21 August 2012

Are Combat Sports a Waste of Time for Self Defence?

This is a key topic of dispute.

Are the combat sports useful for self defence?

Or are they a complete waste of time?

I was reading the Budo Blog the other day which sometimes has really interesting articles and is well worth checking out. One of the recent articles was about an experience of one of the students of the editor for Budo Blog Kasey Keckeisen who is a police officer and martial arts instructor.

I found the article interesting and generally found myself agreeing overall except for one point. Kasey argued that training in the combat sports was of little use in self defence and was a waste of time. This point I disagree with and will go over sections of the article and detail the reasons why I disagree.

"A predator will use tactics he has developed to get what he wants from you in the safest surest manor. This is in no way a “fair fight”. The predator will take every advantage using speed, surprise and ferocity to prevent you from responding in any way that could be effective in stopping him."

Very true. I have no issues with this. This is as what has previously been written in "The Two Faces of Combatives" as well as “The Most Dangerous Animal” and numerous other works.

Predator vs Sport Fighting

Kasey then goes on to talk about using combat sport approaches to self defence against predatory attacks.

"It (combat sports) is a sport because it is hard work. You have to give the opponent a sorting chance. Weight classes, separate brackets for the different genders, different age categories etc, all to make things as fair as possible.

Skill is demonstrated by gaining dominance over someone in the same “class” using ineffective methods."

I agree with most of the above except that last bit “using ineffective methods”. Is an arm drag to get to the back “ineffective”? Is a rear naked choke “ineffective”? Is a big right hand to the chin that knocks an opponent out “ineffective”? Is a Thai clinch then knees “ineffective”?


I think I know what Kasey means by this. Fighters cannot pull out a knife or shoot an opponent dead. Fighters cannot eye gauge or kick to the groin or use other banned techniques. However I feel this is an old argument that throws the baby out with the bath water.

Combat sports (such as mma) training develops far more than teaching somebody a hand full of “banned and lethal” techniques. And I am not trying to take away from Kaseys article overall just the section that the combat sports are a waste of time for self defence.

It's about the Base

MMA training develops a solid base. It develops as strong a foundation as will ever be needed for building any structure onto. MMA training develops the ability to get into an advantageous position. This is possibly the biggest benefit to training in MMA. This is often glossed over yet is so important.

It doesn't matter what techniques you know and intend to apply, if you try to apply them from a poor position with an opponent being in a dominant position, your technique will probably fail and you will give the aggressor an opening to go for and an incentive to attack you harder.

The other aspect MMA type training develops is (wait for it), Aliveness. I know many people hate on the term the same way some people hate on Apple. Regardless, the term articulates and captures very well the meaning which is the ability to flow from one position and/or technique to another against a resisting opponent. This is also so important. Real violence is dynamic so should training be. The training methods used in MMA develops this Aliveness.

Yes, fighters in combat sport matches are evenly matched. The argument against this implies that it is not really that important to be able to defeat an attacker the same size, the goal is to defeat a bigger attacker.

But I have a simple question to ask about this claim.

Bigger not Smaller?

If you cannot defeat someone in the same weight class (as in sport matches), how on earth should you expect to defeat somebody much bigger? There is no way to bypass people the same size and move straight onto bigger people. Sure you cannot use strength against a bigger attacker. Agree.

But arguing that the skills learnt in sport fighting cannot be transferred to larger people is flawed. Remember the early UFCs? I remember seeing a sport fighter under very few rules knock down and stop a large sumo fighter through simple effective striking techniques. I also remember seeing a skinny Brazilian defeat many larger opponents.

These two examples were when the rules were that basically the only thing not allowed was attacks on the eyes and inside the mouth. And these fights were when the overall skill level and corporate knowledge within the MMA world was nowhere near the level it is today.

Yes no weapons were used but this an argument that the combat sports are an effective unarmed combat methodology. Attacks against the eyes can easily be added into an arsenal from a solid base.

