close to the body (to protect against joint locks), gaining control of the weapon arm (in the case of knife attacks) and of course the ubiquitous principle of getting back to one’s feet so one can escape.

Whatever form of self-defense you’re exploring, there are principles behind the approach and if you’re looking to be able to apply your skills in a real situation, these are the most important things to focus on.

Using the “Prescription”

When you first start your learning, it’s hard to avoid learning a “prescription.” You have to start somewhere after all, so you need to be given situations in which you can apply the principles you’re seeking to learn. For very new students, it’s safest to stick to a very prescribed approach so you can see and feel the moves and their relation to the principles in a safe, low-pressure environment. The problem is if you never go beyond that, you might fool yourself into thinking that this is all there is to self-defense.

Learning to Adapt

As you get comfortable with the prescribed moves, you’ll start to notice that they don’t always work if your partner doesn’t do exactly what they are “supposed to do”. Or perhaps they are a different body type that poses some sort of obstruction to your technique. This is when you start to explore a more adaptive approach. For example, if someone posts an arm when you try to bridge and roll them to escape their mount, you have to be ready to take their balance out in a different way, by taking control of the arm. Or perhaps the attacker sprawls their leg out to keep from being rolled, in which case you might shrimp your way out of the space that’s created. Or maybe you’re so firmly entrenched that you might pinch their inner thigh or grab for their groin to distract them enough so that you can attempt the bridge again to displace them. There are lots of possibilities, and that’s the point. You can make your training more “live”, more like a real attack, as in reality. An attack is never just one grab or one strike, and your attacker never reacts exactly the same way as you might expect. As you gain a higher and higher level of understanding of the fundamental principles, you’ll become more adaptive and will be able to more quickly transition from one tool to another as the situation dictates.

The Psychology of Self-Defense

Part of learning to adapt is adopting a “winning” mentality to self-defense. Law enforcement organizations are starting to use the term “winning” versus “survival” because it has less negative associations suggesting that you’re at a disadvantage. When you give up mentally, your subconscious mind stops seeing useful opportunities that might suggest otherwise. If you don’t believe you can win, your mind works to confirm that assertion. Once you have learned to become more adaptive, your sense of self-belief in your ability to defend yourself grows, and it becomes easier to see that there are indeed a wide variety of things you can do to give yourself the advantage. At that point, you can try adding higher levels of intensity to your training to help increase your confidence at handling higher levels of pressure, which then increases your self-belief further. It is a positive upwards spiral that all martial artists can take advantage of provided the right training environment.

Considering the Totality of the Circumstances

If you want to make your self-defense skills more complete, you have to see all the difference circumstances surrounding the situation and understand how it affects you so you can seize opportunities that may strengthen your defense and respond appropriately to hindrances that may weaken it. Is your attacker is significantly larger and stronger than you? Are you fighting on grass or concrete? Is there anything lying around you could grab and use as a weapon of opportunity? What is your attacker’s intent (i.e. mugging, sexual assault, showing off, etc.) The list goes on. Even if you develop a good set of adaptive skills, you may face unusual situations that have never come up in the dojo, either due to lack of opportunity (i.e. there simply aren’t a lot of much larger training partners) or due to training limitations (it’s not always possible to safely train all the situations that may come in a real attack). It’s important to at least mentally explore these considerations and train your sense of awareness so that you are less likely to be caught off guard by the different circumstances you may face in a real situation.

How does your martial arts school strike the balance between exploring principles vs. prescribed learning? Please share your experiences in the comments. 🙂

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