Exceptions To The Rules

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 31st Jan)

Krav Maga is a not a particular “style” of self-defense, but an approach/method of fighting based on certain principles and ideas. There are schools, systems and instructors that try and argue that only their interpretation of these concepts and principles, makes theirs the “true” and “authentic” Krav Maga, however this is simply not the case, and there are many instructors and Krav Maga systems that adhere to the principles laid down. However, a dogmatic, and rigid interpretation of Krav Maga principles, can be detrimental, when you take your Krav Maga out of the training arena and/or dojo, and try and apply it in real-life situations and scenarios – it is often evident, which instructors lack real world experience, when they only talk about one way of dealing with a situation, and instruct their students to only act in a certain way. Sometimes what is presented as a principle is actually a heuristic; a good rule of thumb – it is a good starting point, that allows you to think and act quickly, but not necessarily a conclusive and definitive way of working.

A good example of this is the Krav Maga principle, which I would argue is a heuristic, and a good one: if the attack is life threatening attack the attack, if it is non-life threatening, attack the attacker. What this translates to is, if someone is applying a life-threatening attack, such as a choke or strangulation, your immediate response should be to deal with that attack, and clear the choke etc. rather than try and strike, hit, kick etc. your attacker; basically you don’t have the time to do this, before the choke starts taking effect, therefore you should deal with that immediately. Absolutely, no argument there. However, conversely the principle/heuristic also states, that if it is a non-life threatening attack, such as a clothing or wrist grab, you should ignore the grab, and attack your attacker. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea and solid concept, but as a principle that should be doggedly adhered to, I would question whether it is always the best approach to take, or even an effective one in all situations.

Let’s say somebody in a bar grabs your lapels, your shirt etc. we can all agree this is a non-life threatening attack. A dogged and rigid adherence to the principle would suggest that your response should be to immediately start attacking your assailant. However, having done bar security for a number of years, I know that if the person who grabbed you is a member of a group, and those other members see you attacking their friend, you have now escalated the situation to one involving multiple assailants i.e. you may have made the situation ten times worse for yourself. This is the reality of violence, and your solutions have to take in to account such factors. Maybe, it would be better to break their grip, and disengage, or apply a subtle and discrete, pain compliance hold, that wouldn’t be noticeable to others, and/or cause the person you are dealing with to feel like they have lost face with those around them i.e. de-escalate rather than escalate the situation. May attacking them be the best solution, sometimes yes, but not in every instance.

One of the quotes I hear a lot of instructors blithely state, is the old adage, “Better to be tried by 12, than carried by 6” i.e. it’s better to be alive, and go to court to be tried for what you did, than end up dead. I agree with the sentiment, but not how it is interpreted and used; as an excuse to do whatever you want to a person and worry about the consequences afterwards. This is lazy and unrealistic teaching. Let’s say you are at a works function, and you and your co-workers have had a few to drink. Somewhere along the line you and a fellow employee, get into a debate, that gets heated, and turns into an argument. You go to leave, but your co-worker, grabs your lapels, to keep you there. I’ve seen this happen a lot in bars, where one person wants to disengage from a confrontation, and the other one wants to keep them there. In a bar setting, where you have no prior relationship with your assailant, attacking them may be a good solution (though it also might not be), however if you were to take that approach with your co-worker, you may find that you don’t have a job the next day i.e. your employers judge that your response was excessive. It may be that future employers, check up on your references, and find out your reason for being fired, and choose not to offer you employment. The consequences of your actions do matter, and blindly following a “principle”, rather than looking for an effective solution to your situation, may cause you to have to deal with significant ones.

There may also be times when attacking your attacker, in a response to a non-life threatening attack isn’t possible. If somebody grabs your lapels/clothing with two hands, they may decide to shake you around like a rag-doll. Because you aren’t stable, and all of your effort is going to staying on your feet, making an effective strike may not be possible – sure you may be able to do this in training, however if you’ve had a few drinks, and/or your dealing with a highly motivated/aggressive attacker, this may simply not be possible. Reality is very different to the training environment. In such an instance, you must first deal with your stability issues, before doing anything else, whether that’s striking, getting your assailant to release their grip etc. Don’t get me wrong I like the idea of attacking an assailant who is applying a non-life threatening attack, and I think it’s a great rule of thumb, but when we look at the reality of violence, it’s not always possible/achievable.

Situations determine solutions, not principles or concepts. Principles and concepts can guide us in forming those solutions, but they cannot be adhered to blindly. Rigidity in response is never a good idea, and you must be flexible in the way you deal with violent incidents, rather than determining that you will always respond in one way.

