Edged Weapon Defence

Knife fighting as portrayed in the movies is a fallacy and one that will get you injured or killed if it is your idea of self defence against an edged weapon.  There are some basic rules when is comes to facing and surviving an edged weapon attack. 

Some Basic Rules About Edged Weapons

  1. Treat every attack as a knife attack.  Criminals will not necessarily want or let you know they have a knife.  This is one of the reasons why limb control and taking the initiative is so vitally important in a fight.  Even in combat with a single adversary, a third person may get involved and stab you.  Good self-defence is about escaping not fighting.
  2. If you are involved in an altercation involving a knife, you are going to bleed.  Accept that and make the decision now that you will continue fighting, even if you are bleeding.  In fact, make the decisions that you will continue fighting as long as there is air in your lungs.
  3. There are only two types of attacks with an edged weapon, slashes, and thrusts.  Slashes are far harder to deal with but thrust do far more damage as they penetrate deeper into vital organs.
  4. We have at some time in our life cut ourselves and experienced the pain of a cut.  Even a papercut can be incredibly painful.  This can create a larger psychological fear.  Even more then that of a gun.  Also, at the ranges we are talking about for self defence the knife is deadlier than a firearm.

Primary Uses Of A Knife

On the street a knife will be used for two primary reasons.  1. To intimidate, threaten or coerce.  Or 2. To cause damage.  And each require a different approach to defending yourself depending on the situation.

  1. To intimidate, threaten or coerce.  A criminal will present a knife to facilitate a crime more easily.  Easier for them.  Regardless of the crime being committed, robbery or rape as examples, the criminal’s hope is that by brandishing a blade it will encourage you to acquiesce to their request.  The fact that they are showing you the blade, suggests (at that moment of time) that they are not going to use it (this may change).  The blade has been presented to frighten you. 

How you deal with this situation, can only be made by you, in the heat of the moment, weighing up all the variables and it will be a decision you will need to live with.  There are too many variables to consider them all in this article.  However, you will be faced with two options, acquiesce or fight.  In any situation only you can decide what is the correct course of action.  By handling the goods over in a mugging or not fighting in the case of a rape attempt, there is no guarantee that the criminal will be true to their word and not escalate the crime.  A mugging can turn into an assault, or an assault can escalate into a rape.

Your 2nd option is to fight.  The one great advantage we have when defending against anyone with a weapon is the element of surprise! Now that surprised you, as it’s likely that you were not thinking that when facing a violent offender armed with a blade or club that we held the element of surprise – well we do. It’s all to do with the psychology of weapons.

Anyone armed with a weapon maintains certain expectations. We’re also told that the more powerful the weapon, the greater the expectation, specifically, that the person standing in front of them will be compliant and do as they are told. What they do not expect is to pull a knife, demand your wallet and find themselves on their back with their throat crushed.

Remember ACTION BEATS REACTION. Acceptance of this is the fundamental basis of all proactive defence. “who starts it wins it.”

Reaction times are not absolute. However, when a person’s reaction time is dulled in the mistaken belief that you will comply because of him being armed, the reality is you have all the time in the world to attack the attacker. There are certain absolutes with this concept and the predominant one is distance. Action won’t be guaranteed to beat reaction unless you are within touching distance. It may, but your opportunity to seize the initiative lessens with distance.

Sidenote:  Criminals are Masters of Economy, they want to commit the easiest crime.  They do not want a fight.  If you look like you will present a challenge, they will blindside you, usually hitting you with a tool.  Many criminals soon learn that scaring someone into handing over their belongs is an inefficient way to commit that crime.  Victims get scared and fail to comply or fail to comply quickly.  Hence some criminals learn it is easier/quicker to hit/stab first, take the goods, strike/stab again to cause damage and hide their escape.  This brings us to the 2nd primary use of an edged weapon.

  • To cause damage.  The blade is now used to cause damage.  Having committed the crime as outlined above the criminal then inflicts damage to aid their escape or for enjoyment. The blade may also be used as mentioned above in the sidenote.  Simply to expedite the crime.  Slashing or stabbing reduces resistance, induces shock, and limits witness identifications after the event. 

This blitz-attack should be defended against in the same manner as all self-defence situations with awareness and use of pre-incident indicators.  By correctly observing someone approaching you and passing you by, being alert, making eye contact, maintaining awareness of them, or even turning to face them as they pass you, are all steps that can limit the assault from happening.  More on how to defend against an attack later.

Another sidenote:  Many combative groups love talking and training for the “Shank Attack” or prison type attack, repeated aggressive stabs from behind.  And while I am not claiming that these attacks cannot happen, or even with the greatest self-protection system in place that we can find ourselves “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  I feel there is an over-emphasis on this type of training, with correct self-defence procedures in place we do not need to be unduly concerned with these types of attacks.  Avoidance and awareness should limit the opportunities for this type of attack.  There is an element of “live by the sword, die by the sword”.  Most reasonable everyday people (and I include myself in that description 😊) who are not involved with the criminal world do not have enemies who want to kill them.  Criminals kill this way and its usually for business or personal reasons.

Different types of edged weapons

            Edged weapon defence does not always mean a knife.  A knife is a tool, and many other everyday tools can be used as a weapon.  Scissors, nail files, beer bottles, pint glasses, and garden shears are examples of everyday objects that can be used to slash or stab, even a set of keys held between the fingers may be used.  But the most common items you are used will be knives, screwdrivers, razor blades, and Stanley blades/carpet cutters.  The blade length does not have to be very long to cause a lot of damage.  Even an edged weapon of less than one inch blade length can inflict a lot of damage.  Likewise, not all edged weapon attacks happen on the street.  It is conceivable that weapons can be improvised in the home or a bar/nightclub scenario.  What will alter how we deal with these improvised weapons is more the range the weapon has rather than the angle of attack.

