It is common to hear people speak of self-defense as a motivation for karate training. Yet, the dojo environment is not representative of a real self-defense scenario. So, how can training help prepare us to defend ourselves? If our motivation for training is self-defense, what can we do in training to best help us accomplish this goal?
No matter what we do, nothing in class will ever completely replicate a real-life self-defense scenario. Even in intense training, we always have at least two aspects that will keep it from being “real”: (a) by the fact that we are at training in the dojo, the element of surprise is removed from the need to defend ourselves, and (b) we have the knowledge that our partner in training is not actually trying to kill, rape, or injure us.
So, if self-defense is a motivation for training, how can we approach class, or what can we do to develop skills that will help us to defend ourselves?
1) Train our mindset – If we keep the right attitude and approach in the dojo, then karate training can help us develop awareness of our situation and our opponent, focus on the task at hand, and can teach us to remain calm in dangerous situations. We also learn that it’s not the end of the world to get hit – we learn to take a hit and keep focus to continue the fight. We learn humility so that we do not let our ego get in the way - as one of the Niju Kun tells us, “Do not think that you have to win; think, rather, that you do not have to lose.”
2) Approach training with intensity and control – In kihon and kata practice, maintain focus and intensity, and work to improve your technique to make it effective to defend yourself, not to make it look pretty. In partner training, push your partners to just above their limit so that they are always working a little harder. With control, throw your techniques like you mean them and at the target so that your partner has a chance to test if their defenses actually work. Perform basic sparring with intensity. As you advance in rank, add subtleties to your basic sparring, such as changes in timing to work on reactions and adapting to your opponent. Keep a strong focus in sparring, and imagine your partner has a weapon. A glancing punch may not do damage, but imagine that fist was holding a knife and the outcome may be different – train for the worst-case scenario. In free sparring, learn to focus on your opponent, react to what is happening in the moment, and remain calm under pressure. In training, make sure to test your techniques against bigger, stronger, and faster opponents. Seek the harder partners out in training – do not allow yourself to take the easy way out, but rather test yourself to make sure that it works. Include impact training regularly to practice using techniques to transfer power. Hit things like the makiwara, heavy bag, or pads to test your technique and see where you need more training.
3) Train against non-karate attacks – We should never assume that our assailant will be trained in karate attacks and will attack us with an announced oi tzuki or mae geri. Therefore, we should also include, as part of our training, defense against attacks such as hay-makers, grabs, weapon attacks, etc. We should practice in a self-defense scenario, as closely as we can. This can start as simply as trying to determine applications to basic techniques against non-karate attacks. We should also examine similar applications to our kata, where we defend against “street” attacks. We should practice as realistically as possible, while still maintaining a safe environment. This may involve things like practicing in our normal everyday clothing, or using safe alternatives in weapons practice (for example, using a spoon as a simulation for a knife).
One important point to remember in self-defense training is that we need to have an understanding of self-defense law and its implications. It can also be helpful to understand the common types of crime, how altercations begin, and what you can do to avoid these situations. Our goal in any situation should be to do the minimum possible to stop the fight. Our first defense is always to avoid the situation. Physical techniques are used only in the most dire of circumstances and as a last resort. Even then, we must do only the minimum to gain control of the situation and keep ourselves safe, but must never become the assaulter ourselves by doing more than what is necessary.
Self-defense is not the only aim of training, but it is an important element and motivation for serious karate practitioners. Your motivation to defend yourself will show through in your attitude and approach to training. Learning to defend yourself is not an automatic by-product of showing up to class. But with the right state of mind in the dojo, there is much that we can gain from karate training to develop our skills for use in case we are ever unfortunate enough to need to use them.
Submitted by: Kimberly Baran, Sandan