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Students, Reality Training, & Self Defense

by Donn Schucker


“What kind of safety gear do you use?” asked the instructor from Washington state.

“None,” was my response.

Bewildered and caught very much off guard, she excitedly said, “Why? Why wouldn’t you use safety gear?”

“Because you won’t be wearing safety gear if you are forced into a physical confrontation in real life. We need to get rid of the mental crutch of safety gear and become accustomed to the idea of truly facing a dangerous situation.”

 Still bewildered – perhaps more than ever now – she chose to let the conversation end.

Until approximately six months later, that is. I received an email from her asking to clarify what I had said. She started by telling me, “When we met at camp, we discussed sparring and safety gear.  I use a lot of safety gear.  I think it's mostly for the parents of my students, but I also came from a safety gear-free school.  I suffered injuries by my own negligence and at the hands of students that lacked control. Sometimes my injuries were enough to halt my training for awhile.  My school of thought is that I don't want any injuries in training so you'll be healthy on the street.  Can you tell me why you don't use safety gear?”

She added, “I've also had a lot of interest/questions about reality training; for example, confrontation drills.  Do you do anything like that?  If so, can you share your methods?”

I took a deep breath – knowing that I could not explain what she requested in just one short email. What followed was a series of emails back and forth over the next couple of weeks.

“With less than totally serious students,” I began, “gear is a good idea. With people who truly want to experience what the martial arts are, gear is an obstacle that creates a false sense of safety. Ever been hit...hard? Pain is something that anyone who is involved in a true self defense situation must deal with, and although I am in no way advocating recklessly hurting our training partners, we do need to add as much realism as common sense will allow.

“I stress two things with regard to contact...100% control and 100% power (not the same thing as full contact) when you actually hit something. Let's face it, when you know your partner is really going to hit you if you don't block or move, that's a strong motivation to get it right. Of course they MUST have the control to not cause injury if you make a mistake in your defense...a little ""love tap"" is OK, but injuries are not...both would be at fault in that case...one for not defending, the other for not being able to control what he does.

“We practice body conditioning which is in the simplest terms, exercises in which we strike parts of each other’s bodies with whatever level of contact that individual can endure. Sounds brutal, but it is strictly up to each individual how hard they get hit. Once you have grown accustomed to this, blocking (which is really just a defensive strike) becomes much easier and more effective, and the fear of getting hurt is greatly diminished. Everything that we do begins in our minds, and the two most damaging things that we can experience are fear and doubt. The two feed off of each other and can lead us to be unwilling to tackle any difficult or challenging task. For me (and my peers and senior students) it is imperative that we constantly move out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. Crazy? Maybe...but in times of need this mental attitude will virtually ensure your survival.”

I then shifted gears to address her inquiry about reality training, “Reality training...hmmm. Here's a question for all martial artists...if during a typical martial arts workout we first practice basic techniques, then practice forms, then practice sparring, and then practice self defense, haven't we just wasted 75% of our workout? ALL MARTIAL ARTS ARE SELF DEFENSE! Forms and sparring only approximate real encounters in the most elementary way, but the mental lessons learned can still be very valuable.

“For decades, I have noted that most martial arts schools (whether they are karate, jujitsu, etc.) work on what they call ""self defense""...but they learn to defend against attacks that will NEVER, EVER be encountered in real life. True self defense, whether it is based on striking, grappling, or whatever is rooted in the practice of effective defenses against realistic attacks that one is likely to see on the street. Reality based self defense, in my opinion, must encompass all elements of unarmed combat to truly be effective. There are no rules in the real world (hence our training to grow accustomed to being hit) and we must be prepared to deal with whatever comes our way with our own arsenal of diverse and effective techniques.

