Letters: Women’s self-defence

12 November 2006

I would be interested to hear your views with regard to women & self defense. I still run short courses for women and have included (mostly from your DVDs) many more contact/grappling drills that includes the experience of trying to knock a guy out who is padded up.

–Kenneth Milling

There is a lot of criticism going around with regards to my continual references to MMA and criticisms of karate, etc. People say, why don’t I just get on and do what I do best? I wish that I could, but as long as karate and RBSD and their like continue to sell the easy option, they effectively make it impossible for me to make a living by calling it as it is. This is why I’ll continue to plug MMA and criticize anything that is not reality based.

Having the will to fight is important but having the will to train realistically and consistently is more important.

I’m telling you this because as a trainer, these are problems you’re probably going to encounter for yourself, if you haven’t encountered them already. People want an easy option. And there isn’t one.

For whatever you are going to do, you have to have a method which is based on MMA, but maybe without calling it MMA if it’s not for competition and you’re worried about the image: many people hear MMA and they’re thinking of guys with big muscles, ring girls, and loads of testosterone. I’ve got the same problem with my classes: people think I ‘do MMA’ as if it’s all pro fighters in my courses, when that’s not the case. The whole point of my method is that it’s applicable to anybody: men, women, kids, you name it. In the case of the latter, naturally you need to make some adaptations, but it’s the same method.

The reason I go on about MMA is because it’s the best reference for what goes on in an unarmed fight. You can go home and put your DVD in and watch it for real. There’s no guesswork, in that sense.

Remember, you always have to deal with the worst case scenario. One very likely worst-case scenario for a woman is ending up down on the ground being raped. That’s where the man’s going to try to put her, one way or the other. Those are the kind of scenarios you need to go through in the gym. Break them down and work them at high intensity.

This is where MMA is ideal. You can look at the film and it will deal with many of the scenarios, on the feet and on the ground, open and closed position, that are likely to come up. From a woman’s perspective, the guard position is crucial. Knowing how to use it to her advantage could change her situation from defensive to offensive, or allow her to escape or reverse the position. But you don’t work it in a self-defence context. It’s part of the whole picture of fighting. She has to become a fighter. Mindset, conditioning, all of it. She can’t expect to be some victim who turns into a victor. There’s no such thing as right and wrong/good and bad in a fight. Who knows how to fight, wins.

People tend to think, ‘I’m doing self-defence, and because I’m doing self-defence, right is on my side and therefore I will be victorious.’ That’s fucking bullshit. You’re kidding yourself.

Whether or not you go looking for it, a fight’s a fight. You’ve just got to watch the CCTV evidence to see that. The guys you see who are out there on the streets, many of them dangerously violent. You can’t deal with that with a few self-defence moves, and it’s misleading (I think criminal) to provide people with an expectation (i.e., ‘I’ll teach you self-defence’) and then apparently fulfil it through the lessons, when in fact it’s impossible to bestow that on somebody in ten easy lessons. Even if you can fight, you can’t teach somebody else to fight without putting them through the punishment.

The problem is, how do you put the person through the challenging, punishing, competitive situation without causing injury? That’s what my method does, and your only problem lies in creatively adapting it to the individuals you’ve got to deal with. That, and competing with the self-defence guru down the road who promises to give all the secret techniques.

You need to teach women exactly the same as you teach men. No compromise in what you’re teaching. The problems they have to deal with are the same. That’s why there’s no such thing as a beginner’s course. There’s no such thing as a progression within the lesson: this is how we begin, this is the middle, this is the end. When I’m teaching, I’m not spoonfeeding things. I’m not making it easy for you to take in the information. You either pick it up, or you don’t, and then you have to persist until you do pick it up. The main thing is, you’re in the water and you’re swimming—or trying to swim.

I teach in this intense way because you have to learn to pick up information and work under pressure. And you need to try out and test what you’ve picked up in a competitive fighting environment where you will be punished for your mistakes. So that the next time you pay more attention to what I’m saying and doing. You have to be training as though your life depends on it, because it very well might.

