Two things criminals know about violence that you should know too

Two things criminals know about violence that you should know too

I recently put out a podcast which discussed the need to be able to think like criminals if we are to be able to effectively protect ourselves from them. That podcast focussed on wider self-protection issues, whereas in this short article I want to focus on the physical side of things. In particular, I want to quickly discuss two key elements of the criminal’s approach to violence that make them more effective than most martial artists.

1 – Criminals keep it very simple: Martial artists overcomplicate.

I was recently talking with my friend Steve Williams (who I made the Extreme Impact downloads with) at a British Combat Karate Association seminar. Steve made the point that in all his years working in the prison service he had never heard a criminal describe the specifics of how they intend to approach a violent situation. Ask a martial artist how they would deal with a given scenario and you will often get a detailed and technical answer. Ask a criminal the same question and you get something along the lines of, “I’d smash the ######!” or “I’d #### them up”.

The criminal does not think in terms of technique, as martial artists often do, but instead they think in terms of mind set and strategy. This alone can make criminals way more effective than the technically “skilled” martial artist.

Many years ago I was introduced to a “hierarchy of effectiveness” at a BCA course ran by Dennis Martin. It was presented a pyramid with the most important things at the base and the less important things higher up. The order given – base to top; most important to least important – was:

Mind Set – Strategy – Tactics – Technique – Kit

The idea being that the person aggressively using a brick (high mind set, low kit) would be more dangerous than the person armed with a gun used timidly and incompetently (high kit, low on everything else).

You’ll notice how the criminal focuses on the most important two (mind set and strategy), whereas martial artist tend to emphasise technique in their thinking and practise (as high up the pyramid as one can go in unarmed combat).

As important as technique is, mind set and strategy are more important. The criminal has learnt this through direct experience. The moral martial artist needs to understand this too so that their self-protection training also emphasises mind set and simple strategy. 

Marc MacYoung – a leading expert on the realties on criminal violence – once remarked that you can summarise the physical side of self-protection in just three words: HIM-DOWN-NOW. Note the simplicity and how it mirrors what the criminal also knows to be most effective.

Violence is morally neutral. It is the ends it is put to that determines if violence is moral or not. Use violence to harm others for enjoyment or personal gain and that violence immoral. Use violence to protect yourself and others from harm and that violence is moral. Morality has no bearing on how effective that violence will be though. We can learn from the criminal element and ensure that our moral violence is as efficient as their immoral violence. Emphasising mind set and simple strategy is vital in this regard.

2 – Criminals understand the need to work from a position of advantage: Martial artist overestimate the efficiency of reactive methods from a position of disadvantage.

Criminals generally won’t engage unless they feel sure of achieving their objective. The last thing they want is a “fight” (i.e. a struggle) and they will use surprise, numbers and weapons to minimise any risk to themselves. Far too many martial artist think of self-protection as a “street fight” i.e. a “square go” which will be decided by the comparative level of fighting skills. The criminal knows different.

When things do get physical, the criminal knows that what they need to do is maintain their advantage and violently and explosively exploit that advantage. In contrast, what we often see in martial arts based “self-defence” training is the embedded assumption that person will always be operating from a position of disadvantage.

The martial artist will be teaching how to stop the enemy’s strikes, how to escape their holds, and so on. The criminal is always shown as being in a dominate position. Defensive techniques have a role, but when things must get physical what we should be doing is overwhelming the criminal with our own moral violence instead of trying to react to their immoral violence. We need to seek the position of advantage.

We even see this assumption and acceptance of disadvantage echoed in the language martial artists use. The criminal is often labelled as the “attacker”; which imparts an assumption of advantage over the “defender”. It is also why I prefer the term “self-protection” over “self-defence” because “defence” infers we are on the back foot and reacting to the criminal’s “attack” (although I accept the everyday and legal use of the term “self-defence” makes its use inescapable in the wider world).

At the point where violence can’t be avoided, then it is the criminal who should be forced into the position of “defender”. We should act assertively and explosively and become, as I tell my students, “a typhoon of fists and feet”. Once we can escape then it is tactically and legally important that we do so, but we will gain the option to escape a physical situation through the proactive use of violence. We will not be reacting to what the criminal does; they will be forced to react to what we are doing.

Of course the criminal, in knowingly seeking the violence in the first place, starts from a position of advantage. However, once we are aware of that intent, we can’t think reactively, while making a mental assumption of disadvantage, if we wish to come out on top.

W.E. Fairbairn, a legend in the world of military hand to hand combat, said, “We must make our students attack-minded; and dangerously so!” That is sound advice. We will never be the cause of violence, but once it can’t be avoided the situation needs to unfold on our terms.

For our physical self-protection to be as effective as possible, we need to learn from our enemy. The criminal knows from experience what works best.

In summary, for physical self-protection:

We should emphasise mind set and simple strategy over technique. The mind set is one of aggressive defiance. The strategy is to explosively cause harm to the criminal, as permitted by law, so we can escape. We should not overcomplicate or primarily seek to approach violence from a technical position of “If they do that, I will do this”. That is common in martial arts, but not how criminals approach violence. That should be telling us something.

When physical violence can’t be avoided, we need to seek advantage and have the criminal reacting to us as opposed to taking it as given we will be reacting to them (which effectively puts the criminal in charge).

The criminal experiences and uses violence on a much more frequent basis than the vast majority of martial artists. It is a “tool of the trade” for them. They know what works … and that’s why they always seek to work from a position of advantage and dominance.

Technique and defensive methods are important; but mind set, simple strategy and the need to dominate from a position of advantage are WAY MORE important.

Any method which seeks to render ineffective the violence of criminals needs to be at least as effective as that violence.

Failing to learn what makes criminal violence effective, and failing to make use of that knowledge to ensure we can effectively counter criminal violence, is sure to lead to disaster. A reactive, technique centred approach won’t cut it when applied to real violence; which is why criminals don’t operate in that way.