Skill training- waste of time or time well wasted?

In this blog I'm sharing my thoughts about fastening the learning curve and the benefits of skill-training in self-defense.

Just the other day I was following a discussion on self- defense training and the usual debate over whether one system is better than another because there are fewer techniques in it than in the other. In self-defense and martial arts scene, we often hear that it is waste of time to train multiple self – defense techniques because in real-life situations, it all goes to primal survival and the techniques are worth nothing. Well, I tend to disagree a bit even though I do agree, strongly, that the primal- reactions part is the key element of training. It’s up to training to make it work for you in a sudden need of survival. Let me explain a bit.

Getting good at the right things

I wrote earlier about the skill-training and how in sports (and elsewhere) we use skill to solve problems. Turning the deliberate practice into something that will come instinctively once you need it. Now, the techniques, aka responses to reactions, need to be aligned with the natural response of that specific situation, of course. This is where we are making the most of the mistakes in training. We take the technical training out of the concept and train from body positions and mental states that are not aligned with the problem we are tasked to solve. We have a high probability to start doing wrong things and end up in results, that we can’t solve the problem. So, what leads us to this and how to avoid it? 

Putting Stages of learning to action

Learning is a process. It really doesn’t matter what we are studying, it all comes along the same. Research and studies of learning state that the first phase of learning is the cognitive phase. We are trying to understand what is happening and focusing on doing the things right. This is where we need to do the distinction on what is the situation where we need this skill. In self-defense, we’ll need to take ourselves to the situation and moments that we shall react accordingly to the technique in question. If we take the technique out of this context, there will be problems ahead. Typically, this happens when we are trying to force an unnatural reaction, such as moving out of the line of fire, from a position and mental state that is not aligned with the natural response.

In the associative stage we shall understand more, and the movements start to appear reactively. As we have tuned our brain to give commands needed to stop the attack and save ourselves; there may be more than one response available but still reactively done. There is no choosing process but reacting process. The problems here occur when the situation is only partly presented to us in the cognitive phase. For example, we train against a punch to face, and the attacker just pushes their hand straight and leaves it there. We get the idea that we have time to do “stuff” since the attacker “waits” for our response. In reality this doesn’t happen; the attacker has a mission to take us down and he/she will continue until a) his/her action is stopped or b) he/she will succeed. Already in the cognitive phase, we’ll need to present the whole picture, not just parts of it. In the associative phase, this is all we train. Very easy way of dealing with this process is to take advantage of the “active attacker” drill where the attacker doesn’t stop at one attack but moves forward with his/her idea until stopped. For instance, in this scenario of punching, the next move might be a punch with the other hand or kick or both. The person training the defense will immediately gain understanding of the whole problem.

The autonomous phase is the “autopilot”. If we have trained correctly, we have the ability to change our responses according to the situation and solve the problems popping up on the way. Now this is where we find the source of frustration: we might have picked up skills that do not solve the problem, aka we have become good at the wrong thing. Saying that we’ll have to relearn, is a bit misleading since what we need to do is to start all over and learn new ways of reacting to the problems ahead. It is up to coaches to help us find the ways to correct the movements that don’t provide value.  For example, let’s say that our training has focused on looking at the problems too specifically e.g. “what do I do if it’s a left hand punch or right hand punch” rather than working on the problem from reactions point of view; “how do I react from this physical position and mental state of mind?”. From this type of training comes the reference to the Hick’s Law.

” Look at the Hick’s law”

One of the key justifications in why technical training of SD is BS, is the referral to the Hick’s law. The phrase goes that if you have more than one option to choose from, it takes more time and thus has devastating results in self -defense situation. The only shortfall here is the assumption that you have more than one option to choose from because in an ambush situation where we don’t get to choose, we react.  If it comes to self -defense situations where you have time to choose, you must take the lead of the situation and walk away.  That is another thing to train, how to de-escalate and walk away.

