Dear Mr. Dad: Every day there’s a story in the news about violence—whether it’s a terrorist, a mass shooter, or some other nut job. I feel bad for the victims of this violence, but I’m also feeling extremely helpless. I’m thinking about signing all of us up for some kind of martial arts lessons but I don’t want to teach my kids to be violent. I read in one of your columns that you have a background in martial arts. Do you recommend a particular style?
A: I completely understand your feelings of helplessness. Every time I hear one of the stories you’re talking about, I experience exactly the same thing.
Martial arts are wonderful for many reasons: they’re often a great workout, help build coordination and balance, increase self-confidence and self-esteem, improve memory, instill discipline and respect, and, of course, teach you how to defend yourself. But martial arts—particularly traditional styles—aren’t magic. First, no amount of martial arts training will protect you from a bomb or a sniper. Second, most martial arts are a sport, which means they emphasize safety and fair fighting (more on that below). You’ll need to practice for a very long time before the techniques you learn will be useful on the street.
The one exception—the skill you can learn right away—is perhaps the most important one of all: “situational awareness.” Like it sounds, situational awareness is being aware of your surroundings, observing other people’s behaviors, recognizing potential threats, and identifying potential escape routes. Situational awareness (which includes keeping your cell phone in your pocket when you’re walking around) will help you avoid many dangerous situations before they even happen.
My frustration with the lack of practical skills in traditional martial arts is what led me, after years of experience with Tae Kwon Do, to Krav Maga, an Israeli style that’s essentially street fighting—no choreographed forms (kata) or metaphysical discussions. I think I learned more practical techniques in my first month of Krav than in a decade of TKD.
As great as it is, Krav Maga focuses on defense—reacting after someone has started to attack you. The problem with that is that if you’re being attacked, chances are the stress will make you forget all those fancy weapon takeaways, joint locks, and other multi-step techniques. So I became interested in a new approach that’s becoming more common: a totally streamlined system that’s designed to do as much damage to your attacker as possible.
I had a chance to experience two of these, and they were both great. Damian Ross’s Self Defense Training System (myselfdefensetraining.com) teaches a small number of brutal strikes (including punches to the throat and eye gouging) that are easy to learn, can be used in almost any situation, and are absolutely devastating.
Tim Larkin’s Target Focus Training (targetfocustraining.com) has a similar philosophy: “Violence is rarely the answer. But when it is, it’s the only answer.” The goal is to reduce your attacker to a “nonfunctional” state by methodically and viciously attacking vital targets.
One thing you’ll have to overcome if you’re opting for Ross’s or Larkin’s approach is your natural aversion to hurting other people. In martial arts, when you’re sparring, you land a blow, score a point, and then back out. The idea of gouging eyes and breaking knees seems unfair. In the ring, that’s true, but in a real-life attack, your attacker won’t be playing by the rules and you can’t either. So you’ll have to get comfortable with the idea that to protect your family from violence, you (and they) may have to do severe, possibly life-threatening violence, to someone else.
Photo credit: unsplash.com/ Martin Kníže