“Today most people think of ""reality"" as flopping around on the ground with an aggressor...and this IS a valuable skill to have...but it should be viewed as a last resort, not the mainstay of our defensive strategy. I come from the grappling arts and in the last 10 years or so I have noticed that most (if not almost all) people have forgotten that there is a lot more to martial arts and self defense than ground fighting and striking. In my opinion, to be truly effective one must be skilled at all the critical elements of self defense. This includes chokes (both standing and on the ground) locks (to all extremities, both standing and on the ground) pins (a way of securing an attacker or allowing yourself to rest on the ground). In addition, it is critical that one have no fear of falling, and therefore I work extensively on falling safely from throws and takedowns with all my students. And of course it is most helpful to have some basis of understanding of the throwing arts...if not to actually execute a throw of your own, then at least to help understand what the attacker must do to make his throw work. Striking, like all the other previously mentioned skills is, in my opinion, not enough to guarantee your safety on its own. No one type of skill is enough, because you NEVER know what's next, and therefore you MUST be well versed in all areas of unarmed combat to stand the best chance of surviving an attack.

“And what is truly the difference between ""reality"" and most martial arts as they are practiced today? In the arts, we train to win or overcome our opponent...but in true self defense, we train for survival...there are no winners and losers.

“As far as training goes, we have to do the following to train for the real world:

1. Think of and practice real attacks with ever increasing intensity

2. Be aware of the fact your attacker will nearly always be bigger than you and that a man who is attacked is likely to be struck or tackled, or possibly grabbed

3. Again, be aware of the fact that your attacker will nearly always be bigger than you and that a women or child is most likely to be grabbed, as strikes and tackling are not common as initial attacks, but may be subsequent to the initial grab

4. We have to think also about our attacker's mindset...is it a bully at school or is it a pedophile in a trench coat? Is he the guy you see every day while driving to work (who you at one time thought was stalking you) or is it a group of attackers? Is the attacker's motive robbery? Rape? Is hurting you his only wish?

“In each situation that you determine is a likely, real life encounter, first analyze these things and then rely on your most basic skills to build a foundation of effective defense. Train as you will defend in real life...we cannot expect to train in one way in the dojo (dojang) and then in a time of need, do something completely different that we rarely (if ever) practice.

“All of this sounds so obvious, doesn't it? And it is...but for whatever reason, many people practice forms, sparring, grappling, throwing, and then they say ""now let's work on self defense."" IF PRACTICED CORRECTLY, IT IS ALL SELF DEFENSE (if it wasn't there would be no ""martial"" aspect to the martial arts) IF YOU PRACTICE IT IN A REALISTIC WAY SO AS TO TRAIN YOUR MIND AND BODY TO DO THE RIGHT THING IN A TIME OF NEED.”

The instructor responded, “Wow! I’m still trying to absorb all of this. How do you practice with such intensity and not burn out? I want to be there for my students and I guess maybe I am personally attached to each of them…is that a rookie mistake?  I'm afraid it's too late for me with the kids.  They're just the greatest and I want to make them all black-belts by the time they leave for college.”

I knew exactly how she felt – but I also knew the disappointment of pouring all my efforts into students who eventually leave without so much as a goodbye!

“It's not a rookie thing at all,” I started. “It's something that all teachers who truly care about their students experience. We have to constantly be aware of the nature of our relationship so as to maintain an involved, but professional attitude. Not easy to do, and of the thousands I have taught over the last 30 years more than a few have broken my heart. Our students are like our family...and like family we tend to become very involved.

“Yeah, we all get a bit tired of the whole thing from time to time, but for me it is truly the business end of things that is the only part I sometimes dread. Even that is fleeting, because I really like working with people from around the world to help them with whatever their needs are in the martial arts...teaching will always be the best.”

“So how do I proceed?” she asked. “How can I learn to practice with 100% control and power?”

“One step at a time is the only way you can do anything...it has been that way for over 40 years for me, and each step of the way has been small. The best we can do is keep our goals in sight and be sure that we constantly move a little closer to them each day. Of course, as we progress we will have many realizations along the way and we will inevitable alter our goals somewhat...but this is no problem...as long as we are still moving forward.

”There is a very fine line between being too hardcore with people and not pushing them hard enough. We all have something inside us that will come out only when under the most demanding situations...the goal of training in the arts  (in my opinion) is to frequently put ourselves in demanding, stressful situations until the sheer determination to succeed is truly an integral part of our character. This is what you are talking about with your sparring, and it is essential to developing the warrior's mindset.

