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Tenets and Principles: 12 Maxims for Winning the Fight

Over the years I have read dozens of books and articles in which the authors listed a host of philosophies, both factual and flawed. Some pertained to large cohorts while others fell short of reaching the masses. In either event, I always attempted to take something positive away.

As a long-time martial artist and firearms/Use of Force instructor, I have studied and trained at the feet of many good instructors. I have also seen others who have yet to reach their potential. As a student, I still try to have an open mind and glean as much as possible when attending training, even if I have attended the training before. As an example, I have attended John Farnam’s pistol and carbine classes several times and have always come away with pages of notes. So, given the information I have been exposed to, combined with 37 years of law enforcement experience, I have come up with a ‘set’ of tenets and principles relating to personal protection, I feel are worth sharing. In no particular order they are:

1. “Take Gap - Make Gap” – I recall seeing this sign on the side of the road many times while traveling, mainly near truck weigh station on ramps. After dwelling on it for years I managed to grasp its meaning which was to remind drivers to merge properly. In combat, it is vital to manage the distance when possible. Sometimes you have to close with an attacker (‘Take Gap’) while at other times you have to move away (‘Make Gap’).

2. “Take What is Offered” – In many martial art and self-defense systems, students are taught to strike a specific target with a specific technique. At a basic level this may be advantageous but the reality is you may not get the opportunity. Many years ago, before the advent of safety gear by Jhoon Rhee (Safe-T-Punch and Safe-T-kick), bare knuckle sparring was the norm. My instructor and I were sparring one day and he reached out and wacked the back of my hand with his knuckles. YEEOW!! When I pulled my hand back, he charged in and … well, you know what happened. The point is he took advantage of a target that was both available and vulnerable. He didn’t hunt around for the perfect shot but took what I was offering.

3. “Where the Head Goes, the A** Follows” – Have you ever wondered how divers, skaters or gymnasts can spin so fast and still be able to pinpoint a landing or a dive? Dancers use a technique called ‘spotting’. The goal of spotting is to attain a constant orientation of the dancer's head and eyes, to the extent possible, in order to enhance the dancer's control and prevent dizziness. In essence, the body follows the head. So, it stands to reason if we can control our own body motion by controlling our head, we can control an opponent’s body motion as well. There are many martial art and self-defense techniques based on this principle and most are quite effective.

4. “Keep Your Balance, Take Theirs” – This is related to #3 above, but can stand on its own (no pun intended). You must have a strong, stable platform from which to deploy your techniques, whether they are empty handed or with a firearm. In addition, your platform must be ‘responsive’ to the changing dynamics of a physical altercation. You cannot stay ‘rooted’ in one position. Conversely, you should make every attempt to off-balance your opponent by pushing, pulling, twisting, striking, feinting, etc.

5. “Simple is Better, Especially When Under Stress” – There are literally thousands of self-defense techniques taught against any number of possible attacks. Having to sort through them at potentially the worst moment of your life is less then appealing. Hick's law basically states that by increasing the number of choices a person has to make will increase their decision (i.e. reaction) time. When under the stress of a lethal assault, your reaction time is critical and anything that will inhibit that should be examined. Limiting your choices to only a few possible actions will enable you to react to a situation much more quickly and effectively.

6. “Develop Concepts, Not Techniques” – Regardless of the technique used, if your basics are sound, generally the technique will be effective. Balance, speed, power, and mindset are all concepts that need to be developed and practiced. Everyone will have a specific technique or techniques they like or can perform better than others. But, you may not be able to employ your “big gun” when needed. This is where cultivation of the basic concepts become valuable.

7. “Don’t Dither – As much as I would love to, I cannot take credit for this one. One of my mentors, John Farnam, uses this term when teaching students they need to move quickly and decisively during an altercation. I have to agree. “He who hesitates gets hit.”

8. “Use Your Strongest Weapons Against the Weakest Targets” – A good example is the knee/leg. Most people stand with one leg forward when in a fighting stance. This makes their lead knee/shin/leg a viable target for a kick. Similarly, there are many other targets of opportunity (TOO) and/or high value targets (HVT) available. Eyes, throat, groin, etc. are all primary targets. Using non-traditional techniques such as grabbing and pinching, other soft and vulnerable targets become vulnerable as well. Grabbing a handful of that tender ‘meat’ inside the arm, upper leg or near the ribs will not endear you to your opponent.

9. “Fitness Counts” – Most fights are over in a matter of seconds and if you can’t perform at 100% for that short amount of time, there will be negative consequences. Hypothetically, if you could have two fighters of equal skill, but one was in better physical condition, the one in better condition will prevail. Strong beats weak; in shape beats out of shape. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has many other benefits as well.

10. “Practice What You Suck At” – Another gem from Clint Smith (Thunder Ranch). We all like to feel good about ourselves. But, when it comes to developing solid combative skills, we need to focus on those things we are not particularly good at in order to improve. Years ago, when I was still actively competing on the karate tournament circuit, I realized early on that, although I was an ‘OK’ fighter, I had retool my training regimen and shore up my obvious weaknesses. In the end, doing this improved those things I was doing well to begin with making me a better fighter all around.

11. “The Bad Guy Gets a Vote” - Who gets to determine if the fight is over? You or the bad guy? I think it’s the bad guy. He gets to choose when he initiates the attack. He gets to choose where it occurs. He gets to choose the method of the attack. So, he also gets to choose when it’s over. Now, you can do a lot to ‘influence’ his vote but, he still gets to choose.

12. Learn the Skill, Not the Shortcut” – We, as a society, have become reliant on technology for many things. So much so that we have forgotten how to do some of the simplest tasks. For example, our cell phones have taken on many of the functions we used to do for ourselves (How many phone numbers do you still have memorized?). Technology has also made an impact on combative skills. Tasers, pepper spray and firearms are all examples of the technology that have influenced defensive tactics and self-defense systems. Many believe if they are equipped with this ‘stuff’ they can effectively deal with any situation. While these are all good and useful options, there is still a need to maintain empty hand skills as well because, in the end, technology may fail at some point.

While everyone may have their own set of ‘combat philosophies’ they ascribe to, I feel being more general in the application of concepts gives me an advantage. Rather than limiting myself to a restrictive paradigm, I am willing to ‘borrow’ liberally from others who offer sound counsel and fit it into my model.

Learning is an everyday experience. As Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. said,

“There is always one more thing to learn.”


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