Want to know the best technique to use when your life is on the line?

People often ask “What’s the best technique to use?” I’m hoping this will explain it.

So I was driving along at 120 on the highway (about 75 mph), listening to some music, when this asshole truck driver decided to pull in front of me about 50 m up ahead. So I didn’t-quite-stand-on-the-brakes-but-not-far-off and fortunately slowed down quickly enough that nothing happened, and I had 10 m to spare. If he was going much slower, I was going faster, or if there was less warning, then it would have gotten me and my two passengers killed. And you know what? Never in this entire shit-my-pants episode did I once have to think about how hard to step on the brakes. I also didn’t have to think about what gear to change into and how hard to press the accelerator afterwards. I was (in the back of my mind) thinking about what I needed to get done, and my feet and hands took care of the rest without any conscious input from me.


So which fighting technique is the best? Answer 1: the technique that works (and yes, that’s a serious answer). Answer 2: You’re asking the wrong question.


You’ve lost the fight because you’re too busy thinking about how hard to press the gas pedal

Every time I’ve had to slam on brakes, turn a corner, or just take off from a stop street, I’ve always been focused on the goal of “stop the car”, or “get to John’s house”. I’ve never had to think through the exact timing or pressures of my feet. You have a goal every day you wake up – get home in one piece. Your conscious mind needs to be focused on working towards that in a conflict. If you’re thinking “OK, it’s a right hook, so I must do X, Y and Z” then you’ve lost. You’ve lost because you’re reacting while he’s acting. You’ve lost because you’re so busy thinking about how hard to press the gas pedal that you can’t keep your destination in mind – so when the circumstances change you won’t be able to adapt (if a detour appears and you’re occupied thinking how hard to turn, how do work out the new route to John’s house?). You’re so busy trying to think about completing a technique that you don’t realise that he’s gone limp, or changed the attack – then you lose (the physical fight or the legal one).


Let’s take an example. Where’s one of the better places to be in an attack (besides “not there”)? Behind the BG. So which is the best defense against a right hook? Whichever one puts you behind him. OR let’s suppose there’s two BG’s and a chair, and one of the BG’s is between you and the exit. So what’s the best Krav Maga punch to use? Whichever one will move the BG out of your path to the exit, and preferably tie them both up with each other or the chair.


You fight to the goal (get out/get home alive), you don’t fight to the technique. Going about a fight one technique at a time is a sure fire way to get behind on the reactionary curve. Let’ face it, how many martial arts techniques have you ever practiced where it wasn’t the BG with the initiative?


What this entails is many different attributes. One of them is being able to think during a stressful situation. Another is subconscious competence in your techniques/high percentages moves. You can catch a ball with fairly minimal warning, adjusting your hands positioning, acceleration, velocity at impact, angle of motion all with a moment’s warning. The simultaneous 3-dimensional Newtonian equations of motion that you’d have to solve to figure out exactly where your hand would need to be, and the angles and acceleration (assuming uniform acceleration the whole time and no micro adjustments) would probably take 5 to 10 minutes minimum to figure out (assuming you had accurate measurements and a calculator – and even then you’d have to ignore air friction and variable winds for simplicity’s sake). Your brain does all this in mere moments, and you have to put in precisely zero conscious thought. This means that techniques of “if his right cross comes high my forearm must be up; if it comes low my forearm must be down” are less useful than thoughts of “I want the back of his elbow” and having the subconscious competence to be able to snag it under different circumstances. This, in turn, is less useful than “Get behind him and run for the door” and having the know-how to do this in whichever way presents itself, all without having to think about it – a.k.a. What’s the best technique? Whichever one works.


In which case, what’s the point of all those martial arts drills and kata and sparring? Well, despite all the many faults of these things (and there are many), they do allow you to experience a high number of incoming attacks and play with different ways to handle them. You didn’t get good at driving by hopping in the car and thinking “Go to John’s house” while not knowing how a clutch works. You first isolated your clutch/accelerator co-ordination skills, then gear changing etc. Eventually you’d used them enough times that you didn’t have to think about them anymore. You got to the point where the goal “Stay alive!” is the only impulse you really have when things go wrong. Likewise you have to know (on the same level as knowing precisely how hard you want to brake in every single situation) what effect each move you make will have (it’s not a technique you do at this point, you think in terms of effects on him). The good news is you didn’t have to practice each driving scenario a thousand times, at some point you got in enough experience that you could apply what you knew to new and different situations just fine.


What’s one of the (many) differences between an amateur and a professional? The amateur wonders what he should do to win, the professional already knows.


So how do you get to this point? I’ll give you a hint: There’s no easy shortcut that magically allows you to avoid sweat and hard work. The best way I know how (barring much bloodshed) is to do everything Marc MacYoung says to do in Secrets of Effective Offense (the driest book he’s ever written, unfortunate because it’s probably the single most important book ever written on applying violence effectively).

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