To train the brain comprehend the situation as it is, with all artifacts there including emotions, is not an easy thing to do. This is the fall-pit of technical training: laziness. It has nothing to do with the “Hick’s Law” but everything to do with being lazy or just ignorant about the self-defense situations. We need to deliberately train the brain to react from different physical positions, take into consideration the natural responses such as flinching and being startled and align these reactions to the techniques. Unfortunately, there is no magic “one solution for every problem”; that’s why the reaction-based training is important.

Reaction based training

It’s not about the tool nor method, it’s all about the person using it. All self-defense and martial arts styles and methods have common ground and target: provide tools to a) survive the self-defense situation, or b) win the match. In close quarters, the reaction- based training is deliberate practice tool that helps us to quickly move from cognitive phase of learning to autonomous. The key element is that we take ourselves into the situation; body position and mental state and then of course the “problem”, aka attack and attacker’s goals. For example, we think that the problem is a punch coming towards our face but all of the sudden there is kick to groin. As the game changes, so must we. 

Time well-wasted

Like in any skill-based craft of sports, the learning in self-defense never stops. When we focus on tactical learning and situational awareness aka preventive or proactive self – defense, the training arena for the cognitive and associative phase may be the “dojo” and scenarios in real-life environments but the autonomous part is very hard to simulate. We must train this but when we join it with physical self – defense, we need to be careful not mislead ourselves to oversimplifying it; if all situations eventually lead to physical encountering, this is what we wait for to happen. If our aim was to use de-escalation and getting out of danger without physical encounter, that is what we’ll need to train. It involves the communication skills and making choices etc. This is where the Hick’s law has a place in training. Not too many choices but the correct ones! Simple, not easy.

The other part is the proactive physical self-defense. We have the decision-making parts, for example the situation that we are trying to de-escalate but failing, and we have our primary plan, secondary plan, and emergency plan how to go by. To simplify: once he/she moves, I will start my defense. To train how to go from neutral to full speed requires coordination, power, and ability to control emotions and movement. 

The easiest part to train is the reaction-based training shortly described earlier. Taking ourselves to certain body position and mental state and deliberately practicing reactions to sudden movements and taking these reactions to connected solutions including the defense, stopping the attackers’ actions, and getting hold of the situation or getting away from the situation, create the ability.

Training tips and self-test questions

If you feel that your training is too complicated, it probably is. Then just remember that getting clarity is not difficult. Ask yourself the following questions and find the answers:

  1. Do I train the three parts (prevention, proactive physical defense, reactive physical defense) all in one and find it hard? 
    1. If yes, just separate them at first and then build it up again.
  • Do I focus on specific form how to do the technique and find that it doesn’t work when there is more speed and power?
    • Have you integrated the startle-flinch to your everyday training?
    • Check the technique from the problem point of view: what is really happening and then solve it by reaction- based training
    • Remember, everything is right if you don’t get hit, but you can get more efficient doing it!


To train one solution to every problem is like using hammer to do all the work in building a house. When we are ambushed or startled, there is no choosing what to do, we react to it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the Hick’s law, once you train the right things, the right way, you won’t fall into a trap of thinking “am I doing this right?” If we don’t have a model to solve this problem, we will be trouble. This is why training deliberately specific responses to specific problems, using specific drills is time well-wasted; even in the middle of one course of action, we can response to a sudden problem. If we don’t have that model in our brain, it will never happen. For your specific training, checkout that is created for deliberate practice purposes with assistance of ZeroPose AI Coach to give you instant feedback.

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About Tommi Nyström
About Tommi Nyström

Tommi Nystrom is a skills coach specializing in martial arts and security studies. He is passionate about learning, the most empowering feeling there is! With over 30 years of hands-on experience of sports coaching, both as an athlete and coach, and constant research and studying on human behavior, psychology and learning as well as an active global network of colleagues, give a solid ground for world -class coaching. His latest venture is to exploration and use of neural network technology as part of skill-learning by the NAIP® Neural Network Technology.
M. +358 40 505 3169

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