Context Matters

The practice of self defense and defensive tactics is almost always conducted in physical terms. A group convenes, usually a warm up is conducted, and then the instructor has a plan to follow for the group: “today we are working on X tactics for the Y situation.” These can be anything from a cooperative or resistant arrest in law enforcement terms, maybe a takedown to ground control and cuffing, or in self defensive terms it could be pushing an attacker off and creating distance, or defending a tackle to either avoid being taken down or to get back up quickly if need be.

In other words, the practice is no different than training in “martial arts.” Whether that term conjures visions of people doing aikido or stick fighting or doing a combat sport like judo or jujitsu, “martial arts” are the model for almost everything I have ever seen and done in defensive tactics and self defense training for the past 19 years. On the basic level this makes sense: there really is little or no difference between physical martial techniques and what will be used in a streetfight. This is why the line gets blurry.

Defensive tactics are but a patchwork of various arts: Stick dueling and knife fighting from the Filipino arts, “lock flows” that  also came from Filipino styles (but were originally taken from aikido), aikido proper, boxing, muay Thai, Krav Maga, and Brazilian Jiujitsu have been taught over the course of my career. There has rarely been integration,  drills were simply taught for the discrete physical skills they imparted, and many of the drills and skills taught are wildly unrealistic for the context and the force parameters (stick dueling and knife fighting?) expected of law enforcers or people defending themselves. In some cases, the training is and can only be useful in extreme circumstances.

Or in a situation with no variables, no articulation, and no decision making required. It is of course much easier to run training this way, but it is problematic to base a self defense methodology on physical skill sets either de-linked from or confusing inclusion for context.

Training grappling skills inclusive of the weapons based environment, for example, is not context. Context would be grappling over a knife against a burglar in one’s kitchen in one case, or as a police officer wrestling over a shank held by an 90 year old WWII veteran in  a care facility. Context is using striking and grappling skills in a ring competition versus using them against two guys that you yelled at when they were driving recklessly in your neighborhood. And context is having to either stay within the rules of the grappling match you are playing, or to stay legally sound in your efforts to defend yourself from a drunken neighbor that swung at you on his front porch when you were simply asking him to turn his music down.

Recently in an interview titled The Gracie Way, in the current Jiujitsu Magazine, Rener Gracie of the famed Brazilian jiujitsu family addressed this topic – in a way. He said:

“You have to ask the question, like, if I had a student of mine who was a blue belt and he was going to fight somebody in the street. If I’m going to give him a piece of advice before getting into a street fight, what am I going to say? I’m going to say: “Listen my friend, number one, keep a good distance. When you get a chance, get ahold (sic) of him, stay close, but don’t throw any punches out here on the wing once you’re in. Don’t throw any punches, kicks, headbutts, knee strikes, nothing. Matter of fact, don’t go for any armlocks, don’t go for any chokes, don’t go for any submissions.”

Most people go, “What do you mean don’t go for submissions? When you are in a fight, or wherever you are, go for a submission.”The question is, do you have more control over somebody? Are you less likely to be punched, or more likely to be punched? Are you less likely to lose control, or more likely to lose control if you are striking or going for submissions?

The answer is obvious. If you are on the side of somebody, or if you are standing trying to grab them, wherever you are, if you’re focused on punching and kicking, you’re not focused on not getting punched or controlling your position. When it comes to a street fight I want my blue belt friend to do nothing., just only hold the person down, just hold and stall forever. The only time my friend, my student, should go for a submission is when there is no other option. Eventually, the person they’re fighting will expose their back, or an arm in such a matter (sic) that they’re saying  “please armlock me.” Exhausted, the arm or the submission will be there to take.

This is a curious mix, and a great example of the blurry line.At least there is an understanding that the dynamics of a self defense encounter are usually more about evasion and avoidance than dominance and submission. Keep distance, be more concerned about not being punched (or stabbed…) and about maintaining a good position than about trying for striking or submissions.

The advice of holding the attacker down is good, not creating openings to be hit or choked or locked yourself. That “stalling” could mean the difference between being stabbed or even shot, in fact, with a subject armed with a gun. And with the ability to do this comes opportunity to disengage is possible. To go back to making that distance recommended as the first option.

