Worst Case Scenarios

By John Clements
ARMA Director

It's a long-standing truism in the modern study of martial arts that what works in the classroom typically fails on the street. Thus, to prepare yourself seriously you need to train for real world scenarios. In a sense, doing so is really about making disaster preparedness your default training conditions.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is an airline pilot and former Army officer. He was telling me about a course he just completed for a job he had transferred to. The whole program was exclusively about the pilots dealing with "everything going wrong" on a flight. In other words, it made familiarity with the chaos of an emergency situation "standard" for them so that what they developed were the internalized reflexes and mental maps that kick in under stress. This way they acquired not rote habits of going through motions but learned to deal dynamically with anything that might go wrong. He explained to me how at the end of the course, because they had essentially made emergencies the "norm," they then transitioned everyone back to the mindset of "regular" flying again. As he told me this I suddenly realized there was a fantastic parallel in this to what we do in martial arts and how I have long approached my practice and lessons.

By its nature, fighting skill demands that perception of timing, distance, leverage, and intention all be developed adversarially. So, I'm always demonstrating things with the understanding that in combat the dynamic you deal with is one where your actions are really always a matter of responding to a sudden lethal danger, such that you have to train to react reflexively and decisively. Drilling in techniques together with a partner properly involves appreciating the inherent element of emotionality involved in this and not just the physicality of it.

In solo training, by contrast, your lone exercising is essentially always about working to perform things "ideally" so as to "perfect" your biomechanics and the motions that make up the requisite form that best fulfills their function. There is no external psychological pressure intrinsic to this and whatever emotionality is involved must be brought out from within the student.

The more I thought about this comparison of how I teach and train to my friend's specialized flight course, the more I realized that competent self-defense (that is, when properly taught) is largely the same: Whether sparring with serious intent or fighting for your life in earnest, the necessity for instantaneous perception of threats and non-cognitive judgment of how best to respond is really all about continuously dealing calmly and effectively with the worst case scenario --- the continuous disaster of sudden incoming lethal blows that must be dealt with. (This, by the way, is the "slow and serene hand" of master Vadi -- a phrase that has nothing to do with speed when executing actions and everything to do with the proper martial attitude intrinsic to the craft).

Indeed, isn't this what "discipline" in fighting skills is all about? Acquiring the ability to deal not with the preferred conditions of safe, controlled situations, but with the adversity, surprise, and unpredictable brutality of an attacker's sudden intent to do us violent harm? It's chaotic and explosive. The skill set required to effectively handle anything an opponent might throw at us comes about only when we go beyond preset plays and static drills. This is why so much of the historical source teachings are not mere collections of techniques, but select key examples that teach the proven core tenets of fighting.

After all, the very idea of a Science of Defence, or even military science, is itself mostly an effort to bring order to the chaos of battle; to discern the underlying variables at work, the sound management of which may reduce the uncertainty of combat. This doesn't come about in a fighter by practicing under some abstract perfect situation with artificial pressure, but rather, under instances of the probable "worst case" possibility. If this is not something every serious student of Mare (the martial arts of Renaissance Europe) takes into consideration, they should be wondering why.


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