Martial arts internet experts are everywhere but are they worth listening to?

This article was originally published in my Patreon newsletter of February 2018. To receive the newsletter, you can join up here.

 

I posted this meme a few months ago on my Facebook page. It’s from one of my favorite movies, “By The Sword”, starring Eric Roberts as an arrogant fencing champion and F. Murray Abraham as, well… Just watch the movie and find out. Suffice it to say, he isn’t a great fencing instructor when the two men meet for the first time. In that scene, Roberts asks to demonstrate some basic techniques and after viewing the result, he delivers that line.

Before I go on about that, something else first: I was recently interviewed for Randy King’s podcast “Talking to Savages” and we talked about all sorts of topics to do with martial arts and self-defense. One of the things I mentioned was that when I started training, there was very little choice; you picked from what was available. In my case, I had the choice of judo and jujitsu when I started at age 14. A few years later, kung fu became available and I went with that because I liked it better. Those were the only choices I had, there was nothing else. For many people, training was exactly like that: you took the class that you could attend because it was close to you or within traveling distance.

There was also precious little instructional material. There were some videotapes available, but the selection was rather limited. What’s more, the books and videos on offer were most often from the same instructors. So you were usually only exposed to the same sources on any given art. As a result, the knowledge you could gain was also limited. Speaking only for myself, I tried to compensate that by training as much as I possibly could and that includes outside of classes I attended. I got home after class and then trained some more because I was afraid I would forget the techniques. Then I trained the next day as well and so on until the next class. I did that for many years and continue to do so to this day.

And then we get to today…

We are now in the age of Internet wisdom and YouTube experts. It’s been going on for a while, but if you go online or visit YouTube, it’s incredibly easy to look up instructional material. There is a wide variety of quality levels to be found, ranging from the impressive to the horrible. I’m not going to criticize any individual instructor, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is which for your own tastes. That said, I’m sure you can agree with me that there is some rather poor quality instructional material available on the Internet.

It gets worse…

When you search for pretty much any self-defense or martial arts topic in your preferred search engine or on YouTube, the results that rise to the top have changed tremendously in the last few years. Today, the results are almost always from “YouTube experts.” All too often these are people who have some training in a specific martial art or self-defense system and clearly some passion and dedication to promote it. Most of all, they possess excellent marketing and promotional skills. They make the kind of videos that follow the best practices of the moment when it comes to video length, choice of title, keyword research, thumbnail layout, and all the other factors that are important to rank high. Notice that quality of instruction is not a part of that equation…

The result is that we now have a truckload of people who are seen as experts by the public when in reality they only have a fairly limited amount of training and experience. This, in turn, dilutes the quality of the information that is passed on to the viewer who looks to these people for advice, knowledge, and understanding. One way in which this manifests is in an oversimplification of instruction:

These experts answer questions along the lines of “How to beat any opponent in the street” or “The best technique to beat a larger opponent” in videos that are typically between 5 to 10 minutes long (because that’s what YouTube likes.) There’s nothing against that, I make videos like that myself. The real issue is that they tend to promote what they show as an absolute; there is no nuance. Because they make such outrageous claims in their clickbait titles, there really isn’t any place for nuance either. Instead, they play upon the desire of the uninformed to find a quick solution to whatever problem worries them. As a result, the information that gets passed along is extremely incomplete which in turn leads to misinterpretation and misuse of the techniques shown.

Given as there are more and more of such YouTube experts gathering a huge following, the appeal to copy this approach is high for beginning instructors. Which turns this into a vicious cycle.

It’s a free world and everybody is perfectly allowed to become an entrepreneur and sell his services. This includes promoting them in whatever way they see fit. It’s not my place to tell them what they can or can’t do given as I wouldn’t accept that kind of meddling myself. The reason why I mentioned it, is to point out how difficult it has become for novices to find solid information. Because in contrast to how things were when I started training over 30 years ago, there is now a massive overload of instructional material. This makes it virtually impossible for the beginner to know what is worth learning and what is complete nonsense.

There are no answers to this problem, at least none that I am aware of that don’t involve some form of censorship. That shouldn’t even be up for discussion; censorship is wrong, full stop. The only alternative I see is to try and do a better job myself. I do my best to offer nuances, caveats and hopefully in-depth information in my books, videos, and blog posts. I am fortunate to not have to make a living online, having a full-time job already: I don’t have to cater to whatever latest quirks the algorithms of Google and YouTube force upon content creators. I can just do as I please and will continue to do so. That means continuing to train and study so I have something to teach that is nuanced and worthwhile.

And that’s why all my stuff tends to be longer to read and view than whatever comes up first on an internet search. That doesn’t automatically make me right and them wrong. But I will stand up and say it does raise the level of quality of the instruction.

P.S.: Iain Abernethy and I also discuss this topic during a bonus podcast episode.