For a police officer, a control hold may be necessary to take the subject into custody – but it’s not their expectation to disengage and make good an escape most of the time. Though how the cop chooses to go about control can be important.

Where the advice – and training it – gets blurry is that does not take context into account . Consider watching a video of a police officer in this situation. Let’s assume that the officer followed this advice: no striking, no submissions, controls the subject on the ground, then exhausted, the subject exposes his back and the officer then decides to use a lock or choke.  That is, continuing to use force on someone no longer capable of fighting with you or presenting a threat…

We know what it would look like if he used strikes…

CHP Agrees to Settle, officer Resigns in Beating Case.

I imagine it would not go so well had he strangled her, either.

Now imagine yourself in a street encounter. And you decide to use a lock or choke on someone clearly not able even to escape from you, let alone posing a current threat. Would you really want to say – to responding officers or in open court – that he was by his actions saying “please armlock me?”

Of course not. The issue is both the out-of-context attitude toward a “street fight” (what most self defense training is, actually, as opposed to defending ones self) and whether or not contextual considerations are being recognized. (And I know Rener isn’t actually saying that: but he is thinking it, and that is the point…)

How often in your self defense class is articulation addressed? (I am specifically addressing dedicated self defense or defensive tactics training here, not just a regular day at the gym):

How often when practicing grappling with weapons,  for instance, is your instructor asking you to articulate the when and why you decided to escalate to lethal force?  The right time to go for a weapon is not simply when it is tactically feasible – it is also when it is legally justifiable based on factors of the situation.

How many of those factors are taken into account in your self defense training?  Are you given a circumstantial scenario sketch and then making decisions based on that? (Burglar in the middle of the night in your kitchen-jumped in a crowded bar – at the park with your  young niece and nephew – dark, empty street walking back to your car after clubbing…)

Or do you just get together and bang until someone goes for a weapon? There is a time and place for pure skills training, certainly, but even then, context should be appended, at least conceptually. And it should be clear, with more than a simple blanket statement of “lethal force is justified.” That may be okay with people who have a lot of experience, but for most students there is a great deal of hesitation and confusion surrounding these decisions. Sometimes listening to podcasts and hearing people give  foggy advice on when to “use a gun,” for example, is cringeworthy.

Just like advice on striking or going for the submission …

There is a great story in the Carlos Gracie biography about a fight that Carlson Gracie got himself into. It’s on the beach, and he was staying with his father resting up before a major challenge fight. Carlos was being very strict with him, not letting him go out and ensuring he rest up. Carlson saw his girlfriend down on the beach from the balcony and went down “just to say hi.”

With his girlfriend now he saw a man down the beach  obviously staring at her and trying to flirt. Not a good thing in Brazilian culture…. and a fight eventually began with Carlson throwing sand in his face. (His jiujitsu apparently did not extend to being calm and composed and not aggressive in the face of insult, but that is another matter…)

The man washed the sand out and came back and attacked Carlson.

Carlson repeatedly took him down, mounted him, then got off. He made no attempt to strike the man or lock or strangle him into submission. After a couple rounds of this, the exhausted man gave up and walked off.

This is actually an ideal demonstration of  jiujitsu skills  for self defense as opposed to turning it into a submissions match or free fighting ground and pound. Had the man begun to present more of a threat, Carlson could have done those things.  But he did not pose more of a threat. Could not pose a threat.

It is an illustration of skills-in-context, even if the motivation  to not get into a fight (hint, hint) was simply in order to rest up for a professional match.




The Path of the Warrior

Hunter Armstrong’s Tsuwamono no Michi: A Different Kind of Warrior,  the original available at Examplar Path, is another take on the parallel development of the modern warrior in terms of character and capability, and the ongoing importance of training. This is derived from Japanese sources, still present in the teaching of some of the oldest classical martial traditions, which Armstrong has practiced.

And incidentally, entirely consistent with the Platonic ideal of Guardianship (the warrior/soldier Guardian). The crux of both is the ethical underpinning, and development of character, of the properly trained warrior. I’ll be addressing the latter in an upcoming piece.


Tsuwamono-no-Michi: A Different Kind of Warrior.

