Back To Life, Back To Reality Part II – Dave Wignall

Recap from Part I, Well, the reality is that you have been negligent in your considerations. You have not realised the stark differences between the environment in which you train and the environment outside. You finish training, pleased that you have just learnt a certain technique, strike, weapons defence, lock, choke, takedown, whatever it is, but then open the door and walk back onto the street to make your way home. Back to life and back to reality. Your Dojo is a cocoon of like-minded people who don’t want to hurt you (well, not too much) and will aid you, unknowingly most of the time, in helping you succeed. That is a great and wonderful thing of course, and something to be welcomed. I am proud of all of my students, the mutual respect they show for each other, the understanding, the stories, the insights, the questioning, the laughs, the fun – mostly the fun – but we never lose sight of the fact of why we train like we do and why we train at all.

So how can we identify flaws? Well here is something I work to that follows a basic scientific process of analysis and test.

1. Ask questions
2. Do your background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test (slow then fast under pressure, preferably not with someone who just yields because you are the Chief Instructor) and analyse your data
5. Draw your conclusions
6. Present your results

During my classes I am already at point 6. It is then open for my students to ask questions, do their own research and so on. If the defence technique works when performed slowly, then falls apart when practised fast, then you have identified a weakness and have something to work on.

I’ve found that much of what is taught, across the many disciplines I have either been involved in or studied and analysed, is not based on or even remotely looks like reality, rarely takes into account how people actually react, and is generally far too assumptive. Real fighting is messy, ugly, unrehearsed, aggressive, violent, usually bloody and let’s face it, quite abominable. Real fighting is all this and more. The flaw in all of our training is that none of it is real, but we can at least introduce some semblance of reality. Even in MMA, Boxing or Muay Thai, where an opponent can be struck with full force, there are still huge issues with those disciplines. For example, there are rules, a referee, time limits, people sitting at your corner waiting to help you recover each round, a towel can be thrown in the ring to stop the fight, doctors are on hand, plus as you enter the ring, you should already have an idea of what you are letting yourself in for. In addition, there is only one opponent not multiple, no weapons are carried nor are any laying around to be used. Biting, gouging, strikes to the throat or groin are not allowed. No hair pulling, no scratching, no kicks to the head are allowed when your opponent is on the floor etc etc. The list is quite long. Even during the 1920’s in the days of bare knuckle Vale Tudo (Portuguese for ‘anything goes’), you could kick and stomp to the head while standing above your opponent, but there was still the absence of weapons and multiple attackers. As harsh, hard, aggressive and violent as it was, it still had flaws in that it wasn’t ‘real’ in the context of this article. The thing is, it didn’t profess to be something it wasn’t and there is, of course, nothing wrong with that.

You can see, however, that the more you take steps to train without rules, the more effective your defence can become. Why do we not have kicks to the head on a grounded opponent in UFC? Why doesn’t MMA contain strikes like ploughing a knee square into the face of an opponent kneeling on the canvas? The answers are obvious, I would hope, but you can do that in real life if the threat is such that the level of force is proportionate and justified. I have personally trained with some very proficient Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts fighters and although they were more experienced in their field than me, I stopped my partners in their tracks when I applied an eye gouge, struck to the groin or applied some pressure on the windpipe with my elbow. This of course did not make me any better than them – far from it; these guys were very able in their art. It’s just that I was responding without the consideration of rules. I did what my survival default told me to do. If you apply rules, it isn’t reality training because there are no rules in a real fight. If your responses require fine motor skill applications, it isn’t reality training because things happen too fast for you to apply them; if you only ever train against one person, it isn’t reality training; if your training does not involve any form of pressure testing that is unscripted and non-choreographed, it isn’t reality training. There are many other aspects but you get the idea.

During my 18 years training and teaching Shotokan Karate, whenever I taught anything that remotely resembled a real attack, the defence fell apart. Students were lost when their practised defence failed. There was no contingency and no real mention of what happens if your first line of defence or counter strike fails. I understand that of course because again, it is a traditional Martial Art that is structured, generally follows a strict syllabus and is full of techniques that don’t work. It’s too scripted, too ‘clean’, too convoluted, and far too assumptive. Real fighting is none of those.