You’re surrounded by killers while pretending you are not

Just this weekend, I taught a self-defense course for teenage girls ages 17-18. It was set up after the recent murder of Julie Van Espen here in Belgium, which sparked outrage and shock throughout the population. A concerned parent went beyond just that and did what most people don’t do: he took action. Through a mutual friend, he got in touch with me and we discussed the course before setting it up. I talked about how prevention and avoidance is at the heart of it and how the girls shouldn’t expect to be bad-ass Wonder Woman warriors at the end of it. He understood and communicated this clearly to the parents of all the participants.

During the course, I had to burst some bubbles about self-defense and what it means to keep yourself safe. This happens every time I teach a new group, as most people have a very distorted view of the realities of violence. To be clear, this is through no fault of their own.  We simply live in historically unprecedented low levels of violence for a large portion of the population: it’s been 75 years since the last war over here, which hasn’t happened in at least a millennium.  In daily life, most people are also not confronted with violence. It just isn’t a part of their lives. So it’s no wonder they have erroneous information and opinions on it.

It’s my job to punch a hole in those myths and try to recalibrate their world view.

There are many aspects to doing that in a way one that actually gets results instead of resistance. That is also difficult, at best, as it encompasses lots of information. For example:

Most (unfortunately, not all) teenage girls have not yet experienced what it is like to have an adult male use his full strength against them.

Even if they have fought with boys before, those kinds of conflicts rarely escalate to that point. What’s more, an adult male is at a different strength level than a teenage boy, and it is a completely different experience when facing the one instead of the other.  For instance, an adult man has on average 70% more upper body strength and 50% lower body strength. Those numbers should give you pause as a woman/girl, but experiencing it is a whole other dimension of understanding.

To get them startedon that path, I show them the video of a man viciously attacking two young women, striking them like he would another man. Then I take the most athletic girl in the group in a (gentle) bear hug and lock my arms so there is no more give in them. Then she can do whatever she wants to break free.

She never does.

I am above average strong and have experience handling people who don’t want to be handled. In this case, the girl increasingly realized she was stuck and at my mercy and began to feel uncomfortable. Which is when I immediately let her go. I obviously made sure I didn’t hurt her, nor let her hurt herself trying to get out.

Then I repeated my point that as a woman, fighting head-on against a man is generally a losing proposition. The odds are against you as there are factors beyond your control that put you at a distinct disadvantage. Once the girls finished expressing their “that’s not fair!” outrage, I explained that this is why the prevention and avoidance techniques I spent most of the course teaching and roleplaying with them are so important: If you can avoid a fight in which you have terrible odds, then that’s a win. You only fight when you have no other choice. But when you do, you do so with all you’ve got because you know just how much trouble you’re in.

As an aside, the smallest girl of the group understood that just fine. She hit the pads with ferocity and had no problem simulating deep eye gouges while wrenching the attacker’s neck. Though her stature makes her more of a target, she has the right mindset when it comes to defending herself…

As another aside, if you have teenage girls or young women you want to keep safe, give them my podcast episode on Self-defense tips for young women

Click the image for the video

Another example, and the point of this post:

The murder of Julie Van Espen is at the extreme end of the violence scale and is not the norm. Teenage girls are more likely to face other acts of violence, but a stone-cold killer is more horrifying than those. So it is natural to focus on that specific danger and ignore the other kinds that are more of a direct threat. I explained the statistics of violence and how unlikely they are to become the victim of such an extreme crime. Obviously, they should not ignore the possibility, but there are more common threats and prevention is the best approach in all cases.

What I didn’t talk about is the part I’ll mention here, as that’s a message for adults: [Read more…]

Rape aXe, effective or not?

This just popped up in my social media feed:

