Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Techniques: "Honoring strikes" and Teaching Realistic Self-Defense

One of the hardest-to-teach, yet most important, concepts in self-defense is the notion of "honoring strikes". Simply put, the term means that we must pretend and act as if a partner's techniques were done at full power while they actually execute them at half strength. This lets our partner practice the move under controlled conditions, building muscle memory and experience, and lets the other partner leave the gym without ambulance assistance. But the problem is that the process is necessarily "acting" and "pretending". Students do not learn self-defense to act and pretend (hopefully not; they can do that at their computers and Nintendos). Moreover, I am not a theater or drama coach. As such, the responsibility of teaching "Honoring strikes" in a martial and realistic context rests almost fully on the instructor, and it is a difficult concept to explain and teach.

In UChicago Self-Defense Club the other night, I did a decidedly poor job of explaining "honoring strikes", in its definition, its practice, and its importance. This post is largely in response to my instruction shortcomings and will hopefully be helpful to other teachers who try and work through this challenging concept.

Self-defense classes prepare you for the most dangerous, chaotic, and violent situations of your life. You will cause damage and take damage in a real encounter, and our job is to ready, even steel you for that moment. Some techniques we teach will cause damage that tries to put our attacker out of the fight (a groin strike, an elbow to the neck, a strike to the trachea). The difficulty is in practicing and replicating those destructive techniques in the gym.

1 hour into the 3 hour photoshoot?
Let's hope he's acting.

That is why self-defense is largely performance. At best, it is realistic acting, as when you emulate the physiological response to a partner's attack. But it can also take the form of outright lying, as when you pretend that your partner's strikes are hitting you in the neck and not in the shoulder. When trained properly, it builds targeting skills, sensitivity to distance and range, and muscle memory. When trained improperly, it teaches you sloppy targeting, ineffective muscle memory, and a false sense of power. So why do we "play" at self-defense instead of going all out and practicing the real thing, broken bones, blood, bruises, and all? Surely if we did that we would know our techniques are working. Why bother with the theater if we can just hit hard?

It's a ridiculous question: Of course we can't practice at that level of power! First of all, we live in a modern society of rights, laws, and logic. We can't legally or ethically strike and throw and jointlock at 100% power. Our partners are our friends and colleagues. Some of them are taking classes for the first time, and nothing says "Welcome to Self-Defense Club!" like a trip to the hospital. Neither instructors or students want to face civil suits or criminal charges following a particularly "HARDCORE" class with real clubs and knives. This forces us to keep power at a reasonable level.

"Just another day at self-defense club?"
Moreover, from a martially practical standpoint, training at such dangerous power levels would leave a gym empty and every student in casts and crutches for months. The key term, to quote my own teacher Prentiss Rhodes, is "partner preservation". We need to maximize our training efficacy while minimizing damage to our partner. That way, we can all come back and train tomorrow while still getting the most out of training today. A damaged partner is no longer a partner, either in the physical sense (he can't stand there and hold a pad for you) or the social sense (after you shatter his collarbone, he probably won't want to hang out with you any more). Thus, partner preservation further demands that we maintain reasonable power.

If we can't execute our strikes at a hospitalizing level of power, we need to tone things down a few orders of martial magnitude. This lets us return to training tomorrow, keeps our friends, saves us lawsuits and jail time, and allows our partner to practice the move in a consistent and safe environment. Of course, there is still the issue of acting, especially bad acting. Given that we must train at a low level of power, how are we to ensure we are doing so realistically?

