Re-post – I Don’t Care if the Move Works

I wrote this about a year and a half ago, but since there are a lot more new readers of this blog, I wanted to bring it back because I think it is an extremely important topic.

There was a recent forum discussion that brought this to mind. During the discussion, a proponent of a particular technique made the huge mistake of making an appeal to authority argument, and said that his authority figure stated that this technique was good because “it worked as often as not” (that is pretty much a direct quote, and in context). Now, I don’t think he really thought about what he was writing, because even if that statement was true, it still only meant the technique worked 50% of the time, at best (the quantifiable translation of “as often as not”). That is not what I would consider a good percentage. Especially when there are demonstrably better techniques out there, that are as easily learned as what he espoused.

And even more so, his arguments showed that still too many people make the foolish argument of just because a move works somewhere and sometime, that puts it on equal footing with a technique that works most of the time in almost all situations for almost all people. Those are two completely separate things. So I re-post this older article with apologies to those who have read it before and are lookign for totally new content. I will get something new up in the next day or, but I feel this is important.

Older article:

In the medical field, there is a concept known as the placebo effect. Essentially, if a doctor prescribes a treatment such as a drug for an illness and the drug is not actually a real medicine (but rather something like a sugar pill) but the treatment acts as a cure or as relief anyway, that cure or relief has to be attributed to something other than the actual treatment. It can be chalked up to the person’s own mind accomplishing the goal, or it was a freak act. This phenomenon is well known and accepted. It does occur, more frequently than you might think. So why don’t doctors attempt to ever use this a normal course of treatment? Because there is never anyway to judge if it is actually working, and how often, and to what extent! Sure, the placebo effect can work on occasion, but more often, it utterly fails. So therefore it can never be taken seriously as a factor when trying to cure a patient. If you can’t plan on when it works, or to what level, it is useless as a treatment.

So how does this relate to self-defense? Bear with me for a moment and I will tie it in. This past week, I was participating in an online discussion forum (yes, I know how problematic that can be at times, but sometimes, you can get good information from doing so) related to self-defense and firearms/shooting, and there was a thread in which one of the posters made one of the classic blunders in the SD field. Now this particular poster has a huge chip on his shoulder and has a tendency to bolster his debates by referring to his own experience (he has some field work in this area). However, he continually will try to end the debate over a particular technique/tactic/method by saying “x worked for me”. Now, to him, this is his trump card, his “gotcha” moment. In truth, it is the fighting world’s equivalent of the placebo effect. What he fails to realize that IT DOES NOT MATTER IF IT WORKED IN THE STREET.

What the heck did I just say? Have I taken leave of my senses? Have I stepped into the realm of mystical approaches to combat? Am I suddenly going to start wearing a ponytail and wearing giant muumuus and talking about all the chi in my belly? Not at all. What I am saying is this: if the entirety of your justification of whether a technique is good or not happens to be if it worked, you are missing the larger point.

Just pointing out that something worked is not good enough. Let’s examine this for a moment. A couple of years ago, there was an MMA fight where one of the participants ran up the side of the cage to where he was almost horizontal, jumped off of it, turned in mid-air and threw a kick that not only landed, but almost knocked the other fighter out. Does anyone out there think that would be a good technique to add to their toolbox? It worked didn’t it? So why don’t we all start practicing that move?

There are also documented instances where a person has been shot in the face with a firearm and the bullet did not penetrate the skull, but rather skipped along the bone and came out the skin on the back side of the head. Absolute documented fact. Anyone want to base their gun defense on that? Why not? It “worked”, didn’t it?

I have a video clip I got off of YouTube. It is from Eastern Europe or Russia and shows a person robbing a store at knifepoint. The clerk did a crescent kick and knocked the knife out of the bad guy’s hand. So how many people are going to practice and advocate that move as a good knife defense move? Anyone?…… Bueller?…… Bueller? Again, why not? I have video proof a crescent kick can knock a knife from a hand. So let’s all jump in and start working on being Chuck Norris.

Hopefully, the gist of my point is starting to come across. Using what works as justification is as irrelevant to optimal training as the placebo effect is to medical treatment.

For anyone who has studied fighting for any length of time, one conclusion can quickly be drawn – sometimes the goofiest stuff will actually work. Combat is so chaotic that almost anything can happen at any given time. However, just because anything can happen, does not mean it will happen at a given moment, and therefore “anything” cannot be relied on, just as a doctor cannot rely on the placebo effect to cure his patient.

What we need to focus on is what are the things that work in the most situations, against the widest variety of opponents, and that can be trained with the least outlay of training time, and with the highest chance of predicting the effect of the move on the other person. In other words, what are the most efficient methods/techniques/systems that still have a high amount of efficacy, especially if we are speaking of the everyday person and his limited time to train.