In 2006 I was invited to Japan to attend a Ju-Jitsu World Congress. Over 200 Students from around the world and a good number of very qualified instructors were all teaching their thing. What was noticeably constant was that for all demonstrations, opponents were compliant and it was all pretty much choreographed. Again I understand that. What was being taught was a traditional Martial Art. Yes, there were techniques that were applied with a certain level of force and yes, there were indeed some responses that could work. However, not once did I see anything that resembled a real attack. Students moved and responded in a certain way that would aid the defence response.

I’m aware that you are unable to attack 100% with full force. There are a finite number of students and your club would not last too long, but with padding and body protection the pressure could’ve been increased to get close to something a little more realistic. Fighting is far too dynamic and contains far too many variables to have the time to apply fine motor skills, flamboyant and over-technical responses, and, against a committed attacker, even a padded up one, it should highlight just how impractical a lot of these traditional defences are.

Hick’s law, named after British psychologist William Edmund Hick, describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has: increasing the number of choices will increase the decision time logarithmically. So from a Self Protection angle, the more complicated the technique, the more choice we have in the syllabus, the longer it will take to process, and therefore the longer it will take to apply. During an attack, time is not on our side.

So, as I mentioned earlier, we have to understand and be clear on what we are learning. If we are being taught something that we are told is Self Protection and yet when put under pressure, the defence falls at the first hurdle, then it must be addressed. A student should be made aware from the outset if what they are learning, for example, is based on a traditional system. By that I mean they need to be aware if it has been handed down through the years and as a result would very likely have been changed and adapted, would usually contain certain techniques that may well have worked in feudal Japan, but is neither practical or workable for your average non-warrior in the street arena of today. It is important that the student is under no illusion.

Another way to identify flaws is to introduce elements of reality. It’s a simple task to get a well-trained student to perform a series of set techniques against an opponent who is attacking in a particular way. It will work fine. Transfer that same scenario to the street, mix it with a cocktail of adrenaline, non-adrenaline and endorphins, include a level of fear which you have never experienced or comprehended before that makes your legs turn to jelly, makes you want to vomit and empty your bowels and renders you incapable to talk or think straight, and you will discover that they are worlds apart. All of that without yet being hit, without seeing your own blood in your hands, without trying to make sense of what is going on, all without a real knife at your throat, or a firearm pointed at your head. A bit different, huh?

It would of course be ridiculous for me to suggest that I could even try to mirror this full-on street scenario during my classes, for obvious reasons, but what I can do is educate, analyse and develop. We can make our training honest and open to the fact that we can fail and mess up. If we don’t understand or even acknowledge where the weaknesses are in what we do, how can we possibly grow and progress in the right way? Nothing is set in stone and nor should it be.

I teach Krav Maga (Hebrew for Contact Combat), an Israeli system that, before its military links were established, was developed to help civilians defend themselves, irrespective of size or gender. By maintaining that ideal, it enables me to stress tactical and strategical implementation over technique. Whatever the defence is, it has to be able to work for anyone, and if what is being taught is based purely on technique alone, the result will be that it will work for some and not for others or may even fail completely. This is a major consideration when students are supposed to be learning something that should be protecting themselves, yet find they are one of the students the technique doesn’t work for!

So what can we do to overcome a technique only based system? I teach a three part strategy: disrupt the thought process of your attacker; unbalance your attacker; inflict damage/cause pain to your attacker. How you implement this strategy however, is not that important, but success in application will increase your chances of survival. The individual has to adapt to what he/she is presented with and, with so little time available to respond, the response should undoubtedly be quick, efficient, and take little thought process. When a technique fails, where do you go from there? If you have a plan and that fails, do you have a plan B or C? Do you have a contingency? If the strategy fails at any point, you can pick it up, overlap, and begin the strategy again, and again, and again. Implement an applicable strategical process and you will be able to continuously adapt to the stimulus.