Single not Multiple

Another argument used against the combat sports are it is simply one on one and no other combatants are involved. This is true. But if you cannot efficiently defeat just one opponent, how do you think you can defeat more than one at the same time? I am not saying that combat sports are the end game in town, they are just an excellent base to build from.

"Cheat for the purposes of this blog meaning not getting sucked into a fair fight mindset."

Very true. Though I think it is underestimating sport fighters to think that they will play by competition rules in a self defence situation. MMA is a sport and the training method is a very effective means of training in hand to hand combat to a very hard and realistic manner safely. It is just training.

Scaling a Response

From a dominant position, they can choose any technique they want. They can scale a response. If it is just an angry and frustrated uncle at a party, they can hold them down and slap them around a little. If it is a group of four intent on hurting them, they can rip eyes out and stomp.

In today's world where legal use of force is so important, having the ability to scale a response is vital. Having only “lethal” tools in the arsenal is a risky game, legally. This is another key benefit to using the combat sports as a self defence base.

"I bet every hardass Military, Cop, Martial Arts Man reading this would have a hard time if ambushed by surprise by Brock Lesner. Yet that discrepancy in size, strength, and ferocity is what every woman faces with every man they encounter."

Very true and good point. To me this is highlighting the importance of the competent use of weapons rather than that combat sports training is somehow a poor form of unarmed combat.

Encountering a Large Aggressor

There are very few if any high percentage unarmed combat approaches to defeating an attacker on the street the size of Brock Lesner with his aggression who has the element of surprise. This is where weapons are needed (and of course awareness and avoidance but I am trying to stick with combative responses).

I agree you need to cheat and use every tool in the arsenal in such situations. But these are best applied from a neutral or dominant position as trying them from being mounted is still a bad idea.

Manoeuvring and Escaping

What is more important is getting out of being mounted. Do this any way possible. Going for eyes can free up space and reaction time to bridge and roll or escape the hips out. Combat sports skills are important here in this bad self defence situation.

Escaping from a bad position including from a position of rape is vital for females. Combat sports training is very beneficial here as well when talking about female self defence.

"Don’t get me wrong women still need physical skills, but don’t waste their (or your) time with stuff that only works in their weight class against women of a similar age."

I feel this point is again missing the key benefits of combat sports training. It is about getting to a dominant position. It is about getting out of bad positions and situations. It is about applying a scaled response. If you cannot apply these things against someone the same size you cannot go past go and collect your 200 dollars and go straight to larger attackers.

Plan B

The other key trait combat sports training develops is the ability to have a plan B. It is about going from plan B to C to D and so on. You will not panic or be lost when a technique is attempted and fails. Combat sports develops the ability to go from one thing to the next to the next with little delay or thought.

There is no avoiding the fact that defeating a larger attacker is very difficult. I don't feel that applying a scaled response from a dominant position (or escaping from a poor one) which is what the combat sports allows is a waste of time.

"Fuck fair fights, fuck sportsmanship - get that out of their head."

Very true! Again, it is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Combat sports is a training methodology. Those who train in combat sports for self defence will not stick to the rules in a real violent struggle. They will scale their responses as needed.

Training and Real Thing

I think it is important to not underestimate combat sports athletes in self defence situations. Yes you fight how you train. However combat sports athletes have trained under harsh and stressful conditions for so long that they have become inoculated to many of the stresses of combat and can think when engaged in combat. They can choose to slap, punch or rip.

I am not saying all combat sports athletes think in this manner. They probably do not. I am just saying that somebody keen on learning self defence skills can easily apply this approach and gain the benefits of training in a combat sport such as MMA.

"Work on physical skills that exploit these weaknesses, very high end use of force skills to end the attacker / the confrontation quickly. Including the use of close quarters weapons, edged weapons, fire arms ect."

I agree with this. But when talking about an unarmed approach, this does not highlight any deficiencies in the combat sports. In fact an excellent training provider ISR Matrix builds on combat sport skill sets and builds on top weapons use and small team tactics.

Overall it may sound like I did not agree with the article though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and agreed with the overall intent of the piece. I just disagree about the shortfalls of the combat sports in self defence training.

