One of my foundational rules in Krav Maga training is that it must be as close to reality as safety allows. When I teach attacks like chokes or bear hugs, I insist that training partners start slowly, so that they can learn the defense. As they become more familiar, I insist that the challenger (partner playing the role of the attacker) live up to their title by steadily increasing the pressure on the defender. After all, an attacker choking you won’t stop and stand still because you broke the choke. They will go in for a second attack.
This means reacting more and more like a real attacker and not cooperating. For example, if I grab someone in a bear-hug, I make it dynamic. I will lift them up or attempt to take them to the ground like a real attacker, instead of standing there like a scarecrow. If I am sitting in mount on an opponent, I won’t let them buck me off easily.
My personal favorite is that if a student turns their back to an opponent during a drill (and has trained enough to be able to handle it) I will execute a quick rear-naked choke before immediately letting go, to give them a cue of what an actual attacker will do.
Making it too easy for the defender is unrealistic training, which builds no skills, only false confidence, and an inability to actually use those skills if they are actually needed.
This is not always easy, as it means leaving the comfort zone and struggling against stronger opponents to progress in skill level.
Many times, I’ve noticed that a major struggle many of my female students face is a fear of working with male partners. They work hard to only partner with other women. Many prefer women-only self-defense classes and female teachers where they feel safer. When I ask them why, they tell me that they want to train safely, and training with men feels above their level.
I understand their concerns, but I really agree with the advice Krav Maga instructor Avivit Cohen gives to her female students. “If they really want to progress and feel realistic training they have to train with men. Men are stronger, more aggressive, and will push you to your limits. There is no shortcut here, it's a must. I didn’t get to where I am today while training only with female training partners.”
The reality is that for women, an attacker is statistically far more likely to be a man. Therefore, the most realistic way to train is with a man, so they can prepare their techniques against the pressure, as well as overcome any fear.
However, what if they are too scared to work with a male student? How do we as self-defense teachers help them transition to a higher level of training?
I accept that many women will want to start out in a female-only environment, and I actually think it’s a good choice. If that’s helpful to them to begin the self-defense journey, I’m glad those classes are offered. I also know this is a deeply emotional and triggering experience. Being grabbed and attacked is terrifying and I’ve seen so many students break down in tears, reliving the trauma. They may feel safer doing that among their peers, and I wouldn’t want to intrude on the process.
However, at a certain point, the training does reach a plateau if women don’t get to train with men. In order to have effective training, we must make the training more realistic and even the strongest women don’t normally elicit the same fear reaction as a regular man.
I think a great compromise for female self-defense instructors is to invite male instructors to serve as guest instructors a few times a month. This is especially important in ground combat, as I can understand this can be a deeply triggering exercise that requires a safe environment. This allows for a hybrid model, where pressure can be raised by a trained professional who had experience working with students and can adjust to their level.
This allows them to at minimum pressure test their skills properly and hopefully help some transition to work with other men on a regular basis.
I have seen so many times female students practicing with each other and feeling confident, only to have me play the role of challenger and see them freeze up at my touch. I understand that fear isn’t a compliment or a testimony to my talent. It’s the result of the fact that violence against women is done primarily by men. The fear I see in their eyes is a stark reminder of the impotence of the work self-defense instructors do.
I wish I had another solution. It is not an easy process. This process should be a slow and incremental one, always one inch outside the comfort zone. Instructors should be vigilant to make sure their students aren’t being pushed too far and to know when it’s time to take a break. Good communication and patience are key here. I also highly recommend that students see therapists and mental health counselors help them as well.
However, if you push through it, the results are incredible. One of my favorite moments in teaching is watching a student do their first buck-and-roll and realize that they are capable of getting a mounted opponent off them. A light sparks in their eyes as they suddenly seem so much more confident. As terrifying as the process of getting them into mount was, showing them that they aren’t helpless is the best feeling imaginable. Students of mine who have been through trauma have said that the hardest thing for them is reliving the helplessness of the experience. Now, when they remember the incident, they focus on how they could possibly prevent it in the future.
No, the odds will never truly be fair, but that doesn’t mean we can give up. We must find ways to challenge students so they will be prepared for whatever life throws at them.