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Ride Sharing Services

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 24th Jan)

On Thursday I was interviewed about certain personal safety issues, one of which were the potential risks and dangers of using car services, such as Uber and Lyft, as opposed to conventional taxi’s and limousine services etc. Although I’ve written a bit about this in a general sense, in this article I’m going to go into a bit more detail, and focus on the city of Boston, where my school is based.

A major concern that many people have over using ride services, is that they are not sure that the interview process, and background checks that drivers have to go through are as stringent, and tough enough as those that the City conducts on its Taxi Drivers. It is natural to think, that a firm or company that self-regulates the background checks on its own drivers will set themselves a lower standard than those that a city has for its taxi drivers, however in Boston this does not appear to be the case. In an investigation carried out by a team of Boston Globe reporters in 2015, it was discovered that about 10% of Boston Taxi Drivers who applied to be Uber drivers, failed Uber’s background checks (Uber uses three separate companies to undertake background checks on its drivers). This may not be the case in other US cities, which undertake more extensive background checks, but it would seem that in Boston, the ride sharing companies may be ahead of the City on this.

It is also worth pointing out there have been instances where Boston Taxi firm owners have bribed city officials to bypass the checks for certain of its drivers. In one case two owners, Pyotr Vaserman and Semyon Teperman, bribed a taxi clerk with $30 000 to give licenses to 20 drivers who they knew would fail the background check process. When you have low paid individuals (such clerks make around $26 000 a year), managing key parts of the background checking process, you have a vulnerability that can potentially be exploited. The fact that Uber and Lyft, use third parties to conduct such checks, means that it is unlikely to be able to influence the process; also because they are recruiting individuals who they have no personal relationship with, they have no interest in influencing the process for individual drivers.

This is also one of the criticisms that ride sharing serviced such as Uber face; that they don’t conduct any face-to-face interviews with their drivers – this is not true of all ride-sharing companies e.g. Lyft, has one of their representatives talk to/interview potential drivers. However, we have to really question the benefits of face-to-face interviews, when it comes to identifying potentially dangerous employees. Think back to the last job interview you had, and try and remember if you were asked any questions regarding any risks you might bring to the company. In most job interviews the sole focus is on your ability to do the job, not whether you potentially have anger issues, and are in fact a ticking time bomb waiting to explode etc. Many interviewers, don’t even check on your references, or give up if it’s too difficult to get hold of them e.g. if you seem like a decent and nice person, there’s no reason to expect that you aren’t etc. Done properly a face-to-face interview can be a great way to find out if a potential employee poses any threats or dangers in the workplace, however most interviewers aren’t thinking in this way and/or lack the ability to ask the right questions. It would be naïve to believe that the interview process that a taxi company employs involves such questions; in most cases they will rely solely on the background check, which in Boston, isn’t as rigorous as that employed by the ride-sharing companies.

When we look at the potential opportunities for committing criminal acts that taxi drivers have as opposed to ride-sharing drivers, we can see how technology can be used to lower such risks. Uber, Lyft and other ride sharing companies use an application on the driver’s phone to track their every movement e.g. the routes that they take, the time they spend waiting in any place etc. This is done primarily for fare calculation however it means that the technology is continually observing the location of the vehicle. A taxi driver isn’t under such scrutiny, even if there is a dispatcher involved (and there could be situations where a dispatcher is complicit in a crime). If a taxi driver decides to drive their passenger to a secluded spot in order to sexually assault them, before either abandoning them, or dropping them off at their eventual destination, there is no record of this detour. An Uber or Lyft driver knows that they are being tracked. The passenger also can hit a panic button on their app – something which the driver is aware of – and whilst this may not stop a crime from happening, this tied to the constant tracking of the vehicle means that drivers are well aware of the evidence that is being gathered against them, should they engage in any criminal activities etc.

There are a lot of things we forget to consider, where our personal safety is concerned. Whilst our focus may be on the danger we face from a criminal, we must also consider the risk of road traffic accidents. The insurance for bodily harm/injuries that Boston Taxi companies are required to have is around 85% less than the minimum which regular drivers in Massachusetts have to have. If you are injured during a Taxi journey in a Boston Cab, you may have an uphill battle to get adequate compensation. With Lyft and Uber, each ride carries its own insurance. When you consider that most Boston Cab Drivers, are shift workers, who have to work long hours, and often take rests/sleep in their cars, in order to stay on the road for long enough to make enough of a wage, it can be seen that the chances of being involved in an accident are probably greater than if you were driving yourself, or with a driver who does a few hours a day to supplement their income – the profile of the majority of ride sharing drivers.