 
I have mixed feelings. I’m not arguing for or against the use of the Rape-aXe, but will list some thoughts that came to mind. This is by no means a definitive list, just some initial thoughts:
  • Rapists can burn for all I care. You rape a woman, whatever horrors fall upon you are well deserved IMO. Over the years, I’ve trained numerous women who were sexually abused or raped, so they could have more tools at their disposal to avoid a repeat of those horrors. Many of them never fully recover, so I have zero sympathy for the perpetrators of these foul crimes.
  • I’d be interested in how the law sees this in different countries. Self-defense laws vary wildly but proportionality is often a part of them. In most cases, I don’t think you can mutilate on purpose. I wonder what defense lawyers have to say about this.
  • I can see where in some places, this could be a useful deterrent. There are places on earth where rape is such a part of daily life, prevention simply doesn’t cut it. So in that context, I can understand how this is a last-ditch attempt at stopping the problem.
  • I don’t like last-ditch efforts much. One of the biggest problems in the self-defense world is the focus on the actual physical fighting techniques over all the steps you can take beforehand to avoid the conflict. Doesn’t matter if it’s male or female self-defense: prevention, avoidance, and de-escalation are in the vast majority of cases easier and more effective than actual fighting. If it gets to the point where it goes physical, things are pretty bleak already. Which is why I believe a focus on prevention is just as important, if not more so than learning to fight. For more information, I did a podcast episode specifically on self-defense tips for young women.
  • Re. the previous point: humans like easy, one-stop-shop solutions. This kind of thing fits perfectly in that dynamic. I’m afraid too many women will think “This is perfect and all I need!” to then neglect all the steps that lead up to rape, steps during which you can often still act decisively to avoid it. The result might then be an increased risk of rape. This is similar to men who think strapping on a weapon is all they need to defend themselves. Weapons, and IMO this Rape aXe is a weapon, are not magic wands; they don’t make a problem go away by simply having it.
  • There is this notion, especially with women, that hurting a man’s genitals is a surefire solution to stop him in his tracks. It is false. Some men drop at the slightest bit of pain, others don’t notice it. Some men are fine at first and the pain kicks in later, others become enraged. I’m not even taking drugs and alcohol into account… The sick bastards who like to rape women are unlikely to all fall in the “drop right away” category. The ones who don’t, what’s to stop them from seeing red and beating up or killing the woman for maiming them? The explanation the manufacturers of this device gave about this issue was very much misleading IMO…
    The analogy for men is hitting softly: in some cases, it triggers the attacker to take the violence to a whole new level. As stated above, there are no easy solutions.
  • Rapists are vile and despicable excuses for a human being, but they are not necessarily stupid. Let’s assume the Rape aXe becomes commonly used: it’s not like they won’t know about it. What’s to stop them from changing their MO to start with knocking the woman out or beating her senseless first, then check for the device, remove it and rape her anyway? Which brings me back to my point about last-ditch solutions. They aren’t useless, but people tend to overly rely on them as a magic talisman.
  • Any tool that is used can also be abused. All the folks who want to ban all guns because they are used for killing as well as self-defense; the same applies here. What is to stop a woman from punishing a partner with this device for his screwing around with other women? Doesn’t happen? In Thailand, men might beg to differ…  What about false rape accusations? What is to stop a woman from using this device and then claiming rape. This is an uncomfortable reality for many women to accept, but some of them act in such a way. Some examples here. Now I know abusus non tollit usum and that isn’t my point. My point is that if you accept that there is a discussion about the misuse of firearms and other weapons, you must accept it about this device too. And at the very least talk about it. That doesn’t mean the Rape aXe needs to be banned, only that the use of it is more complex than the simplistic solutions we humans like to have. Case in point: is the manufacturer liable for misuse? What does their insurance say? How about your liability where you live? How many legal precedents are there? Has a rapist every sued one of his victims for using this device? What was the outcome? All answers to which the company has very few answers, yet they are pertinent to your future should you use their product…

I’m sure there are more points to bring up, but I’ll leave it at that. I read the FAQ on their website and felt the answers they provided to some of these points were either a dodge or very much misleading.

 

Conclusion

I don’t have a definitive answer on how effective using the Rape aXe would be in keeping women safe from rape. I’m not questioning the effectiveness of the device itself, obviously (though I am curious to know how many, if any, human test subjects they used to field test the product before making all those definitive claims about it…) But there are many factors involved in defending yourself, regardless if you’re a man or a woman. That means there are many nuances to the discussion which are often neglected. The only advice I would give to women considering its use is this:

Think it through carefully.

Weigh the pro’s and con’s and make an informed decision based on your specific situation and individual needs.

The realization that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever

A long time ago, I had a paradigm shift that changed my martial arts and self-defense training forever. To explain this correctly, I need to give you a little bit of background information:

Many years ago, I started reading the Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett. Though these books take place in a fantasy world, the stories they tell are deeply rooted in our own. If you haven’t read them, go ahead and give them a try. They’re tons of fun. Here’s the reason why I bring this up:

Mr. Pratchett wrote a series of accompanying books called “Science of the Discworld“. These alternate a story set in the Discworld universe with chapters explaining how science works. In one of these books, he mentions “emergent dynamic systems” and “complex systems“. These concepts are hard to explain quickly, but I’ll post some resources at the end if you want more in-depth information.

For a layman’s explanation, you can view it like this:

Complex systems examine how the multiple components of a system interact with each other and cause the system to behave a certain way, but also how the system interacts and forms relationships with its environment.

The “emergent” part means that complex systems and patterns are formed out of relatively simple interactions.

When you combine these two, it means you can look at a system and create laws and theories of what you see happening and these may be true. However, you cannot recreate an outcome from these laws and theories alone. The specific elements involved and their interactions can give rise to radically new dynamics and behavior, completely unpredictable from previous occurrences. Or put differently, new patterns (and therefor laws and rules) become apparent as the system keeps going, instead of sticking to the previously established rules.

My paradigm shift was viewing fighting and violence as an emergent dynamic system.

Picture a MMA or boxing match: you know the rules and allowed techniques upfront, you know the strengths and weaknesses of both fighters, along with their past performances. You can even do a statistical analysis of all these factors. Despite all that, you can never predict with 100% accuracy who the winner will be, because differences in seemingly insignificant elements or unexpected developments can alter the outcome completely: [Read more…]