To train effectively for anything it's essential to understand what that thing is. As we are concerned about real-world violence, the first step is to understand what we may encounter on the street.
It is hard to generalise or to describe a "typical" self-defence encounter as there are an immense number of possibilities. But as a starting point we can use crime data to analyse the most common occurrence of stranger violence (i.e., not domestic abuse or committed by an acquaintance) for male-on-male assaults in England. I chose male-on-male violence as it is a much larger data set, not because I am writing specifically for men.
Based on UK crime data, the most typical scenario occurs at the weekend in the evening after dark and away from the home, often near a pub or club. The enemy is in the age range 25 – 39 and drunk. No weapon is used. While the statistics indicate that in 71% of cases a single assailant is involved, 29% of cases is enough to make it worthwhile to assume that there is more than one attacker or that bystanders may become additional enemies at any time. Similarly, while weapons are not frequently used, the risk that there may be a weapon should always be factored in as there is little to lose by assuming a weapon is present in comparison to the downside of wrongly assuming no weapon is available. As guns are rare in the UK, we will assume the weapon is a knife with a short enough blade to easily conceal.
If you live somewhere other than the UK, or a part of the UK where the data is different, then you should construct your own scenario. If you are an instructor, then your first task is to ensure your students understand what they may face on the street as this shapes all the other training.
Ultimately the whole point of this first set of drills is to reinforce to students that real-world violence is nothing like the dojo. Attacks can come from anywhere by anyone at any time. Your best defence is to pay attention and avoid attacks before they develop.
Before starting any training, ask your students to imagine that the dojo is a night club, stadium or bar that they are visiting for the first time. Get them to talk briefly about the threats that might arise and what they might do in response. For example, say “imagine that’s the bar over there, and you see two men arguing fiercely. What would you do?” Look for answers like “leave, move closer to the exit, keep an eye on it and if it escalates move away.” Now proceed with the planned training but point out when students are forgetting that they are pretending to be in a different environment. For example, if they take sparring to the ground, remind them that they are in a muddy festival field surrounded by thousands of people, so it is probably a bad idea to roll on the ground.
There can always be a second threat, or a third, and a bystander may become a threat at any time. This drill is a modification of any karate training but works best with one-on-one free sparring drill. Introduce a free agent whose purpose is to touch any of the participants on the shoulders from behind or the side. If touched, a “punishment” is in order – maybe 10 press ups. This encourages participants to maintain awareness to avoid the press ups. When explaining the drill, the instructor should refer to their risk analysis, for example by saying “29% of violent encounters involve a second attacker, so you need to remain aware all the time; this drill helps you to practice that awareness.”
Secretly hand a safe training knife, empty plastic bottle or similar object to one student and ask them to keep it concealed until their sparring partner moves into grappling range or takes the fight to the floor. After the student has been “stabbed” repeatedly, call everyone together and remind them that they should always assume a weapon might be in play. Remember to praise the student if they stay out of range or spot the knife and take some action (e.g., shouting “knife, knife!” and backing off).
Ask two people to ground fight while avoiding being kicked by other students. Feed in one student at a time (i.e., start off with one student trying to kick the sparring pair, then make it two). Afterwards ensure the students have recognised that it is impossible to avoid being kicked and therefore staying off the ground is a good idea.
Ask a student to fill their hands by carrying something like their water bottle and kit bag. Let them experience how much their defence is slowed down if they must clear their hands first (a more advanced version of this drill is discussed later where the student uses the object as part of their defence).
Ask students to share any real violence they’ve seen or experienced in the past, or something shared on social media. Encourage them to come up with ways of dealing with it more effectively. For example, if they’ve seen someone grabbed from behind and held in a bear hug, get them to think about bunkai that would work from this position. This isn’t intended to be training per se, but to get them to think about the real events that happen and therefore the need to consider the risks.
In a quiet moment, or when students do something they should, show them a few videos. E.g., find videos where people became victims because they didn’t pay attention. Here a man pushing a wheelchair enters the hospital even though an attack is already in progress. Point out how awareness is critical and how common behaviours, like wearing headphones, reduce awareness.
Following on from drill 7, try and find videos or descriptions of real events where the attack was completed unexpected. For example, a cyclist launches an attack after being cut up accidentally. Remind people that everyone is either a high risk to your safety, because they are actively threatening you, or an unknown risk because they might turn into a threat.
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