Combat Sports in Self Defence

I recommend firstly trying to avoid violence which readers and subscribers of Low Tech Combat will be well aware of. Then if that is not possible, de-escalate a developing situation. Then if that is not possible, I am not recommending “fighting” the aggressor such as what is seen in the UFC.

I recommend applying an appropriate use of force in the sneakyest most deceitful way possible. This can be by verbally deceiving an aggressor or responding to an attacking technique you can read or some other response. Up to this point, this is where you attempt your best self defence approaches from verbal through to physical.

But what happens if your technique fails? Hopefully you have a transition to move into. But what if that fails? After all, your shoes aren't the best and the ground is slippery and you were caught off guard.

It is about this point where combat sports skills come into play. Once an encounter has gone beyond a few seconds you need “fighting” skills to fall back on. Again, I am not talking about going toe to toe like a UFC champ, it is simply using a fighting base to apply appropriate self defence responses.

Can you get to an advantageous position? Can you escape from a terrible position? These grappling skills will also enable you to disengage and flea if this is possible or even restrain. This is the short version of how I see the combat sports being of benefit in self defence.

Taking it Further

The training methods found in the combat sports generally follow the progression of learning a technique until competence is gained. This technique is then drilled easily at first and then further developed possibly introducing transitions depending on how the opponent responds. These drills are then progressed into a form of sparring which isolates that element of combat. Later full sparring is carried out.

We should also use this training methodology for all self defence. Techniques should be learnt. Once competence has been gained, they should be drilled and the drills expanded. Once a certain level of proficiency has been gained simple self defence scenarios should be introduced which harness those skills. The scenarios can then expand starting from a situation that evolves with a threat in the distance then closer introducing verbal elements then physical then if the situation is not resolved as planned the scenario continues.

Scenarios involving defence against weapons and use of weapons can also be included in this way.

The intensity of these self defence scenarios can be scaled as too much too soon can harm progress. So combat sports training methodologies utilising the strengths of the combat sports can be used for more specific self defence training.

I recommend hopping over to Budo Blog and reading the original article if you haven't yet as the article contained more than this one aspect I have focused on.

What are your thoughts? Are the combat sports a good or bad choice for developing self defence skills?

Image by MartialArtsNomad


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  1. Adam, I agree with you. Sport arts can be a great base for anyone's - lets's call it personal defense platform. Plus you gain knowledge of moving bodies that don't want to be moved. All very good stuff. Hell, look at how many systems are based off a Judo alone. I hope the blog didn't imply that I don't respect sport systems. I also agree that you can't fight a predator like you would in the octagon. The rub lies (and this goes back to last blog) in that if the majority of someone's training is in sport, I feel it will be very hard to switch to "combat", same is true of traditional martial arts as well. Look at the dead cops with brass in their pocket. They too thought under pressure they would switch from range shooting mode to combat mode. I find a useful approach is to spend a majority of time on the realities conflict and use the best of sport arts as drills to test against pressure, for endurance, and because they are fun. But in doing so you have to know drill is just a game to sharpen one aspect of the whole. Sport arts evolved from the drill becoming the only thing taught.

    1. Hi Kasey, thanks for popping around. I found your reply from the section where you say, "I find a useful approach..." very well put. That would indeed be an excellent way to train a person in self defence skills. This approach harnesses the best modern training methods and keeps the focus on self defence. You're exactly right. Drills are not the end game, they are part of a progression, but are an absolutely necessary progression.

      Although most people practise combat sports for sake of practising combat sports, I feel they are an excellent tool to develop a solid base. But like you say, stopping at that is not optimal for developing self defence skills.

      Again, thanks for popping around. It seems we agree more than disagree.



  2. What Kasey meant was not that sports are bad, frankly sports are great. And I agree with you that if techniques do not work on someone in your weight class, they will not work on a larger opponent. But the opposite is not alwast true. Because they work on your weight class does not mean they will work on someone larger. That is why they have weight classes. As effective as a rear naked choke is, I most likely would not be able to choke someone twice my size using the same technique that is used during an MMA match. I can still kill someone with a rear naked choke but I need to use a smarter approach, taking in consideration my height, size and strength.