            This brings us to how traditional martial arts approach the topic of edged weapon defence.

Mistakes in traditional Martial Arts.

            There are many legitimate and different reasons that martial artists can train with knifes.  Many of which I shall cover here.   

However, either from ignorance or a genuine belief their systems knows best, much of what is taught is dangerous and ineffective.  Not preparing a student for a violent altercation is bad but teaching material that is blatantly wrong is worse because it could get them killed.

We know from the Martial Map, that not everything must fall into the category of effective on the street.  Some traditional martial arts have a history and a lineage of techniques handed down through the generation from the warrior techniques performed on the battlefield.  Many of these techniques were performed in armour or with edged weapons not in everyday use anymore, such as spear or swords. (Yes, I realise I could be attacked by someone with a sword in the 21st century, but the odds are so slim of that event happening, I am not going to spend decades training in the martial arts on it) This type of training falls under the historical or cultural aspect of the martial arts.  I have no issue with this type of training once it is explained as such and not as realistic knife defence.

When you look at the issue through the prism of historical/cultural viewpoint rather then a practical approach, much of the mistake perpetrated can not only be forgiven but also understood.  Here ends the lesson once it is not taught as realistic.  Convincing them what they are teaching is not realistic is a whole other issue.

Some of these issues are as follows.

  • Attacks from the wrong range.  Typical of the extended karate type attack. 
  • Wrong type of attacks.  Exaggerated slashes or downward/overhead strikes, single stabs or thrusts, with the arm fully extended. 
  • Attacks where the limb is left out or only a single strike is performed.
  • Attacks are cold and stale with no passion.  There needs to be a difference between practice and doing.
  • Attack training that starts with bowing.  And doesn’t simulate realistic situations.
  • Attacks where the knife is shown and in full view as the attacker slowly closes range.
  • Attacks that are defended with unrealistic techniques, such as x-blocks, where the attacker stands stationary waiting the counterattack, wrists-locks or disarms that are initiated before any impact had been delivered.

All training practices/drills have flaws.  Some of these examples may be a legitimate way to train, if and only if, the flaws are explained to the student and they understand how the drill may be part of a training matrix.

  • Distance means time.  Giving lower grade students a longer distance, gives them more time to learn a technique.  May be valid once they realise, they cannot rely on learnt techniques in a real situation.
  • Using a knife as a teaching tool.  Put a (fake) knife in your opponent’s hand can raise the stakes for the student meaning they change to a better mindset.  One they should be encouraged to keep after the lesson.
  • Training by stealth.  Practising a skill or attribute against an empty hand and then adding a knife, can allow a student more repetitions without realising they are practising the same thing.
  • Adds interest or entertainment value for a student.  Learning locks against a knife attack seems more “real” to lower students.
  • By learning (correctly) how to use a knife can give deeper understanding to how to defend against one.
  • Techniques may be a grading required.

The above 6 bullet points are examples why certain training methodologies may be used the way they are.  Many of those examples are only valid as martial arts training not self defence training.  And I would further argue only for lower graded students.


One major area that traditional martial arts fall on is concealment.  As well as the above-mentioned errors, most traditional martial arts attack scenarios start with the knife in full view as the attacker slowly advances.  This may reflect a historical battlefield duelling situation, but it is not how a knife is used in modern society.  The modern criminal will not show you his blade and will not run at you from a great distance.  The blade will be hidden.  Generally, if you cannot see their palms you must assume, they have a knife.  (I make it easier; I just assume everyone has a knife).  Even if you can see their palms the knife may be concealed.  It can be up a sleeve, in their belt, in behind their neck and only the limits of imagination restrict where someone may be concealing a knife.  And I am not going to list all the conceivable places because they are all dealt with in the same way.  Impact plus

What do I mean By impact plus?  Impact plus cover the limb reaching for a weapon. 

Assuming all the pre-incident indicators have been met, you feel threatened, you may or may not be able see the hands.  A pre-emptive strike is the soundest tactical decision.  If the threat reaches for something, regardless of where, you need to explode into action, cover the limb that is reaching and deliver (hopefully) a finishing strike.  To do anything else exposes you to an edged weapon.  You cannot allow the threat to pull a weapon.  The hand must be stopped, and you must deliver impact to allow you to escape.  There are many ways this should be practiced that I will not cover here.  Remember that criminals use deception, bending down to tie their shoelaces may be hiding the fact that they are trying to withdraw a knife from their boot.

Core Principles of edges weapon defence

As mentioned previously the knife will be used for two primary reasons, intimidation, or damage, and the first may progress to the second.  Obviously, I am not going to recap all the principles of self-protection, but we are assuming that your awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation skills have failed you and you are now employing the fence or have a blade pressed against you. (this was covered earlier)

If you are employing the fence with no knife in view (assume there is one) the usual rules of de-escalation or pre-emption apply, with one caveat, if it looks like they are reaching for something, you must act, immediately. 

If you have distance between yourself and a knife, what are you still doing there. RUN and run fast.  This is not a movie folks.  If you see somebody carrying an edged weapon from a distance, get out of there.

You read a lot about getting or using an equaliser.  Using something to defend yourself from a knife.  I don’t agree with this model as it does not consider realistic scenarios.  Unless you have the tool in your hand and have trained to use that tool defensively you will not use it under stress.  You will not roll your magazine up to hit with, use your briefcase/clipboard/chair as a shield or hit them with an umbrella.  As for picking up a chair to hold him off like a lion tamer, if you have time to get a chair you have time to escape.