It is important to remember that if something is principally sound and taught to students in their thousands, it does not by any means make it flawless, honest or real. Indeed the automatic acceptance of something that is taught that way because “just look at the pedigree, it must be correct” is rarely if at all questioned. It is also important to be aware that there are many that look to feed the money machine, fill the pockets of those at the top, exploit the naive and uneducated, and serve to set the pedestal of the untouchable instructor even higher.

Whatever it is we are learning or teaching, we must operate within the realms of reality and seek the truth. With something that is as important as surviving a life threatening attack, the analytical breakdown and defence responses should be commensurate. What we should be left with is something that is honest, practical and workable. Reality and life should not be different because they are one and the same. Life is our reality, and if what we are learning does not reflect this, then we need to question ourselves and what we do before it’s too late.

Back To Life: Back To Reality, Part I – Dave Wignall

The Martial Arts industry is many things. For a start it is very political. No news there really. It is also very changeable and, at times, even fashionable. A bit like the latest ‘Keep Fit’ download or DVD. “Train like celebrity X, you too can be like (insert name)” and all that hyped nonsense. That said, Martial Arts training is also very rewarding, educational, inspirational, confidence boosting, can help improve self esteem, improve on general health and fitness, instil a great sense of achievement and push us to our physical limits. There is indeed an abundance of good stuff that Martial Arts training can give us that would be hard to dispute.

However, sadly, it also breeds bad stuff. Bad stuff that welcomes greed, massages egos, produces inexperienced instructors, encourages ‘untouchable’ and unchallengeable individuals sitting high on usually self appointed pedestals, or offers a second income once you have taken a quick instructor course if you have the cash ready. Naturally there’s no experience necessary. In fact if you don’t have the money to hand, or maybe you don’t even want to put in any amount of work to achieve this superficial instructor level, you can always go online and buy a black belt certification of your choice with a shiny new black belt to match. You can buy a Karate 4th Dan, Ju-jitsu 5th Dan, or even an (ahem) Expert or (ahem) Grand Master level in Krav Maga and Voila! You are ready to teach anyone who wants to pay you their hard earned cash. No questions asked of course. I mean, what’s the point of credibility in an industry that has few governing bodies that rarely investigate, check and ensure that what is being taught to students is safe?!

The quite shocking and dangerous thing with these clubs and organisations is that once the metaphorical smoke and mirrors clear and break, what is left is the stark belief by many that what is being taught, inexperienced or not, is a self protection system that – when transferred to the street – will work. The harsh reality is, of course, it won’t. Well ok, it could have some level of success, but this is generally down to the individual resorting to their own ‘default’, which could be simply lashing out at the attacker and running away at pace. No skill in that and training is hardly needed, huh? Effective? Yes. Looks good? No. So why then do we see so much convoluted, fine motor skill based defences being taught when, in all honesty, they haven’t really got a chance of being successful? The answer? I believe it is because ultimately, very little is challenged. Techniques and concepts are just accepted and it is taken for granted they will work without question, and therefore the ‘parrot fashion’ learnt technique is duly acknowledged by all that ‘x’ is what you do when ‘y’ is presented. No margin for failure, no margin for error, no tactical application, no strategic implementation, just learn by rote.

I’ve found across my many years of teaching in this industry that challenging instructors is something that aggravates them and, to some degree, the students of these instructors can also be equally touchy. This shouldn’t be the case at all because we are all here to learn, right? Why they react in the way they do can be for a whole host of reasons. Challenge or suggested change can be viewed as a direct attack on their teaching ability, their Martial Arts prowess, or their precious discipline. In case it is overlooked, I will mention at this point that I don’t go in for the hero worshipping nonsense. We are all human beings and some of these people were in the right place at the right time. Years of training along a certain ‘pedigree’ does not automatically make that person right in what they say or do. Yes, they may be extremely good at what they do within a safe and controlled environment, but if it were possible to take what they are teaching out of the Dojo, place them in a violent, real life situation, and see how they fare, I think most would be shocked. All theoretical of course but to know what ‘reality’ is, you have to experience it or at least talk to people who know what they are talking about. You can’t beat experience. Mike Tyson once said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. I tend to agree.

