Striking and Self Defense

An old pic of my kid. He tried to knock me out. Couldn’t do it.

A question that I get somewhat regularly is whether or not striking is including in our self defense curriculum.

The answer is – Kind of, but probably not to the degree that you’d think. In short, I feel that the types of strikes that most folks generally think of when comes to personal defense are best left to the highly trained. By highly trained, I mean a person who has several years of striking instruction that came directly from a competent instructor. Not a punching bag in the garage. These two are not the same. This is a “not true” math problem.

Even with someone who fits the definition of “highly trained”, we have to look at the context of the situation. Leaving out context is one of the quickest paths to a dishonest discussion. Context is our way of framing the problem to best develop an effective solution.

So, what’s the problem? That’s a question that you’ll have to answer for yourself in relation to your goals and aspirations. Want to be traditional martial arts competition champion? Striking is necessary for sure. Want to be able to successfully defend yourself from an assault? Maybe striking is needed, but this is where context comes creeping in. One of the most critical elements of that context, when the rubber actually hits the road, is the potentiality of a clinch.

A clinch is defined as a vertical entanglement between the limbs of two people. Basically, one person tries to grab and hold on to the other person, minimizing the effectiveness of strikes. This happens in every combat sport, and when it comes to striking-only sports (ie, boxing), there are rules in place that allow for the separation of the fighters so that the striking contest can continue. These clinches happen with great frequency, even in events where they’re not “allowed”. Each time a clinch happens, the fight is stopped by a referee, the fighters are separated, and then the fight is restarted. Over and over again.

These rules and measures do not exist outside of the context (that dang word again) of these specific sporting events. Watch as many videos of both non-sporting and sporting altercations as you’d like online, and there are plenty out there, and what you’ll find is that the vast majority of these fights have some form of clinch. From playground fights between two kids, to parking disputes – a clinch is very likely.

This post isn’t about how you should conduct yourself should you find your way into a clinch, it’s about how contextually inappropriate striking techniques can land you right into one, and there’ll be no referee to get you out of it.

The worst offenders of this seem to be techniques that focus on strikes to the head that are intended to land at the end of the range of motion of a limb, or techniques where our feet leave the ground. You know, the ones we like to see on TV? The big, spinning head kicks or the huge hooking punches that drop folks like a sack of potatoes. They really are impressive to see, but those folks on TV aren’t you or I. They have many years of professional training at the highest levels of their sport…and even they have a rough time pulling off these magnificent strikes against an unwilling opponent with consistency.

Now, the problem with these techniques isn’t the technique itself, it’s what immediately follows the attempts at these techniques that I take issue with. That problem is our base (the foundation of support that keeps us upright), or better, the disruption or sacrifice of it. These big techniques require big weight shifts, especially if we’re putting the energy into them that’s required to either injure another person, or knock them unconscious – and what that leads to (again, outside of legitimate expertise) is finding ourselves in very awkward bodily positions and postures that make us a sitting duck for a clinch entry and potentially giving up our back to even an unskilled grappler, if we get overly committed to the strike. This trade-off is amplified in arcing and jumping strikes. Obviously, when an attacker or opponent has made it behind us, we’re in quite a bit of trouble. If they clinch, and the likelihood is definitely there, where we go next is mostly up to them (one more time, outside of the highly trained). If I’m in an actual fight, I’d rather not give my attacker the ability to do any of the decision making as to what happens to me next.

I said all of this to say – It is my opinion that teaching these techniques to people who are beginning their journey into the world of self defense is a massive disservice to them. Any strike taught to these folks where our shoulders end up across our body or our foot comes higher than hip level is setting them up for failure, if for no other reason than if their opponent/attacker lunges in for a clinch, they are going to find themselves in deep water that even experienced martial artists can have trouble treading.

Probably my biggest area of concern with teaching these techniques is the audience. You have to know your audience. Who needs this stuff? Who am I trying to reach with this information? If I’m teaching people to fend off an attacker, do I need to give my attention to the 6’3” 270lb college linebacker? Probably not. If he’s in trouble, he likely had a part in putting himself there. What about the non-athletic, 40-something, mom-of-three, school teacher? That’s the person who needs our help! What she doesn’t need is to drill wheel kicks to the head during her yearly 3-hour women’s self defense class. “Alright Edna, I see you brought your walker. Nice. Let’s get into some superman punches.” shouldn’t be part of the plan. Edna’s hands are best left for playing a piano or cross-stitching, not bashing into skulls.

The amount of techniques, both hard and soft skills, that deserve appropriate attention is staggering to the uninitiated. Keep it simple and always work a plan that involves context. 

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