Too Much Skill

January 21, 2024, Mumbai, India


When facing a big strong, aggressive opponent, most martial arts techniques will not work. 

Is it possible to be too skilled in martial arts? Is there a downside to this?

When we begin training in martial arts, self-defense, we feel frustrated by our lack of ability, our lack of skill. Gradually over many years of hard work, training, blood sweat and tears, we achieve a high level. Now what can be wrong with that?

A lot.

When we are beginners, we realize that the complex techniques are just too difficult to pull off, certainly in a real life stressful violent encounter. All those step by step carefully orchestrated moves are just too difficult. But as we reach high levels of skill, it all becomes easy, natural. In fact, we might reach the point where others look at us, admire our skills, and with a touch of jealousy say, "Wow, you are such a natural, it is so easy for you."

But here is the downfall. It has indeed become easy for us, and now we become over-confident, and we think that it is easy to pull this off in a real-life situation, when in fact, it is not. 

I have seen martial arts instructors whom I truly admire, they are indeed masters of their style without a doubt, and I have learned from them. However, when I watch their solutions to difficult violent street situations, I think, well, he thinks he can pull that off, but I believe it simply requires too much skill, and that in a real situation, the average practitioner, will not be able to make this work. I see instructors striking, and then moving to the back and choking the guy, taking him to the ground. But that involves a lot of assumptions, it assumes that when you hit him, he will respond a certain way, so that now you can move to take his back, and then from the back you pull his head, and now you can choke him. But what if that punch only irritated him? What if when you tried to swiftly maneuver to the back he also moved and messed up your strategy? What if when you tried to grab his head and take him down, he simply stood with his muscular frame and negated your move, what then? Your skills failed you in real life encounter. You are so highly skilled that you were confident, overly confident, that all would go as planned, but it did not. This is the danger of too much skill. We still need to keep it simple and to be open to improvisation, thinking on our feet. 

I think most of us can relate to the following situation: We attend a seminar with a well-known grand master. He is impressive in every way. He performs the techniques fluidly and flawlessly. He explains how and why they work, and indeed he is able to do them on any one at the event. We are sold! We take this techniques home. And then, you are teaching a high school group, or college, and some strong punk comes up to you and says, OK teacher, let's see. They are not compliant like the devoted disciples at the martial arts super weekend event. They are out to embarrass you in front of the class and show that you are nothing but a fake. Without you realizing it he walks up and pushes you or chokes you really hard. You are unprepared, caught by surprise. and now, you can't do it. The technique does not happen. You weren't ready and your response was to freeze or start grabbing at straws. You are embarrassed and try to explain to the group why they technique failed, you are flustered and really, there is nothing to say. 

As an example, I still have pages of notes for how to deal with a two-handed push, or a double hand choke. I still have the notes and the photos. But, with a strong resisting opponent, they do not work. You have to be totally ready, and he, the opponent, has to be...ready to play along. I had to drop all these techniques and come up with my own original technique, with a couple of possible variations. In reality it just happens too fast, there is no time for a regular mortal like myself to block, twist and turn, slap, snap, the opponent. No, he will push me, and I must take it from there. Or the knee to the groin, but human beings naturally and instinctively protect that area, and so his legs will likely move just enough to reduce the damage enough to negate the value of the technique, or the eye gouge, another area naturally protected, a slight move on his part and you broke your thumb while his eyes are just fine. That, my friends, is reality. And so, the dream is over. No magical grandmaster tricks, just the naked truth. 

The problem is that we forget sometimes, and we need to be reminded. We need to be very humble and continue study real life cases. How would we fare against a real knife attack, even one that we have practiced a thousand times? When the fear kicks in, everything changes. We need to train for reality. 

There are things that work better under stress, and there are things that freeze under stress. We need to know the difference. We should never be too far removed from the Fear, the Violence, the unexpectedness of the real world. 


Moshe Katz, 7th dan Black Belt, Israeli Krav Maga. Certified by Wingate Institute. Member Black Belt hall of fame, USA and Europe.

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