So whatever the reason may be for these challenges being taken the wrong way, there should never be anything wrong with being asked a question. I advocate it in my club. Are we not all here to learn together, grow together, develop together and in doing so, all remain that little bit safer? If a student of mine presented me with a defence/technique/response that seemed more effective, more efficient than one I was teaching, I would willingly break it down, work with it under pressure and if it proved to be a more practical approach than something I currently taught, I would introduce it into the club. No ego, no feelings hurt, no embarrassment, just being truthful and open. By not taking on board the views and opinions of others, by not even opening the door for discussion, we end up building a very closed and insular environment and culture in which we train. This has no benefit to the student or instructor alike yet sadly, experience has shown that when questions are asked and challenges put out there, illusions are disrupted, dents are created in fragile egos and comfort zones breached. Possibly the worst of all is that when a more efficient method is actually presented, and the instructor knowingly continues to teach the less effective option, the teaching becomes dishonest and as a result, is short-changing the student. “My bat, my ball, my club and I teach what I want to, even if my students are being lied to” is an attitude I have seen adopted by far too many people. It fast becomes more about the instructor than it does the student.

I’ve been actively involved in Martial Arts and Self Protection for 34 years now and have been teaching for around 20 of those years. During that time I have been privileged to have met and trained with some wonderful, experienced people who have been at the top of their game and who, as individuals, have taught thousands of students across the world. The thing is, as a student or a teacher, we have to be clear about the nature of our training. Is it a traditional Martial Art, for example, like Karate or Ju-Jitsu, or is it a sport like Mixed Martial Arts? Certain aspects of each of these can of course cross over into the street arena, but it is a dangerous path to tread if the training processes of the student instil a false sense of ability and security. There are exceptions to the rules, of course – there always are – but these are generally few and far between. When, within the realms of regulated competition, even professionals find it difficult to secure an arm bar or a choke, what hope would your average student – training once or twice a week – have against a committed attacker? If, when training in the Dojo, your fast, pressure-tested knife defence works perfectly against your partner – who helps your defence succeed by attacking half heartedly and then stops mid-flow to let you perform your well rehearsed defence – then I’m afraid that you, your partner and whoever is teaching you in the belief that what you are doing is ‘real’ are all being dishonest and naive.

If you are teaching or being taught Self Protection, you need to identify where the flaws are. If you don’t do this at all and simply accept that in ‘real life’ it will work, you are treading a very dangerous path and false train of thought. Imagine, if you will, trying a roundhouse kick against an attacker in the street. (I never teach these kinds of moves but for those who are not aware, it’s one of those kicks to the head you see in all Martial Arts films.) It works fine on a shiny polished floor with or without training footwear, but this time you slip over on a puddle of alcohol or something equally as slippery – vomit, grass, mud, gravel, urine, you get the idea. That kick could be the last mistake you make as you hit the floor and your armed assailant closes range and bears down on you for the kill. It works a treat in the Dojo, wins points in competitions, helps towards earning your next level for your grading, and looks great on your promotional videos. How on earth did it fail?

Well, the reality is that you have been negligent in your considerations. You have not realised the stark differences between the environment in which you train and the environment outside. You finish training, pleased that you have just learnt a certain technique, strike, weapons defence, lock, choke, takedown, whatever it is, but then open the door and walk back onto the street to make your way home. Back to life and back to reality. Your Dojo is a cocoon of like-minded people who don’t want to hurt you (well, not too much) and will aid you, unknowingly most of the time, in helping you succeed. That is a great and wonderful thing of course, and something to be welcomed. I am proud of all of my students, the mutual respect they show for each other, the understanding, the stories, the insights, the questioning, the laughs, the fun – mostly the fun – but we never lose sight of the fact of why we train like we do and why we train at all.


Dave Wignall

Chief Instructor – Simply Krav Maga Ltd

CT707 Israeli Krav Maga Systems Instructor

UK Representative CT707 Krav Maga Systems

Contact: 07971 838338