The Illusion of Proficiency
I will sometimes open seminars by having students emulate real-life knife tactics used by criminals, working through a handful of techniques that I have picked up from various sources over the years. The point of the exercise isn’t to train these techniques for self-defense purposes, but rather to illustrate the glaring differences between how a practiced knifer utilizes a blade, and the fantasy that most martial artists train for. It’s a hard truth that being the “most skilled” with a blade often means little in a real world altercation. The criminal isn’t interested in fighting with you, and he is going to stack the odds well in his favor before he engages you.
Time and time again I have seen highly-skilled martial artists fall apart under the pressure of a simulated real world assault. Disarms universally turn into fumbling messes, flowing counters become bungled, techniques are lost in the chaos. Training goes out the window.
This is because, too often, martial artists become preoccupied with the “illusion of proficiency”. Flashy patterns, slick disarms, visually stunning two-man sets. Increasingly complex drills, the novelty of an unexpected lock or strip… These things capture the students imagination, and often the teachers as well, but in the long run, they are detrimental to ones training.
The criminal will not reveal his weapon to you before he attacks. If an experienced knifer is intent on taking your life he is going to conceal his advantage, you’ll never see it.
The criminal will not attack head-on. There will be no squaring off, no signaling of intent. He will attack from the side or from behind.
The criminal will not attack from a distance. The attacker will be in your space, probably with you cornered. There will be no room to apply a fancy technique, he will be on top of you before you know what’s happening.
The criminal may approach you as a friend. If you do see the attacker, he likely won’t seem menacing. He will come with a smile and engage you, get you to let your guard down, then he will attack.
The criminal will not fight “fair”. There will be no honor, no dueling, no fair play. It will not be limited to a one-on-one altercation, and there will be no concept of “right and wrong”.
The criminal will attack with murderous rage. The primary difference between sparring and murder is the intensity with which the attacker will come at you. Sparring is measured; you find your angles, study your opponent, adapt and make adjustments. Murder on the other hand is blindingly fast, it’s violent and primal, and there is no time to flow, to find your techniques… It is instinct.
The criminal won’t stick around. In the real world once the damage is inflicted the attacker will disappear quickly. They won’t be around for you to fight back, they won’t care to see their handiwork. They will strike and vanish, perhaps never letting you see their face at all.
So ask yourself, are you training to BE proficient, or to APPEAR proficient? Do you train to look smooth, or do you train to engage an opponent who attacks from a foot away, in an enclosed space?
More importantly, what can we learn from the criminal mindset? Perhaps the most valuable lesson would be to practice stacking the odds in your favor, at all times. Controlling whatever space you find yourself in, knowing your escape routes, identifying weapons of opportunity. Also, being conditioned to have your weapon in hand before an altercation starts. I have seen lots of people who “thought” they could deploy a knife while being attacked, I have yet to meet the person who can do it consistently in an uncontrolled, non-patterned scenario. It’s always best to have your hand loaded when things escalate. Knowing violence, understanding the criminal mind, being familiar with the environment in which one may be attacked, these things are far more important than any drill one can learn.