If that distance is less or around 1 meter, forward is the only way to go.  Of course, escape is the first option if a knife enters the proceedings, but unless you have a ten-foot gap as a head start, turning your back is not a good idea.  Your attacker can move forward faster than you can move backwards.  So forward is your best option.  Close, control and strike.

Remember action beats reaction. 

If they are using the knife against you, you have several options. 

  • Move inside the strike while striking yourself.
  • Parry the strike while striking yourself.
  • Impact (block) the strike while striking yourself.

All these options can be summed up at pat and attack.  The most important part of defending against an edged weapon is to get control of the limb and to shut the computer down.  This is done by deflecting the blade, (martial artists use terms such as blocking, parrying, or entering) and an endless barrage of blows with the first blow using the maximum force possible, to stun, knockout or discombobulate our attacker.  When, I say control the limb I do not mean grab the wrist.  This you will not be able to do and is bad tactically for many reasons, least of all your attacker can switch the blade to his other hand.  However, maintaining a sensitive pressure against the limb will enable you to feel your opponent’s energy and redirect the blade away from your body all the time delivering devastating blows.  This initial deflecting action must be done as a heavy slap.

 Here the Filipino strategy of ‘Defanging the snake’ may come into play.  If you cannot head, hit the limb holding the blade.  The aim here is to destroy the limb, which may result in them dropping the knife.  However, once you have hit the limb the priority should be to clear the limb to attack the head.

Disarms and locking even throws may be taught as advanced skills.  But like all self-protection they should be considered gifts presented by your opponent, fit your strategy, can you escape while holding a lock?  And should be redundant if your initial strike knocks your opponent out.  There are 3 principles of throwing someone, karate invented a fourth, shut the brain down and there is nothing to hold the body up. 😊

This article will not try and teach blade defences but here are some final points in relation to the body mechanics.

When facing a bladed weapon keep your limbs close to your body to protect vital organs and turn your palms towards you.  When defending against the blade you want your inner forearms protected.  Here is where your veins and arteries are and the ligaments controlling the hand, specifically closing the hand.  If you get defensive cuts you want them on the back of your forearms, firstly this area bleeds less then the inside of the arm, secondly there are no arteries close to the surface, and thirdly if the slash is deep enough to severe ligaments, it means you will not be able to open your hand.  The result of this you will not be able to grab, but your fist will still function as a club for impact.

This hand position with the palms on your head can be used for crashing in and closing distance.  Ideally combined with striking with the elbows.

If thrusted at, pull your stomach in and round your back to create more space. 

In relation to violent thrusts to the stomach.  One hand blocks the strike while your second arm takes the power out of the strike by striking the shoulder.  This needs to be practiced.  At a higher skill set the shoulder strike may be directed at the head/neck instead.

Martial Arts & Mental Health:

How they help us heal and grow

Most people have a basic knowledge of Martial Arts, usually derived from their portrayal in the cinema.  Karate chops, flying kicks, funny noises, and wise old men.  Maybe they have seen the violence of a UFC or MMA event or Judo/karate/boxing tournament on television. Many believe that Black belts are special people (which we’re not, we just don’t quit) and have special powers (which we don’t) like ninjas in the movies.  Many laypeople see black Belts as Mr Miagyi types, the wise old man, or some sort of walking saint, never losing their calm, always in control.  Which is the goal every day.

True practitioners of the art of karate (and it is an art), recognise that, similarly to Yoga or Meditation, Karate is something that improves the quality of your life, and should be trained for the duration of your life.  It is this aspect of the art which I wish to talk about and explain how the proper teaching of karate or any martial art can be an effective tool in counselling and/or personal development.

With the number of knives and guns in society today, defending oneself by hand is becoming less and less practical as a means of survival, and very few people, want, or need to engage in fighting daily. Violence is an ugly thing, and unless you have a psychotic personality, you will not walk out of a violent altercation without suffering some psychological or emotional damage.  Avoidance is the best policy.  So why then, spend years training and learning to fight, especially if you plan to go years hopefully without every using it.  Stress management, mind control, self-confidence, self-discipline, mind-fullness, and relaxation are all other reasons for practising as well as the above mentioned, self-defence, fitness and as a sport.

The Japanese usually refer to people having 3 masks or faces. The first mask (public) is the one we show the world. The second mask (private) is the one we show to the people closest to us. And the third mask is who we are inside. This is our authentic self. Our true self. The one with all our strengthens and weaknesses, all our good points and bad, all our desires, loves and hates. When your authentic self, behaves in-line with your public and private masks then you will be at peace, you will be happy, and life should feel easy. However, if your authentic self is at odds with the mask you show, then life may feel like you are swimming upstream not with the flow.  Sometimes a person may not be aware that there is a disjoint between who they are and who they pretend to be. As Karl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”  Most people live their lives in an almost automatic mode, never looking internally and seeing what drives their behaviour, both good and bad.  Sometimes, even without any major trauma, people become aware of a feeling, maybe of not being happy, a feeling life is not going their way, or just an empty feeling inside.  This feeling, whatever its cause, can lead someone to counselling, or if they are lucky like I was, into the martial arts with a great instructor or Sensei.

In life we are born pure and unsoiled. As we grow and experience life, these experiences shape us, both the positive and negative experiences. They shape the person we become. Two individuals could grow up in the same house and experience the same events but process them in two completely different ways. That is what makes each of us unique. That is what makes YOU unique. Nobody in this entire universe can see the world the way YOU see the world. Nobody thinks the way YOU do. Nobody can affect the world the way YOU can.  This may be on a global scale or maybe on a much more personal scale, maybe you will not be a world leader or billionaire but instead it means being the best parent you can be, or the best friend, or the best at whatever hobby you have chosen.  Or simple the best version of you on this planet. And when I say the best version of You, I mean the happiest.

