Training to Survive

Training to Survive

Taking a look at what you should consider when training, regardless of the style, programme or philosophy.

Fight To Win:

There are so many martial arts and fighting styles these days, it would be impossible to analyse all of them. We would get lost in a world of opinion, unprovable theories and what’s real. Thus I am going to try and keep this article independent of all of that. What I will say ahead of time is that I have spent close to 30 years training in different martial arts and fighting styles, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is this: your mindset plays a bigger part in your ability to win a fight that any skill you can learn. If you have to fight, fight. If you fight, fight to win. This ranges from a gun fight to a fist fight, ground fight or any other type pf fight you can think of. Your desire to be the one who walks away, your value of yourself as a person and your determination to keep going until it’s done will determine the outcome.

There is a famous algorithm that states: Watch your Thoughts, they will become your words. Watch your Words, they will become your Deeds. Some attribute this to Lao tzu, others say it was Buddha and yet others say it was Frank Outlaw (for those who recall, Margaret Thatcher’s father). One of my best friends and training partners favours the latter attribution, which I am pretty sure is the least likely. Regardless of who said it, it applies perfectly to training.


Decide right now as to why you are training and what you want to be able to achieve? Are you training to protect yourself and your loved ones, or for the training as an art form, the exercise it provides or for the sense of community involvement? None of these reasons are any better than the other. Neither are the necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, once can often segue into the other. However, they don’t always all go together either. You also need to decide, am I prepared to do what is necessary to save my life? The default answer, of course, is yes, but think about it. Are you prepared to carry out a technique that will break someone’s bones or end their life, knowing that is what is going to happen, or will you hold back? I have thought this through in great detail. I have answered yes to a lot of the scenarios I have considered. However, there is one scenario I haver been unable to reconcile myself with and I’m pretty sure that in this case I would not be able to do what needs to be done.

Know your limitations:

Know your limitations and find solutions for those situations you cannot reconcile yourself with, if there are any.

Lastly think about what you want to be able to achieve. Do you want to remain unarmed? Do you want to carry a step-down weapon, a lethal weapon, to be able to kick at head height, to be able to punch well, or all of the above? You probably won’t find someone who will be able to teach you how to deliver a spinning round house kick and simultaneously teach you good gun skills. I’m not saying you won’t, but someone who has great skills and teaching capability in practical pistol application probably won’t be an expert in reverse round house kicks, this means a Taekwondo expert, or if it’s unarmed self-protection that is required, then a combat specialist is called for. If it’s practical pistol application you are seeking, then find a pistol instructor whose teaching is directed at the street environment. There are without a doubt one-stop shops out there. However, I was reminded recently by a colleague that a jack of all trades is often just that.

Visualise carrying out the techniques:

My last comment on this issue is that just because you are no in the dojo, academy or at the range, remember that the training doesn’t need to stop. Visualise! Visualise yourself carrying out the techniques ‘perfectly’ (more on this later). Visualise yourself in different scenarios, solving the problems, reconciling your actions, living with them afterwards. It has been proven many times over that your brain can’t tell the difference between visualisation and conscious action. Many of the world’s top sportsmen and women use visualisation to perform at the level that they do. Tennis players, golfers, formula 1 racing drivers all use visualisation. They see themselves doing the stroke or driving the bend perfectly. Doesn’t it make sense that if these top sportsmen would use it to perform to their maximum, that you could use it to perform to the maximum in your life>


You have started the learning process with the correct thoughts. Now it’s time to commence with the physical training. When you learn a technique, an instructor teaches you, you watch a video, however your learning is going to be done. Walk through the technique both before you carry it out and while you are doing it. You acquire a new skill by physically building a pathway from the short-term memory side of the brain to the long-term memory side. This neural pathway is established over a period, much as scar tissue is grown to repair a cut on your hand. This pathway takes a certain amount of time to establish. However, the more often that the technique is embedded in your short-term memory, the longer it will remain. Self-talking through the technique helps your brain embed it in the short-term memory and helps you to verbalise each individual step to ensure you have memorized and understood those steps.

The above can be summarized as follows: Visualise the technique in question if you don’t have time for actual training. Articulate this technique, and then you will be able to visualize it even better. However, do not neglect training in the technique if you have the time available for this.


