Self Defense Drills In Martial Arts Training

Most of the more serious martial arts schools and instructors have various drills wherein a student can practice his punch, grab or defense.  The approach is often a ‘circle drill’ where the pretend ‘victim’ is attacked by several other students, one at a time, and where the type of attack is known in advance.  These drills are best suited for relatively experienced students since control on the part of all parties can become a serious issue.

This is frankly great practice in developing various techniques and, to some extent, helping develop reactions, timing and distance control and coordination.  However it is unfortunately not really a self defense drill.  It is strictly technique training.

And, of course, at this point you ask “why?”  The fact is that self defense in the real sense of the term has absolutely nothing predetermined about it.  Real life or real world self defense is best described by Richie Grannon purely a matter of survival amidst extremely violent conditions.

How, then, can you safely attempt to simulate the reality of self defense in a drill in a martial arts or other school environment?  We have been experimenting with a type of drill for a while and it absolutely works.  I am sure that many of the more ‘real world’ based schools practice some form of this but most of the traditional ones do not seem to think this way.  Be aware that only your more advanced students with a great deal of control should ever participate in this type of drill….Let’s say you have five to maybe eight students who should be able to handle a stress based drill.  One student starts out as the ‘pretend victim’ and positions himself wherever he feels is appropriate.  Then, totally at random, one of the other students attacks the ‘victim’.  The attack can be a punch of any kind, a grab of any kind, a kick, a grappling type takedown attack, etc. and the only person who knows that the attack will be is the attacker.  The pretend victim deals with the first attacker in whatever manner suits the defender and the attack.  At the point where the defender “disposes” of the first attacker another student (immediately) attacks.  The attacking students are not set up in any order but rather they just decide to “go”.  This way the defender has to be continually aware of his surroundings and be prepared for anyone around him to attack with any kind of attack they want.  Each ‘pretend victim’ must defend against each of the other students surrounding him or in the area one at a time until everyone has participated.  It is important also that when the defender performs a technique or defense on the attacker which would, in real life, disable or knock out the attacker, the attacker must stop.  Otherwise the situation and emotions can get out of hand.

Then one of the other students becomes the pretend victim and so it goes.

A word of warning!  If you try this force everyone to go slowly the first few times they participate in this drill.  The unexpected nature of an attack from “anywhere” and of any nature can cause the defender to get pretty excited and without a little practice of handling the unexpected people can get unnecessarily hurt.

You will find that what happens in this type of drill is significantly less than “pretty”, techniques which in regular class practice are performed smoothly and without problems often become sloppy, ugly and many times just don’t work at all due to the dynamics of the drill.  This emphasizes the need to never, ever chase a technique.  The very second a technique starts to fail go to another one if you don’t want to get clobbered trying to force a failed effort to work.  This is reality.

Yes, this is indeed still only practice.  There is no violent intent and there are, to an extent, rules of conduct and that is as it should be.  The drill can increase in intensity as the students become more comfortable and relaxed dealing with the unknown.  With a given group of advanced students the increase in intensity will happen automatically.  This is a huge confidence builder but at first it can be pretty frightening for those who have only practiced in predetermined drills and situations.  This is nothing at all like sparring.  It is important that an experienced respected instructor be present throughout the exercise.  It is also important that since this is in fact a self defense drill and not just routine martial arts practice, some emphasis be placed on survival and the fact that the attacker will have no rules or conscience to limit him.  The defender must also adapt that mentality in order to survive.

At some point, well into the evolution of the experience, you can start introducing weapons into the scenario (e.g., knives, clubs, bats, etc.).  Since not everyone will have a weapon this opens up a new adventure to the defenders.

Dan Rank 2010




Dan Rank has been practicing martial arts for nearly two decades.  He is currently teaching advanced black belt and ‘real world’ street defense techniques to a select group of advanced students.  The goal is to integrate real world self defense into the traditional approach so that an unexpected ‘event’ can be handled with minimal problems.
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