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Techniques! Techniques! and More Techniques! How many are enough for self-defense? How many are too many?



Over the years, I have been exposed to, learned, and taught literally thousands of Martial Arts techniques. Even though there are only a few hundred actual core techniques, the combinations are almost infinite. Before you assume that I am bragging about this large number, I should also explain that I believe that this is not a good thing.  There are many reasons for this belief, substantiated by medical science, occupational studies and law enforcement research.


When we join a martial arts school, we train to do specific techniques as requirements for rank. For the purpose of this article, let us assume that these techniques are for self-defense and meet the following criteria. They: 


Let us also assume that the instructor is qualified to teach these techniques in a manner that is beneficial as a learning experience for the student, helping them to build confidence in their ability to utilize the techniques and retain them.


Let us next look briefly at how the brain and body react when introduced to fear. To begin with, many natural chemicals are released into the body, which have several effects, such as dramatically increasing one’s heart rate or causing a person to sweat profusely. But, on a more global scale, what can happen? Some people become so fearful, they become nauseated and may vomit. Some ‘freeze up’ with fear, literally becoming so anxious as to be incapacitated. Some fly into an uncontrollable rage, sometimes tossing all caution to the wind. Some experience tunnel vision, temporary hearing loss or inability to speak. And so on.


The end result of all of these reactions is that they typically inhibit complex or fine movements (just imagine being asked to write something with a gun pointed at your head; how legible do you think your hand-writing is going to be?). They also interfere with higher cognitive skills (imagine being asked to think up the words to a song with a knife pressed against your throat). Sometimes, these fine, complex activities become so inhibited, they become almost impossible to perform. Only techniques that work under extreme levels of fear or stress work at this point. These techniques essentially all involve gross motor skills. In other words, they contain the fewest number of steps to perform, they use large muscle groups, and they use movements that involve a large part of the body at the same time.


It is possible that complex techniques can work in real life situations; however, only through specific real-life scenario training can this be accomplished, and only after MANY years of practice. The reason for this theory is that the more realistically you train, the more confidence you will have in your abilities. Consequently, your brain will not presume an extreme level of danger, and fear will have less of a counter-effect on your abilities.  One question that comes to mind is: How long will a student need to practice a complex skill before it can be used? This is one of the problems with most martial arts when it comes to real combat. Most techniques are too complicated, require too many repetitions, take too long to perfect, and/or do not work by design. That is the reason that most martial artists, when defending themselves, either fail or revert to basic techniques as an automatic response.


The next problem is the number of techniques. What happens when we have learned several defenses for the same attack? Which will your brain decide for your body to perform? Medical research has shown that, when the brain is faced with multiple correct responses to a specific stimulus, reaction time will suffer greatly. This is because the brain must add more factors into the equation to select the proper application from multiple choices. Add in the fact that you are in a high stress situation and……well you get the point. Confusing your brain to the point where it takes too long to react or just shuts down completely is not a good idea. It is my opinion and the opinions of many other self-defense experts and researchers, that only very basic techniques requiring “gross motor skills” work most of the time under all levels of stress; and only a technique that meets specific criteria, taught properly, and practiced under high stress conditions is called upon by the brain when needed. At that point, the skills are engrained into the brain’s subconscious. In addition, it must be an automatic response to a specific attack, both in rehearsed and unrehearsed practice.


All of this leads us back to the subject of the article. How many techniques are enough? How many are too many? Taking into consideration the above criteria as to how a technique is taught, how complicated it is to learn, and whether or not it works under stress, is critical in helping you decide just how many techniques actually will be effective for realistic self-defense training. As a Martial Artist, I realize where this leaves the traditionalists and me. Only after understanding the criteria for a specific technique to work under stressful conditions can you decide what is valid and what is not. Most people, after comparing their system to these principles, have to seriously change what they are doing if they are claiming to teach self-defense, or just go into complete denial as to the scientific evidence; too often, the latter, easier choice is made.




Jim Barry

Budokai South Defensive Arts Institute


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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