My last post, Advanced Class, was a response to a blog post by Rory Miller, where he wrote “everything that works can be taught to proficiency in 40 hours”. I disagree, and I started to explain why in the last post. I wrote the post too quickly. I should have explained more, it could have been more comprehensive, and it was rather rambling. I’m going to approach the discussion from another angle in this post: How fast can you learn self defense?
There are at least two parts of that question that need to be clarified:
- Defense against what?
- What is your current state in terms of physical fitness and existing skills?
How fast can you learn to defend against what? A cooperative training partner who isn’t really trying to injure or kill you? A 40 year old man in average shape who attacks with a combination of punches? A 20 year old guy who was a high school wrestler? A 25 year old woman slashing at you with a knife? A 35 year old gangster who has practiced boxing for years? What if he has practiced MMA for years? A gun threat? How about multiple armed opponents? What about a competitive MMA fighter?
Where I’m currently living, the MMA gyms are full of immigrants from relatively violent countries, and they’re responsible for the majority of the crime here. They compete in MMA fights. They often carry knives. They train hard for several hours per week if not more, and they’ve been doing it for years. Can you learn to physically defend against one of them in 40 hours?
MMA is not self defense. But there are parallels in the sense that MMA involves striking and grappling, and unarmed self defense also involves striking and grappling. Do you expect to be able to defend against someone with hundreds or even thousands of hours of MMA training with only 40 hours of training yourself? Will you be using a weapon? What if he has a weapon? What if there are three guys like him?
What is your current state of fitness? Physical self defense is often like an all out sprint. Not always, but often. Are you in good enough shape to handle that? Are you a small woman with very little strength? Are you an older person with a disability? What are your existing skills? Do you know how to make a fist, where to hit with your palm, or how to do an elbow strike? Do you have experience with stand up or ground grappling?
I’ve taught a great variety of people all over the spectrum. I once taught a 70 year old man with no formal training who was a building contractor. He often got into fights, and he was tough as nails. He would have easily beaten the majority of people who first walked in my door. I’ve also taught men and women who had absolutely no idea how to make a fist. They had no clue how to throw an elbow strike, and even after multiple classes/hours they continued to attempt uncoordinated strikes with the wrong parts of their bodies. I’ve taught people who learned incredibly fast, much faster than I ever did. And I’ve taught people who learned very slowly.
So how fast can you learn self defense? The question is meaningless without a lot of context.
In my view, self defense includes footwork, kicking, hand strikes, elbows, knees, and headbutts, and defense against them. It includes stand up and ground grappling, which involves positional dominance and escapes, joint manipulations and chokes from the various positions (standing high tie up variations, standing low tie up variations, the mount, the guard, side mount, knee in stomach, north-south, etc.). It involves the use of and defense against long blunt and short blunt objects, long sharp and short sharp objects, linked objects, and projectiles.
In a comment on Rory’s original blog post a guy named Jim responded to one of my comments about this and said:
Well, let’s look at striking quickly. What do you have to do? Impact the weapon against the desired target. The power generation principles run the same, whether we’re looking at a palm, a clenched fist punch, an elbow, or baton. If taught in a principle based manner, all you have to do is change the striking implement. So, instead of an hour block on palms, an hour block on punches, an hour on elbows (OK, figure that’s really on 2+ block of “striking”) coupled with another couple of hours on “baton striking” — we have an hour or two on “power generation & impact weapons.”
This sounds great. But there’s a serious problem with the reasoning: The neurological connections that are required to use your hand effectively are different from those required to use your elbow effectively. You can write using one of your hands, but probably very poorly with the other. Try attaching a pen to your elbow and see how well you can write with it. As I wrote previously, I’ve taught people who have had a hard time just learning how to punch or palm without hurting their hand, and who would revert back to ineffective striking repeatedly, for weeks. “Hard wiring” the connections in your brain takes time.
Someone who can already strike with any part of their body understands that the principle is the same no matter what they’re striking with. And to them it may seem like this is simple. But for many people it isn’t a simple matter, even if they get it intellectually. For some people with very little strength, even if they do strike correctly it will have very little impact unless they have the accuracy to strike someone in the eye, throat, or groin. And, what happens when their opponent is a guy with 5 years of MMA experience and fighting, who counters that first defensive strike?
