Self Defense, Fighting & Pre-emptive Striking

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 25th Mar)

I often have people coming to my school who say that they don’t want to learn how to fight, only how to defend themselves. I understand the sentiment they’re expressing but also recognize the danger in their thinking. Self Defense is a useful term to describe an approach to fighting where the person “defending” themselves isn’t the person initiating the conflict however this doesn’t mean that they’re not the person who makes the first strike – striking pre-emptively is an integral part of self-defense and KravMaga (as the Hebrew bible states Imbal'hargekha, hashkeml'hargo, If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.).

Whilst I’m on biblical turf, I’ll digress a little and give a historical context to the idea of turning the other cheek. At the time when the Sermon on the Mount was given, of which the line, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” is part of, Palestine (as it was known then) was under Roman occupation. The Romans were an extremely disciplined military and their soldiers were under very strict orders and instructions about how they could and could not treat the civilian population they were governing. One of the punishments they were allowed to give out involved using their right hand to backhand somebody across the face (it was also ; in fact such an action as the time was seen as a way of displaying and demonstrating authority. If however a person turns the other cheek, the action can’t be repeated unless the left hand is used (at the time the left-hand was viewed as being unclean and was therefore inappropriate if a person wanted to display dominance). Within the same sermon, is the idea, that if a person wished you to walk a mile with them you should walk one more. A Roman Legionary called ask a member of a civilian population to help them carry their equipment for a mile, but would be disciplined by their officers if they made a person walk with them any further. There are indeed ways of fighting back without resorting to open conflict but none of these should ever involve a person adopting a “victim’s” mindset.

This is very much the problem I have with the term “Self Defense”. It suggests a defensive mindset where a person waits for an attack/assault to be made and then and only then acts, doing just enough to fend off their assailant(s). This way of thinking puts a person at a distinct disadvantage – person(s) assaulting you are not working this way; they will not be waiting for you to act, they’ll be doing everything they can to be the first person(s) to act. Also they’ll not be looking to do “just enough”, rather they’ll be throwing everything they have at you from the very first moment. 99.9% of assailants will initiate the assault with an attack that they believe will finish the fight at that moment.

From my experience (and I recognize that although experience can validate things, it can also be a limiting factor) the person who throws the first strike or makes the first move is the one who “wins” the fight. The person responding/reacting is playing a catch-up game which is much harder to pull off. We are not looking merely to respond to a person’s violent behavior, we are looking to throw back at them our own assault which is more determined, more aggressive and more committed – and is also sustainable (this isthe idea of using “Retzef”, continuous movement).

If you look at the way we train it is always interactive. We never stand punching the air or moving in lines etc (don’t get me wrong there are benefits to this method of training), we are always training with somebody or working the pads with them. There is always contact. Why? Because at the end of the day, our self-defense involves us doing something to somebody else. What is that something? Pain. It doesn’t matter if it’s a control, a strike, or using a person’s knife against them, our job is to inflict pain and damage to a person in order to prevent them from doing what they want to us. Our goal is pretty simple but it requires a mindset and one that may seem at odds with how society likes to believe we should act; unfortunately society knows very little about violence. Society would have us believe that if we disarm a knife of a person they will cease to fight, and/or if we can escape from a hold or control we can/should run away. The situation determines the solution, not society’s misinformed idea of violence.

In a civilized and rational state I have no desire to inflict pain or discomfort on another person however if I believe that, that is your desire towards me, then you have given me the moral authority to act. I will not do just enough, I will do what is necessary. I care little if people who have never faced violence want to preach about use of force, and I understand the need to have it expressed legally, yet the law and people’s opinion will do little to aid me at the moment a 300 LB drunk decides to take a swing at me. An attacker never stops attacking – they only do so when you stop them.

Throw away any ideas that you will be able to adopt a state of Zen calmness, you will need to turn your fear into a determined aggression and take the fight to them.