Being / Becoming
For many armed professionals, training and practice in combative skills are approached as necessities of the profession. For them, it is readily apparent that combat is the most difficult arena in which humans engage, and there can be no such thing as too much preparation physically or mentally. For some, however, it’s too easy to become complacent. Reliance on routine, faith in the infallibility of the team, apparent familiarity with a situation are all factors that can degrade one’s awareness and the feeling of need to constantly improve not only combat skills, but, more importantly, the mindset that enables skills to operate. Training and practice have the very obvious benefit of enhancing combat skills, but there is another reason they become even more important over time. It would seem that over time, as our skill improves through training and practice, there should be a corresponding drop in the amount of necessary time and effort on such training. It seems obvious that “the better I get, the less need there is for me to try to get better.” For the professional, however, the opposite is the case.

Aside from the simple enhancement of combative skills, why is training so important? The short answer is that training defines a difference between being and becoming. The fact that we are training is an indication that we are trying to further develop ourselves, become something more than we are now. If we are satisfied with who/what we are now, we wouldn’t need to train, other than to simplypractice skills we already have. Training is forging and polishing, striving to learn more, do more, to achieve a higher level of capability, to become more.

Who or what are we trying to become?
 We are engaged in a combative endeavor that at root should be no different from that of the combat professionals throughout history. In essence, we are part of the martial tradition. However the tradition of the martial encompasses a wide variety of character types from protectors of society to warlords and brigands. The scope for the current age is no different. However, as with any era, the true professional has higher ideals of character and standards of behavior than merely being skillful at combat. In the end, it is character and a high standard of ethical and moral behavior that separates the true warrior from the well trained thug.

We often cite earlier examples of idealized warrior types such as the knight and the samurai as potential role models. And while they provide some traits that are worthy of emulating, we are in a different age, and need to look more closely at our models of behavior.

For example, let’s look at the Japanese samurai. As an historical figure, the samurai (also known as “bushi”) has been around for over 700 hundred years. However the image of the samurai that we’re most familiar with now has his roots in the Sengoku Period, roughly 1490-1600, a time of extensive battlefield warfare. During this period, the bushi’s survival was based on his ability to dominate in battlefield personal combat. It was during this period that the martial skills of the Japanese warrior were stimulated to a peak of development. With the end of battlefield warfare in the early 1600’s, there followed the relatively peaceful period of the Tokugawa era. In spite of the lack of battlefield warfare, the samurai evolved to further meet the needs of the warrior in an age of little battlefield combat, but greater demands in a different type of combat, one that is in some ways more difficult to train for. This was the single combat of professional warriors in a civilian world.

 The single combat that arose was of a nature in which it is all too easy for the ego to become the driving force. Ego is not always a bad thing, and properly applied can be a very useful driving force. Ego drive, when used for unselfish ends (see the hoplological concept of “non-grasping-persona”) can be useful as a force of will achieving remarkable ends. The other side of that coin is the ego of selfish ends (the grasping persona). Here the ego turns one inwards, becoming an inhibitor. In either case, for non-selfish or for selfish ends, for good or bad, the ego can be a lethal determiner. The nature of the martial training during this period was to further polish the effort of will, the unselfish ego of the non-grasping persona, towards just ends. Here we see the development of such concepts as the dichotomy of the “life-giving sword and the death-dealing sword”: the sword of violence being used for the protection of life.

 Most of us are familiar with the term, samurai and to a lesser extent, bushi, and what attracts most of us to the bushi/samurai is that they trained as individuals in some of the world’s most highly evolved systems of personal combat. At the same time, we tend to ignore the less savory nature of thesamurai’s social position and the behavioral nature of the samurai class status. However, that behavior is important for the modern professional to understand. While the samurai on the one hand had arguably become one of best trained warriors in personal combat, particularly during the height of the Sengoku Period (1490-1600), his code of ethics and morality during that period and evolving further during the following Tokugawa era (1603-1868) would, by today’s standards, leave something to be desired. During his height, the samurai’s duty, loyalty, obligation, responsibility was owed not as a societal protector, but directly and specifically to his lord and only to his lord. The samurai was not the idealized, individual, knight errant, seeking to suppress evil, right wrongs, and protect the weak. He was a retainer, a servant-warrior for his lord and master at whose whim he served. If you look through one of the English translations of a Japanese manual on samurai behavior—AJ Sadler’s The Code of the Samurai (an annotated translation of the writings of Daidoji Shigesuke – 1639-1730) – you’ll see far more instruction on the daily comportment for serving as a dutiful retainer than on the obligations and responsibilities of protector-warrior to society at large.