Striking should almost always be accompanied by footwork. Let’s look at a very simple footwork example, a forward step and slide:
It looks extremely simple. And it is. You step forward a bit with your lead leg, and then your bring your back foot up. As simple as this is, I don’t know that I’ve ever taught a beginner who could do it in the first few hours, under pressure…forward and/or backward. Everyone naturally has the tendency to either leave the rear foot back and lean forward, destroying their balance and ability to continue, or to bring the rear foot too far forward, right up to the front foot, also destroying their balance. The same is true in reverse and side to side, and it’s one reason why so many people fall down when they get attacked.
In our everyday life we often lean forward or backward. We often bring our feet together or cross our feet. It takes time to rewire our brains and learn not to do these things in a self defense situation. And it takes even more time to be able to hard wire these things in, so that the mistakes don’t come out under pressure. Even after many months of training a student, I still found myself correcting them on these very simple movements.
Anyone can intellectually learn the common denominators of striking and grappling, the core concepts. But it takes many years of training to be able to effectively fight or defend against someone who also has many years of mixed martial arts experience, for example. What if your opponent has trained?
Techniques are only one small part of self defense skill. Knowing how to throw a palm strike or do an elbow break is one thing. Being able to do it against someone who is throwing a punch at your face is another thing entirely. Being able to do it after someone has already hit you in the face is yet another thing. To use techniques requires an understanding of and an ability to manipulate distance, position, and timing. These qualities are anything but natural, and they take time to develop.
Consider the difference between someone who has been boxing for 6 months and someone who has been boxing for 10 years, or a beginning boxer and an expert boxer. Boxing has very few techniques. The difference is primarily in their ability to manipulate distance, position, and timing. For months of training, a beginning boxer will attempt to hit an advanced opponent when he is out of range. And the beginning boxer will get hit because he’s too close but doesn’t realize it. He’ll get hit because he poorly times an attack or a defense. Because the distance, positional understanding, and timing of fighting are not natural to those without a great deal of experience with fighting, they take substantial time to build.
In the comments of Rory’s post he wrote:
Today I saw a young man with no previous training handle a simultaneous full speed attack from three people. That was with ten hours of training. Two more hours and he was putting things together.
How many people at that seminar saw the same thing, and believed that this young man with no previous training really learned how to defend against a full speed attack from three people? I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them did. But think about this for a moment. If one person at the seminar learned to defend against three people, how is it that those three were “beaten” by only one? The answer is obvious. The three attackers were not really attacking. Or at a minimum, they were not continuing their attack. In the context of a seminar, where “attackers” either aren’t really attacking, or are attacking in seriously limited ways, it’s easy to believe you’re learning more than you are. What you can do in a cooperative and limited martial arts class is very different from what you will be able to do in reality.
What Can You Learn In A Short Period?
Well, you probably won’t learn how to physically defend against a surprise attack by the guy in the picture to the right. But there is a lot you can learn. You can learn how to be aware of your surroundings and how to prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.
In terms of physical self defense, I do make things as simple as possible. Everything you need to do can be thought of as following one simple concept: the Covered Blast. It doesn’t matter if you’re up against a single unarmed opponent or multiple armed opponents. The concept works just the same.
If you learn what I call the Fundamental Five and the Four Step Matrix, you’ll have a combination of extremely solid, efficient, and effective techniques that follow the Covered Blast concept. I’ve taught the Fundamental Five to more than one person who has successfully used one of the techniques in self defense with less than 5 hours of training. But that doesn’t mean they’ve become proficient at self defense in less than 5 hours! It simply means they were lucky enough to have been attacked by someone where one of the techniques was the right solution even with minimal training. If the fellow at right would have surprise attacked them with a hammer, I seriously doubt they would have done so well.
In addition to techniques you need solid training methods, a substantial investment of time, and a lot of hard work. Learning how to use weapons, particularly something as simple as pepper spray, can go a long way.
Your size does matter. Your strength does matter. Your speed does matter. If you’ve trained before, how athletic you are, how tough you are, how disciplined you are, how fast you learn…it all matters. There is no easy answer as to how fast you can learn self defense, and the question is relatively meaningless if you consider the infinite variety of attacks you could face. It’s not fair that a small unarmed woman with very little strength and no training is going to have a hell of a time defending against a strong man who has experience fighting. But it’s the truth.
No absolute beginner is going to be able to train 40 hours and defend against an experienced opponent, multiple opponents, or armed opponents without a serious dose of luck. Depending on the qualities you bring to the table, you may be able to learn a lot relatively quickly. But learning self defense is a process that never ends. There is always more to learn. You cannot learn it all in 40 hours, 40 weeks, or even 40 months.