I also work in a way that is non-linear. It’s not systemized. The reason for that is because I don’t believe in perfect form or trying to get the concepts and principles across in a perfect way. I don’t want to dwell on creating an ideal. I want the student to understand what he as an individual has got to do within a situation.

As a teacher, that takes a certain amount of skill. On my part, throughout the class, there’s a certain manipulation going on that the participants may or may not be aware of. I’m looking to bring something out of them, to realize their potential. I’m looking not to force them into a mold, but to get them to understand the concepts and principles and more importantly, to apply them, realistically. And to do it now, not in six months’ time. Because that’s the emergency mindset you need.

As a teacher, I know there’s no such thing as perfect form. I know there’s no such thing as a perfect training method. But I do know principles and concepts exist which are fundamental to fighting and training.

Different people pick up a principle different ways, so as a teacher I have to present that in different ways until the person gets it. And I can do that because I understand the principle inside-out myself. That’s the way my brain’s configured; I’m creative enough to be able to reach you wherever you are, no matter what level. I make no distinction between a beginner and an advanced student. My problem is reaching the person and getting the concepts and principles over in different ways. Each person is an individual.

I’ve never been able to be taught by rote, and I sure can’t teach by rote.

But most people can’t teach the way I do. That’s probably why the martial arts have become systemized: because the art of teaching combat (armed or unarmed) has been lost.

Many karate people will tell you that karate is ‘self-defence,’ and they have moves from their katas that they apply to what they believe would be a confrontational scenario. Many of these moves include pre-emptive strikes. But the thing is, if the pre-emptive strike doesn’t work, you’re definitely in a fight. And unless you know how to fight, then your self defence not only doesn’t work, but you’ve just ‘hit the bear on the nose’ and potentially got yourself in a worse situation. Now I’m not saying that pre-emptive strikes are useless—far from it—but they mustn’t be relied on.

It’s all part and parcel of the fight.

Any martial art must include the worst scenarios. You are potentially having the shit kicked out of you. How are you going to deal with it? Unless you’ve realistically addressed that within the gym, then when it happens for real, it’s too late. It’s over. You’re in hospital already.

Better to be punished in the gym, in a controlled environment, than on the street in an uncontrolled one. And that’s why, in the case where you describe padding a guy up and getting the woman to try to knock him out, it would make sense to also pad up the woman and let her take the hits. Learning how to take punishment is at least as important as learning how to give it. But when you do any of this stuff, there must be a goal that you’re trying to achieve within that scenario. Don’t just be dishing out and giving beatings all evening. You need to have missions.

So you might say that while he’s punching the shit out of her, her mission is to grab hold of him and knee him. For example. You know what I mean because you’ve got the DVDs.

You can apply my method to anything (knife, anything). And with the knife, because there is no DVD footage of real-life knife fights to draw on, your best bet for reference is the Filipino systems because they come out of a knife culture. Those methods wouldn’t be continually used if they weren’t being shown to be effective. So whatever knife work you’re doing, if it doesn’t resemble the Filipino systems, then it isn’t reflecting the experience of the real fight.

So: with the right method, you can rehearse in a relatively safe way. But the main thing is, if your scenarios are not including the worst possible situation, then you’re raising an expectation that we know, when we watch a fight, is unrealistic. Some of the fights I’ve had, I’ve come out looking worse than the guy I’d beat. But the only reason I came out of it and got to the other end was because I can take punishment. And I’m able to remain focused on what I need to achieve. As a martial artist, you will only get that if the training you are doing involvs you taking a supervised beating.

That’s what my method allows you to do.

You do have to find a way to factor in the man. I sometimes see feminist groups running self-defence courses where a woman’s teaching the class and all the other participants are women. But they’re unlikely to be attacked by other women. And it doesn’t matter what the experience of the teacher is, if men aren’t factored into the equation, using a punishing and competitive method, then again, I believe it’s criminal. Because it isn’t going to work.

There’s no short cut to this thing called fighting. And that’s what defending yourself is. Fighting.