At the end of the day there are no independent statistics about whether taxi services are safer than ride-sharing ones – the police don’t report this information in their crime statistics – however there is a lot that points to the fact that in a city like Boston, you may be safer with a ride sharing driver, whose star rating and rider feedback you can see, before they pick you up; you also know when this will be, to the minute, unlike with a taxi service. Another feature I personally like about ride-sharing services, is that the drivers will let you sit up front, where you have access to the central locking, meaning a driver who may have criminal intent towards you will not be able to keep you locked in their car.       

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Rushing It

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 17th Jan)

If time – as a concept – didn’t exist, everything would happen at once. Sometimes when people practice defenses and techniques against attacks, they try and do everything at once, and in one movement e.g. they try to clock a knife attack, and control the attacker’s weapon arm at the same time, rather than recognizing that what they are actually engaged in, is a process with identifiable steps; all of which are necessary if they are to be successful – the block needs to block the movement of the weapon, the control needs to restrict any further movement of the knife, and once secure a disarm or similar can be performed.  Each stage needs to be completed before the next can be applied. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the goal overrides the process, that the disarm becomes the focus, and the block and control become secondary to this. When this happens the person performing the technique is “panicking” with it – they are trying to reach the conclusion and end the situation, without first performing the steps that would allow them to do this. This doesn’t mean that the process has to be prolonged with many steps and stages, just that each needs to be completed in turn.

Another area where I commonly see people “rush” what they are doing is when attempting submissions on the ground. As a Judoka (a practitioner of Judo), I love Newaza/ground-work, and although I generally don’t advise going to the ground, it is an area of combat you should be familiar with, and an environment that you should be relaxed/comfortable working in. There are also situations, where disengaging and getting back up to your feet, isn’t an option, and where submissions can be extremely useful e.g. your fighting in a confined space, such as a car etc. However, if you have not first assumed the correct position, from which to apply a submission, it’s not going to be effective. I see a lot of people, try and apply chokes and arm-locks, when they are in someone’s Guard (the person they are trying to submit, has their legs, scissored and locked, around their waist). When you are in such a position it is almost impossible to try and apply the same techniques that you would when in a Mount position (sitting on top of the person), because the person you are dealing with is able to hold you at bay with their legs, preventing you from getting the leverage you require. However, in the stress of the moment, all the person can see is the opportunity to control/lock the person’s arm or apply a choke, and forget that they are not in any position to make these things effective. There is a process that needs to be applied i.e. position before submission.

I see people do the same types of things when sparring e.g. you can throw as many perfect kicks and punches as you want, but if you haven’t first positioned your partner in a disadvantaged position, you won’t enjoy the full effect of them. There is a huge difference between the effect of throwing a front kick against somebody moving in, where the full force of the strike is absorbed, and throwing the same kick against someone who is moving away – where most of the power simply aids/adds to their backwards movement. Unfortunately, this is a step that many people leave out, in the “panic” and rush of throwing the kick. There is a process to throwing a kick or a punch, and the preliminary or first step, is to move the assailant on to it. This week I saw a great example of this in a clip of an MMA fight, which is currently doing the rounds on social media. In it, one of the combatants backs away after taking a body shot, pretending to be hurt and vulnerable. As he backs away, the other fighter thinking he has an opportunity to end the fight rushes in to finish his seemingly injured opponent, only to walk on to a solid punch, that put him down. He was so convinced that the fight was his to finish that he even lowered his guard, leaving his head unprotected. The fighter who demonstrated this gamesmanship, understood that there is a process to a punch, which starts with getting the other person to move in a way that will allow them to receive the full impact of it. Conversely, there is also a process to moving in on an assailant who is backing away – if you rush it, and neglect certain steps you may find yourself walking on to a punch or similar.    

In teaching reality-based self-defense, I want to teach people how to end fights quickly. The longer an altercation exists, the more time and opportunities an attacker has to draw a weapon, injure you, or have other third parties join them in their assault. However, you can’t miss steps, and rush your solution; there is a process. If I am dealing with a verbally aggressive individual who I believe may become violent, I have a process that I use: 1. I step back, so they have to move forward if they want to attack, 2. I move off to the side, so they have to turn, in order to attack me, 3. I raise my hands up in a placatory manner so they don’t feel threatened, and at the same time are prevented from making straight strikes and/or grabbing me etc. I have a process, and I complete each step/stage. Now I am ready to either deal with their assault, or launch a pre-emptive attack. Rather than panic and rush to end the incident, I follow a process to ensure I am successful.