When I teach groups one of the first questions I ask is: “Does practice make perfect?” Most of the time I get a resounding and enthusiastic “yes”. Well, it’s a trick question, because practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice a technique badly, what are you going to become? Yes, you will be perfectly bad at it. When you learn a technique, practice it slowly and thereby you will practice it perfectly. Take the time to make sure each and every step is there, what it achieves overall and why it is important. I believe there is an 80/20 rule to training.

A lot of students ask me: “But I’m not going to do it slowly in the street, so shouldn’t I train it fast here?” My answer is the same answer I was give by Ryron Gracie, my instructor in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. “You are right, but out of slow practice, speed will naturally come. “To add a maxim from the racing world. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

Lastly on the issue of deeds, I often hear students say: “But this does not feel natural”, or instructors say: “You should do what is natural”. I only know of one situation where it makes sense to use what is a natural startle response to the human body, which is the isosceles stance in pistol shooting. Our hands are naturally pushed way from ourselves under stress, while the body lowers itself in the isosceles stance. In any other situation, a natural response would normally be incorrect, such as pushing your hands towards the attack path of a knife in order to ward off the blow. Hence I ask my students: “Is swimming natural?” The answer is: “No, swimming is a learnt survival skill, flapping around in the water and then drowning is natural.” In a fight, most times, natural is the equivalent of drowning. We must learn to fight, and we must learn the appropriate survival skills. So if a technique feels unnatural, that could be a good thing, and therefore we must train until it starts to feel natural.


If you do something often enough, it will become habit, or to refer to a phrase often heard in the training world: “muscle memory”. I have always found to rather be an odd term, as muscles don’t have memory as such. Well, they do, of course, in terms of repetitive muscular action, but not related to specific technique as such. I like to refer to this as a reflex action, an action that can be initiated without a conscious thought process. Why should we not want a conscious process? Well, it takes 0.75 of a second to initiate action in response to a brain input, or maybe in terms of the action on the part of another person. That’s too long anyway, as if we have to think about it intermittently, then we have already lost the upper hand.

For a technique to become a habit or a reflex action, we have to actually establish a neural pathway as mentioned earlier, a path for that new technique to progress from memory input to conscious action.

New Technique:

How long does it take for this tissue pathway to grow? Some say 21 days, some say 200 repetitions. In my experience, I would say three months. I have found that for me to go from learning something for the first time to being able to use it, takes me three months. For you it might be quicker, so it is important to find out.

Once it’s there though, is it always there? Yes and no. recently the US Army conducted a study to determine it unarmed combat is still relevant in modern warfare. In other words, how retainable are combative skills?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Something like 40% of US Army combatants had needed to use their unarmed combat skills during their last tours of duty. The answer to the second question was even more interesting. To test how retainable the Army Combatives Programme is, veterans from the Second World War who had learnt the original programme from Fairbairn & Sykes were asked what they could recall. The results were amazing, as the veterans were able to recall a very high percentage of the original techniques.

In the split second of a fight:

Now does this mean that once you have learnt a technique, you no longer have to train any longer? No, not at all. There is a huge difference between being able to recall techniques and being able to use them in the split second of a fight. I liken this to riding a bike. When I was a kid riding a bike every day, I could perform some pretty impressive tricks. Then I got a car and stopped riding my bike. If I got on a bike today, could I still ride it? Yes. Could I do those tricks? No. I simply would not have the sensitivity, reflexes and feeling I had in my youth. In fighting, once you have acquired the necessary techniques, these are ultimately perishable. You will simply lose the sharpness, reflexes and capability to react instinctually if you do not train regularly.

Things to remember:

Decide why you’re training, what you’re prepared to do and what you want to learn. Think it through, see yourself doing it, and reconcile yourself with the consequences of your actions.

Seek professionals to learn from. I am not using the word ‘expert’ here, as there are far too many self-proclaimed experts out there for this to be a good reference point.

Talking through a technique is an excellent way to ensure you have all of the details down part. If you are unsure, ask your instructors how to do it, and also ask why you are doing it. If you understand they ‘why’, you will better understand the ‘how’. If your instructor is unable to tell you why a step is there, it might be a good idea to find a new one. It is the responsibility of an instructor to truly understand they ‘why’ and not just the ‘how.

Practice perfectly: If the technique feels awkward but makes sense, then maybe you just haven’t done it enough times for it to feel more natural. Remind yourself that swimming felt awkward when you first did this too.

Keep training, visualize, talk through it, and practice it. Combative skills are perishable and you won’t have time to select the right technique, you’ll need to be able to just ‘do it’.

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