Back in Earlham Street we had a woman called Lynn . She fought and trained with the men and she showered with them. The men were as indifferent to her as she was to them. And she gave as good as she got. But she was obviously one in a million. The rest of the women who came in were Barbie dolls; they took one look and made for the exit.

The problem is, the average woman is not going to be like Lynn . But you have a lot of media images that are telling women they can fight like Lynn , without going through the blood, sweat and tears. Around here, we call it the Buffy phenomenon. So how do you handle it?

Again: the best way is to do MMA-based training. True, even the best female MMA fighter is not going to beat the best male MMA fighter. But she’s got a better shot with MMA than with anything else out there. And she’ll get a realistic sense of her own strengths and weaknesses. She’s not fooling herself, and nobody’s fooling her. And if she’s well-trained, she’ll probably be able to beat a hell of a lot of men.

She’ll also be a martial artist, in a true sense, and not a make-believe sense. And that’s important. Through the fight training, she’ll develop a reality-based mindset, by which she can then know what’s bullshit and what isn’t if she persists in her martial art studies. In a street situation, she’ll now have that killer instinct. She’ll be resourceful in using anything in her environment that might help her survive the encounter.

There is always going to be the argument put forward by many martial artists that teaching something is better than teaching nothing at all. I would agree with this, if the ‘something’ is about teaching the person to fight back no matter who, or what the odds are, but when the ‘something’ is a lot of silly self-defence moves, then that’s criminal.

My own daughter, she’ll grow up with me. I know where she needs to be, and I’ll get her there. I’ll do everything I can to give her the reality without hurting her. As a trainer, you need to know where you’re going with this thing. What is the reality? How are you going to get each individual up to scratch to achieve it? It must be clear in your mind before you set out. No bullshit.

Because Rhiannon trusts me, I’ll be able to pass on to her in play and play fighting what she needs to know, and whatever exercises, drills, play or playfighting methods I devise for her (or the boys for that matter) will have specific purposes.

But the problem with trust is that too many people will trust anybody who calls themselves a teacher.

My method involves intense technical drilling, situational drilling, situational fighting, conditional fighting, and play fighting which as you know is very different from what anybody else does, whether in MMA or in RBSD. Because of the high intensity, trust is a key element. The practitioners need to get the experience without being hurt. And from a woman’s perspective, she needs to know that the instructor isn’t going to end up groping her. And that’s the beauty of my training method: it’s an instructional method that lets the practitioner jump into the pool on day one. It’s not touchy-feely like a lot of self-defense (‘I come up behind you and grab you, swing your hips to the left,’ you know what I mean) and she’s going to be making her own judgement calls through the missions and conditions I set as the trainer. So with my method, it’s not about trusting an instructor, it’s about trusting your training partners and the method you’re using.

So if you’re running these courses, you’ve got to make sure you stay out of the role of the wise guru. Don’t forget, like I’ve been repeating since the 1970s (and I see Harry Cook has picked it up and is using it) the function of the teacher is to create drills, situations, and scenarios that call for a needed response.. That’s the whole basis of my method. For the trainee, it’s not about ‘where do I put my foot’ or ‘how do I do this?’. It’s about being given clear objectives that reflect how the fight might break down. And then putting everything you’ve got (as an interval training set of repeating the same or different 30-second missions over a 30 min period or 6 times 5 mins rounds) into achieving those objectives.

The reality that you see in MMA has to be the reality that you’re training with. We know it works. RBSD and the traditions are unproven, beyond anecdotal evidence. And that’s what you need to convince your self-defence students, probably the women in particular: that there is no alternative. When they look at MMA, what are their eyes telling them is happening? They must believe only in this, and not in what they want to believe based on movies or the claims of some ‘master’ or guru.

This is the reality. Do you want some of it?

For the women you’re training, they have to buy into this reality, lock, stock and barrel. There is no other choice; the other methods don’t work, unless they’re reality-based—in which case they’re the same thing as MMA. If you can’t persuade your trainees of that, then there’s nothing else you can do. You can’t water it down. That’s an injustice. This reality of the fight cannot be compromised.