Psychological Aspects of Training Krav Maga

October 11, 2022, Frogner, Norway


Class begins, the students line up, not a word is spoken. The Sensei, the Sifu, the instructor, shouts something and the students begin, punching and kicking. The only sound heard is that of punching and kicking, gis, karate uniforms snapping sharply. This is tradition. 

At a certain point students will line up for the two-man drills. In some schools this will be followed by sparring, with varying degrees of intensity. For a long time, I did not question this approach. 

There was a certain ritual to it, a certain...sacredness. In a way one feels they are in a Temple of sorts, a place hallowed by time and tradition. It is captivating. 

But then we walk outside. And that outside could be New York City late at night, it could be downtown Bangkok, it could be ...just fill in the blanks, so few cities today are safe. And now all that matters is Staying Alive. 

The respect and honor of the dojo, remain inside the dojo, the comraderie you felt inside is replaced by the cold emptiness of the City, the cold faces of strangers. Now you are alone, and you wonder if all your training will do you any good in a moment of truth. A knife could be flashed at any point. Are you ready?

So with us, at IKI Krav Maga, before we line up, we introduce ourselves. How so? and what do I mean by this? I explain that I do not mean that you should meet your training partner, no, but the person he represents. 

Your partner might be called Jeff, or John, Jorge, or Johan, but what matters is who he represents. Jeff is just a stand-in for a criminal, a gang member or a terrorist, and it is this individual whom you must "meet". You must spend some time getting to know this person, you must understand that his upbringing, his life, is very different from your own. He was not raised by two parents in a nice home, he did not attend university.

So we get to know him, we learn about his harsh upbringing, probably there was no father, perhaps the mother was a woman of the night, perhaps he joined a gang at a young age. You need to understand where he is coming from, as they say. You need to understand his values. 

Why is all this important? Am I saying that you must become a social worker? No, not at all. But in order to train effectively, in order to be able to use the correct self defense, you need to understand whom you are up against. 

I recall the movie The Best of the Best. James Earl Jones plays the coach of the American team which is going to face the Korean team in a martial arts competition. He is very harsh, very strict and people feel he is too demanding, too strict. But then he explains, he cares about these boys, and he says, "I have been there, I have faced these Korean fighters, I know what our boys are up against, but they have no clue". 

The coach understood the Asian fighters, the strict discipline, the harsh training attitude of the Orient. But the guys he was training had no clue. They were just having a good time, and they were not ready. Coach was explaining that before you fight a man you must understand him, you must know where he is coming from. 

While martial arts movies are filled with unrealistic choreographed fights, sometimes they do teach truths of fighting, they do teach values and concepts. Similarly in the film Kickboxer the American fighter has no understanding of the Thai fighter. He has no concept of the harshness and brutality of life and training in Thailand, he is used to American comforts. Before you fight a man you must understand him. 

And so, I tell our students, understand this individual who is holding you up, and then you will understand that much, if not all, of what you have learned until now is utterly useless. 

This is the psychological part of the training that is almost always ignored. In all the schools I have trained in, in all the seminars I have attended, only a very few addressed these issues. One of those men was my dear friend and mentor Prof. Arthur Cohen the "Streetwise professor". He spent more time talking than most instructors, but those words and lessons were priceless. He opened my eyes to self-defense beyond self-defense, the parts usually ignored, but vitally important for survival. 

I recall in the Human Weapon series on the History channel. Two fighters came to Israel to test out their skills. They came to our dojo and got stabbed to death. Fortunately, it was with rubber knives. Being aggressive does not really help against a knife. I have seen tough MMA type guys, collegiate wrestlers come in hard against a much smaller and weaker opponent, but they did not know how to defend against the knife. Being "tough" is not enough. As Richard Ryan said so wisely, "A man with a knife is your physical superior", regardless of his size or level of training.

Bottom line, physical training is insufficient. If you do not understand your enemy, which is one of the oldest rules of combat, if you do not respect the skill or anger of your enemy, you are driving in unknown territory without a map or GPS guidance system. 

So, we take some time away from the physical, and some students find this unusual, they feel the seminar should be about looking sweaty and getting those sweat stains on your shirt, or even bleeding a little. But we prefer that you do not bleed when it counts, on the street, or in a home invasion. For this we need a higher level of intelligence, for this we need to understand our opponent. In IKI Krav Maga we devote time to this field of study. 

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