“As far as 100% control, 100% power, all I mean is that we must have the ability to control exactly where we focus the power of our strike, or choke or whatever other technique you use. But, whether the strike, etc. is done solo into the air or eight inches into our attacker's body it must be done with full power, extending everything we have into that one moment in time. In line with this I have done a lot of experimentation with exactly how to strike to generate the most power for each of the various types of techniques.

“In my opinion, we often dismiss technical details that are not of our own style or that differ from how we were taught. I myself have been caught up in the trap in the past! Now I try to thoroughly analyze each and every technique so that it is broken down into its many elements. Then I work to understand how to make each element as efficient as possible...discarding any preconceived notions or previous instruction I have received. Part of this process is to actually try to apply whatever technique we are working on again and again and again with full power to see which way works best. Our bodies work best in certain positions, so this is essentially what we are looking for...the instinctive knowledge of how to position parts of our bodies to generate the most power and to most efficiently transfer this power to our intended target. The process is virtually the same regardless of the technique we are working on...strikes, chokes, locks, throws, etc.

I closed my email with, “Yep, slow and steady is the only way to eventually get where you're going...just keep at it.”

Her next email explained that she had adjusted some of the training methods she used in her school to better reflect the things we had discussed. Then she asked, “How can I grow as a teacher? How do I know that I truly have something of value to give to my students? My sister tells me that she can’t understand why I am so violent, much less why I want to teach violence to students…how do I deal with that?”

Believing that some of the best pieces of martial wisdom are contained in the classic literature of China and Japan I told her, “I strongly encourage you to read some of the classics...Tao Te Ching, Go Rin no Sho, Art of War, and many others. These are required reading for my people...not in an effort to convert them to an Eastern religion...but to help them understand the frame of mind that ancient warriors had, and thereby hopefully understanding the physical part a little better too.

“In a few years (20 or 30) you will look back and marvel at how far you have come...and how far you still have to go! The things you now see as very difficult will be second nature to you by then, and you will be the wise old teacher. No kidding, that's how it works! I find myself doing things now that I never dreamed were possible...things that my instructors and my seniors did effortlessly (and I was helpless to defend against) are now a part of me...crazy how you wake up one day after decades of training and realize YOU have evolved into a warrior!

“But it is a very gradual and immensely long path we follow. Those who are in a hurry will not make it. Those who choose not to become a teacher will never even realize where the path goes...much less be able to follow it. Only the patient and dedicated (dedicated, but still able to keep things in perspective!) individuals will have a chance at truly reaching the pinnacle of excellence in the martial arts.

“There's so much to all of it...I believe that is what has kept my interest for all these years! It is a journey that we begin, but we never can truly finish...but as that old saying goes, it's the journey that matters, not the destination.

“Here's another curve ball for you...my senior people are also encouraged to become familiar with the practice of firearms. Hopefully a means of defense that deadly will never, ever be needed...but in my opinion it's better to have and not need than to need and not have.

“Some of the senior students and I went to the range a while back. They are all familiar with guns, and they are all hunters...but they have never thought of them in the context of handguns for self defense. We worked on the same things we do in martial arts (guns are just modern martial arts, after all) such as proper form, stance, breathing, etc. once they were comfortable with that and could hit the target, the real defensive training began! We worked on things like reloading quickly, and also shooting with our weak hand...difficult? Yes! But if your strong arm is injured in a confrontation, what other choice do you have?

“These are some of the things that I encourage people to think about...what if??? The more we are prepared for any eventuality, the better we will be able to deal with whatever is thrown at us.”

Not wanting to scare her off I added, “At this point, it probably seems like I am a bit crazy, right? I know all of this can appear to be the ranting of someone who is obsessed with violence, etc. ...but nothing could be farther from the truth! No one hates violence more than the warrior, and as long as we can be passionate about our training and still maintain a clear sense of balance and priority about what's important in our lives (family, etc.) there is not a problem.

“The arts are more than a hobby, and are a small model of life itself. In the arts, we face obstacles and difficulties, both physical and mental. We do the same in life! If we can develop the attitude that allows us to be as prepared as possible for anything that comes our way in the arts...well, mastering life's petty little problems pales by comparison.

“So many people, even martial artists, are always saying things like your sister...""that's too violent!"" My answer to them is that nothing we can do in practice can duplicate a real physical attack, so no...there is no such thing as too violent, although any real warrior will emphatically tell you they despise any form of confrontation.

