Yeah, that’s Jim Carrey, on In Living Color, way back in the early ‘90s. Although it’s a comedy sketch, there’s an actual serious lesson here. Maybe even a few lessons.
Practicing only preset attacks leaves holes in your game
Notice how Jim Carrey’s karate instructor says, “…you attacked me wrong. You’re supposed to come at me like this.” A lot of self-defence lessons I’ve seen use the same sorts of preset, limited attacks. And it isn’t helping anyone.
You end up learning the mechanics of defending against very specific motions; where you know what’s coming, and where your “attacking” partner is playing along. Learning the basics in such a low-stress way, with a compliant partner, is exactly how anyone should begin to learn a new martial arts skill. But it’s far from the place to stop.
To really master your skills, you have to be able to use them against fully-resisting partners. (Although fully-resisting doesn’t have to mean full contact.) And you can’t know what’s coming.
Think back to when you first started training. You learned how to kick and punch stationary targets. But you eventually moved on to free sparring with live opponents. Let’s pretend that you continued to only hit stationary targets, and never sparred. Your kicks would continue to get better over time, but could you expect to walk into a sparring tournament and wipe the floor with the competition?
You’d be deluded.
To get better at sparring you have to practice sparring. Yes, you can do drills and padwork to help you get better. But you also need that experience of going toe-to-toe with someone who’s trying to kick you back.
It’s the same with self-defence training. If you’re only practicing to defend against a few specific attacks, especially when your partner is helping you by being a “good partner”, you can’t expect to defend yourself against a spontaneous attack.
Most “self-defence” attacks are ridiculous
Don’t you love that straight-armed downward attack that Jim Carrey wants his new student to do? No one stabs like that.
Let’s put aside the fact that most knife-defence maneuvers are more likely to get you killed than to help. It turns out that a lot of the preset attacks done in self-defence classes aren’t much less ridiculous than in this comedy skit. While they may seem legit to the uninitiated, they’re based on fantasies of violence. They’re how self-defence instructors think people attack, not how they actually do.
I’ve seen defences for actual ice-pick style downward stabs and for huge, slashing knife swings. Many self-defence scenarios will focus on things like lapel or wrist grabs, or the ever-popular arms-out bearhug.
News flash: if someone wants to put you in a serious bearhug, they’ll want to trap your arms.
A grab of your wrist or lapel could lead to a serious situation, but it isn’t a violent attack in and of itself. Mauling someone for grabbing your wrist might not look good in the eyes of a judge. And if learning judo alongside taekwon-do has taught me anything, it’s that there are plenty of options other than just stripping someone’s grip.
I’m not saying that it isn’t useful to learn to escape from a grab. It really can be a great skill. But it shouldn’t be the focus of your training. Perhaps you’d be better served by practicing against attacks that people will actually do if they really want to hurt you.
Women’s self-defence classes can be terrible
I first came across this video thanks to a Fightland article about the fight skits that In Living Color did over the years. In describing the karate instructor skit, the author says, “I’m willing to bet that at least 72% of women I know have, at one point in their lives, attended an ostensibly helpful self defense seminar almost as ridiculous and useless as the one portrayed in this skit.”
It’s funny because it’s true. When instructors give women’s self-defence classes, they mean well. But because of pre-planned attacks, a poor understanding of violence and the inherent lack of mastery that comes from a single three-hour seminar, the women who pay to attend these things walk away with few useful skills.
They think they’re learning something helpful, when instead they’re being duped. At least the women in the video saw through the facade.
So how do you learn good self-defence?
The most important self-defence skills to have are to know how to avoid ugly situations in the first place, to descalate ugly situations if they happen, and to be fit enough to run or fight if it comes to that.
When it comes to physical self-defence techniques, I would recommend cross-training in a grappling-based art that will give you experience against resisting opponents. Arts like judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, sambo or wrestling are great.
Cross-training in a different striking art like boxing or muay Thai can be a benefit as well, as it can get you out of the sport taekwon-do mindset.
Does this mean you have to give up on your taekwon-do training or that it can’t be effective for self-defence? Absolutely not. But for practical self-defence, we have to approach taekwon-do in a different way.
I’m no expert in violence, but I do know that real violence often happens up close. And it’s ugly. To use taekwon-do for self-defence, you have to get used to using techniques that we don’t use in sparring. And you have to spar with them: up close and personal. You can’t bounce around like we do in sport sparring. You have to get ugly. Just be careful. You don’t want to maim someone.
Once you’ve started to develop your skills in stand-up self-defence sparring and grappling, you can start to blend the two together.
Wait, does that sound a bit like mixed martial arts?
It sure does. Because, while MMA is a sport, it’s probably one of the best types of training we have for effective physical self-defence. MMA fighters have to be well-rounded, and they practice against resisting opponents, not compliant partners. With only some slight modifications, it’s easy to go from sport to self-defence.
I’m not telling you to go take up MMA (unless you want to). There are other ways to learn physical self-defence skills while continuing to master taekwon-do—or another art for that matter. But to get good at learning self-defence skills, you have to mix it up. It just won’t do to learn preset defences against unrealistic attacks at terrible seminars. If you want to waste your money, there are better ways to do it.
On a different note, you’ve now read more than 1,000 words about the serious lessons of a Jim Carrey sketch. Bet you never thought that would happen.