Recently, I was interviewed on a couple of radio shows for the BBC to talk about Krav Maga. British Members of Parliament (and their staff) have been offered Krav Maga training in the wake of the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. Naturally enough, the editors of the shows wanted to do a short piece on what Krav Maga is, and what kind of training the MPs might have been offered. By their nature, such interviews are short affairs (around 3-5 minutes), so the opportunity to give detailed answers is limited. But, the questions were interesting and worth elaborating upon more fully here, largely because I’ve had quite a number of emails since from members of the public saying how interesting they found the interviews, and could I give more information. So, in the next four posts, I’ll deal with the more interesting questions: (1) why is Krav Maga different to other martial arts; (2) Do I really need to learn self-defence? (3) Isn’t Krav Maga just scare-mongering?; (4) What would MPs have learned in just 3 hours?

In this post I’m going to concentrate on the first question of how Krav Maga differs from other martial arts. This will also allow some elaboration of what Krav Maga actually is. The term “martial arts” is something of a suitcase term – a kind of catch-all label – that includes sports-based arts such as Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing, Muay Thai Boxing, Judo, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), right through to more classical martial arts like Aikido, Karate, Kung Fu, and Ju-Jitsu. Some martial arts mix sports with more traditional forms of the arts. Krav Maga, by contrast, has no sporting element to it, and no part of it has any sporting application. Nor does Krav Maga teach anything for its aesthetic, traditional, spiritual, or other value. Rather, the sole focus of Krav Maga is (or should be) to make the practitioner more capable of defending him or herself in the case of a real, violent, predatory attack.

The common-use understanding of “martial arts” elides these distinctions, and sees everything as much the same, with some being “better” than others. This was in evidence in the kinds of opening questions the interviewers asked: why do we need Krav Maga, what’s wrong with things like Karate and Kickboxing? The short answer is, nothing is wrong with any of those things, I’m all for them (and have trained in many most of my life). They provide lots of benefits and enjoyment, and anything that might help you to better defend yourself is a good thing; if you’re an accomplished Thai boxer then you will have skills well above and beyond the average street criminal that would help you defend yourself.

But, there are important differences. First of all, Krav Maga is not about fighting where “fighting” is understood as some kind of symmetrical contest between two roughly equally skilled opponents of similar size and weight, each trying to gain dominance to ascertain the winner. This is the stuff of combat sports (such as Judo, MMA, and the like). Real violence is not like this; it is predatory, lacking in rules, and generally consists of one person (or more) beating (or worse) another person, often with the presence of weapons. Combat sports are entertaining, a spectacle, something you pay money to sit down and watch with a bucket of popcorn. Violence is something that normal people recoil from; the kinds of sickening attacks you read about in the papers or hear about on the TV are not the sort of thing any right-minded person wants to witness. Fighting is something you do with someone else, violence is something you do to someone else (to borrow a phrase). Consequently, if your martial art looks like the former, then chances are it’s not aimed primarily at self-defence, and standing trading blows in the street when you could be running or verbally defusing, is likely to get you arrested and prosecuted. By contrast, if your martial arts reflects the dynamic of real violence, and is asymmetrical in its structure – showing you how the predatory dynamic works and how to reverse it – such that your training means you are doing violence to another person (rather than “fighting” with them), then you’re probably engaged in some kind of reality-based self-defence training such as Krav Maga.

Consequently, defending yourself successfully and efficiently is not primarily an athletic enterprise, like many martial arts. It is not a contest of physical skill sets, in the main. It is, rather, a psychological enterprise. Although physical fitness and razor-sharp skills help, they are of little use if you’re frozen to the spot by the inevitable adrenal rush that accompanies any violent altercation. Whether it’s a group of yobs on the cut-through to the shops looking to give someone a beating for “fun,” a couple of guys worse-for-wear in the pub looking to use your accidental bump as grounds to start a fight for their Saturday night entertainment before they go for a curry, or the heroin addict with a screwdriver who will spread your ribs for the contents of your wallet (and then forget he ever did that afterwards), you will experience a massive adrenal dump that will freeze you into inactivity. Much of your training to deal with violence must, therefore, focus on controlling and harnessing that adrenal rush. The best way to do that is to replicate those real events in your actual training. If you’re not dealing continuously with situations in your training that mimic violent, armed attack, with elements of surprise, stress, verbal and physical intimidation to freeze you into inaction, then chances are you won’t react efficiently if you ever face that situation for real. Hoping that hours spent training for a different event – whether it’s for the ring or the aesthetics of the movements – will translate automatically to the world of real violence is, in my experience, wishful thinking. Many a martial arts black belt have found this out when they have been on the receiving end of a beating by some untrained thug with no skill, but a shed-load of attitude and violent intent. In fact, one of the most common reasons I hear from students who start Krav Maga is: ‘I trained in X martial art for years, but then someone started on me, and I didn’t know what to do’.

Third, the skill set we teach in Krav Maga is not limited to just punching and kicking, throwing, and the like. These are the physical tools we use when things have become violent. But, they are not the only skills, and certainly not the most important. The other set of skills – the ‘Soft’ skills – are equally, if not more important. These skills are, primarily, good awareness and observation; good decision-making under stress and uncertainty; communication and de-escalation skills; and assertive body-language. When we know that the would-be criminal follows one of a series of ingrained ritualistic routes to rob or assault us, it is easier to spot a potential problem, and take action to avoid it. Most conflicts can actually be prevented by being a good communicator. If I understand how to talk to others and have tactics to smooth out misunderstandings, then I’m unlikely to ever be involved in a violent altercation. And, if I can project a demeanor of calm confidence in the face of aggression, and put my (male) ego aside, then I’m unlikely to be selected as a victim by a potential predator.

But, how many people actually train this? Not many, I warrant. Just understanding and being able to recognize predatory behaviour is likely to keep you safe in 99% of situations. Like many people in the martial arts I got involved in them early in my life because I was the victim of bullying. And, like many, I thought being able to “fight” was the solution. Yet, whilst I developed physical skills, and certainly gave back as good as I got in physical terms by the time I finished school, I had missed the wider picture. It was only when I started working in pubs and clubs as a doorman that I realized that the physical capability was only a small part of the picture for dealing with aggression. The lion’s share was being a good communicator – being able to read the script in advance, know where it was going, and short-circuit the situation by managing the behaviour of others via words, body-language and so forth. For sure, when violence is the problem, then violence is the only answer. But, in many situations of interpersonal conflict, violence is rarely the problem. As a good friend and instructor of mine says: if all you’ve got is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

Violence has very real and very serious consequences for everyone involved. That’s why it’s not a game. Even if you “win” the costs can be extraordinarily high. You may have suffered life-changing injuries. You will likely have to justify your actions to the police, and probably in court. Even if you are completely in the right and exonerated, this will likely cost you months (if not years) of stress and mental anguish, not to mention money, and strain on relationships. Those who are violent – even in self-defence – are often viewed as pariahs by others in society, including former close friends and family. You may have to carry the fact you seriously hurt (or worse) someone on your conscience, and the fact that they may have “deserved” it does little to assuage that feeling of guilt. And, you might forever be looking over your shoulder at the inevitable “comeback” or revenge attack to you or your family. There are no good consequences to violence, and we should do our utmost to avoid it where reasonably possible. If you’re not training the skills to do that, then you’re running a serious risk of seeing every problem as a nail.

Take care until next time.