In his book Karate-do by Tatsuo Suzuki (1967), he states the true meaning of “Karate is basically a training to bring a person back to the natural state of mind he was born with, dispelling delusions”. Delusions such as doubt, fear, attachment, and anger,

“An example of this would be a baby does not have a complex of fear. A person who narrowly escapes being run over by a car will remain motionless, his limbs frozen by fear. But a baby would continue to move innocently because he has no fear complex.”

One emphasis of karate therefore is to develop and maintain a healthy mind. “That inborn, pure mind unsoiled by evil thought and impressions through the experiences of life.”  Life can wear you down. Proper traditional Karate training teaches a student life-skills and a code of conduct which benefits their life outside the dojo (Training Hall).

Delusions such as doubt, fear, attachment, and anger. can control our lives either consciously or unconsciously. Every decision we make in life either moves us towards or away from pain or pleasure. Accept that. Every decision. The conscious or the unconscious ones. As human beings we gravitate towards pleasurable experiences and doing everything in our power to avoid pain. Every choice you have made has been made to satisfy that goal. Every choice you are still making is doing the same thing.  Martial arts training allows us to become more aware of our decision-making process and control it better, just like counselling.

In a traditional Karate class, your every movement is controlled from start to finish. You are told how/when to stand, sit and move. Because everyone is doing the exact same thing simultaneously it allows students to be less self-conscious about their bodies.  A student with low self-confidence can train to act confidently for the duration of the class, while a student with a large ego can train humbly, meaning each student is training their mind for their own purposes. No matter where a person is on the spectrum and we are all somewhere on the spectrum between low self-confidence and too much confidence, training correctly allows us to train to improve ourselves.  Too shy we can practice being confident, too cocky we can practice being humble.

When Michelangelo revealed his famous statue “David”, people told him he had created a masterpiece. Michelangelo said that the statue was always there, and all he (Michelangelo) did was chip away the pieces of rock to reveal the beautiful masterpiece within the stone.  His genius was seeing the statue within the stone. This is the effect the techniques and training practices within Karate have on Your soul. In Karate we strive to strip away the attachments, the negative, the opinions, to reveal the beauty of the person inside. In Karate we train the same techniques thousands of times, up and down the floor, over and over and this training coupled with the correct mindset has the same effect of chipping away at out imperfections. Patience, self-discipline, mental focus, calmness, determination, concentration all these things can be trained while practising these moves. You may enjoy your martial arts training, but enjoyment should never be the sole motivation. Repeated practise can be boring by its essential repetitive nature. The very act of repeating the same thing over and over allows students to train internal aspects such as perseverance, discipline etc. It also develops these techniques into lethal techniques.

Martial Arts has a profound effect on the psychology of students.  In his book “Theory and practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy” (Corey 1996), Corey states that the two goals of Freudian psychotherapy

          “Are to make the unconscious conscious and to strength the ego so that behaviour is based more on reality and less on instinctual cravings.  Successful analysis is believed to result in significant modifications of the individual’s personality and character structure.”

What psychoanalysis tries to achieve through conscious reconstruction, discussion, interpretation and analysis, Martial Arts achieves in an unconscious process using physical and mental training drills, in order to (Corey 1996) “develop the level of understanding that is assumed to be necessary for a change in character”.  Basically, true Martial Arts works as a kind of psychoanalysis without the talking. 

Shoshaku Jushaku. 

Understanding this concept is the road to achieving a black belt or beyond.  Shoshaku Jushaku means one continuous practice, mistake upon mistake.  On the mats, as in life, people make mistakes.  How you deal with the mistakes of life determines how successful you on or off the mats.  And how successful your mental health is.

Shoshaku Jushaku implies recognising when you make a mistake, learning from it, and continuing to make new mistakes.  This is how winning is done and leads to a successful life.  Most people either refuse to acknowledge their mistakes or are too critical of themselves when they make mistake.  Shoshaku jushaku means to recognise your mistake, acknowledge it, learn from it, and try not to repeat it, however this mind set allows compassion towards ourselves.  We do not condemn ourselves but endeavour to be gentle on ourselves.  Because we know improvements in life cannot be made without mistakes.  In life there is no failure only feedback.


Mindfulness means we become present in the moment, aware of one’s actions and environment.  Like many concepts in the martial arts this is extremely easy to say and much harder to put in practice.  Becoming mindful we begin to see the world as it is, not as we expect it to be or what we fear it might become.

As students, we aim to be mindful, in our training, at-all-times, and to extend that mindfulness to all areas of our everyday lives. It starts with being mindful of your breath, and then your posture, being mindful of your techniques and eventually your mind.  It takes continued practice to make this become second nature. Proper correct training leads to increased mindfulness, ideal for daily living and being aware of threats around us.  Good mindfulness can be used to decrease the risks of ever having to use your martial art skills for self-defence.  Being more mindful helps counteract the state that many people find themselves living in, being on a type of “automatic pilot.”  Being mindful also means to be without judgement.  Experiencing the moment for how it is.  The reality not the way we want it to be.

Bowing can be a way of practising mindfulness.  To bow is to bend. This requires flexibility, otherwise things might crack or break. When one bows as an act of the heart, this is humility. You are not bowing down before someone but before your own buddha nature, your own authentic self.   We are all capable of wisdom, kindness, patience etc to some degree and in one way bowing points back to one’s own buddha nature.

On entering the Dojo (training hall) you should bow.  This sets up a point of stopping, of recollection, “I am in this room, relating in this way, at this time.” You are taking a moment out of your life, a moment to space, a moment of mindfulness. 

When bowing to others, this requires a sensitivity and presence of mind, “I am Junior/Senior, what is this situation now, what is the time.”

Now I want to introduce you to three new terms, Zanshin, Shoshin and Mushin.