You are so right. I am so glad you are telling the truth and dispelling so many of the myths and BS about fighting and the martial arts. I am not a fighter, but knowing my body I know that it would take me longer to be proficient in carrying out the movements in fighting/self defense.
Another issue that comes into play is trauma and social upbringing. For some it will be more difficult to learn self defense or a martial art because of the trauma they suffered or an “easy” upbringing.
Looking forward to your next book.
Well said. It was worth it to write this second article, since it makes things very clear.
I find it interesting that the more I learn about fighting and martial arts and the more proficient I become, the less I want to fight anyone, because I better realize how bad it can be.
Thanks guys. Related to what you wrote Luke, it’s common for people at a beginner or intermediate level in traditional martial arts to feel like they are ready for anything, especially when they’re taught in artificially cooperative environments. This is less the case with MMA or sport based styles as everyone can easily see how they do and compare to more advanced practitioners. But if you’re practicing in a realistic manner, the more you practice and the better you get, the more you realize how difficult real self defense can be. You want to avoid it at all costs.
Two short stories on that:
When I first started seriously training in traditional martial arts I recall a more advanced student telling me what he would do if someone attacked him with a knife. It went something like this: “I’d block his arm and break it. This punch would break his nose. I’d grab him bend him over, break his elbow, and then break his spine.” As a relatively inexperienced teenager I was impressed by that. What he was telling me made sense based on what he was showing me. Now I realize how a fully resisting and uncooperative opponent can change your plans!
I mentioned starting to play a new instrument nearly 2 years ago. My first teacher wasn’t very good, but I didn’t know that when I started. Within a coupe of weeks he was telling me how great I was doing and how I was going to be at an expert level in a year. Classes were easy, I could do everything he told me to do and play, and it seemed great. Then I met another teacher who saw me play, and basically told me I was doing everything wrong. I’ve been taking classes with him for the last year, and every lesson I feel like I’m having to struggle to catch up…that I have YEARS to go before I can reach where I thought I already was with the first teacher. He pushes me beyond my ability, so that I can correct mistakes, make progress, and become better.
If you feel you know everything there is to know after 40 hours, or even 40 weeks, then either the material you’re learning and the conditions under which you are learning it is not comprehensive and realistic, or you are seriously deluded. Maybe both.
Hallo Dave,it’s true,dont possibol in short time llern fight,need work hard with better fighter of me
and the first step with treining work on ego/illusion that dont Giove the good reality perception,
i born as stick fighter and now study grappling for close range possibility,all time that i treining with professional grappler i lern how much ego i have.
The topic is very good, like a sifu said, the best defense is to avoid any confrontation.
I believe that in 40 hours of training may be possible for a person to achieve some ability to defend against any aggression, as long as this person trains hard and do it every day, but I think it is also very difficult as you mention that a person who after studying a short course of self-defense can not be seriously hurt if the attacker takes years of hard training.
40 hours could give anyone an INTRODUCTION to the skills and abilities needed in almost any endeavor (self defense, auto mechanics, brain surgery, etc.) but that does not mean the person has a functional ability in those endeavors.
It could take years and years of practice and experience to gain that.
Two links to give more food for thought.
I’ve read the “Four Hour Work Week” and a good bit by Gladwell regarding the “10,000 hour rule”. Although there are some great concepts in the “Four Hour Work Week”, Ferris is primarily a scammer in many regards, and definitely where he talks about becoming an “expert”. His idea of becoming an expert only applies on paper…where you fool people into thinking you are an expert by using relatively bogus qualifications. It can work online, and you can make money by doing that, but it’s really just a scam.
On the other hand, as the second article you linked to points out, Gladwell is talking about becoming a real expert. There is a middle ground…a solid level of proficiency.
I think one thing that Rory and other people who think you can become proficient in a matter of hours miss is that it takes substantial time to hardwire skills into the brain…to create reactions. “The Talent Code” is an excellent book on that subject, and one I would highly recommend everyone read. There’s no way around it. It takes loads of repetitions to create the necessary pathways in the brain…to do anything skillfully. It may not take 10,000 hours to become proficient at self defense, but for comprehensive proficiency in all areas I would guess you need at least a few hundred, and likely 1,000+.
Ok. Thank you for this article, and for the summary i read on another page of your site. I am going to order that book now. You are readable and i can FOLLOW you. Often people ate good at what they do, but are not good at passing it on. You are.
Last week in my ‘Anyone can drop in: everyone’s welcome’ kind if community writing class, a new unknown fellow came in and began to write with us. Then he bevame jealous of one of our group -and out of NOWHERE he went betserk, attacking the fellow he was of. Two of our men and me-(armed with a chair)-kept him at bay. But he cane back again and again. It was horrific. He was landing blows on the head of his poor chosen victim.
