It’s important to distinguish between remembering a technique and maintaining one in a reliable-under-duress state so you won’t fail in a violent incident. That distinction is important because when you’ve been startled by an attack, the subsequent physiological response has a diminishing effect on several things: speed of response, effective recall, physical skill, decision making and more.
Although learning hundreds of techniques may be a great hobby and a method to demonstrate skill progression and achieve rank, it won’t help your ability to immediately respond to an unexpected attack. Hick’s Law, if you’re unfamiliar with it, describes choice-reaction time — basically, it holds that the speed with which a person responds is adversely affected by the number of choices available. Having fewer choices results in faster response time.
Physical skills meant to be reliable and useful under duress require maintenance in order to leverage the recency effect, or the tendency to remember and perform skills that were/are recently and frequently practiced. Although people may remember and demonstrate 250 techniques over time in a nonthreatening and passive environment, how many could they sort through, select and execute when their life is threatened?
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To make matters worse, the ability to use fine-motor skills is significantly and adversely impacted when you’re startled and under duress. Your favorite five-step move is futile when Carl the Crackhead whips his stolen steak knife at your face. The precision targeting and manipulation you finally got the hang of with your training partner isn’t possible against the unpredictable and erratic movements of a street thug.
Which brings me to Fitts’ Law. It basically states that bigger things are easier to hit, and they’re easier to hit faster. Fitts’ Law and Hick’s Law have been the subject of many studies. It’s a logical and reasonable deduction that when considered together and applied to fighting, it follows that fewer skills that require less precision will enable you to respond more quickly and effectively. A more compact skill set is easier to maintain, and the individual skills are far less perishable.
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To identify the skills you should focus on, try this: Wherever you train, create a “blind space,” or a training area that you enter without having seen. Have a couple of partners devise 10 different attacks. They should be ambush-type attacks with little or no role-playing, and they should include the use of diversion. Have the partners mix things up so you experience punches, grabs, multiple-opponent scenarios and weapons attacks. When you walk into the training area, the attack should happen quickly, giving you little or no time to size things up.
You’ll notice that you keep relying on a handful of strikes, kicks, movements, positions, etc. They’re likely your keepers. You resort to them in unknown situations in which you’re attacked fast and experience duress because they’re in the category of “nearly intuitive.” You own them.
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There’s an axiom in boxing that says you can’t fight if you don’t have a jab. It doesn’t mean you can’t fight if you can’t throw a jab. Lots of people can ball up their fist and throw a jab. But that’s all they’re doing. They’re not throwing it from angles, it isn’t fast, it isn’t combined with full-body plyometric movement in and out. It’s just a jab.
Having a jab is different. It means you own it. It means that although it’s probably the first technique you learned when you started boxing, years later you’re still practicing it. Why? Because it’s the punch boxers throw most often. Because it’s the foundation of any offense and can contribute to a bombproof defense. Because it sets up almost everything. Because it’s a fundamental yet advanced technique. Because it’s never in jeopardy of becoming perishable due to the fact that you practice it all the time.
My point is that quickly and efficiently defending yourself in an unexpected assault requires you to rely on skills you’ve maintained in that near-intuitive state. You have to own them. I’m not saying you can’t own hundreds. I think you’re lucky — and dangerous — if you truly own a couple of dozen.
(Photos by Peter Lueders)
A former officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Kelly McCann has studied and taught combatives for 30 years. He operates the Kembativz Civilian Training Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia.