A combatives instructor explains why blade attacks are so frightening and what you can do now to prepare for such grave self-defense situations.

The part of self-defense that frightens me most is defending against a knife attack. It’s hard to convey the ugliness of combat with a bladed weapon. Anyone — trained or untrained, male or female — gains a significant advantage when wielding a knife and suffers a great disadvantage when facing one.


How should you prepare for this type of potentially fatal encounter? Being realistic in training is the key.

I say this because most martial artists train primarily to deal with face-to-face, Hollywood-style knife attacks. You need to distinguish between what looks good for demonstration purposes and movies and what will work in an actual knife fight.

Think about the way you train. Your workouts should help you gain the skills and attributes needed to deal with high-speed, aggressive blade attacks. Furthermore, your workouts must be shaped by reality. That means they should include functional training methods and reliable techniques.

Research has shown that techniques that depend on fine-motor skills require heightened awareness, proximity sense and precise timing. That’s a lot to ask in a real-life self-defense situation.

It follows that the best techniques are those that rely on gross-motor skills, especially ones you’ve practiced over and over in environments designed to mimic reality. When you start training your body and brain that way, it quickly becomes apparent that keeping things simple is the preferred way to ensure you can function under pressure.

I’ve found that the best method for getting this kind of experience involves sparring with a resisting opponent using training knives. Knife fights occur at full speed, so all your sparring should be done at a fast pace.

A crucial part of knife training is composed of offensive techniques. Only by understanding the offensive elements of blade combat will you be able to develop good defensive tactics. Knowledge of the way weapons work can give you the advantage you need to defend against them.

Of course, you can’t neglect empty-hand-vs.-weapon training. To keep it realistic, engage in scenarios that occasionally include surrendering as soon as a weapon is deployed, as well as scenarios in which you can’t do that because it would place you in greater danger.

The following is the training progression I teach:

1 — Avoid

Improve your awareness so you can avoid threats. Study the mindset of the sociopath. Review statistics associated with knife attacks. Read about relevant criminal cases.

2 — Escape

Set up training scenarios that allow escape. Engage in “mental practice” that involves planning a quick exit from the places you visit. Don’t forget to envision yourself fleeing along with a loved one.

3 — Use the Environment

Learn how to identify nearby objects that can be thrown at an armed attacker, as well as objects that can be used to bludgeon or cut him. Also learn how to maneuver so an obstacle or barrier stands between him and you. To ingrain this concept, engage in training scenarios with focus mitts, boxing gloves and so on to serve as throwable objects and other improvised weapons.

4 — Mobility

Develop your perception so that distancing, timing and accuracy become second nature. Practice not engaging with the enemy and making your escape. Don’t forget to train in the presence of role-playing “loved ones” who need your protection.

5 — Engage

Know that this should be your course of action only if your life or the life of a loved one is at stake. When engaging, it’s imperative to grab the assailant’s knife hand with both your hands before executing a counterattack. Avoid focusing on disarms unless one presents itself. Incorporate training knives of various sizes and designs, as well as all kinds of improvised weapons, into your drills. Train in a variety of environments and adjust your methods according to what works where.

Blade training is essential in the education of anyone who’s into self-defense. Never make the mistake of thinking a knife attack won’t happen to you or that you can disarm an assailant as easily as they do in the movies.

If you teach, reinforce the notion that “avoid and escape” is preferred to “stand and fight.” Constantly tell your students that this is by no means a cowardly response to an attack. Your possessions can be replaced, but your life cannot. As they say, there can be only one winner in a knife fight — but more often, there are two losers.

Story by Morné Swanepoel, a South Africa-based martial arts teacher, MMA coach and fitness instructor. For more information, visit CombatCoaching.com.

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