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In self-defence you assume, by default, that your attacker is bigger and stronger than you. He may be armed and accompanied by allies. You may not even see him coming. Basically, it’s the worst-case scenario.
To be able to deal with the worst case, you have to train for the worst case.
The main problem with so many martial arts clubs is that they never train the worst case. Hell, many don’t even train an average case of someone trying to harm you. Instead, a compliant training dummy provides a fake attack and then helpfully relaxes to let the trainee do as he pleases. The student then goes home under the illusion of being able to defend himself. An illusion that, one day, might get him killed.
Serge Cazalet has a great expression for this sort of training: “martial theatre.”
I remember the first time Favourite Teacher held his fist out in front of him and told me to do a lock on his wrist. I knew the technique but I couldn’t get his wrist to bend. After several failed attempts I was starting to doubt my own ability. Then Favourite Teacher relaxed his muscles and I could do the lock easily. But only because he let me.
He then spent the next hour proving to me that I could do it, even if he resisted, as long as I had the proper grip and was using my whole body instead of just my arms.
In most martial arts clubs your training partners help you get the effect they know the technique should have, even if you’re not doing it perfectly. Martial theatre. It’s not the fault of the martial art. I have found that it’s an easy mistake to make for any student. When you first learn the movement you go through it with a compliant partner, just to remember the steps. It’s very tempting to keep practicing like this, even long after you have memorised the technique.
You don’t even notice you’re just fooling yourself.
If, by chance, a beginner comes along who doesn’t have this habit of relaxing, your technique suddenly stops working. You get frustrated, use brute force, and it either works but you hurt your training partner or it doesn’t and you start doubting yourself and your martial art. Either way, the beginner won’t be impressed.
So it is the instructor’s responsibility to force you to test your techniques against a resisting opponent. Being compliant all the time is not “nice,” it’s irresponsible. Providing a realistic attack and resisting your partner’s technique isn’t bad or rude, it’s absolutely vital if you want them to learn.
What you need to do is test yourself regularly and make sure that what you’re doing is working. Partner up with everybody in class - especially the big and strong ones. Ask your partner to resist your technique. If they’re holding onto your wrist, tell them not to let go. If your job is to make them fall over, tell them to stay standing. If you’re learning not to get hit, tell them to hit you (full force on body armour, lightly touching on bare skin).
Lastly, learn from tiny people. If a 5 foot (150cm) girl can make a technique work on a 6 foot (180cm) guy trying his best to resist, it’s a technique worth knowing.
“Do you think the manner in which you came to possess these swords was honorable?” the businessman says.
“If I did not, I would long since have returned them,” Hiro says.
The businessman reaches across his body with his right hand, grips the handle of his sword just below the guard, draws it out, snaps it forward so it’s pointing at Hiro, then places his left hand on the grip just below the right.
Hiro does the same.
Both of them bend their knees, dropping into a low squat while keeping the torso bolt upright, then stand up again and shuffle their feet into the proper stance — feet parallel, both pointed straight ahead, right foot in front of the left foot.
The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating “fuckface” into Nipponese, but it might translate into “emotional intensity” in football lingo. He charges directly at Hiro, hollering at the top of his lungs. The movement actually consists of a very rapid shuffling motion of the feet, so that he stays balanced at all times. At the last moment, he draws the sword up over his head and snaps it down toward Hiro. Hiro brings his own sword up, rotating it around sideways so that the handle is up high, above and to the left of his face, and the blade slopes down and to the right, providing a roof above him. The businessman’s blow bounces off this roof like rain, and then Hiro sidesteps to let him go by and snaps the sword down toward his unprotected shoulder. But the businessman is moving too fast, and Hiro’s timing is off. The blade cuts behind and to the side of the businessman.
Both men wheel to face each other, back up, get back into the stance.
“Emotional intensity”, doesn’t convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word “zanshin” is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.
And Hiro thinks, frankly, that most of it is pseudomystical crap, on the same level as his old high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent.
The businessman makes another attack. This one is pretty straightforward: a quick shuffling approach and then a snapping cut in the direction of Hiro’s ribcage. Hiro parries it.
Now Hiro knows something about this businessman, namely, that like most Nipponese sword fighters, all he knows is kendo.
Kendo is to swordfighting what fencing is to real swashbuckling: an attempt to take a highly disorganised, chaotic, violent, and brutal conflict and turn it into a cute game. As in fencing, you’re only supposed to attack certain parts of the body — the parts that are protected by armor. As in fencing, you’re not allowed to kick your opponent in the kneecaps or break a chair over his head. And the judging is totally subjective. In kendo, you can get a good solid hit on your opponent and still not get credit for it because the judges feel you didn’t possess the right amount of zanshin.
Hiro doesn’t have any zanshin at all. He just wants this over with. The next time the businessman sets up his ear-splitting screech and shuffles towards Hiro, cutting and snapping his blade, Hiro parries the attack, turns around, and cuts both of his legs off just above the knees.
The businessman collapses to the floor.