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Dealing With Angry People - De-escalation

(Gershon Ben Keren - Wed 21st Mar)


In the last post, I talked about several of the dynamics that cause individuals to become angry, with anger being a necessary pre-cursor to physical violence. As I always say, violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum; people are motivated to move towards a particular emotional state e.g. if someone spills a drink all over you, this act motivates you towards anger, if a gang of aggressive individuals corner you in an unfamiliar bar, both the setting and their actions motivate you towards experiencing fear. It is these situational components that often cause us to freeze i.e. we don’t know how to act and behave in such situations. This is what makes training in a dojo or competing in a martial arts tournament so different to real-life situations; in an MMA contest, you know that you can win by knockout or submission (or possibly points) – that is your goal. If someone spills a drink over you during a night out, what is your goal? If you are cornered by a group of drunken, aggressive youths in an unfamiliar place, what is your goal?

When we look at the causes of anger that were discussed in the last post e.g. dominance, territorial rights etc, we must understand that we are subject to these emotional demands as well. If someone spills a drink over us, is showing an undue interest in our partner, we too will see our emotional state change i.e. e will become angry. Again what is our goal? To exert dominance, defend territory? When we become overly emotional ourselves we also become subject to and controlled by our emotions and may lose sight of what it is we are trying to achieve in the situation.

In my time working in bars/clubs I have seen countless individuals emotionally react to a situation, only to realize that they have bitten off far more than they could chew e.g. the target/subject of their outburst pulls a knife, or has friends who end up intervening. The desire to exerting dominance over another person may be emotionally compelling however it actually achieves little and is not without its risks – we lack the inbuilt hardwired controls of animals such as dogs and wolves who have instincts that recognize and respond appropriately to shows of dominance and know how to back-off safely i.e. a wolf who is in a power struggle and realizes they don’t have the ability to back up their position, only has to shows it’s throat and roll over on to its back to be left alone (as humans we have few clear signals that will be respected).

If you believe your martial arts skills give you an edge think again. We are the people who train. Why? Because we have to. There are plenty  of tough, vicious and hard individuals who’ve never trained and are extremely competent at handling themselves on the street – individuals who will think nothing of sticking a glass or bottle in your face or pulling a knife. Never underestimate the power of violence when it lacks a moral code. This is why the ability to de-escalate (as well as fight) needs to be part of your arsenal.

It is important to recognize that there are times when de-escalation is not the best course of action to take: 1) when a person is so overly emotional that they’re unable to process/understand verbal commands and questions and 2) when they are working to an agenda with specific goals and outcomes in mind – which it will be difficult/impossible to sway them from e.g. rape/sexual assault, hostage taking etc. If a situation developed spontaneously and a person has no pre-determined goal that they are working to, de-escalation has its place.

The first thing to understand is that resolution seeking is different to de-escalation. De-escalation involves removing the emotion from a situation and only then attempting to seek a resolution. In most situations when dealing with angry people, where violence is a real possibility, resolution may not be a viable goal e.g. it is probably not a good idea to try and resolve your right to be in a bar where a group of angry drunken men don’t want you to be there, much better to get as far away as possible.

The first step is to validate the other person’s anger; this often steals away their thunder and is a confusing response. An angry, emotional person is looking for a fight or flight response: they are expecting you to confront them or back away. Validation of their state runs straight between these two; agreeing with them that they have every right to be upset etc (don’t use the word “angry” as it has so many negative connotations that a person may mistake it as “fighting talk”). People process information according to their emotional state, providing a response that can’t be interpreted emotionally means that part of the brain is bypassed and the reasoning part is engaged. If a person is able to reason they have been moved away from acting solely on their emotions.

The language you use is extremely important. Telling someone to “calm down” is an instruction not a request. Anyone on the cusp of violence will interpret instructions as fighting talk. Asking someone to speak more slowly, so you can understand them better is a request rather than a signal of dominance. A request signals your desire to resolve the situation. Also by getting a person to slow down what they are saying you are forcing them to listen to their own words – another way of getting them to engage their reasoning brain.

