Pulling punches

October 4, 2020  

The following question was presented to me: 

Several people, a couple of whom I respect very much, say that if you do not practice "Full contact, Full power" but rather "pull" your punches and strikes and kicks, you will "undoubtedly" pull everything you do in a real conflict. (The old "You will do in live combat what you practice in the training center"),

I personally  don't believe this as an absolute but I think it  deserves some consideration. 

This is indeed a good question, an important point, and one that should be addressed and discussed. We may not all agree on this, and that is OK. This is a difficult point to prove empirically and there has never been an actual study to prove or disprove this idea. But first let us define our terms.  

In many traditional forms of martial arts students are trained to "pull" their punches and kicks. What does this mean? It means when you strike you stop just short of your target. You pull your punch back at the last second so as not to strike your opponent and hurt him. 

Early Japanese karate schools were often notorious for hurting students and this is not a good thing. An injured student creates problems for the school, and of course for the students themselves. Punching bags and pads like we have today were not yet developed. At best they could strike the very hard Makiwara boards (巻藁 ) made of rice straw attached to wood, which were either fixed to a pole or against the wall. Thus they did not have the training equipment we have today. I believe this is the reason for having developed the concept of pulling back your punches rather than punching your training partner in the head with full contact blows. 

For a mental picture imagine two karate practitioners, one has his fist just an inch away from his opponents' face. He pulled his punch. He stopped his punch a split second before he hit the target. Thus he scored a point in competition, or in training. While this probably developed as a safety necessity it ultimately became an ideal in itself; i.e. the master can stop his strike just a millimeter from his opponent's face, that is true mastery. 

Yet others feel this is ineffective training. Pulling the punch becomes a habit, a pattern formed in our brain that will activate in a real life situation. I.e. when facing a real life violent opponent the karate master will pull his punch instinctively, just as he had thousands of times in training, and his punch will stop just an inch before hitting its' target, thus rendering it completely ineffective. His opponent now has an opening and can turn on him. Years of training down the drain.

But is this true? Will this really happen in a real life violent encounter? I don't know and I do not think anyone can really answer this question. We would have to do a study where we took a group of Karate masters of different styles, and then a group of full-contact fighters of different styles, have each group face some real life violent encounters against criminals and terrorists, and then study the true results. Obviously everything would have to be recorded live as we all know how fighters have very imaginative memories of their street fights. Many great warriors are legends in their own minds, but not in any one else's. 

I personally know several Shotokan karate practitioners who battled terrorists in Israel and certainly did not hold back their punches. So I would say this is a difficult point to prove empirically one way or the other. I know of Shotokan practitioners who fought off terrorists with knives, one was stabbed fifteen times but survived and disabled his attacker.

I personally have a different objection to pulling punches; injuries. I have seen many students in these styles who due to the harsh Japanese methods of training developed debilitating injuries that cut their karate careers short. By the harsh action on the joints they developed painful arthritis that put an end to their training. When one punches a pad, a punching box, they are able to follow through completely and this alleviates the stress on the joint. The pad can absorb the punch, so there is no need to hold back. Thus I prefer hitting the pads over "Air punching" or pulling one's punches, simply due to the potential damage to the joints.

Now lets' move on to the question of Full Force Full Contact etc. Here I have a GREAT deal of experience and I can say that I totally disagree with the notion that one must always go full out berserk. As is our custom I will begin with a story. 

I was in Italy, taking a course to improve my Italian. The teacher played us a cassette on a tape recorder, Yes, I kid you not, this was only a few years ago but she actually used a tape recorder and an old cassette. Now I am not the most hi tech savvy person but I have certainly advanced to Video and DVD!

She played us this cassette of people speaking Italian in the street, the sound was muffled and the people were speaking rapidly, as is the Italian way. There was only one other student in this class, a Canadian man named Ross. He was a real gentleman, polite and calm. We were told to write down all the words we understood and summarize the conversation in Italian. 

I got 2 words, Ross got 3.

She played the cassette again.

Now I was up to 3 words and Ross was able to catch about 4 words. She said, you guys are improving, let's have another try. And I said...no! This method is not working for me. 

Ross now jumped in and said, I didn't want to say anything but I agree with Moshe. I have been here a year and a half, I hear Italian all day every day at the office (He was sent as a representative of his company in Canada), and all I have learned so far is La Prossima Fermata (next stop, which we hear every few minutes on the train every morning, i.e. La Prossima fermata Milano Centrale, next stop Milano Central).

I said I paid a lot of money for this course and you are wasting my time. We are not progressing and we are not leaning anything. The conversation is muffled and we can barely hear anything. This is a waste of time. Allow me to suggest another method as I am also a teacher. Perhaps the following would work: Give us a vocabulary list in Italian the day before, we can learn this words at home. Next day put on a Video and we can watch, see the people speaking, watch their mouths and see their body language as well. Perhaps you can use a video where people are speaking slower, i.e. a staged recreation of a street scene rather than an actual Italian street conversation.  This will give us a better chance of understanding and learning new words and phrases. 

I loved her response;

This is not reality training, in a real situation Italians will speak very fast, so you need to get used to this. No one will speak slowly to you on the street. I am preparing you for reality, muffled sounds, street noises and people speaking quickly.  


I had my response ready. 

Dear Teacher, I too am a teacher, I teach self-defense, Survival, Krav Maga. But I first teach basic moves, we learn them slowly, with control, gradually we make them more fluid. As time goes on we add the full-contact element, when the student is ready, but not a day before that. How would you like if you came to Israel, and I told you; OK Valerie, we begin our training. Here is your T shirt, it says I am the Infidel, Muhammed the Prophet...etc (insulting words sure to insult any Muslim). Now you go to the most fanatical Muslim village. You get beaten up badly, you have a broken arm and you lost an eye. I say, Good start, now you go tomorrow to another village, and so we shall do every day until you learn to handle violent situations. Is this a good plan?

No, it is not a good plan at all. Full contact has its place, but first we must build up to it. There are schools that start with full contact, full speed, the idea being that the student learns under real situations. I will not argue with that, I do not know if they are successful or not with this approach. But my way is to teach one step at a time, this is now I learn a language and martial arts. This is how I prepare the Torah reading (Bible reading with traditional chant) every week, using the most ancient approach as I learned from an authentic Yemenite teacher, Mori Ezra Maghuri HaCohen. I have read the Torah in many forums and received validation. I have passed martial arts tests around the world and my students have survived the most violent encounters, all over the world. These include police officers, bounty hunters, special agents, presidential guards etc. I do not negate any other approaches but I believe in my approach. Start slow, with caution, aggression and full contact will come later, and you will be prepared. 

Your comments and thoughts are welcomed. 

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