The physical skills of self-defense are simple. A gun is a nifty machine that throws rocks in a straight line. The physical skills of aiming and pressing a trigger are neither complicated nor demanding. Knives are made to cut, and with a well-honed blade a child can cut material, flesh and tendon. People have killed and maimed with weapons without training or experience and even by accident.
It is the same with unarmed skills. Bringing someone to his knees is not complicated or demanding. A cupped-hand slap over the ears is remarkably reliable.
But simple does not mean easy. Any of these skills will be used in self-defense in a stew of fear and uncertainty where everything begins with the threat in a position of advantage. You might have to think clearly and not have the time to do so; might need to see an opportunity you have never seen before.
This is why we all know that physical training in basic skills is not enough. Marksmanship is not the same as the ability to shoot under duress. The ability to perform a martial technique in a dojo does not mean that you have any idea how to apply the same technique in a sudden assault.
So we train tactical skills and adaptation and, ideally, force-on-force.
But that’s not enough, either. Many of the failures in self-defense are neither physical nor tactical. They are emotional glitches. If you debrief enough people after bad events, you will hear one thing very consistently, “I knew what was happening, I knew exactly what I needed to do. But for some reason, I couldn’t do it.” Many freeze. Some keep doing the same failed technique over and over again in what I call an adrenaline loop. Some find, much to their surprise, that they cannot make themselves do things they know perfectly well how to do.
We all have a lifetime of experience. We all have an emotional underpinning of who we are. In that interaction with nature and nurture, all of us have subconsciously absorbed or created certain rules about what we can or can’t do.
Unfortunately, for the most part those rules were ingrained in normal situations with normal expectations and risks. They might well come out in a life-or-death situation where they are not appropriate. The price can be high.
All humans have issues with using force on another human being. These glitches are largely subconscious and can determine what you will and won’t be able to do. They will come out under stress.
In “Facing Violence” (YMAA2011) I put forward a thought experiment to help find glitches:
Someone comes at you with a butcher knife. You have nowhere to retreat. You have a gun. The Threat has Intent, Means and Opportunity to kill you and you have Precluded all other options. This is a shoot/no-shoot scenario. Do you shoot? Do you kill? Are you okay with that? Think about it.
Notice that shooting and being okay with shooting are two separate issues. If you think they are the same thing, if you think you will be emotionally unscathed by anything that you are willing to do, you probably haven’t thought about it deeply.
Now change an element. As you read what follows, don’t try to think of the right answer. Notice instead where the answer takes a second, when you get a little hiccup in your process. That, my friends, is a glitch.
The Threat is twelve years old. Do you still shoot? Are you okay with that?
If the Threat was six years old? Four?
A pregnant woman?
Would you shoot a pregnant woman in front of her children?
A pregnant woman in front of your children?
A mentally disabled person who can’t realize what they are doing?
Your own spouse?
Your own child?
What if cameras are rolling?
Some of the common glitches come from immature ideas of what force is and should be. If we ever use force, especially deadly force, we want it to be on a bad guy, not a scared kid with a brain chemistry imbalance that prevents him from understanding what he or she is doing.
We train to protect our families, but family members do stab family members. If that is something you choose not to think about, it is a glitch that will freeze you.
If you glitched on the pregnant threat or the child witnesses it may simply be the understanding that decisions of this magnitude have effects that go well beyond the people involved. Creating a corpse creates widows and orphans as well.
And if cameras affect your decision, you may just know that anything bloody is worth airtime and truth is less important than sensation to today’s audience.
These examples only scratch the surface. I have put people through scenarios who were unaware that they could not point a firearm at another human being. One officer had the weapon behind his leg but clearly remembered focusing on his front sight. I have worked with martial artists who could strike a heavy bag with incredible power, but when faced with an armored threat were unable to hit a human being.
The nature of blindspots is that you cannot see your own, and glitches are very much blindspots. Looking for your own is one of the best practices to prevent freezing later. When do you change subjects? What do you dislike talking about? What are the natures of the stories you do not like to hear? When do you insist that you could have done things differently than another person?
What are the things you dislike, the things you avoid doing? Knife training may be a waste of time if you can’t handle messy spills. How much do you have to work yourself up to say what needs to be said? Do you think, for some reason, that shooting will be easier?
And, if you train others, you have an absolute responsibility to look for glitches. To find the hesitations that might cost your students dearly.
You can deal with glitches one of three ways- get over them, adapt to them, or by an act of will.
Get Over Them
Some glitches can be reasoned around. You’ll find a lot of big kids who as adults are hesitant to go hands-on. They have been told from the time they were small that they could hurt other kids and never to hit. With this student profile, you can show them how they can judiciously scale force only if they stay in control. If they hold back until they are desperate, the tendency to over-react under fear will make them more likely to injure.
Many women in martial arts have learned through bitter experience that if they have the physical skills to beat a man, many men will raise the impact level in order to not lose. These women have been conditioned that it is safer to lose to a man than it is to win. Logic won’t help with this one, the conditioning is too deep. They need to be trained in an environment where the fighting is fair and success is rewarded, not punished.
People who will not fight for themselves will usually fight for their children. Sometimes, they grasp that defending themselves is saving their children from growing up as orphans…
Adapt to the Glitches
There are certain people who will not be able to get over certain glitches. Usually, this is conscious. Someone who can’t seem to hurt people is acting unconsciously. Someone who self-identifies as a pacifist is acting consciously and will not want to get over a glitch.
There are effective low-risk-of-injury techniques in some martial arts, and peaceful people need to concentrate there. The weapon equivalent is a Taser© as opposed to a handgun. I am convinced that one of the reasons threats tend to comply faster facing Tasers than guns is because they know fewer officers will hesitate to tase.
I personally believe that using a knife is primarily an emotional skill, not a technical one, and that relatively few people could use a knife. If a person can’t cut the throat on a goat or chop the head off a chicken or rabbit, I have little faith that they can stick a blade into the stomach of a screaming, struggling human being.
An Act of Will
On the surface, it is simple. You realize you are in a bad situation, you decide what to do, and you make yourself do it.
The trap in this is that it is so easy to say, and so easy to believe. If your will is that strong, go outside right now and roll in the mud. Did you do it? If so, I believe that you can make yourself do what you need to do. If not, I doubt your will. More importantly, you should doubt it too.
Can you, as an act of will, be rude to a stranger? Why do you think it would be easier to hit one? How often, really do you just say, “No.” “No” as a complete sentence, without the urge to explain and make sure that someone’s feelings haven’t been hurt? Because in the end, any act of self-defense is saying “No!”
Teaching self-defense is about teaching students, not about teaching subject matter. Each of your students will have different abilities, needs…and glitches. Your ability to find the psychological hesitations that can make your students freeze may, literally, be the difference between life and death.