Ask the person what they would like you to do or how you could sort the situation out. If they respond with reason or can suggest ideas, you have contacted the “reasoning brain”, if they want to continue to simply play a dominance game, you know where you stand.

Talking to an angry person is a good way to ascertain their emotional state and their ability to turn violent. If they are able to understand you and process what you say then you can continue on your course of de-escalation; recognizing at every point you may have to strike pre-emptively or act defensively. Adopting a de-escalation/interview stance will allow your body language to reflect what you are saying, as well as put you in a non-offensive but effective stance for delivering strikes and/or defending yourself. As always remember an attacker will attempt to deny you time and distance and so control of range is key.

When the person loses their ability to comprehend you and/or their ability to speak, it’s time to hit hard and beat them to the punch.

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Self Protection Continued - People\'s Instinct For Anger

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 18th Mar)

When I was studying Psychology at University, our department over the 3 years I was there began to develop/evolve into two main camps: the Behaviorists and the Ethologists - two schools of thought that are divided on the “nature versus nurture” debate. I found myself gradually sliding towards the ethologist’s point(s) of view, especially where anger and violence is concerned i.e. are responses are hardwired instinctual survival mechanisms rather than learnt behaviors. I also came to the conclusion (and I was not alone in this as the research of the past 20-30 years had been pointing in this direction) that we are basically emotionally driven, rather than rationally driven creatures who use our ability to think logically and process information in a rational manner to justify the “emotional decisions” we make. This understanding underpins much of the self-protection piece of the Krav Maga Yashir system.

All individuals, with the exception of Psychopaths, need to become emotional (angry or fearful) in order to become violent. Anger or Fear are basically the same emotion i.e. if you were to wire a person up and monitor all the physical/chemical changes that happen in the body when a person becomes angry and compare these results to that of when a person becomes afraid, the results would be almost identical. A person cornered by a gang, and fulfilling the role of prey in the relationship, will be experiencing the same adrenal release etc as the members of the gang (the predators) who are incensed that any person would have the audacity to enter their bar/pub and stray on to their turf. With everybody in such a heightened emotional state it is unlikely that debate and discussion will resolve the incident: the thinking brain has switched off and the animal part has taken over; you can’t explain to a hungry lion why it would be wrong to eat you.

Whether in the cold light of day the gang would find it hard to argue and debate why an outsider was unwelcome in the pub/bar they frequent, in the heightened emotional state they are experiencing their anger will justify and reinforce their actions. This is an important survival instinct, though in today’s complex social situations it may often be misplaced. If you need to become physically aggressive and engage in a conflict, you need to be emotionally committed to what you are doing; both anger and fear (the same emotion) will go towards justifying your actions to you. If you’re the cornered person your fear instinct will tell you to run, if you’re a member of the predatory group your anger emotion will back-up your desire to become physically violent.

There are many other instinctual factors at play in such a situation; dominance being one of these. In our animal brain we arrange our social relationship by dominance hierarchies e.g. anyone above you can be aggressive towards you but you can’t fight back. In a dominance hierarchy the group will normally trump the individual with aggression flowing downwards. In many social conflicts individuals are attempting to assert dominance over each other. If you are the cornered individual in the bar attempting to explain to the group why you are in that particular place and have a right to be there, it may be that your explanation is seen as a form of insubordination; that you are not respecting your place in the hierarchy. Anyone who believes that an argument can end with one person being right and the other wrong is basically trying to play a dominance game – not a good idea if you are dealing with an emotionally volatile (and alcohol fuelled group) in a bar room setting.