For most of us this is not the persona we visualize in ourselves or in our own development as modern warriors.

For my part, I prefer a different and earlier concept of Japanese “warriorship.” The term, tsuwamono, is from an earlier period of the Japanese martial history.

 The Japanese character for tsuwamono 兵 is now read as “hei,” as in heihō, generally translated now as “tactics,” “strategy,” “the art of war.” However the older meaning involved a concept of tactics that was rooted in the individual and expanded outward to groups. Importantly, though, that heihō, while rooted in combative skills, also included an aspect that would be best described as “one’s behavior towards others.” The individual who practiced that older heihō was one who followed the tsuwamono no michi, “the warrior’s path.”

 The tsuwamono was the warrior of an earlier Japan, prior to the rise of the “servant” samurai. As with the later samurai, the tsuwamono strived to live up to the ideals of his class, but the tsuwamono’s code of conduct included valor, loyalty, honor, trust, non-desire, and importantly, demeanor or comportment. However, unlike the later samurai, the ethics and morality of the tsuwamono was not aimed at polishing his role as a servant serving a lord-and-master, but towards the greater good of the group within which he served. Compared to the later samurai, the tsuwamono had greater independence, and was often himself an independent land owner. His responsibility was to his family and to the society in which he lived. He might owe fealty to greater powers, but his immediate and primary obligation and responsibility was to those among whom he lived.

 It is at least partly to the this earlier concept of the warrior that I believe we should turn in getting a better understanding of who or what we are training ourselves for.

Tsuwamono – a Modern Warrior Concept
  • The tsuwamono is an individual; he is self-initiated and self-motivated.
  • The tsuwamono is a follower of the warrior path of responsibility and obligation. His following of that path underscores his individuality while stressing the importance of his responsibility as protector in his society.
  • The tsuwamono trains to become ever more capable at combative skills. The foundation of those skills is based in his self-initiative to become more. It is inherent in the tsuwamono that as he gains in capability in and comprehension of the principles intrinsic to the martial path, he will of his own self-initiative, seek to expand the application of those principles beyond any institutional standard. In other words, the tsuwamono is never satisfied to stand still waiting, being, but is constantly looking forward, to becoming.
  • The tsuwamono attempts to conduct his daily life based upon a code of conduct rooted in an innate sense of ethics, integrity, and morality. This code of conduct is not an outwardly enforced expression expected of the tsuwamono by others, but a code of behavior that the tsuwamonoexpects of himself. As with the tsuwamono of old, valor, loyalty, honor, trust, and comportment are values that are inherent. Compassion, an aspect of the “life-giving sword” (an often neglected component of martial behavior), is a vital part of the code.


Officer Assault, Grounded Gun Grab


Video of another close quarters officer assault sent by a friend-link found here:

Some lessons:

  1. Don’t arrest a felony suspect by yourself.
  2. Know how to stay on your feet when grappling. If you cannot, know how to get back to your feet.
  3. Know how to fight on the ground.
  4. See “The Communication Scar.” A perfect example of it is demonstrated here. Note that his initial calls for help were not heard.

More on Guardianship


Another session of Blue Courage last night and more spirited discussion on the “Guardian vs. Warrior” thing.

The Soldier and the Citizen: Lessons from Plato and Aristotle, by John P. Hittinger, underscores why the nature of this current debate is bi-polar – in that the Guardian clearly was intended as a model for a military ethos and the training of the soldier class – warrior class if you will – while at the same time emphasizing the obvious intention to  see to it that:“an ethics of virtue is central to military ethics,” and that “we must tie military ethics to the fundamental issues of justice and the value of human life.”

Naturally, the adoption of noble and viable military ethics of the soldier guardian for  police work has caused confusion within a culture that has at the very same time decried militarization and  dismissed an  – albeit notional – concept of Warrior Mindset.

Part of the disconnect perhaps lies here – quoted from The Soldier and the Citizen (emphasis mine):

“The education of guardians and the development courage poses a challenge to society at large, and to modern societies in particular. The formation of soul, the attachment to a particular country, the demand for personal sacrifice run counter to the principles and hopes of liberal enlightenment. Individual rights and desire for material satisfaction are overriding political goals; skepticism and doubt in the service of free thinking predominate in our education; we expect perpetual peace or a withering of the state.

