Saturday, February 23, 2013

Self-Defense Blunders #7 - Emphasis on Joint Locks

The first step to identifying effective self-defense options is to determine who will be learning these skills. I am not so much worried about gender or age as I am about the types of situations or environments this person may be forced to face. Is this person a law enforcement officer that will be required to use these skills to apprehend criminals? Maybe this person is a sport-based fighter that will test these skills out in a cage fight? Or this person might be a civilian that will some day be required to fight for his life against an armed attacker? The reality is that each of these people will require different skills that are applicable to their specific needs. The law enforcement officer will likely never need cage-fighting skills, the cage fighter will most likely not be required to apprehend criminals, and the civilian will probably never need those skills that contradict his objective of surviving violence.

The need for task-specific skills is nothing new. Yet, there are so many systems out there that continue to offer these “one-size-fits-all” approaches to self-defense. Then there are self-defense systems that while relatively good, still include techniques and tactics that contradict the primary goal, to escape violence or survive when escape is no longer an option. One such tactic that is commonly included in modern self-defense systems is the “joint lock”. As the name implies, the idea is to place the attacker’s joints in compromising positions that create pain, misalign the skeletal system, or simply dislocate bones. These types of techniques are most often used by law enforcement and security personnel to aid in the apprehension and containment of common criminals. However, they have been included in numerous civilian self-defense programs since the early 1900’s. These systems were originally based on the Japanese martial art of Jujitsu, which emphasized joint locking techniques. While Jujitsu was fairly unheard of by many during those initial years, its popularity grew during WWII due to it’s effectiveness in combat. Many military instructors and Jujitsu black belts took advantage of that popularity by writing numerous books for the civilian market. As they say, the rest is history. That said, it’s important to note that while Jujitsu is known for its joint locking capabilities, these techniques are not exclusive to jujitsu. In fact, joint locks can be found in hundreds of martial arts from numerous cultures, some dating back thousands of years.

So, if these joint locking techniques were so effective for war, wouldn’t that make them just as effective for modern self-defense? To be blunt…yes and no! Joint locking techniques can be used for a variety of situations from a low level threat up to an armed attacker. Obviously their versatility would make them good for self-defense. However, there are a number of issues involved that make joint lock techniques less than ideal for general self-defense. Let’s address the issues.

Joint locks require many years to master.- The reality is that many of the joint locks taught during periods of war were simplified so they could be taught relatively quickly. However, even these simplified locks required above average skill levels. What’s important to note is that the soldiers spent many hours each week learning and practicing these skills before they carried them into battle but most people that seek out modern self-defense training do not have the time, energy, or desire to invest in regular weekly practice. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the skill that a technique requires the more time and energy a person must invest in it. That said, these types of techniques may not be ideal options for those seeking crash-course self-defense programs.

Joint locks generally engage both hands- While there are many highly skilled Jujitsu masters out there that can perform joint locks with only one hand, they are few and far between. The reality is that the majority of effective joint locks require the use of two hands. This means that both of you hands will be occupied while attempting to lock or control an aggressive attacker. The result is a reduction in reaction time should you need to use a hand to block or deflect an incoming strike. It also means that you are more vulnerable to attacks from a second or third assailant.

Joint locks are inappropriate for many situations- The biggest issue with joint locking techniques is the fact that they are not appropriate for all situations. Imagine being assaulted by two or more individuals. Now imagine that each attacker is bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than you. Do you think joint locking techniques would be appropriate or even effective in such a case? The fact is that joint locks are appropriate for only a handful of situations. Essentially these would be law enforcement and security situations. There are only a couple of situations that would be appropriate for a civilian to use joint locks or other restraint techniques. 1) during scenarios that involved low level threats, such as a drunk uncle 2) during a scenario where someone intended to harm themselves and a civilian was the only person available to intervene. However, in either case there are better and more easily learned options that don't pose potential injury to the recipient. The truth is that realistic self-defense is about awareness and avoidance which can lead most people away from bad situations before they have to resort to physical self-defense. This being the case, I see very few reasons or situations that would require a civilian to have to use joint locking techniques in defense of themselves or someone else.

Joint locks require prolonged contact- Not only do joint locks require the use of two hands but they also require a prolong period of physical contact. Yes, a lock can be used to damage or incapacitate the attacker relatively quickly (with proper skill) but it still requires more time to do than to simply strike a vital target. The problem is that the effectiveness of the lock will be dependent on numerous factors to include the user's skill and strength, the attacker's strength, pain tolerance, etc. Due to all of these factors a simple joint lock could turn into a wrestling match for survival. The more time you spend with an attacker, the greater your chances of sustaining major injury or loss of life.

Joint locks can cause tactic fixation- This is a common phenomenon amongst many martial arts and self-defense practitioners. They get so caught up in specific techniques and tactics that they become fixated. As an example, those that overemphasize joint locking techniques will often try to find a way to employ a joint lock even when one is not necessary or even appropriate. They may also fixate on a specific technique to the point that they will continue to try to make it work even after it has failed once or twice before. The issue here is that while they are fixating on these locking techniques they could be using techniques and tactics that are more efficient as well as more appropriate.

Joint locks require more strength and energy- This should go without saying but anytime we attempt to wrestle with an attacker our strength and energy expenditure drastically increases. Even with a high level of skill it still requires more strength and energy to lock and control joints than it does to strike a vital target on the attacker. While this isn't a huge concern in general martial arts training, it can mean the difference between life and death during a violent encounter.

Joint locks are less likely to slow or stop a determined attacker- Statistically speaking joint lock techniques are less likely to slow or stop the threat than other more efficient means of defense. This can be due to numerous variables such as pain tolerance, attacker's strength, heightened adrenal response, impaired senses from drug and alcohol abuse, mind-set, etc. Many of us have seen the cage fights in which joint locking techniques resulted in broken limbs, yet the recipient was able to continue to fight, often unaware of the injury. There are also dozens of police reports where officers share similar experiences of attempting to subdue a highly resisting assailant that was able to resist multiple officers in spite of having a broken limb. Obviously these variables in conjunction with the other issues make joint locks less than ideal for slowing or stopping a determined assailant.

While joint locking techniques should be included in comprehensive martial arts programs and they most definitely should be taught to law enforcement and security personnel, I believe that they have very little relevance to civilians that require the knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe from crime and assault. As mentioned previously, they require more time and energy than other more effective tactics and they are less likely to slow or stop a determined threat. If instructors feel strongly that joint lock techniques need to be in their self-defense curriculum, they should at least simplify the techniques and focus on those most likely to work under stress with the least amount of training. Instructors should also avoid fixating on joint lock techniques and emphasize that locks are lower on the list of priorities, reserved only for those situations previously mentioned.

Steve Zorn, ICP


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-27 years training in personal safety -Multiple martial arts black belts -Multiple instructor certifications -Certified law enforcement trainer -Crime Prevention Specialist -Previous self-defense trainer for one of the country's largest airlines -Child safety specialist -Certified Fitness Trainer -TACTIX Fitness Trainer -High Intensity Training Specialist -FAST Defense Instructor -Kid Escape Instructor
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