The idea of territory is still a very strong instinct in us; we expect people to behave in a certain way if they are on our turf or dealing with things/people we may believe “belong” to us. If somebody is in our house we expect them to behave in a respectful manner and abide with our “rules and regulations” etc, even if these rules and regulations haven’t been explained – territory and dominance are strongly connected. Walking into a bar/pub that is seen as belonging to a particular group is really about breaking a rule of territory that was never explained or made clear to “the outsider”. Wolf packs spend their entire working day marking their territory. They make it very clear what is theirs and where their boundaries lie. Human beings don’t always make these territorial boundaries clear BUT certainly want them to be observed.

Once a person becomes angry there is no higher authority than their anger; it justifies to them everything they do and every action they take however unreasonable or unfair it may actually be – remember reason takes a break when people become angry. It is always interesting to watch when other people try and intervene in a dispute or try and reason with a person who is angry with another etc. Basically that person doesn’t want to know and they usually expect not only the person reasoning with them to agree with them but will see anything but full commitment to their cause as “disloyalty”. If a member of the gang who have cornered someone in their bar/pub tries to argue that they should leave their “prey” alone etc, they will soon be shouted down and their loyalty to the group questioned.

All of these things are instinctually programmed into us and we must work at finding solutions that connect at an emotional, rather than a rational level. In most angry disputes it will not be possible to come up with a resolution that satisfies all parties and in order to prevent violence this should never be the goal. Resolution is a rational pursuit and can only be sought when all parties are in a non-emotional state. Often this means getting and making distance. The ego can make this a hard thing for us to do as often we want to stay and argue our case, even when the situation we are in is clearly the wrong place to attempt this e.g. when dealing with a boozed up group/gang.

All of this happens in the pre-conflict stage of violence – the phase before any actual conflict occurs. This is a key phase to learn how to operate in as it represents the last opportunity to avoid violence; which should be our goal. The Pre-Conflict phase of violence is the one where we have the choice of: de-escalation, disengagement and/or a determined pre-emptive strike. Often we have to use all three.

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The Importance of Self Protection

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 12th Mar)

Krav Maga Yashir (meaning “Direct Close Combat”), consists of four main components: 1) Self Protection, 2) Self Defense, 3) Combat Fitness & 4) Full Contact Fighting. In the next four (or so…) blog posts I am going to talk about why all four areas need to be trained and more importantly why they need to dovetail together to present a coherent, comprehensive and consistent approach to dealing with violence.

With a grading coming up in late April it is very easy to shift all our attention to the study and learning of techniques and lose the bigger picture of what we are actually trying to achieve in our training. However many times you successfully pull-off a guillotine escape in a studio setting it is far better to be able to avoid this type of attack in the first place (understand the context in which such an attack can be made) and even more preferable to avoid being assaulted in the first place. This avoidance piece is taught in our Self-Protection component.

I’ve been involved in Krav Maga and Reality Based Self Defense for close to 20 years now and one of the things that many instructors seek to validate their teaching are the “War Stories” of their students. These are the reports from the street that describe how a student who has only been training in a particular system for just a few weeks managed to repel an armed gang with the technique(s) that they learnt only a few days earlier. My question always is, regardless of whether I believe a particular story or not, is, what could that person have done to avoid the confrontation in the first place? What did they do that put themselves in such a situation to begin with? What were their decisions that lead up to the assault? Etc.

Any person who has done any amount of CP (Close Protection) Work or “Body-Guarding” as it’s referred to in the U.S. will tell you that avoidance of violence is the key, as to put it bluntly, “dead clients don’t pay.”  When you are involved in protecting a third party, everything you do is to reduce risk. You choose routes and places where it is less likely that you/your client will be subject to any threat and you disengage and walk away from any trouble at the first site. This is how professional security people work and civilians/individuals would do well to follow their example.

To operate at the highest levels in the security industry, discretion is the key; not being noticed is far more valuable a skill than being noticed. It amazes me the amount of posturing people do to draw attention to themselves, from talking aggressively to strutting around in a pub or bar in the latest Tap-Out T-Shirt (don’t get me wrong I own a few of these but I’m selective when I wear them).

