Thursday 7 June 2012

Martial Arts, Self-Defence and the perception of risk

Or, to put it another way: why learn a martial art in North Devon?

I live in a beautiful, quiet, rural area of North Devon in the South-west of Britain. If asked to describe this area, ‘tranquil’ and ‘peaceful’ (rather than ‘violent’ and ‘dangerous’), are words that immediately spring to mind. I’d say the chances of being mugged down a dark alley (or down a dark country lane) are pretty small. So why on earth would anyone want to devote hours, weeks, months and years of hard work to learn a martial art?

Is this why you want to learn a martial art...?
Actually, even if you live in a big city – where the chances of being mugged may be higher – the same question is relevant. It all comes down to the perception of risk. While people certainly are mugged in London, Paris and New York, the chances that this will happen are relatively small. So, unless you happen to work in a profession where the risk of random violence is unusually elevated – if, for example, you are a policeman or policewoman, a bouncer or a security guard – your risk of injury or death from a violent attack will be significantly lower than from a variety of other possible causes.

Fighting and Falling

In 2011 The Guardian newspaper published a table of mortality statistics in England and Wales for the preceding five years. Let’s just look at the most recent figures (for 2009). This shows that there were 318 deaths from assault. It doesn’t state how many of these assaults were ‘on the street’ and how many were in the home or elsewhere. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst and imagine that a large number of these might have been ‘on the street’ assaults. That may sound scary. But wait a minute, let’s see how many people died in traffic accidents: 2,284. Yikes! And deaths from all types of accident: 11,917.  Now let’s see how many people died from falling –  3,593.  So it turns out that you have about 38 times the change of being killed by an accident and more than 11 times the chance of dying from falling than from being assaulted. 

But even that is nothing compared to the risks posed from ill health. The top killer was circulatory diseases  which accounted for 168,238 deaths. I won’t go down the rest of the list. It would be too depressing but you can read it here:

The point is that, if you want to defend yourself against serious or fatal harm, learning to defend yourself against an attack on the street should not, logically, be at the top of your list of priorities. Top of your list should be maintaining a healthy lifestyle – that is doing all the things that doctors tell us can help us to maintain a healthy heart and circulation: good diet, regular exercise, lowering stress and so on.

Did I say “exercise”? “lowering stress”? Hmm…. isn’t Aikido pretty good at that?

And then, of course, there are all those deaths from falling. Now, I don’t think Aikido will help you much if you happen to fall from the top of the Eiffel Tower. But if you slip over a carpet or trip over a branch. Well, making a safe ‘breakfall’ an instinctive reaction could certainly help.

Life (and death) On The Street

The perception of risk ‘on the street’ is described this way in the excellent book, ‘Aikido Exercises For Teaching and Training’.
“What’s really On The Street is cars. You may be in a hurry, lost, angry or frightened – and so may the other person. Therefore practice ma-ai, patience, awareness, flowing and blending…
"What’s really On The Street is concrete. You may trip on the sub, slip on the ice, miss a step, break a wrist, an arm, a leg, a head. Therefore practice your rolls and ukemi.”
But let’s not minimise the importance of Aikido as a self-defence system that can indeed be used against a violent attack. Let’s consider what sorts of violent attacks you might encounter in your life. Violent attacks don’t always come from malicious strangers. They may also come from a family member or a friend. If you work in a pub or a hospital, an attack might come from a client or a patient. When dealing with such an attack you probably don’t want to use such force against the attacker that you will end up doing them serious damage. On the contrary, you just want to keep yourself safe and restrain the person attacking.

I once taught an Aikido course for ‘Crisis’ - a London-based organisation which looks after homeless people. Over the Christmas period, a number of volunteers assist in housing, feeding and caring for homeless people. The trouble is that sometimes those volunteers are attacked by the people they are caring for. The volunteers who attended my course wanted to know how they could avoid harm to themselves – while also avoiding harm to the person attacking them.

So, in short, while Aikido can be an effective form of self-defence against a violent ‘street’ attack, for most people this is unlikely to be the most practically valuable reason for learning Aikido. Of much more benefit are: learning to relax under pressure, taking regular exercise, learning to fall safely, learning to prevent an aggressive confrontation safely and – maybe most important of all – the sheer fun and satisfaction of learning a beautiful art that requires so much skill.

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