By definition, in combative terms, a level of force is the reasonable amount and/or type of force applied for a given confrontational situation. Most professions that deal with bad guys have their own, more specific definition of the level of force and when they can or cannot employ a subsequent, greater degree or level. For instance, Law Enforcement (LE) practice what they call a Force Continuum which helps define each level and when stronger use of force is warranted.
In the civilian world, it is important to understand the circumstances underlying a conflict and what level of force is deemed reasonable. “Reasonable” is defined both by the Law and Civil entities. It is possible to be acquitted in legal proceedings only to lose a civil suit because though you were justified by law, it could be proven that choosing a less aggressive approach (less force) may have still assured your safety. This isn’t something most general citizens think about on a day to day basis. As a martial artist however, there is a greater onus of responsibility on how we may react during a confrontation because we are trained or at least should be trained to know and utilize an appropriate level of force.
Generally speaking, you should not apply lethal force unless you fear that your life is in danger. If a bad guy gets in your face empty handed (without a weapon) and you shoot them, you most likely will be the one going to jail. It will be up to you to prove that you felt that your life was in danger and so felt you had to deploy and use your weapon (gun, knife, etc.). Proving your life was in danger when you possessed and used a weapon and the bad guy didn’t will be a tough sell. And once again if you are found not guilty, there is nothing stopping family members of the guy or the guy himself from coming after everything you own. As a martial artist this is especially true, as even our empty hands could be considered weapons.
There is no way to list all of the possible situations and the most appropriate level of force to apply. So you have to use judgement and base that judgement on your ability to avoid injury or perhaps even survive a given conflict. If you’re in a bar and a guy pulls a knife, then levels from empty hand through weapons such as knife and even gun are warranted because you can easily prove that you feared for your life. Likewise if you are a women dragged into the bushes you have a genuine reason to believe you will be harmed or even killed even if the attacker presents no visible weapon. So using any means necessary to free yourself would be appropriate.
Where the lines blur is when each of you are at the same level. If that belligerent guy in the bar starts shoving and threatening you, your first level should be to attempt to deescalate the situation. This may be verbal communication in conjunction with simply leaving the building altogether. When that is not possible and the guy won’t stop or is getting more violent, you absolutely have the right to protect yourself. This gets even murkier when a martial artists are involved, because presumably they have been trained to cause severe injury simply with their bare hands.
There are also professions outside of LE like prison guards and even bouncers that must ensure controlling force is used first and foremost. This is why they often work in numbers, to overwhelm the assailant for their own good. These folks know certain holds, techniques and escorts that, when employed, do minimal damage yet most of the time is a sufficient enough force to control the bad guy. If it were one on one in these environments, someone on either side could be seriously injured.
In our martial art, Hapkido, we learn how to adjust varying levels of force dependent on the situation, which is why it is a great system for professional peace keepers. Though self-protection is a first priority, if we can subdue an attacker by utilizing joint locks and holds, we can better control the situation to hopefully prevent or reduce injury to the attacker. It may sound funny to think about basically protecting your enemy, but losing your savings, home etc. to some barroom bully is simply not worth it if you are skilled enough to avoid it.
Most people are fearful about getting injured or even the loss of life in a confrontational situation with a bad guy. But the Legal and Civil ramifications of going beyond a “reasonable” level of force should be just as frightening, especially for a trained fighter who should strive to take the higher road when at all possible. This is why it is far better to make your best attempt to avoid/deescalate a situation. The movies don’t show what really happens after the fight, and the real world is nothing like the movies. As martial artists trained in Hapkido, we maintain levels of force from simple escorts, restraint procedures, joint locks and breaks to lethal blows to sensitive areas of the body. Our training and the Hapkido system itself provides choices that can escalate or deescalate as the conflict changes. Some (martial artists) may maintain the notion that you should kick the crap out of anyone who shows aggression toward you. I would say that given the proper training in the right system you will be provided the tools to maintain a more morally sound and ethical approach while also keeping yourself safe.
David Ventura 3rd Dan Hapkido 1st Degree Guazabara Phoenix Dragon Martial Arts Port Angles, WA 360-808-7303
The idea of one's energy is not new to me. I amfamiliar with the concept of "projecting appropriate attitude" to potential threats (on a micro-level) and to the world as a whole (macro.) It's a skill that’s discussed in basic self-defense, defensive firearms training, as well as martial arts training, but I can honestly say that I did not fully grasp what is meant by “energy” nor how important it is as a first line of self-defense until a close call over Christmas break while visiting a popular amusement park in Southern California.