Zanshin in English is often translated as Awareness. A better translation would be Remaining Mind or Lingering Mind.  Zanshin is the accumulated information already processed by the brain, as well as the presence of your character and spirit within the current environment. It is not enough to be an observer in the world.  A warrior must always be a part of their world.  A warrior has a moral obligation to interact in the world.  To make that world better.

Warriors with Zanshin have an innate sense of their surroundings and the ability to reach out into the environment to capture information that others might find insignificant or irrelevant. The ever-present need for more information is why Zanshin appears to be most present at the end of a technique or Kata. The mind remains present and hungry. It searches for more information and perceives any changes as it occurs.

Zanshin is to fit exactly within one’s environment, ever present and in harmony. Perceiving threats before or after an attack, snatching that seemingly irrelevant piece of information that gives insight into relationships both business and personal, being aware of your own body and emotions and how it responds to the stimuli from the environment around you. Zanshin is an experiential experience. It must be felt not thought, lived not taught.

Zanshin is free of fear, worry, emotion and prejudice. Words may describe the experience but never fully convey the true experience. I know how a pear tastes to me, but we may disagree over our description of its taste.  The more we describe it, the further from the experience of tasting it we go.  Once experienced it may be recognised in others.  Training in martial arts especially those from a Japanese background, students begin to learn about Zanshin, and incorporate it into their lives.  They become more aware or mindful of their body, their surroundings, and their relationships.  This allows students to start living their lives in their immediate present.  This has huge health and therapeutic benefits.  Becoming more present means students learn to deal with the reality of the world that’s presented to them.  Depression is often associated with thought processes that are focused on the past, while anxiety is often with thought processes that are fixated in the future.  Having Zanshin means we train our brains to deal with the immediate world around us.  I am reminded of the following story.

You drop something into a hole in the ground. Too deep for your arm to reach it. It remains just out of reach. You ask people passing by for help. Those that try all claim the hole is too deep. This story teaches us to come back to ourselves. Ask 100 people and the majority of people, will say the hole is too deep. Very few, if any, will acknowledge that their arm is too short. As human beings it is easier to blame outside forces for the failings in our life, rather than admit our own hand in it. (pun intended).

Zen/Karate teaches us to come back to ourselves, to expand from the centre and return to the centre. To acknowledge our short comings. We are the centre of our universe we must take responsibility on and off the mats for the life around us. We teach people how to treat us, our own subconscious beliefs determine our worth, our levels of determination and perseverance determine whether we settle or make our dreams come true. So, breath, return to centre, accept responsibility and if you’re not happy with some aspect of your life, CHANGE IT… Placing the blame outside ourselves, is a victim’s mentality, and as warriors we choose not to be victims.

If the goal of the martial arts, beyond fighting, is in self-improvement and seeking perfection of oneself.  Then there is no better example of this concept in the martial arts then Shoshin, or beginner’s mind.  No matter how advanced a practitioner you may become, there is always more too perfect or master within the martial arts.  Perfection can never be achieved.  Staying humble enough to always see yourself as a student.  It is the attitude of Shoshin that allows much self-improvement.   Remember the old zen saying,

“In the Beginner’s Mind There Are Many Possibilities, In the Experts There Are Few”.

The goal of training is always to keep beginner’s mind. An empty mind is a ready mind, it is always ready for anything and is open to everything. No matter how advanced you may become one should always aim to maintain a beginner’s mind.

It is easier for an expert to defeat someone with a few years training then a novice beginner. The beginner is untrained or unconditioned, to a particular style of movement that the expert expects within their style so is unpredictable.  A good example of this is the follow story from Japan.

A judoka and a kendoka agreed to fight each other in their respective arts.  The judoka lost in the judo fight and the kendoka lost in the kendo fight.  The reason is because both forgot Shoshin.  Both expected the other to play within the rules of the game they knew.  The other not knowing the rules of engagement rushed in and either threw their opponent or hit him with the sword thus winning. 

In feudal japan, in Tokyo, a sword fencing school where having their students killed and could not understand why even high-ranking students were being killed with a simple sword thrust to the chest.  When the killer was found he explained that the school trained a technique repeatedly when the sword was drawn from the scabbard and raised above the head before delivering a downward cut.  Because it was a basic technique it had been trained thousands of times.  And students where conditioned to block the downward strike.  The Killer simple switched his sword in his hands, raising the scabbard high in the air, forcing the students conditioning to kick in.  The student blocked the downward scabbard strike, while the killer stabbed them in the heart from below.  A complete lack of Shoshin.  The students expected, a particular strike and responding accordingly. 

Martial Arts focuses your mind, giving it something to concentrate on, to allow our thoughts to settle and stress to melt away.  The purpose of training is to develop Zanshin (awareness) or mindfulness and later to develop Mushin (No Mind). 


Mushin translates as No Mind.  It is a mental state into which trained martial artists are said to enter during combat. They also practice this mental state during everyday activities.  This is the focus of long-term martial arts practice, beyond the ability to protect oneself.

Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from thoughts of anger, fear, or ego during combat or everyday life. There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation and without disturbance from such thoughts. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is their trained natural reaction (or instinct) or what is felt intuitively.  Years of correct training to make each technique natural and instinctive is required, as well as training of the mind.  It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleep, however. The mind could be said to be working at a high speed, but with no intention, plan, or direction.  Sensitivity and flow training combined with Zanshin practice in Kata helps train this mindset.

Mushin cannot be grasped by the intellect; it must be experienced. A Mushin mind has no Ego and no substance; it is pure Enlightenment and is the perfect realization of the self.  Bringing you back to your most authentic self.

This state of mind takes years and years of practice to achieve. Mushin is achieved when a person’s mind is free from anger, fear, judgment, or the ego during combat or everyday life.  It is something to practice every day.  It is a living thing, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes it feels easy to achieve and at others like the impossible.

