Error Recovery: Training For Fuck-Ups In A Fight

combatives training“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
― Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always said on this blog that there are no guarantees when it comes to self defence, but that isn’t strictly true. One thing is guaranteed in self defence, and it’s this:

You will almost always fail in some way.

This can’t really be helped. Due to the often highly chaotic and unpredictable nature of violent altercations, it is very easy for things to go wrong– and they almost always do.

In his Meditations On Violence book, Rory Miller often recounts his past run-ins with physical violence as being almost balletic in the way they panned out for him. In almost every encounter mentioned in the book, Miller’s performance was apparently flawless, to the point where, in one encounter, he took a guy down while holding a cup of coffee–and never spilled a drop.


However, things don’t usually pan out that way in real life. Miller’s recounted experiences go against every other recounted experience of violence I’ve ever heard. His apparent grace under pressure is hard to fathom when measured against the experience of everyone else in the world.

No one, no matter how experienced, consistently performs like the Jason Bourne-type operators seen in Hollywood movies. If ever there is a time when fuck-ups cannot just happen, but are almost guaranteed to happen, it’s when you are in a fight.

Obviously, the more experienced you are in fighting– the more fights you’ve had– the less chance you have of fucking up, but that doesn’t mean external factors can’t fuck things up for you.

There are so many variables to consider that you couldn’t possibly hope to plan for, or control them all.

Shit is going to happen, that much is certain. It’s how you deal with it that counts however.

So how do you deal with fucking up in a fight?

The answer is simple enough: The same way you deal with the fight in general– you train.

If you know that errors can occur and unexpected things can happen, then it makes sense to plan for these, by introducing errors and unexpected variables into your training also.

You train to fail, in otherwards. But more importantly, you also train to recover from said failure and get back on course.

Doing rep after perfect rep under ideal conditions all of the time is not training for reality. Of course any self respecting practitioner will try to achieve perfection of technique, but equally, any self respecting practitioner will also train for times when that technique will fail them, not necessarily because they did the technique wrong (although that can definitely happen), but because an attacker has made it difficult to do it properly, or because some other variable has come into play which thwarts a person’s efforts at defending themselves– like another attacker, or something on the floor that disrupts their balance.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in a fight were something hasn’t happened to make things difficult for me. More than once I’ve paid the price for my mistakes or my failure at the time to deal with the unexpected.

You learn from your mistakes however, and one of the ways you learn is to plan a bit better for when things do go wrong.

So how do you do this?


Disrupted Striking Training

One way is to do some disrupted striking practice. The way to do this is to have the partner holding the pads to suddenly move backwards or forwards as you throw your strike, to simulate a miss or an obstruction of some kind (which happens more often than people realise). Either way, you will fail to execute the strike properly. The important thing here is not that you fail, but that you immediately recover from the fail and launch into another strike, which will of course be on target this time.

Another way to do this is to have the partner holding the pad wear a boxing glove on the other hand. As you go to strike, the pad holder will punch you in the face, as if your attacker was quicker of the mark. Again, you will recover as quickly as possible and execute another on-target strike.

The pad holder should make things unpredictable in these drills by varying the timing of the fails, which will make things more realistic.

Other ways to include errors are: having another person suddenly slam into you as you go to strike (as will often happen, especially in crowded places like nightclubs); have someone throw something at you (again, can happen); or even simulate slipping and falling as you move to strike (which can obviously happen). Your imagination is the limit here.

You don’t have to practice failure all the time. You certainly don’t want to condition it. Just introduce it occasionally, practice recovering from it, enough to keep you on your toes.


Wrestling With An Attacker

Recovering from failure is about having the ability to flow from one thing to the next. Another good way to practice this is by simulating a real fight. You’ll need protective equipment if you are going to include striking. If you don’t have the equipment then you just practice grappling, which is often how fights end up anyway if you fail to put the other guy down with strikes. Really go for it with this and do so with plenty of aggressive intent. To make things more interesting, you can introduce the same type of variables as the ones in the disrupted striking drills. This kind of drill is excellent for teaching you to flow and how to recover from mistakes made.


Plan For Failure

Errors in performance are a fact. We all make them, even more so in high pressure, unpredictable situations like violent altercations.

Plan for them. Train for them. Learn how to recover from them. At least that way, when you make a mistake for real, even though you will still be surprised by it and it may still throw you, at least you will have a better chance of recovering from it and carrying on.


10 Responses to “Error Recovery: Training For Fuck-Ups In A Fight”

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  1. david says:

    Excellent. Do you know how i can get a copy of the meditations on violence book. ive heard richaed grannon also mention it and it sounds like a good read. cheers Dave from Australia.