“I am often accused of not having emotions...but nothing could be further from the truth. I am deeply touched very often by many different things...but I simply do not allow these random waves of emotion to dictate my actions. I feel that this is likely the way all martial artists eventually become...sensitive to everything, but smart enough to only act on things when appropriate.

“After all the serious discussion we have had, I feel it is important to emphasize that balance is SOOOO important...physically, but even more so mentally.”

I read her unexpected response with a smile on my face, “I must tell you, sir, that our conversations are very inspirational for me.  So much so that I'm truly feeling the pull to give as much to self defense and the martial arts as I can in my life.  I started advertising a series of free self defense clinics.  I got a few phone calls already!”

That is the best reward any instructor can receive!

As an instructor we never really know if the student understands and truly grasps the essence of what we attempt to pass on to them until they are long gone, out on their own. The teacher/student relationship is complex, and it takes tremendous effort on the part of each to establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.

A good student is a combination of so many things. If one of the elements is missing, their performance suffers! These elements are:

1. The potential to excel

2. The desire to excel

3. The ability to excel

Most people say, "Well sure, I wanna be good...and look, I can do this, and that, and I'm pretty good at this..." But this isn't enough!

The potential to excel is that god-given natural ability to understand and/or to duplicate physical movements. I think this is fairly common...I'd say that maybe 50% of all students who wish to learn self defense show this potential to excel.

The desire to excel is what I call the "warrior mindset" that absolutely prohibits you from accepting anything less than success from yourself. It is the frame of mind that ceaselessly drives you forward in a never ending quest for perfection. People with this level of desire do not let anything stand between them and their goals, and are willing to do whatever is necessary (short of breaking the law or common ethics) to accomplish a given task. Some would say this is not a healthy way to be...I say that it is the only healthy way to be, within the parameters I will describe in a moment. Probably around 10% of all students have this desire.

The ability to follow instructions and to readily accept direction, criticism, and advice without emotion or ego involved is exceedingly rare. Without this element, all the potential in the world will go largely undeveloped...all the desire in the world will lead nowhere. The path must be riddled with reality checks, critiques, and evaluations...followed by corrections, directions and advise. The students that actually have this ability to excel are no more than 1% of all those who begin self defense training.

My wife has the first two elements, and they have allowed her to go fairly far in the arts (and in life) but she is sorely lacking in the last area, and it prevents her from truly reaching the pinnacle of excellence. Currently, my best student is 17 years old and has the first and the last elements...but the second isn't as prominent as it needs to be to truly reach his full potential. My son, who is just back from Afghanistan, is the only student I have ever had who has all three elements...and it shows! As good as my teenage student is, he pales in every area next to my son. This was made painfully clear to all last year when he was home on R & R and was able to work out with us after being away in the Army for the last few years.

Three times "Soldier of the Month", just never says die!

I had each of the senior students demonstrate their best technique so the class could observe and then practice. They all did so, and then explained the technique. When it was my son’s turn, he absolutely NAILED IT!!! It was the very finest example of true martial expertise I've seen in a long time!!! The class (seniors included) gasped!!! Needless to say that was a rare day in which they got to see several very talented warriors perform, and one exceptional warrior demonstrate the highest level of proficiency possible.

The three elements MUST be present to reach the highest levels of any endeavor.

This doesn't mean we should always be totally intense and turn everything in life into a competition...far from it! We must find balance in life, and be able to "flip a switch" that allows us to turn on and off this intensity as the situation demands. I have friends who have all three elements, but they can't turn them on and off...they are no fun to be around or to train with, because everything is life or death to them...this is not healthy.

The tools to excel are important, but the ability to use this when necessary and not use it when the situation doesn't warrant it is just as important. Balance...both physical and emotional...is everything.

(This essay is a compilation of several of Sensei Schucker's emails from late 2007 and early 2008)


 
Budokai South Defensive Arts Institute
Minami Budo Ryu
Ju Jitsu / Aiki Jujitsu / Judo / Self Defense
Aiken, SC
Phone: (843) 864-3125
Email: newtobudokai@gmail.com


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