Mushin implies a state of mental clarity, awareness and enhanced perception known as pure mind, produced by the absence of conscious thought, ideas, judgments, emotion (fear and anxiety), pre-conception, or self-consciousness. It is a state of total awareness and reaction not impeded by higher mental function or emotion, a mind more open and reactive to subtle sensory input, intuition, and spontaneous action. It is a mind that is totally calm — a mind not influenced or caught up in events or others emotion, thus a mind more able to freely perceive and respond.  The mind is not fixed on anything and is open to everything; a mind expanded through the whole body with total awareness of and focus on everything.  This relates back to any technique in karate, as the body tries to reflect the spirit.

Mushin is not about automatic reactions or lack of thought.  Mindfulness and Mushin may appear to be mutually contradictory.  Mindfulness in the context of martial arts refers to being present in the moment, aware of one’s actions and environment.  Mushin is the instinctive response within the environment that is correct at the time.

In conclusion

Hopefully by now you can see the benefit of the martial arts not just physically but also mentally.  And I have demonstrated that like Yoga or Meditation, the martial arts are something that adds to your life, for your whole life.  As an instructor, I feel, you have a duty of care towards your students.  To train them properly, however you teach, physically, mentally, or spiritually.  An instructor has the ability, to educate someone on how the live physically, changing their fitness, activity levels or diet.  Martial arts instructors are not trained counsellors or psychologists, but they do have the ability to instigate huge mental changes in their students.  To inspire them to be more than they were.  To show them a path worthy of following for the remainder of their lives.  We learnt that the aim of karate was dispelling delusions and attachments, such anger, fear, or doubt.  And we know that training martial arts is good for anger management and stress relief.  Resulting in a calmer, well balanced person with a clearer understanding of the reality of the world around them. We saw the mental benefits of the long-term study of martial arts.  Improved presence in the moment through being mindful, the heightened awareness that comes from Zanshin, the ability to stay young at heart and see the world as a beginner that comes from good Shoshin, and how a mind of Mushin can lead to more instinctive living, always choosing the correct response in every situation.  With the goal of being at one with yourself and your environment, always in the moment, living as your most authentic self in the best version of your live.  Martial arts training can have a huge impact on a student’s life, while the increased ability to defends ones-self increases self-confidence and the improved self-esteem that comes from being fitter and winning in a sporting environment. Through the practice of martial art, we can become fitter and stronger physically.  Healthier and happier mental.  With more control over ourselves and our interactions.  We learn to see the world clearer for what is, it rather than how we want it to be.  But we also become more self-disciplined and goal orientated, and more successful in our lifestyle choices.  We live more in the moment, being more aware and open to new opportunities and growth.  We handle stress better.  Are less controlled by our pasts and more adept at shaping our futures.  We face and overcome our insecurities or weaknesses all the time building on our strengths.  We become more dedicated, passionate, and humble with a never-give-up spirit.   We learn a philosophy and code of conduct that shapes our daily lives and the relationships around us.  We effect change in others by example or our interactions with them.  Thus, improving the world around us.  We become influencers and leaders and the type of person people look up to, admire and emulate.  All this for 2-3 hours practice a week.  And you thought the Martial Arts was simply kicking and punching and making funny noises.  I hope we meet on the mats someday,

Sensei Gareth Fitzgerald is a 6th Degree Black Belt in Wado Ryu Karate-Do.  He runs the full-time Elite Karate Academy in Dublin, Ireland.  His book, “Martial Arts & Mental Health: How they help us heal and grow” expands on the issues covered in this chapter and is part of a three-book series “Life Lessons” is available on Amazon. 

Why Martial Arts Fail To Teach Good Self Defence

            Firstly, a clarification on terminology.  I recognise that the majority of the general public, happily and ignorantly use the phrase Self-Defence.  For reasons that will become apparent later, I do not like to use this phrase.  I prefer the phrase Personal Protection. 

Firstly, the word defence implies that we must wait for our attacker to initiate an attack before we act.  And as you shall see this is clearly untrue. 

Secondly, use of the word self, implies only the defence of ourselves, and again this could be untrue as we may have to protect our loved ones or come to the aid of a 3rd party.  Personal protection implies the protection of the person without the specific limitation to the ‘self’, the person referred to could be us or another person.  Hence it is more general than self-defence.

Therefore, Self-Defence is a misleading term.  I will use the term personal protection instead.  Protection is defined as ‘being provided to physical objects, organisms, to systems, and to intangible things like civil and political rights.  Systems is a key word there, because good personal protection is about putting a system in place to insure you that any confrontation is a matter of last resort.

A word on martial arts.  I have studied Martial Arts for over 35 years.  I adore the martial arts and I would not be the man I am today without the journey to understand myself and my art of Karate.  However, the term Martial Arts is quite a large global umbrella term that can cover broad spectrum of topics and skills.  It can mean different things to different people, Fitness, Fighting, Culture, Self-Defence, Personal Development, or Sport.

This is the beauty of the Martial Arts it can be whatever you want/need it to be.  I came across Sensei Iain Abernethy’s ‘The Martial Map’ several years ago and it clarified this subject more clearly than any other explanation.  It drastically improved me as a teacher.  The martial maps divides the martial arts into 3 distinct areas, each with their own training goals, methodologies, and mindsets. 

1) Martial art, historical and cultural –

2) Self-protection – non-consensual violence

3) Fighting/Sport – consensual violence

Exclusively training in only one area is acceptable as is training anything simply because it is fun.  It gives clear understanding that each area may be a study in of itself, and also shows where key skills, attributes and mindsets may cross over, be mutually beneficial, and in some cases dangerously opposed.