  2. Zara says:

    Very true. the great military theorist von Clausewitz (a Prussian staf-officer with plenty of practical experience during the Napoleontic wars) called this ‘friction in war': screw-ups, fatigue, losses, morale drops and unexpected moves by the enemy will always influence the course of events so nothing can really be planned too much in advance and it takes a steadfast, intelligent and cunning general to adapt to circumstances and prevail. Von Molteke (Germany’s chief of staf during WWI) once said: ‘no campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy’ and this goes for every altercation of regardless of context or intensity: the most important thing in my view is to keep the momentum going (pretty much the way Germany won its victories in WW2: ‘blitzkrieg’ or lightening war) since hesitation (a lag in offensive movement on your part) will likely be your downfall. If you allow him to recover the fight is half lost already and you’re basically starting anew, with the added disadvantage that he now knows what you’re capable of. The resolution of any violent conflict should be swift and merciless aggression untill the opponent is no longer capable of aggression himself: this is why techniques are always combined and it should be a rule in training, introduced as early as possible, that once basics are mastered the training partner shouldn’t be passive anymore and should offer resistance on which the defender must react quickly and effectively. This is where trapping and grappling come in: if he blocks your strike you move into him, clear the barriers he puts up and continously fire your shots advancing from medium to short range where you can employ your heavy artillery (elbows and knees mainly) or takedowns to put him down asap. Intention is key here: your main thought should be that he’ll go down no matter what, usually the fight itself (at least your part in it) will work itself out if you know the basics. At least in my, albeit limited, experience.

  3. Neal Martin says:

    It comes back to mindset again: nothing is going to stop you from accomplishing your goal, which in this context, is putting the other guy down. Sometimes it can be about how much damage you can take and still carry on. I think that’s the mark of a good fighter, that they can take a lot of punishment and keep going despite everything. It’s usually inevitable that you are going to get hit in a fight. The question is, are you going to let getting hit stop you?

    • Zara says:

      I think that largely depends on who you are as a person and not so much on training, although this does help somewhat in getting used to being roughly handled and receiving the occassional hit. If you’re a timid person and it’s in your character then I doubt you’ll ever get to the level where you can summon enough raw aggression and anger in order to do what is necessary. Some people are just great natural fighters (without any formal training at all they’ll beat the crap out of almost anyone) while some martial artists perform great in the dojo but will never do well in the street due to mental blocks or a wrong mindset. To this day I still wonder what type I am since I never encountered truly dangerous, life-threatening situations. Still it doesn’t do to doubt yourself too much since this will surely be your downfall what push comes to shove. In the few fights I’ve had I’ve never been punched in the face (I was quicker and/or better than the other guy) so I can’t answer your question from experience but I’ll surely do my utmost to make him pay for touching me. What bothers me though is the thought of ever having to face a weapon: surely I train on this and we also do this in a sparring manner (one guy wears headprotection and wields a covered training stick or a rubber knife, he attacks realisticly in the manner of his chosing) in which I do fairly well but facing a training weapon in the dojo (no real harm if you fuck up) is a whole different ballgame than facing a real one in the hands of a determined attacker. If you survive such an encounter and are able to take the attacker down then you really are an excellent fighter (either that or you got extremely lucky) and the ultimate test of guts is probably taking a hit from a weapon and still continuing to fight.

      Weapons truly are the greatest test of anyone’s abilities: this is why I think higher belts should mainly focus on weapons and free drills instead of endlessly repeating defences for attacks (punches, kicks, grabs…) which in all likelihood won’t be that dangerous (getting punched in the face is not usually fatal in and of itself and most people will probably have the decency to stop once the opponent hits the pavement) and should be fairly easy to handle. With weapons it’s a wholly different situation: if someone draws a weapon and attacks you with it it’s to kill you so either you stop hit and live or you don’t and you’ll die (assuming there’s no interventing). I’m assuming you’re familiar with the full contact sticksparring contests of the dog brothers: what they do is borderline crazy (fighting with real sticks and limited protection) but it sure as hell will teach you (without risking your life) what real combat is and how much it’ll hurt when you get hit for real. Of course it’s impossible to do this with a knife so training in that area is still largely hypothetical but as I stated before I’ll take a slightly higher chance of survival any day and besides it’s fun to train that way. If I ever have to face off with an armed attacker (hope not) and survive I’ll instantly declare myself a self-defence expert extraordinaire and market my own superior system to the world, lol.

  4. Zara says:

    I’m in a bit of a rush here (I need to be leaving soon) so I hope you’ll forgive me the few mistakes I’ve made: obviously it should read ‘either you stop him’ (instead of hit) and no-one’s ever heard of ‘interventing’ so that should read ‘intervention’, ;).

  5. Michael K says:

    How long should I be doing these drills a day? Is there a drill that stands out that will help the most?

  6. XplicitzZ says:

    My students do the same boring drills, and I would like to add some variety to class. If anyone has some outside-the-box drills to share, it would be greatly appreciated.

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