Then- unbelievably -at my sewing class two later, a predator entered. Three skinny women working in a back room of an old building opening onto a lane-ha!. The others accepted his claimed reason for being there. I got it much quicker. Adrenalin went through me. After his sweet smiles and his pretence in veing nuce and convincing the other ladies that he haua legitimate reason for being there, they turned back to their sewing. I didnt. I fought that tendency as something had woken up in me. And i fought that desire to nit be rude. And the desure ti believe he was bona-fude, (which was there because i didn’t WANT to face what i felt in my bones: i WANTED him ti be nice, and we have a nice day sewing).
But i resisted. I marshalled the others, git in tbeir ears, roused them whilst he went into another room.
Because of my vigilance, i had not turned back to sewing (though I was pretending i had), and what i saw from the corner of my eye stunned me: when we stopped looking at him, tbe friendly face dropped becauhe thought he was no longer being watched, and the darkest, most intent, evil look came upon his face as he stated at the women. Oh goodness it just was evolving before my eyes. He went into the toilets (i was tailing his actions -he didn’t know) -and changed his clothes. Came back, came into our room between us and the door-deciding, something growing in him. It was palpable. He had come to case the place -an opportunistic discovery of an open door in an alley, and had accidentally found, three lone little females. Ivwill never-i hope i dont-forget that ugly predatory look doing everything you mentioned in your article. Checking for witnesses. Aking us how much longer we’d planned to keep sewing here today (as this tells him how long before anyone comes to pick us up ). He checked the other rooms quickly-there was no-one there.
I git into everyones ears. Told wm to getvreal about and GO. No, they wouldn’t. Well- i did!
They got it after a while. I know because, concerned for them in their naiivity, i hid acriss the road and watched.
I had done some work hings right i realize from your article. I snapped him out of his build-up with a question. Then another quick fire. He gave me his name before he could think. I could see he regretted it.
And i acted on that sixth sense. I avoided niceties.
Look-two in one week! Never, in 14 years of ooen community group attendance -then a double hit in a week!
Im doing what you say; i will no longer be attending dangerous places. Nir joining groups with a drop-in policy, in unprotected places. Im in a sewing class with security guards at the community center.
But -i came to your article because i was wondering if i indeed could learn self defense without it being a misery.
I have a VERY bad knee now. It is basically incurable -thats from the experts. So i can walk sure, but it changes everything re self defence. And i dont know if i could -as a not strong 55 year old woman,ever become an egfective person at a he actual defense part. Regarding the guy who attacked in my writing class-there was no escape time-nothing. We had ti fight him or he would possibly have killed or shockingly harmed our friend qho he was attacking and belting on the head from behind. And our friend had no time to even get up.You xant believe how horrific it was to see (though you probably can).
Id have loved to have been able to use some tactics to fet the b….d down onto the floor. But this isnt ‘Law and Order’ where the skinny little female cops just slam these big guys into submission, right? That’s not life.-is it?
Do you think its possible for me to learn tactics fir an attack? Ps. Ive been syring in the past. Been very fit but not now. Im 5’8″. Slim not overweight. Just this dicky knee which stops me pivoting etc.Any hope? Realistically? I am really attracted to your realistic explanations of things re self defence, so thats why I think asking YOU is probably a good idea.
PS-you are in the USA. Do you know of anyone-who knows someone else -who knows of hiw a woman in Melbourne Australia could licate a realistic teacher with similar viewscto yourself. A lot of folks get around promising the world AND treating all tjier students the same. Whereas they dont see how to pick the individual weaknesses and needs.
I dont have energy cash or time to waste. I woyld like to find a sensible realistic self defence trainer. Many have thier heads in the clouds.
Anyway thats a crazy long-shot. I dont expect an answer. But nothing ventured nothing gained eh? But either way I just wanted to thank you fir you brilliant articles. Im acting straight away in your avoidance tips.
I’d rather not answer personal questions on my blog, so I’ll send you an email with a more personal answer. In general, just about anyone can learn to stay physically safe 99.9% of the time, as long as you live in a relatively safe country – not a war-zone, etc.. So yes, it is definitely possible for you to learn self defense. The vast majority of it is simply following the material on my awareness/prevention page. Physical self defense takes much more time to lean, but you can do it if you put in the time and effort. The material on my website, and especially in my books, will give you all the info you need. The rest, the training, is really up to you.