    But the most important point that he is trying to get across is that in sports, no matter how brutal things get, there are still some boundaries, some "rules" , otherwise there would be a lot more matches ending in the morgue . If a smaller person, like me, gets hooked, in the slightest on that part... and all it takes is a fraction of a second.... it can mean life or death in a predator attack. I have to change my frame of reference to be able to get out of there alive and intact.
    Most of the MMA guys that get in scrape and in violent confrontations are sucked into social violence. Most women that get attacked are stuck into asocial violence. Those 2 are very different. Women are not into who's peepee is larger with their opponent, they are into who is going home alive. They don't have the time or strength necessary to exchange blows. They need to think like a predator would and meet the attacker in the same frame on mind. I can honestly say that this is true because I have lived it... and so have countless amount of women out there.

    1. Hi Lise. Thanks too for popping over and commenting. I know communicating via text is not best so I hope I am not miscommunicating my position. I am not proposing that the combat sports are the final solution for solid self defence. They are not. I am however saying that they are an excellent base for all combative skills.

      From a solid combat sports base, effective self defence skills can be built on top to refine self defence capability. Of course, knowledge needs to be developed as well in order to effectively understand violence and self defence.

      I agree completely that most combat sports athletes fight and will probably fight in a self defence situation rather than avoid, de-escalate or even walk away. But this doesn't mean the physical skills are poor, they are just poorly aligned in the self defence context. The combat sports physical skills are just the base.

      From reading Kasey's blog I know you have a combat sports background. You have that base. Learning whatever it is that Kasey has taught you on top of that solid base has probably developed in you a solid self defence capability.

      In a way, thinking of it now, you are an example of what I am proposing.

    2. http://womenselfprotection.blogspot.com/2012/08/game-over.html

  3. MMA, Judo, karate, whatever are all systems to develop attributes such as striking, choking, defending strikes, etc. If this is the only training you do then it is demonstrably not the case that one can "easily switch" to applying the attributes in a different manner, as the famous brass-in-pockets example illustrates. It's like saying that just because you're an excellent driver for the past 25 years you can go over to the U.K. and drive like a champ on the other side of the road in a complicated city environment. The same skills are needed, but they have not been trained in the different environment (left hand side driving). Likewise, training only eye gouges, and using operant conditioning to develop twitch reaction to pull a weapon at the slightest movement etc., without training sport and play and drills has the potential to develop a person into a legal nightmare waiting to happen, as well as a parnoid and aggressive individual. Some professions may require this, but as a civilian it's not necessary or healthy (IMO).

    1. Hi Neil. Good points. It goes both ways. Combat sports are good but not enough to develop the ability to apply skills effectively in a self defence environment (I agree completely) and not training through drills and "play" makes it hard to scale a response and think in the live moment.

      P.S. Hope your conditioning training is going well.



  4. Competence in fighting is much like a jigsaw puzzle: there are thousands of pieces, it can be hard to tell where they fit, and the whole time you are assembling it you are wondering whether you were the lucky one who got a box with missing pieces.

    With this metaphor in mind, sport methodologies of training are a large piece of the puzzle. Training in a style that teaches to hit knees, eyes, groins, and throats is another. But those who think they can build the same puzzle while ignoring many of the available pieces will be very surprised at the holes in their picture when they're finished.

    1. Yeah, very true. You are only as strong as your weakest point.

  5. Speaking from the perspective of a woman training in martial arts and specifically for self defense, jumping right into the eye gouging and groin striking can be difficult for some. I found that training in restricted ways helped me get through my issues with proximity to my opponent and dealing with the psychological side of fighting. Although I trained in Kempo and we practiced striking from the beginning, it wasn't until a few months into training that I was able to strike my partners the way my instructor wanted me to. With that said, I can see how women may benefit from these rules based combat training drills before they get into the more difficult realm of "practical self defense" with eye gouging etc.