  1. martial art training for self-improvement, fitness, mental training/abilities, stress relief, martial skill, strength, flexibility, self-confidence, self-esteem, historical or cultural reasons and good old simple fun.
  2. 3) self – protection firstly to instigate practices and procedures to increase situational awareness and threat awareness to insure you are not a victim of non-consensual violence and secondly training to be able to deal with the physical and mental effects of that violence and the legal/mental/physical aftermath.
  3. fighting / sport for competition of consensual violence between two consenting martial artists with agreed upon rules.  Training timing, distancing, speed, strategy, fitness, flexibility, strength, self-esteem, and good old fun.

With this map in mind in can give all martial artists, students or teachers, a clearer insight to what, how and why they train. 

Put any drill, skill, or training video online and within seconds someone will claim that ‘wouldn’t work on the street’.  Martial artists have a particular habit of not seeing something as a drill or misunderstanding it and referring to its effectiveness to how it works on the street. 

For example, a boxer posts a training video of how to improve your skipping or make it more enjoyable.  Other boxers do not immediately comment that he is an idiot because you would not fight in the ring in that manner.  Bouncing with your feet close together and your arms spread wide at hip level.  Neither does the poster of the video have to explain that skipping is a drill to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength in the shoulders, not a fighting technique.

Understanding the martial map allows us to appreciate the arts within their own context, without always referencing personal protection.  Tai Chi in the park in the morning for mental health and physical fitness, or Aikido for personal development, martial skill or cultural understanding, MMA or Kickboxing for fitness and sport.  All these simple examples may be studied for years for their own merits without having to misrepresent them as personal protection training.

The reason Martial Arts fail to teach personal protection correctly is much of what constitutes personal protection falls outside the purview of any particular martial arts.  Irrespective of whether you think your Martial Art is perfect for the street or not, most Martial Arts only deal with the fighting aspect of personal protection.  And in some cases, the student is actually learning only how to fight with another person from the same style, something which can be fun but very different from a non-consensual altercation on the street.

Consensual violence/sparring/kumite can be fun and doing it as part of your martial art is justification enough.  But the skills your style of sparring develop has no or extremely little cross over to the skills of personal protection.  For example, going to the ground in BJJ or MMA may be tactically good in the sporting context, but is never the place we should choose to be on the street.  And the mindset is different too.  If for no other reason than when sparring, if in I dominated my opponent 100% into submission, every time, all the time, it would cease to be fun, we want a back-and-forth contest.  However, with personal protection, regardless of whether it is in pre-emption or after being attacked, we need to cease the initiative and dominate our attacker until we can safely escape.

Non-consensual violence accounts for about 10% of any personal protection system.  The bulk of a good personal protection system must consist of awareness, avoidance, de-escalation, and escape skills.  Much of which is only paid lip service, with token lines, such as, “run away if you can.”  Breaking away or escape skills need to be taught and trained.  Lip service is also paid to avoidance and awareness.  Avoid what?  Be aware of what?  Here again danger signs and warning signs need to be understood to help a student manage a real situation.  And unconscious skills like ‘commentary walking’ and ‘people watching’ need to be practiced to develop awareness skills. 

Other skills that need to be trained include understanding pre-emption strikes, the fence and the legal ramifications.  Legal issue in particular, generally falls outside your traditional martial arts class.  One of the worst statements you are likely to hear is, “It is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6”.  This wrongly implies that it is not possible to legally defend yourself.  Defending yourself, including pre-emption strikes, is legal under Irish law is covered in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997.

Another failing of many martial arts is the type of attack scenarios that they train.  This can amount to little more than martial arts in jeans, where unwitting instructors, highly skilled in their art, teach attacks that showcase the best of their and the arts abilities.  Karate lunge punches from outside touching distance and the attacker leaving the attacking limb extended or totally freezing.  The fact that these drills are pre-arranged and with a consenting partner attacking from the wrong range limits their effectiveness.  And may lack a certain level of pressure testing. 

This pressure testing also applies to the techniques taught, constant drilling in line, punching the air does not give the student effective feedback on the technique.  Restrictive punching and uncomfortable ranges and positions should all be practiced on some form of impact training device. 

Also, the type of techniques taught can be ineffective.  So called “dirty fighting” techniques get their name from being banned in sporting competitions.  Many of these “infighting” techniques work perfectly adequately in personal protection and should not be labelled dirty or illegal.

What is personal protection and how is it different to martial arts?

Personal protection is an open system. In a closed system there are known factors and there are right and wrong answers based on these factors. In an open system there are many ways to be right and wrong.  Martial arts are a closed system.  The difference between personal protection training and martial arts training is that personal protection teaches students what they need to know, and martial arts teaches subject matter.  By their very nature Martial Arts styles have a syllabus which teaches the philosophy, techniques, skills, and attributes that those learning the style must learn. 

Here are 2 simple examples.

  1. Personal protection teaches power generation principles, martial arts teach multiple different strikes or techniques.
  2. Personal protection will teach a 20stone man differently than an 8 stone female, martial arts teach everybody the same syllabus. The reason for this is a 20 stone man doesn’t need to worry about being dragged into the back of a van and raped, an 8 stone female will not need advice with how to deal with a monkey dance.  A male is more likely to be attacked outside the home, a woman more likely in a home and by someone she knows.  Different realistic attack scenarios require different response.

Personal protection training must give each student the tools and freedom to solve their problems in their own way.  Techniques that suit the individuals physical and mental makeup.

To understand and defend yourself correctly on the street these days, you must understand the difference between social and asocial violence, and the tactics that must be used to deal with each.  The tactics used to avoid/de-escalate social violence could increase your risks with asocial violence.