It may seem strange to talk about discretion in a culture that calls for everybody to be “recognized” and “respected”. But a major part of avoiding violence is to not be noticed, or if noticed not to appear either as a threat or as a victim. Playing the “neutral” role is one which demonstrates self-confidence, self-assurance and integrity. When I used to do security work in bars and clubs I would be called on to scan patrons and make eye-contact with them. A classic line I’d hear back when someone caught me looking at them would be, “what are you looking at?” My default response would be, “Nothing, I’ve had a long day and I’m just spacing out.” I’d them move on before that particular individual had time to respond. People who make posturing statements look for two responses: returned posturing or submission. Not doing either confounds their game-plan i.e. the neutral role is a hard one to deal with when people expect us to respond as they would. People are extremely unimaginative in the way they expect people to behave.

Being able to avoid physical violence is a greater skill than being able to physically deal with it. I’ve had to perform both and being able to predict, anticipate and disengage/de-escalate violence is the most rewarding activity. I think little about the physical confrontations I have had and much more about the ones I’ve avoided. The Self-Protection piece of our training is maybe the most essential however it only has wings when all of the other pieces are in place i.e. you can only confidently avoid physical violence when you know you have the means to deal with it.

Never underestimate the satisfaction that comes from walking away whilst the other person wonders why the conflict never happened. The true art of self-protection would have avoided the potential conflict in the first place but then nobody’s perfect.   

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Simultaneous Blocks & Counters

(Gershon Ben Keren - Fri 9th Mar)

I believe that simple ideas can sometimes be presented in a simplistic fashion and in doing so the real meaning and idea can become lost or misinterpreted. I believe this is often the case with Krav Maga's concept of the simultaneous block and counter. This idea of a seemingly simultaneous defense and attack makes a lot of sense i.e. you will never survive a real-life aggressive assault by simply acting defensively; at some point you will need to attack/assault your aggressor - and if this is the case you might as well do it as soon as you can. The longer a street-fight lasts the greater the chances of sustaining a serious and/or life-threatening injury.

One of the issues faced though is that your attack has to be able to be effective. This is where many people have an unrealistic expectation of the effects of their punching/striking and their assailants reaction/responses to it. I often see instructors define an attackers response to a strike e.g. you punch the person in the face and their head goes backwards. Really? If a 300 lb guy is swinging in a committed haymaker whilst stepping forward and you as a 175 lb person try and block and at the same time throw a punch to the face I really don't think you can gauruntee the outcome. Different people respond differently to punching/pain etc. You can increase your chances of getting this result by making sure that your body dynamics are correct e.g. you are rooted, your strike involves your hips, shoulders and full body etc and that rather than punch you use an eye strike or cradle strike to the throat/neck or other soft target etc. But even then there is no gaurutee that you will create the movement you've been told to expect.

I'll often see people perform a standard 360 block, with a simultaeous punch where the body dynamics of both the block and the punch are questionable to say the least. They normally involve the body bending forward at the hips and the punch being thrown with the elbow out, so that the body is not behind the punch. The rush to getting the strike in, along with the block, means that the punch lacks and real power. Yes, in training it may produce a snap on the pads but that really doesn't mean it has stopping or major disrupting ability. Also with such equal and even effort shared between the block and the strike, there is often not enough strength and support given to the block e.g. it may not be strong enough to deal with the weight and power of a 300 lb guy's haymaker.

A more effective way to generate both power in the block and in the strike is to move both together by turning the body. Remember the 360 blocking system is based on the body's natural flinch reflex. This means the blocking arm will naturally move before the punch/strike starts. The idea is to piggy back the punch on to this movement. By turning the body towards the strike as you flinch you will move both hips forward. The hips are the powerhouse behind every strike and block you make. If you keep both elbows down, you will ensure that the forearm of the blocking arm is vertical i.e. defending the target and that the punch comes out from the body. When you block and strike like this there will be a short gap between the block connecting with the arm and the punch/strike connecting - if you clap your hands together twice, quickly you will get an idea of this timeframe.