    Also, having taught women's self defense classes for years now, many women have what I believe to be a false sense of confidence in their striking ability. They believe that eye gouging is easy or that kicking a guy in the groin would be the end of a confrontation. However, I think it takes a lot of conditioning to actually have the nerve to sink your thumb into an eye and an exceptional amount of skill to land a kick to a guy's groin - you guys are pretty good at blocking that area! Training in a sport manner (like MMA) could help ladies get past this initial fantasy phase of self defense training and into the more realistic world or conditioning, repetitive practice, and feeling the effects of fighting with a larger opponent. I can't tell you how many times I have heard a woman say that her long finger nails will be her weapon of choice in self defense...she may rethink that comment once she has the experience of a larger opponent resting all of their weight on her. You suddenly become keenly aware of the fact: size matters.

    Now the hard part is getting women to commit to this type of training...the majority will simply seek out a self defense course (probably a one day course, likely free of charge) and are happy to learn techniques that they practice a few times and believe will magically pop up if needed. I find this very sad! Anyway, hope this perspective helps the discussion.

    1. Interesting observations Kristen. Although you are talking about females, males often need their confidence broken down by some free sparring in combat sport sessions to realise that their secret technique or gusto doesn't really cut it when the opponent is fighting back. The argument goes, if you cannot mix it up fighting (with all that goes with it, stress, pain, surprise, fear, fatigue) in training you really have no business thinking you will be ok in a real life and death encounter.

      Your examples Kristen are just another reason why the combat sports are such a good base to have for self defence.

      Thanks for popping around.

  6. First Adam, as always this is good stuff and thought-provoking. Thank you.

    I want to pick on one small point. You say "Those who train in combat sports for self defence will not stick to the rules in a real violent struggle." But then right after you say that you will fight like you train. So... which is it? In sporting fighting you will train according to the rules, so when the flag flies, when "monkey brain" kicks in, when tunnel vision is in full effect... when we will revert to what we "naturally" want to do, why would we suddenly not stick to rules?

    But of course, it then starts to go into the realm of if we can never fully train eye gouges and the like, how will we perform those under pressure if all we ever did was "fake it" in practice?

    And so we're back to the whole debate and "fraction" of martial arts between "real" and "sports", between aikijujutsu and judo, between TMA and MMA. :-)

    All in all, I do believe that someone's going to be better off with some good training than none at all. So what if it's sports training? There's still tons of stuff one can gain from it that can help you stay alive in a combative situation. Take Jim Cirillo. When he was finding men for his NYPD Stakeout Squad, he needed men that could shoot... so he sought people that were hunters, competition shooters, and other people that COULD shoot. Jim considered competition useful and valuable... no it doesn't teach tactics and "street fighting", but it sure teaches you how to perform under pressure and challenges you to improve your skills to a higher level so you can perform at your peak under pressure.

    The bottom line with most martial arts, whether it's TMA, MMA, or like Kristen writes above (getting 1 day seminars in palm strikes to the nose and shouting "no") is one of perspective and expectation. You've got to train like you mean it and you can't fool yourself about what you're learning and where you're going. Is Tai Chi going to really help you in a combative situation? Maybe, but you have to look at it in the scope of that context and with brutal honesty both in terms of the material being learned, the applicability to the context, and then your capability to apply it in that context. Like Bruce Lee said... a punch is a punch, a kick is a kick... does it really matter if it's a western boxing punch or a muay thai punch or a karate punch? Or that the person doing the punching has the ability to land it squarely and effectively, and the knowledge and wherewithall to know if they should punch or not.

    - Hsoi

    1. G'day Hsoi, thanks for popping around. An interesting comment as always.

      Let me clarify on your point of difference regarding fighting like you train. I am glad you brought it up.

      Yes I believe a good combat sport athlete can scale a response. Yes I believe they will not necessarily stick to the rules in a self defence situation (I note again here as I did through the article that I am NOT saying only combat sports develops excellent self defence, only that it forms I vital base skill).

