3 Things That Might Be Making Your Self Defence Training Counter-Productive And How To Avoid Them

counterproductiveIn training, as in life, we only have so much time to spend. The time we have at our disposal is not infinite, and this is especially true of our training time. We all lead pretty busy lives these days, so most of us have only so much time we can devote to training (although in saying that, we usually have more time to devote than we think, if we just spend less time doing other less important things, like indulging ourselves in digital media junk). It would make sense then, that your training time should be as productive as possible.

Unfortunately, many people who train in self defence waste a lot of time by indulging in counter-productive practices that don’t really get them anywhere.

Here are a few examples of counter-productive training practices and how to avoid them.


1. Not Being Clear On Your Goals

I’ve talked about this before in another article. Before you go training you need to remind yourself of why you are training in the first place. Just showing up and doing a bunch of random things, or worse, just going through the motions, isn’t enough and such a practice will likely not help you advance in any significant way.

To counter this you need to have an overall goal in mind, a larger objective that will help keep you focused while you train. It could be something like: I train because I want to be good at defending myself, or I train because I want to develop my confidence.

Having larger goals like these will keep you focused and help you stick to a certain path. It will also enable you to dismiss or filter out anything that doesn’t contribute to this larger goal.

When you don’t have an overall purpose it is easy to get distracted and get pulled down the wrong paths.

“The rush of unexpected events, and the doubts and criticisms of those around you, are like a fierce wind at sea. It can come from any point of the compass, and there is no place to go to escape from it, no way to predict when and in what direction it will strike. To change direction with each gust of wind will only throw you out to sea. Good pilots do not waste time worrying about what they cannot control. They concentrate on themselves, the skill and steadiness of their hand, the course they have plotted, and their determination to reach port, come what may.”

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies Of War


2. Trying To Do Too Much At Once

Multitasking, however productive it might sound, simply isn’t. As Leo Widrich explains in his article on the effects of multitasking on our brains:

“People who multitask a lot are in fact a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information and also perform significantly worse at switching between task, compared to singletaskers. Now most studies all point towards the fact that multitasking is very bad for us. We get less productive and skills like filtering out irrelevant information decline.”

I see people trying to multitask all the time in the martial arts. You have people who think it a good idea to be training in two, three or four different arts or disciplines at once, rushing from one class to the next and delighting in telling anyone who will listen how many different things they are training in, as if this makes them super dedicated and better than those who choose to train in just one discipline.

When someone tells me they are training in multiple disciplines at once, I get suspicious and I just think to myself, Why? Why this need to try and learn all this stuff at once?

Aside from the fact that we live in a world where multitasking has become one of those corporate buzzwords that everyone thinks will help them be more productive (even though it doesn’t), I also think that the idea of sticking to one discipline and mastering that before moving on to another is an alien concept to most people. We have lost in our society, the notion of mastery, of knowing a subject deeply and of having the patience, dedication and perseverance to do so.

(I baulk at people who brag about having black belts in several different arts. That denotes a trophy mentality and is just a step up from technique collecting. Besides, all that means is that you are a virtual beginner in the art you were training in. I have more respect for someone who has spent their time studying just one art. It shows dedication and an appreciation for mastery.)

We all want shortcuts, but in reality, there are no shortcuts to mastery. You have to work hard for years–that’s the reality.

There’s a lot to be said for attaining mastery in one discipline, as opposed to being a Jack of all trades and master of none.

Multitasking triggers certain reward systems in our brains that can make you feel like an heroic over-achiever, when in reality you are just heading for burnout, and burnout is never good.


3. Distracting Yourself With Junk Science And Research Porn

The martial arts and self defence fields are both riddled with junk science.

Junk science is faulty scientific data and analysis used to advance special interests and hidden agendas. Thus we have reams of theory and supposed supporting evidence on pressure points, chi, psychology, power generation etc. etc.

Some of this stuff is interesting no doubt, but most of it has no scientific basis, despite claims to the contrary from those spread these ideas around.

Your thoughts and ideas should be based on experiential evidence, not theory. This means that you base your training on your experiences on the training floor or in real life, not on academia.

Research porn is just like real porn: It feels like you’re engaging in something worthwhile but in the end you realise you have just wasted hours of your time with nothing to show for it (quit the sniggering in the back there). It becomes like an addiction.

You can go too far into something, to the point where your efforts become pointless and the many details you are trawling through become just plain irrelevant.

A good example of research porn is studying criminal psychology in depth. Lots of people indulge in this, thinking that knowing what makes criminals tick will better help them defend against them. It won’t. If some guy throws a punch in your direction, does it really matter what motivates him to do it? Of Course not! All that matters is that he did. Your time would be better spent learning how to physically defend against that punch.