Next time you are in a class, listen to each and every step, your instructor explains/demonstrate, and complete each one. There is order and a process to what you are learning, and each step is necessary to ensure your success.   

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(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 10th Jan)

Anyone who lifts weights understands the concept of specificity; that is, if you want to get stronger arms, you don’t do squats e.g. exercise your legs. This seems a very obvious principle and one that should be applicable in everyday life, however when it comes to self-defense, specificity often gets lost or goes out of the window.

A few weeks ago I happened to watch a Krav Maga/Self-Defense instructor, who had a free program teaching teenagers how to survive a school shooting. I’m not going to judge his program as a whole because I understand how the media can portray things unfairly, and the problems of trying to explain the principles and ideas of something that may be quite expansive and comprehensive in a 3 to 5 minute segment etc. In the clip, his students demonstrated some third party gun disarms that are commonly taught on a lot of close protection (bodyguard) courses e.g. disarming from the rear when an individual is pointing a firearm at somebody else. The techniques he taught were valid for the scenarios he presented, however the scenarios he presented were not reflective of active shooter scenarios. They were appropriate for situations where a principle is being threatened, and a member of the close protection team finds themselves or is positioned behind the threat etc., however they are not really appropriate for dealing with an “active” shooter who is moving through a school or office building, not threatening people, but actively firing on them. In this situation, performing the techniques he was demonstrating would be extremely difficult. The lesson to take from this, is that you can’t simply take techniques that are designed to deal with a threat/danger in one environment/situation and blindly apply them to another.

Unfortunately, I see this idea of taking something that works in one environment, and applying it to another an awful lot. It is especially prevalent in reality based self-defense instructors taking MMA techniques and incorporating them into their syllabuses. Just because a technique has been proven to work in an MMA setting, doesn’t mean it will by default be applicable in a real-life scenario. It is tempting to look at certain techniques and escapes that are used in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), and after seeing their success in that setting, believe that they should be used in real-life situations. However, if you look at the environment that a UFC fight takes place in, it is very, very different to those of real-life situations e.g. the Octagon is 750 square feet of uninterrupted matting- that may have some resemblance of an empty parking lot in the room that people have to maneuver- but has little in common with any other location where violence takes place, etc. To blindly take a technique that requires a large amount of space to make it work, and/or a prolonged period of time with several uninterrupted steps etc. and say it is applicable for real life situations is naïve and dangerous, and shows a great misunderstanding of what real-life violence looks like. I have lost count of the number of 5 to 6 step escapes from Guard, which work well when you have the time to apply them – in a one-on-one combat sport setting, such as an MMA match – but would fail miserably in real-life encounter, where a second person would have the time and opportunity to smash a bottle over your head, as you went through the steps on the ground.

Too many times people look at the technique and not the environment; there are good techniques that work well in one situation but are terrible in others. You can’t take a technique that is applicable for a close protection scenario, and say that it directly applies to an active shooter situation, just because you find yourself in the same position relative to the shooter, as their intent and their movement is different. You can’t just take a technique that works well in MMA, and say it is applicable to real life, where the luxury of time and space isn’t afforded to you. Techniques have to be specific to the environments and situations where they will be used. Will a technique work on a moving subway train, on the back seat of a car, on a moving escalator, in a crowded bar? Start with the environment and create the solution based on that, rather than simply looking at what other people are doing in their environments and blindly copy them. Look at the intent behind the situation; what is the assailant’s motivation – is the attacker(s) looking to actually take hostages to bargain with, or to act as a buffer between them and the security forces, as they shoot them one by one? Both involve a shooter(s) with a long barrel weapon but the two situations are very different, and it would be incorrect to treat them as exactly the same, prescribing the same solution.

Violence is both simple and complex, and students need to be taught how to understand these complexities in a straightforward and simple manner, whilst techniques and solutions need to be explained and taught in the contexts where they will be used, as well as under the emotional constraints that the persons in them will find themselves under. The threat recognition and decision making processes for one situation may differ to another, and these need to be explained e.g. a close protection scenario is different to an active shooter one etc. Techniques by default are not interchangeable.  


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When Instead Of How

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 3rd Jan)

Despite the way many people present and teach self-defense, surviving a real-life violent altercation, is less about physical techniques and more about effective decision making i.e. knowing when to act, and knowing when not to. It is an easy trap to fall into; equating technical ability with survivability. The techniques that you learn, are simply tools that you use as part of the solution, they are not the solution itself.