      Someone proficient in the combat sports trains under pressure all the time. This is seen in sparring or randori sessions which are often gruelling. A combat sports athlete understands pressure and is used to it. Therefore the combat sport athlete will not feel the same physiological effects of combat stress like someone who has not felt that pressure all the time like they have. This is why I feel that combat sports athletes can think in combat when most cannot. Dave Grossman agrees that one can become inoculated against the physiological effects of combat.

      In this way, the combat sports athlete can choose what strike to do from kneeride for instance. Punch, open hand, eye gouge, choke, control or disengage.

      This is why the combat sports make such a good base. Like so many people seem to not understand (or bias or loyalty gets in the way and I am not talking about you Hsoi) this article is not about saying the combat sports are best for self defence. This article argues that the combat sports are the best base skill to have to refine self defence skills onto.

      Without the combat sports as a solid base, a purely self defence approach with limited training time is not going to develop a plan B and is not going to develop an understanding of body mechanics and how people respond. It will probably develop an over use of force resulting in a stint in court and possibly prison. This is the game over I hope people can avoid.

  7. I can definitely say that the answer to the question of this article is: MAYBE?

    The question stated is"Are the combat sports useful for self defence? Or are they a complete waste of time?"

    Now remember, "combat sports" runs the gambit of Tae Kwon Do, to Greco-Roman Wrestling to Boxing to Fencing to Pistol Shooting to MMA. So the title of the article is already ambiguous. Also the term "waste of time" is also unclear. Waste of time (in efficiency towards the goal of self defense?)

    The ultimate answer is that "combat sports" are not focused on self defense, therefore, if the goal is "self defense training" the logical conclusion is that any hour NOT spent on focusing on self defense training is a "waste of time towards self defense"

    I personally believe that training in combat sports like boxing, wrestling and BJJ can have the athlete 100% benefit towards the goal of self defense. It is because it is a sport, and people participating in it train like athletes. This will mean progressive resistance of training partners, simulating the actual conditions of the activity itself ie. competition and just a general mindset and acclamation to the stresses and conditions of combat. This is the Aliveness that we talk about (motion/energy/timing).

    Now, if you train with Aliveness in self-defense training... this is the work around to having to train combat sports to obtain Aliveness training. In Edmonton, we train "self-defense" though "Street Functional Sport Combat" Nuff said. It has I-Method, skills & drills, the three cornerstones of Aliveness and we train athletically and competitively.

    So, the basic question of the article is of "Apples and Oranges" Here are some similar questions to illustrate my point.
    Is training wrestling a complete waste of time for a boxing match?
    Is training wrestling a complete waste of time for a MMA match?
    Is overseas combat experience a waste of time for self defense?
    Is Arrest & Control training a waste of time for self defense?

    It ain't so much WHAT you train, but HOW you train.
    Anyways, now I'm confusing myself...

  8. Where some people go wrong is that they train in martial arts under sport conditions constantly( point fighting,mma etc) and they think that they are learning self defence. While they may be learning some good techniques that can be used for self defense,it is not actual self defence that they are learning. They are however building there strength,stamina and basic attributes needed for fighting,but self defence is not just about fighting. Awareness,negotiation and pre empting an attack may self defend oneself without even needing to through a single punch.this is not something easily learnt while training in combat sports.

  9. Nice post, as always. I am agree with many things. Personnaly, i use combat sport mainly for sparring, my focus is into (guess it) self-defense.
    Many time in sparring I see opportunity that i cant use (like kickboxer who doesnt protect their groin...) but i took a mental note of what i had notice...the side effect is sometime i am countered in my assault because i go first for the illegal move before trying something in the rule...

  10. In all honesty both sport and non competitive arts can teach you a lot of things. Yeah sports are in controlled environments but at least you are executing moves at a live pace. And in non competitive they may not rely on "rules" per se which is a great way into looking at it but dont know if this means they exclude full contact sparring. Also instead of dismissing a discipline, art, technique, sport etc etc acknowledge it so then you can compare and contrast into what works and what doesnt. One thing is for sure and something everyone can agree is that team sports like baseball, football, basketball etc etc are WORTHLESS and a EXCUSE NOT TO FIGHT! Cheers!


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