Social violence = the monkey dance, the interview, sparring/duelling, sorting it outside, have a knockabout. Social violence is violence used for social status, dominance or to teach a lesson. Examples “Dave’s mad, he took on that huge bouncer last Friday”, or how dare he do that, “I’ll teach him.”

All predatory animals have social violence or some sort of play fighting. Think dogs, foxes, lions, or tigers wrestling and playing. This is how they learn to fight, hunt and display dominance. It is never lethal.  Humans social violence is designed not to be lethal and when it is it is usually from falling and banging their head. With social violence it is for dominance/status or to teach a lesson, i.e., punching someone to teach them to show you respect. The mindset for this must be justified. You will subconsciously be hitting to communicate, not to eliminate.  This could include martial arts sparring

Asocial violence = the group monkey dance, violent crime, a predator. If you go to kill an insect do you need to get worked up or get angry? Do you need to convince yourself that this is a bad insect? Do you need to justify it like its justice? Do you give the insect a chance and fight or just kill it? This is asocial violence. This can be lethal. Experienced violent criminals have gotten past this and treat people like animals, which gives them a huge advantage. Most people defending themselves cannot. Unless you train to flip the switch.  Sometimes you practice a technique, but it is important also to do it with a more realistic mindset.

The things that can prevent or de-escalate social violence can invite asocial violence and vice versa.  In a predatory approach you must be able to distinguish between a crime motivated by cash (resource predator) from one motivated by cruelty (process predator).  And in this scenario the criminal (asocial) wants you responding to them with a social mindset. 

Bad guys don’t fight, they’re not in this to lose. They use surprise or blitz attacks. Martial arts work well in social violence where you have time and choices.  Asocial violence comes as a surprise and you will be surprised, don’t kid yourself that you won’t, especially if you’re awareness skills have failed you.  As the Japanese saying goes, “Even monkeys fall out of trees.”  We should be training for when things go wrong, having a default position to aid recovery when we do not know what to do.  So, when taken by surprise and we do not know what to do, we have a technique to fall back on.

Personal protection is not a physical skill it’s an emotional skill, it is all about how fast you can recover when injured or surprised. What to do is almost never the problem. Acting, or beating the freeze is the issue.  And this takes a change in training, teaching and methodologies that are used.

Traditional martial arts are “ancient” codified forms of warfare or civilian protection.  Some of the techniques were employed on the battlefield using weapons that have now been replaced, spears and swords for example.   Or were designed for personal protection in the days where there were no streetlights, police forces or laws governing self-defence.  The modern form of criminal assault has also changed and the types of attacks they use.  With that in mind, many of the traditional martial arts and not equipped to deal with modern society crimes and laws.  The skills needed to quick draw a sword from a scabbard and slice a bandit or ninja 😊 are vastly different from those skills needed to avoid a fight with a drunk outside a takeaway or deal with 3 guys circling you on a darkened street.  If violence has changed then so too do the martial arts claiming to teach us how to protect ourselves from that violence.

For martial artists to improve the teaching of personal protection within their classes they would need to incorporate the following.

  1. Understand the way in which criminals work?  And train to use their skills against them.  The criminal will generally use the 4 D’s, Dialogue, Deception, Distraction, and Destruction to facilitate their assault.  We can use them same techniques back on them, which they are not expecting.  Dialogue to de-escalate, or deception to play submissive in the fence to draw them in.  Asking opening ended questions to distract their attention to facilitate our pre-emptive strike, destruction to break their will/posture/mental state to insure our escape.
  2. Legal overview of what is legal and illegal, the ability to explain/justify the use of force, modify training to reflect the law of the state, example kicking a downed attacker in the legs rather than the head.
  3. Grappling skills both standing and on the ground.  With the goal to be competent at all ranges not a master at all
  4. Breakaways and escape skills against singular and multiple opponents
  5. Verbal de-escalation skills and some tolerance training for verbal abuse
  6. The fence and what to do when it goes wrong, this can also include other techniques like the modified columbo and the head scratcher, so students can select the one they feel comfortable with and train it
  7. Techniques for when we are surprised or taking damage such as Dracula’s cape, or entry techniques such as the opening moves of Kushanku or Naihanchi
  8.  Understanding the training matrix, the flaws inherent in every drill and how to cross train correctly to compensate
  9. Gifts in a fight such as trapping and locking, and how does locking incorporate into your goal of escape?
  10. Impact drill including restrictive punching/positions and punching whilst in motion
  11. 3rd part perception.  What you say?  Kiai’s may make you look like a madman and the possible aggressor.  How you retreat?  “I’m gonna fuck you up!” or “stay away!! I don’t know you.  I don’t want any trouble.  Leave me alone.” And what message is your body language sending as you retreat?
  12. Conditioning or fitness training.  Having a good cardiovascular base is good, but the ability to fight anaerobically is vital. 
  13. Training against multiple attackers, in escape drills, use of the fence, pre-emption skills where the student is taught the roles attackers will assume, the mouth, snipers and the pack.
  14. Training to protect others against single attackers and multiple attackers.
  15. Training against weapons both blunt and edged weapons
  16. The use of the environment and improvised weapons
  17. Ground fighting and different ranges.  Insure we are not beginners at any level.  Judoka should be able to impact, Karate able to ground fight and regain their feet.

Adding all this into your training will make your art more practical and allow students to have a comprehensive understanding of all the parameters of personal protection/self-defence.  This type of training can be added onto a practical syllabus or taught in the form of top up specialised seminars on topics such as self-defence and the law etc.

With the proliferation of martial arts and styles and instructors teaching gospel what they learnt from their instructors and not knowing any different, there are generations of students who believe what they do is real, and they are prepared for the street.  Therefore, I firmly believe in the martial map theory and why many martial artists are not qualified to teach self-defence.