There's another reason that you need the block to make contact first. The 360 defense is also used to defend against circular knife attacks. If the block and strike connect at exactly the same time, there is the danger that should your punch move the person back, they will end up dragging the knife across your blocking arm as they stumble back. By having the block clear the knife first you avoid this issue.

Rather than talk about simultaneous blocking and striking it is perhaps better to talk about an attack following a defense within the shortest possible timeframe. This also allows for control movements/attacks to follow a defense, where striking may not be appropriate e.g. it risks a person moving with the strike in a direction away from you, which may not be beneficial if you are trying to control them.

For me, the principal is really about always attacking and if I'm totally honest, pre-emptively, so a defense never has to even be made.


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Using The Body\'s Natural Defenses

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 5th Mar)

There are certain things which all Krav Maga systems/styles have in common, apart from the principles and concepts that define a system as being Krav Maga in the first place. There are several common techniques which are seen across all Krav Maga systems; one of these is the 360 Defense.

The 360 Defense is a means of defending any circular attack (coming overhead, from the sides or upwards) , such as a swinging punch or a circular knife slash - remember you respond and block movement rather than trying to alter your defense based on the nature of the attack/assault. In real life it is almost impossible to recognize, at least initially, if a knife is being used; all that is obvious is that something is coming towards you incredibly fast. About 10-12 years ago someone tryied to shank me with a 9 inch Kebab Knife. what saved me was not that I immediately identified that a knife was involved and made an appropriate defense, rather that I instinctively pulled my hips back and threw my arms forward to block i.e. performed a scrappy but adequate 360 - I still have the scar from where the knife cut my blocking arm, which is a great reminder to train your defenses with your attacker recoiling the knife. Apart from having to throw away a good suit, back in the day when I owned good suits, my hand and body defense were sufficient.

This type of automatic flinch response demonstrates how Krav Maga uses the body's natural movements, reflex responses and behaviors as the foundation for its defense(s). This is one of the underlying principles of the system and one which makes it an extremely realistic and effective method of self-defense. There are many things we may like to think we would do in a situation however Krav Maga is about what we will do e.g. somebody chokes/strangles you, your hands will naturally go to try and free the choke - you won't be attacking the person but the attack itself.

Using the body's natural defenses makes complete sense when designing a self-defense system to be used by the ordinary man/woman in the street as opposed to trained athletes (or as in the case of 1940's Israel getting an untrained raw recruit competent in hand-to-hand combat, in the shortest possible time, before having going to the front-line to defend his/her country). Rather than retraining the body to work in an unfamiliar way Krav Maga accepts how we will act when faced with violence and then works with these responses to make effective defenses that immediately flow into powerful and committed attack(s).

The 360 block, which is based on the body's flinch mechanism i.e. how we respond to movements that are picked up by our peripheral vision, also demonstrates the idea of reusing techniques; another fundamental Krav Maga principle. Instead of coming up with a multitude of different defenses for different types of attack, Imi Lichtenfeld looked to see how a defense against a punch, could be re-used against a knife etc. If the body responds/reacts to movement, but is unable to initially identify the nature of the attack, then the block has to be good for both knife and open hand/fist. If two seperate defense are needed then the person being attacked will have to undergo some form of threat recognition before they make a defense. Such a process will take time and involve conscious processing - it won't be reflexive and will therefore be slower. By allowing one defense to be able to deal with two different types of attack eliminates the need to make a conscious identification of the threat and then select an appropriate technique.

It is important to always evaluate what you are being taught from the perspective of how you will behave in reality; when you are surprised, scared and your adrenaline is running high. We can all pull off spectacular techniques in a clinical or controlled setting but on the street we're left with our natural instincts. Krav Maga is designed to build on these not replace them.

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