Likewise with all the social theory getting bandied about these days. Not only do we have reams of detailed information on self defence law, but we also have floods of information on psychology and sociology and criminology and physiology and biology and too many other -ology’s to name.

There is nothing wrong with looking into these areas of study, but you can go too far with it, to the point where it just stops becoming useful and only serves to drag you into a state of technical lock.

That’s the result of too much detailed research. Your training and your way of thinking becomes myopic and you loose sight of the bigger picture, of the reason why you are involved in self defence or martial arts in the first place.

Too much information can be counter-productive. When information no longer serves any practical value, it merely becomes academic and stops serving your cause. You cross the line between research and research porn.

Self defence should be as practical as it gets, given what it is needed for. It doesn’t need to be cluttered with junk science and pointless research. To maintain the integrity of your self defence it should be kept as pure as possible, with no filler.

Instead of looking outside of yourself for answers all the time, in the form of endless research and other people’s ideas, try looking inward the odd time and figure some stuff out for yourself.

You don’t need much to be good at self defence, but you need to be good at using what you have.

So a more productive strategy would be to spend time deep practicing the skills that you have already and working on yourself. Such a strategy involves work and lots of deliberate, focused practice. Maybe not as interesting at times as the shiny new ideas on your laptop screen or in the pages of a book, but such practice will improve your skills quicker and afford you a deeper understanding of what you are doing.

Then you would be truly advancing your cause.


About Neal Martin

2 Responses to “3 Things That Might Be Making Your Self Defence Training Counter-Productive And How To Avoid Them”

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  1. Zara says:

    I’m inclined to agree with your article as a whole, however the comment about training in multiple styles strikes me as fairly odd. If you’re going to brag about it then clearly you’re training for the wrong reason but I do think the idea in itself (supplement the weakness of one style with the strength of another) is sound: it’s quite rare for one style or system to properly cover all the ranges that are vital in fighting (unless it’s a composite system which is basically the same as training multiple styles with the difference that somebody already made a selection for you) so it makes sense to look elsewhere although I would recommend getting a solid base in one style first.

    I also disagree with the statement about specialization being superior to generalism: in SD it really is better to be a jack of all trades than a specialist since SD is very broad subject and your area of expertise might just not come into play due to circumstances you had little control over. If you specialise in boxing for example you may get taken down and become virtually helpless on the ground, if you excell at kicking you may completely lack the necessary range to do so effectively and as a result lose the fight…. I’d rather get a good base in all these skills first ( basic boxing, kicking, grappling, weapons) before developping them further: given the nature of criminal and interpersonal violence it’s quite unlikely your opponent will be highly skilled (requiring you to be extremely good in one range) so imo it’s better to learn the basics of all the ranges first, thus ensuring you’ll be adequately prepared for a great many situations. It’s unlikely I’ll ever spend much time formally training in BJJ for example yet we do practice their basic escapes, sweeps and the like in order to escape from holds on the ground and get up asap: if you don’t have that in your arsenal then you’re basically a fish on dry land once you end up on the ground. You don’t need to have a black belt in BJJ or judo in order to be able to defend yourself on the ground (i.e a specialist in ground fighting) and in the rare event you’re faced with a skilled groundfighter there are other, much simpler methods, of dealing with superiority in that range. The same goes for weapons for example: you don’t need to train in the Filipino martial arts for years in order to use a stick or knife effectively and if you’ve never trained with weapons (which the great majority of martial artists don’t) then how on earth will you ever know how to properly defend against one? Hence the bullcrap that is usually sold as supposedly effective anti-weapon techniques.

    If you’re training for SD the best option is probably a system that a) is geared exclusively to SD (not traditional nor sports-orientated) and b) gives you a solid introduction to the most basic, most effective techniques from more specialized styles. Later on you can diversify and start to specialize in whatever you like best but I speak from experience when I say that someone who has trained with us for 6 months will be far better prepared for actual confrontations than I was after 8 years training in classical jujutsu. I believe this is due to incorporation of techniques & training methods from other styles which makes for a well-rounded system that avoids the pitfalls of specialization and the resultant weakness in certain areas and over-complication on others.

    • Neal Martin says:

      If you are going to train for self defence then I just think you are better of training in a specialized system, or creating your own system. If you are training just for the art, then it all becomes fairly academic anyway. Training in multiple styles may make more sense then.

      You need to know why you are training. I train for self defence, so the stuff I train could be seen as specialist in one sense, since it’s for that one purpose. But the techniques I train are generic techniques that are flexible enough to be used in almost any situation, not just one particular situation.

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