Back in the day, when I practiced Judo within the BJA (British Judo Association), there were different types of Black Belt. As well as there being the standard Black Belt, that you reached through a mix of learning/demonstrating technique, and taking part in open-weight Randori/sparring, there was also a coaching Black Belt. This was for those individuals who were competent in knowing techniques, and teaching them, but lacked the skills, the timing and the ability to employ them in Randori/Sparring. They knew the “How” of the technique but not the “When”. If you wanted a technical explanation and demonstration of a technique, these individuals were expert, however when it came to performing the technique/throw against an active opponent in a sparring/Randori setting they were found wanting; their timing was off, and their threat recognition and effective decision making was absent. This is not meant as a criticism of such individuals, as they were often great coaches/instructors and had their place in the BJA, however it demonstrates that there is a difference between knowing and performing a technique in one setting, and not being able to apply it in another. Unfortunately, I see the same issue in Krav Maga and Reality Based Self Defense circles; extremely technically competent instructors who either neglect or are unable to explain, the scenarios in which such techniques should (and should not) be used, and the timing or “when” of how to use them.

One very clear example of this comes when instructors teach weapon disarms and controls e.g. they simply explain how to perform a gun disarm, without any explanation about the different reasons a person could be holding a gun to you, when it may be better to acquiesce, how to create and divert attention away from the fact that you are about to perform a disarm, when it may be better to acquiesce to a demand etc. They simply teach that if somebody points a gun to your head, you immediately perform a disarm. This approach is almost as dangerous, as not knowing how to perform a disarm; what if there is a second gunman present, should you still disarm? Without explaining the scenario in which an assault takes place, and the situational components present, and how these effect decision making and timing etc. performing disarms as the immediate default response to a gun being pointed at you is naïve and dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that decisiveness is important, however deciding and acting without knowing all of the relevant information is not a good survival strategy – hopefully good situational awareness, leading up to such an assault, will already equip you with much of the information you need to make an informed decision – and from a reality based self-defense perspective, this needs to be taught alongside the technical.

One of the things you learn through sparring is that to get a technique to work, you not only need to be able to perform your technique well, you need to put your partner in a disadvantaged position, in order for it to be effective e.g. throwing a front kick as your partner moves away is a lot less effective than throwing it as they are moving in, and on to it. Unfortunately, I rarely see this approach, carried through to Krav Maga and self-defense training e.g. a short barreled weapon disarm is performed without first putting the assailant in a disadvantaged position etc. and yet what will make much of a technique effective in real-life is taking the holder’s attention away from the weapon. This can be as simple as asking them open ended questions that they need to process and think about, and you can do this within their “script”, responding to their demands etc. This is simple stuff, yet it often gets neglected.

It may be that you can increase your survival chances by getting an aggressor, to position themselves and/or their weapon in such a way that your technique has more impact. In Krav Maga, there is a belief that groin strikes are a silver bullet. In reality, groin strikes can be very hard to make, especially with kicks and knees – in training situations this is often not apparent. In real-life jeans with a low hanging crotch will make such strikes largely ineffective, and people’s natural stances will often mean that the groin is not exposed. One way you can expose the groin, to a kick, is to take a slightly circular step to your left, so that your assailant has to make a similar step to face you, which opens up their groin. Without controlling your aggressor’s movement and putting them in a disadvantageous situation, the groin strike that you’ve practiced studiously on the pads, and against a static opponent is in all likelihood is not going to be effective.  

Pre-emptive striking is another area of self-defense, where context is often left out, and only the physical technique explained e.g. I often hear instructors talk about making pre-emptive strikes, without explaining when to make them. For me, a pre-emptive strike or assault should only be made when it is clear that an aggressor is about to make an attack – until this point disengagement and de-escalation should be the preferred strategies. But what are the signals that indicate an individual is about to make an assault? From my own experiences, it is normally when the individual I am dealing with loses verbal control; either going silent or jumbling their words etc. Yes, most violence happens with dialogue, and is preceded by a verbal exchange – is this reflected in your training?

We can argue that Krav Maga is better than other systems of self-defense, or that one system of Krav Maga is superior to another etc. however if we are not putting our techniques into the scenarios in which they occur, and teaching our students how to put their aggressors in disadvantaged positions, we are not really increasing their survival chances; and at the end of the day, this is what we should be striving for. 

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January Blog Articles
By Gershon Ben Keren

Exceptions To The Rules (Sun 31st Jan)
Ride Sharing Services (Sun 24th Jan)
Rushing It (Sun 17th Jan)
Specificity (Sun 10th Jan)
When Instead Of How (Sun 3rd Jan)