When I moved to Oxford, I began sharing an office with a certain Frenchman who was just as interested in martial arts as I was. At one point we were discussing which martial arts club to join. He paused dramatically and said, “I could teach you.” Needless to say I was sceptical at first. It didn’t take him long, however, to convince me that he knew his stuff. He had trained with Serge Cazalet, a French master who had spent decades studying and teaching dozens of different martial arts and obtaining some degree of black belt in most of them. After his life-long search he had created his own martial art, which I had never heard of. He called it Tardemet.
Soon after this my friend and I began to train regularly in the park. Our training had little structure, at first, and was as universal as it could get. We practiced strikes, locks, pressure points and take downs. As I was doing Shorinji Kempo at the same time, I often used Kempo moves and he helped me improve them. We also did a lot of light contact sparring. Most importantly, we practiced “scenarios”. This was essentially role-playing of real-life situations that could result in a fight, such as a mugging or a drunk person trying to get past the bouncer at a club. It was intense and by far the hardest part of training, because no technique in the world can save you when you’re too stressed to perform it properly or see the knife that just stabbed you five times in the gut. I had never experienced this kind of training before and it opened my eyes. Learning a martial art and practicing self-defence could be two radically different things.
It was only about a year later, after meeting and training with Serge Cazalet a couple of times, that I realised Tardemet was actually called Krav-Tardemet and was a style of Krav Maga. Krav Maga is the fighting system taught to the Israeli military and used by armed forces and professional bodyguards around the world. Serge had been a police man himself (among other things) and was now travelling all over the globe, teaching martial arts to professionals and civilians alike.
During our first year my friend and I had attracted a small number of students who practiced with us off and on. We were confident in my friend’s teaching ability and my organisational and technical skills. The time was right. With Serge’s blessing, we decided to start our own martial arts club.
We worked hard for one intense month, creating a website, filming videos and advertising to hundreds of students at the University’s Freshers’ Fair. As a martial arts club we would need insurance and, being entirely without funding, we had to shell out ourselves. Our wallets got lighter by the day as we bought essential training equipment such as rubber knives and foam-covered sticks. Luckily, the most expensive commodity of all, an indoor training venue, was provided by an Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, free of charge. Finally, in October 2008 we were sleep-deprived and several hundred pounds poorer, but we were ready for the club’s first students. Thus was born the Oxford Krav-Tardemet Club.
Now, three years later, the club is in the black and we have long had our initial investment repaid. Over the years we have seen dozens of students keen to learn how to defend themselves, many of whom were in Oxford for only a year and wished they could have stayed longer. The club committee is now run by a large team of motivated individuals eager to help out. A couple of us have been with the club since its beginnings and have progressed as far as becoming instructors ourselves.
In the next year or so a London Krav-Tardemet club will see the light of day.
Things are looking good. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Note: the credit for everybody’s monikers goes to the ever-brilliant Cassie Chang.
Cassie and I were watching Human Weapon, in particular the episode about Savate, the French kickboxing style. Fighters were bouncing on the balls of their feet, slipping in and out of range, throwing quick and accurate whipping kicks at each other. The instructor was emphasising the need to stay on your toes and always keep moving. The moment you stop moving you’re done, he said.
Cassie remarked: “This is different from what we do.”
I agreed. “Because they wait,” I said. “They wait to see what the opponent will do.”
It was a competition fight. One on one, fair and square. Keep your opponent off you and you’ve got all the time in the world. In self-defence, that ain’t happening.
“We don’t wait,” I said. “Once the fight starts, we go for it and we don’t stop till it’s over.”
That’s the essence of Krav Maga. You’re ready. You know you will do anything to win, because it’s your life on the line. If the fight comes to you, you finish it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Waste one precious second and your attacker could pull a knife, or one of his friends could come running and knock you over the head with an iron bar while you’re still busy with the first guy. You don’t want to drag it out.
In our practice fights, it’s a five second game. You don’t win by then, you lose. That’s because, in reality, people have lost their lives in fights shorter than that.
But up until now all we were talking about was fighting. Self-defence is much more than that. It all begins long before the first punch is thrown.
On the street, your one and only goal is survival, meaning that if you can avoid a fight, you will. You want to send any would-be attacker one clear signal: there is no need for you to fight me and you have nothing at all to gain by doing so. This requires a lot of courage and self-control and is, unfortunately, not taught in most martial arts. Bouncing around with your guard up certainly sends the exact opposite signal. It’s like screaming at your opponent: “come on, fight me!” If you’re caught on CCTV doing that, you’ll be seen as taunting him, like you wanted that fight, and you won’t be able to plead self-defence. You break the guy’s face, you go to jail. And don’t forget the very real possibility of losing a few teeth yourself. Or worse.
Because of this, and because you can’t always predict when a fight will start, Krav doesn’t have a guard. We stay cool, we talk to the guy and we look like that’s all we’re doing - talking - but at the same time we’re ready. If he backs off, that’s cool, we all go home safe. But if he won’t let it go, the moment he crosses the line, we’re on him. Five seconds later he’s down, and we know the law is on our side. He started the fight. We just finished it.