George Grant poses a very stark problematic:

If the avoidance of violent death is our highest end, why should anyone make sacrifices for the common good which entail that possibility? Why should anyone choose to be a soldier or policeman, if Lockian contractualism is the truth about justice? Yet such professions are necessary if any approximation to justice and consent are to be maintained. Within a contractualist belief, why should anyone care about the reign of justice more than their life?25

At first look, these considerations may lead us to consider that a military ethic is anachronistic. The modern account of justice seeks precisely to avoid the questions of metaphysics and hierarchy of good.26 In Hobbes and Locke there is an explicit denial of the existence of a noble good over and above the useful and pleasant.27 The contemporary account, while following a Hobbesian or Lockean contractualist account of justice remains silent about the good life. It posits a “thin theory of the good”: life, liberty and property are goods that anyone needs whatever their plan of life. Justice is viewed as a formal, procedural matter; it is minimalist and universal in scope. It presupposes an individualistic or atomistic view of man and society.28 The focus of such contemporary theories of justice is the autonomous or unencumbered self; its philosophical orientation is finally existentialist or therapeutic insofar as commitment is viewed as repressive. A distinction between a noble and base way of life, or between a better and best, is either declared unintelligible or judgmental. The point of all of this is that military ethics and courage cannot flourish in such a climate.

Some may say, so much the worse for military ethos; but this dilemma also points to the contradictions or shortcomings of the modern liberal moral position.”

(Citations in the original above)

It’s a good read. Vitally important for those serving with an interest in where this is going. These are critical questions at a critical time.


Competitive Shooting vs. Defensive Shooting

A good article at Tactical Life on Competition Shooting and how it can help or hinder in the tactical environment. Some big names and great shooters here. A very balanced set of perspectives.

10 Experts: Can Competitive Shooting Help Real World Defensive Shooting?

And a hearty shout out to  Gabe White, one of the experts featured here. He has a knack for organizing the thought processes and training applications in cross-pollinating these two worlds.

Our team competes every training day. Winners are tabulated and Champions chosen at the the end of the year, receiving trophies and a name plate marking their achievement for all to see in the years to come.

To be sure there is some gaming  of the competitions. Gaming is roundly shamed and called out for what it is. Most of the competitions are pure shooting, but some drills include tactical skills or physical skills in conjunction with shooting.

There is another element added to it within team culture, and that is you are competing against, being judged by, and assessed by men whom you may be going through a door with and who may very much depend on you for their life one day. This can be very demanding psychologically for its not just shooting that is judged. Competitive performance may not even be the most important element of the competition.

It’s not the be-all and end-all, and it is recognized as such and kept in its proper place. Some newer members can be expert shooters but not yet have the tactical acumen to be “trusted” as would another, perhaps not as expert but proven tactically over many years. But other than highly dynamic tactical force on force decision drills with Simunition (also done every set of training days), there is nothing else that places you under the time pressures that this kind of competition instills.

The point is made in the article that such training will hone your reloads, weapon manipulations, transitions (if you have both long gun and hand gun), and positional shooting – and I would emphasize in your carry gear – like nothing else. While clearly distinct from tactical skills and seasoned decision making,  when the two come together in what is really a perfect storm, the more you have worked your weapons under pressure the freer you are to observe, orient, decide, and act.

Tim Cartmell BJJ Brick Podcast

tim cartmell

Brazilian Jiujitsu instructor Tim Cartmell is interviewed here at BJJ Brick. 

Tim is the chief instructor at the School of Budo, where I train. We sought him out for his unique approach to BJJ. Though Tim teaches many sport competitors, and coaches MMA fighters out of Ace Jiujitsu, his emphasis on fundamental self defense skills informs his overall approach to BJJ.

Training with Tim offers a unique perspective on BJJ and physical performance, for competition, self defense, and health, borrowing heavily from his training and experience in neijia (Chinese internal arts) and sanda (Chinese kickboxing combining striking and wrestling), and even arts like sumo (“one of the most combative grappling arts out there.”)

This interview offers his perspectives on stand up training, BJJ schools and self defense, and training for different competitions or just to get better.