A few years ago, I was involved in another online debate in which the other person was trying to say that the superman punch was a valid SD move because it worked in MMA. So I went and took a look at the prior two years of EVERY UFC match and looked at every instance of the superman punch. What I found was that, yes, the punch worked in MMA – 30% of the time! The other 70% it failed! And that was when executed by professional fighters whose job it was to do nothing but train, and even then, with all of that on their side, they could only land it a third of the time. Is that really a good use of training time if we only have a very limited time to train, or should we focus on techniques that we can make use of a lot more often? Certainly the move “works”, but does that even matter?

So, did the technique work because it was a good technique? Or did it work because the other guy did something really stupid? Or was it blind luck? Or was it because you are a 300 pound powerlifter and you are fighting a 140 pound tweaking methhead? I have a terrific escape when someone has the knee on belly position on you. It is a high percentage move IF you are bigger and stronger than the person on top. If not, and he is bigger and stronger, there is no way the escape works. Should that be a technique that everyone should practice as part of their fundamentals? No? Why not? It “works” – albeit under a narrow contextual range.

In summary, we most certainly need to take into account if a technique works in the real world. But, far more importantly, we need to look at a number of other factors as well before we judge said move as something that should be put into the personal arsenal.

Applying Combat Sport Methods – A Real World Look

One of the best benefits of the information age is that we no longer have to settle for “old wives’ tales” or “war stories” as the only proof of the validity of a given martial art or self-defense method/tactic. Up until even 10 years ago, it was not easy to counter unverifiable anecdotes with documented facts. I remember around 1999 getting into an online debate with a minor martial artist about whether grappling joint locks actually broke bones. I ran rings around his arguments and he looked really bad (which I think contributed to his leaving of the martial art world and his move to finding other ways of making a fast buck), but it took awhile because the internet was not as omnipresent or as vast as it is today. If that argument took place today it would be about five minutes of Google search to have tons of documented evidence.

So we get to see things easily that we had to take on faith for decades. For example, watch the following video clip and think about what is there and, more importantly, is NOT there.

What do we see?

First, it is certainly a “streetfight”. It is obviously not two guys in a schoolyard pushing match. The one person is extremely aggressive and clearly wants to inflict pain and/or damage to the other person. Even as the other person tries to de-escalate and escape from the situation, the larger man continues to pursue in an attempt to hurt the other.

Second, there is an imbalance in the physical comparison. The aggressor is much larger than the person trying to move away. This is the classic mean and bigger bully picking on the small guy – right out of the old Charles Atlas ads.

Third, they are not in a gym on nice padded mats. Nor are they in an MMA cage or ring. The setting is similar to almost any urban area on the planet.

Fourth, there is no referee present. There is no third party to stop the use of foul tactics, nor is there anyone there to enforce a rule set or to keep outside influences to come into play.

Fifth, the defender uses a pure combat sport methodolgy to defend himself. It is incredibly clear that the he is a boxer, and uses the exact same tactics in the street that he would use in the ring.

So what do we NOT see?

One, we do not see multiple attackers. This is man versus man. This, according to many self-defense people, never happens. And yet it does. Why is this significant? Well, because if there are times when a fight/assault is one against one, then ignoring methods/tactics/techniques that are optimized for that in the hope that other, lesser methods work better against multiple opponents ( a very dubious and unproven hope, at best), only to never encounter an assault from multiple opponents is not a particularly useful idea. I have been conducting a research project over the past year or so, using huge databases with literally thousands of incidents, to try to quantify exactly the likelihood of that. While I am still working on it, the preliminary results are showing that, at best, the percentage of multiple attackers is 40%. So why should we ignore proven methods that work best in 60% or incidents, and still work, with only slight modifications in the other percent? It makes no sense. We should want best case answers as much as possible across the board.

Second, we don’t see weapons involved. Again, something that many experts claim will always be involved. And again using the same databases for my research project is showing somewhere in the area or the high 30s as a percentage of incidents where weapons are used. And many times those weapons are more opportunistic than purpose carried. Items such as tire irons/crow bars, steak knives, baseball bats, etc. This is absolutely not an argument to ignore the possibility. In point of fact, I think it is critical that we specifically train for that eventuality in part of our defensive preparations. However, that again does not mean we ignore high percentage answers for the vast majority of real world situations.

Third, we see no injury to the defender’s hands. He clearly hits the aggressor with a closed fist, and hits the bad guy on the head, including hard bony parts of the head. And yet, it causes him no problems at all, contrary to what many Self-defense instructors say (“never hit with the closed fist to the head”). Is the potential for injury there? Of course, just as it is if the defender had hit the bad guy with a chin jab and takes the risk of a devastating wrist or finger injury.

To sum up, this is not a call to ignore the dangers of multiple opponents or weapons. Those things must be trained for. In my own training, as well as when I teach, I always make it a point to include those principles. But, we need to be realistic about the odds, and stop making dogmatic pronouncements that a street assault will always go a certain way. The world is a big place, with lots of different people doing different things, all in a very chaotic manner. Let us deal with the variables and the chaos, and not try to impose our own wants and beliefs on the chaos.