I practice two martial arts: Krav-Tardemet and Shorinji Kempo. Often people ask me why. Instead of an answer, I usually give them a history of how I started both of them at the same time and appreciate them equally.
Lately I have been thinking of that same old question. Clearly I get more out of doing both than either single one. But what is that elusive thing I’m gaining?
On the one hand Shorinji Kempo has all the technique I will ever need: hundreds of effective strikes and joint manipulations to keep me occupied for the next two decades. Similarly, Krav teaches me to deal with any kind of fighting situation. So why do both?
Most martial arts overlap a lot in the kinds of moves they teach, but the details differ. That can cause a lot of confusion. Take, for example, a simple punch in Shotokan Karate and Shorinji Kempo. You either turn your fist while punching (Karate) or leave it vertical (Kempo). You can pull your other hand down to your hip (Karate) or into your chest (Kempo). You push your heel into the floor and connect your whole body with the ground (Karate) or you push off with the balls of your foot to stay mobile (Kempo). Such incompatibilities are more likely to slow your progress than speeding it up. I’ve seen it happen before - a friend of mine had a decent form and fluidity in Shorinji Kempo but became rigid and robotic after taking up Shotokan Karate. Only after quitting Shotokan and several more months of training did he regain his previous level in Kempo.
The good news is, Krav is fairly compatible with any style. There are no rules in Krav, meaning anything goes as long as it works. So I end up using much of my Kempo technique in Krav and nobody minds because most Kempo techniques work well. So at the very least the two styles don’t hinder each other.
The great thing Krav-Tardemet gives me on top of my Kempo techniques is the ability to deal with stress and improvise. When faced with a tough situation that training kicks in. Even if I forget the right counter for the given situation, I can react on instinct. Even if I have never learnt an appropriate technique, I will do whatever it takes. In Krav, that’s the first thing you learn: it’s all in the mind. Even knowing a million techniques you’re powerless if you don’t react. Even without any technique at all, you can give ‘em hell and save your life.
So there’s my reason. With the Krav mentality and a growing arsenal of Kempo (and Krav) techniques, I’ve got a pretty solid base to build on.
My primary reason for learning martial arts is being able to defend myself on the street.
Self-defence means survival and protection of yourself and, by extension, the protection of other people, places or objects. There are no competitions, no prizes, no glory - none of this means anything. The only thing that matters is protecting yourself and the things you care about. The way this is achieved is unimportant.
A martial art can become a means to defend yourself, but some martial arts are more suited to this than others. Therefore, going to martial arts classes does not mean you can actually deal with a real attack. Street thugs tend to ignore all those nice rules about not hitting below the belt, eye gouging or ganging up on you, four against one, with knives and metal bars in hand. Learning self-defence means learning to be ready for anything.
From personal experience, traditional martial arts don’t teach these skills explicitly. Only after years of training might you have gained some ability in self-defence. I know only one martial art that teaches self-defence extensively, as part of their standard curriculum: Krav Maga.
I practice a style of Krav Maga called Krav-Tardemet. There, right from the first session, you are confronted with the reality of street fighting. Even knowing zero technique you are expected to survive. The first thing you realise is usually that you are prone to freezing under stress. They don’t teach you that in Karate. The only way to stop yourself freezing is to practice reality-based scenarios, with someone actually coming at you like they’re trying to hurt you. Even if the knives are fake and the strikes are controlled, yells, curses and insults alone can make you forget everything you know. And if you freeze in a controlled environment, how can you expect to survive the real thing? Of course that is why we train to cope with stress - it’s one of the hallmarks of Krav.
Another core principle of Krav-Tardemet is that you should be able to learn any technique within one hour. The first technique we teach beginners is the knee to the groin. It’s simple but terribly effective. One of those, done like you mean it, will give you the time you need to escape. Not very elegant, but you live to fight another day. There’s always time for learning jumping high kicks later (if you’ve got a few years to spare).
Greetings traveller. Welcome to 1k2g. A slightly quirky blog about martial arts and self-defence.
My name is Hiro. Hiro Protagonist.
No, seriously, it is.
(OK, so I like Snow Crash. Deal with it.)
Picture me a tall computer geek with a bandana and a love for the martial arts. In real life I do sciencey things with computers at Oxford University, but that’s not really relevant here. In my spare time I have dabbled in various Asian martial arts styles before finally settling on Shorinji Kempo (which is Japanese via China) and Krav-Tardemet (which isn’t Asian at all, but from Israel). Both arts are focused on self-defence but are radically different from each other. Kempo’s philosophy aims to turn you into an altruistic super hero. Krav, on the other hand, settles for giving you a will of steel and an increased chance of survival on the street. After 4 years of practice in both arts, and after meeting and training with amazing people from various other styles, I have a lot of opinions. So this here blog is my outlet for all the things I’ve been wanting to say.
I will warn you from the get-go though: being a geek, I may occasionally digress into rants about technology or Japanese animation. To make up for the ranting, I promise you a mini comic with every major post, xkcd style.