Most good self-defense techniques are trying to physical elicit a response from your target. This isn't a verbal response ("OW! That hurts!") or a contrived sparring response ("If I feint left he will execute a high block and try and side kick, at which point I will fire my right hook kick and win!"). We want to cause a physiological reaction. When you get hit in the groin, you stop thinking about the choke you are applying and double over. When you get elbowed in the neck, you crunch up into the strike and stop attacking for a second. When you get slammed in the trachea, you stop worrying about wrestling and start worrying about breathing. These are all examples of physiological responses that our body does just by virtue of being human. Self-defense exploits those physiological responses to create openings where we can escape and subdue our attacker. A 5'2", 120 pound female can't just wrestle out of the choke from a 6'2", 240 pound male. But she can slam an elbow into his neck, a tendon-tearing strike into his knee, or a palm into his nose to get him to loosen his grip. Because we target vulnerable areas, our techniques try to work irrespective (for the most part) of size and strength differences, and they work under high stress. The question remains, however, as to how we train these important strikes.

If we were to execute our techniques at full power, there would be no need to act-out the physiological response. We would just do it because we were hit hard. It doesn't require acting to double over after I get soccer-punted between the legs at full power. Nor do I need to pretend to be stunned and disoriented after I eat a full-power slicing elbow right into my carotid artery and nerve bundle, or when I take a knee to the face. But as we already discussed, there are many compelling reasons that prevent us from using full power. That means we can't actually force our partner to do the physiological response we want. So what is our 5'2", 120 lb student to do in class against her 6'2", 240 lb partner? They need to act it out.

Now that we realize we have no choice but to act it out, we enter into a separate problem entirely. Acting is necessarily pretending. How do we know that our strikes actually work? What if our acting is just obscuring the ineffectiveness of our techniques, luring us into a false sense of security and skill? This is dangerous, because it potentially grants an inflated confidence in moves that do not actually work in an encounter. That is the last thing I want to teach, so how do we get out of this trap?

If Matt Damon can do it, you can too.
The answer is that we still must act and pretend, but we must do so realistically. We most "honor strikes". If my partner fires 4 low-power knees into my groin and knee joint, I am going to "honor" his skill as a martial artists and know that he could be blasting those knees at full power. I know that if he did, my stance would crumple and I would double over in pain. Because neither of us actually want to break knees or other sensitive organs, I let my partner knee at a lower power, and I act as if he had kneed at full power. I give him the reaction that he would expect if he actually struck with his highest adrenalized strength. This is realistic, physiological acting.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that students should intuitively understand everything I said above. Remember, they came to learn how to survive brutal, violent encounters by using brutal, violent techniques. They expect realism from self-defense, not sparring, forms, and board breaking. Honoring strikes seems too much like play-sparring than real fighting, even if we know its importance.

The first warning sign should have been
the word "Cobra" in the gym title
As such, if they are not understanding that concept, it is not because they are ignorant, inexperienced, disrespectful, or above all, because they are bad students. As the saying goes, a student is only as "good" as his/her teacher. There are no bad students. Just bad teachers. If your students are not honoring strikes, it is because you have not taught them the "why" and the "how" of doing so. This was the precise failing that I encountered in my class: I personally neglected to teach the concept, so there was no reason for my students to respect it.

Instructors must build the case for honoring strikes in everyday training. We must explain why we can't go full-power (remember, "Welcome to Self-Defense Club! The ambulance is waiting outside!). We must emphasize the need for eliciting physiological responses. And then we must drive home the importance of physiologically realistic acting in place of 100% power attacks. All the while, we must remind students that they should not "give" their partners the technique. If your partner is tapping you in the stomach with his knee when he intends to fire at your groin, that is just an example of bad targeting. But if your partner has good targeting and range, it is his partner's job to pretend that the power is there too. And all of that falls to the instructor because it is our job to teach and our students job to learn what we teach.

For my own part, I will make sure to do a better job at explaining the concept of "honoring strikes" and its importance in training. Other instructors might find the advice in this post helpful for those very same reasons. As self-defense-focused martial artists, these are contradictions that we must grapple with every day. Only through a careful and critical treatment of the issue, both in teaching and in practice, will we train ourselves and our students to prevail while staying out of civil/criminal court, keeping students in class, and preserving our partners for another round on the mat.

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