Before getting to the parks entrance, I was waiting with my family in a sea of several thousand people at a security checkpoint beyond which no weapons were allowed We encountered a physically large man rocking back and forward, humming religious songs, and directing his negative attention at an African-American family off to our left.
He attracted the attention of my wife first, who was charmed by the humming until she realized the way he was directing it at the other family. She grew progressively more uncomfortable with this person’s attitude/energy, until she finally signaled to me to move forward. As she explained in undertones what was occurring; my guard and my hand both immediately came up on reflex, but I remained perfectly calm and clear, with only a small bump in heart-rate and no adrenaline F/F response. My mind was simply open, ready and determined. Without turning around, the stranger in question now directed his attention/energy towards me, in the form of slowly escalating grumbles, to the effect of "Stop touching me" as we were all essentially pressed together in a scenario not unlike Tokyo subway rush hour. His rocking intensified. This went on over the course of several minutes, during which I peripherally remember my wife insisting I handed her our expensive camera, which was slung across my shoulder.
Without warning, the stranger spun around 90 degrees, crossed in front of me, and headed to our left where he immediately encountered a diminutive Irish fellow and his family. The Irish man instantly called him out for line cutting, threatening to hit him with taunts of “You want a piece of this?” Such a challenge was all the aggressive stranger needed as in invitation to swing a right hook his way. The aggressive stranger then proceeded to bang on his chest, repeatedly, like a gorilla at Close Encounters.
I had tucked my family behind me with the left arm, right hand up and ready but relaxed and open, mind still perfectly clear and ready to defend me and my own. My wife remembers that other families staggered themselves behind us, including several older grandparents with small children. She sent our teenage daughter ahead to alert security. The aggressive stranger turned to me and, perhaps observing my calm energy, turned apologetic, even submissive. He even took out his wallet, tucked his head down, and grumbled something to the extent of, "I am just trying to get into the park, here is my ticket.”
When I didn’t respond in any overt way, he spun around and took off through the crowd. Once we got to the checkpoint, we relayed all our information to security and they pulled him out of the line. (Regardless of his actions outside, we still saw him inside the park several hours later, still grumbling and cutting lines.)
In reality, the whole encounter probably took less than a couple of minutes, but the perception of time slowed down, and all details seem etched in my memory.
In retrospect, I believe the aggressor tried to get away from my energy, or whatever unspoken signals I was giving off. I could try to analyze the psychology of it all, bit by bit, but I believe what it boils down to is that he felt uncomfortable and wanted to make space without engaging me. Yet, as soon as someone else offered up aggression, he used it as an excuse to display his own. When it comes to close quarter combat situations like this where weapons are not available, having a background in Hapkido is indeed what allowed me confidently portray the required attitude and demeanor. This was a clear case example of where calm, controlled, yet confident energy saved me from a brawl and perhaps ruining my family vacation.
Also, remember to hand off your camera. Just in case.
Does being a black belt mean we are all the same? Do we look the same? Do we teach the same? Do our belts have the same amount of wear? Do we perform every offensive or defensive technique, strike or kick in the same way?
The obvious answer is no. We are all on our own journey; we all have our own unique sets of strengths and weaknesses. We are not molds of one thing or person. And each of us should be more than willing to admit that we don’t know everything. Even at the Dan (black belt) ranks, we are still training, we are still learning, and we have faults like anyone else.
When I award a child with a stripe on their belt for some accomplishment, I often ask, “Does this mean you are perfect at it?” More often than not they say yes. Then I ask, “Do you think I still go back and practice the first technique I ever learned?” When they answer yes, I can then explain that it’s a journey, and though each of us strive for perfection, we are never really perfect as we are always learning and improving. So then back to the title of this post, does taking a black belt test mean our performance in that test will be perfect? Developing students into black belts is not an assembly line process, and though each student is going to have the basics down in a similar fashion, no two students are going to look and act the same. Each will have their own path, their own journey and be a student in their own way.
The path to black belt is neither typical nor straight forward. It isn’t about besting other students or instructors and that is equally true about the black belt test itself. Unlike what many people think, tests in our martial arts systems, Hapkido and Guazabara provide a time to allow the student to demonstrate what they have learned during their years of training. We don’t expect a black belt to show that they can win against anyone but themselves. We will often video tape our students during their black belt tests not for them to watch right away after the test, but for them to watch someday off in the future. After some time spent as a black belt and then watching your video serves to highlight how much of the test you could have performed better. More importantly, it reveals how far you have progressed since that test and how far each of us still have to go on our solitary path forward.
So then what does a black belt look like? A black belt should be held and hold themselves to a high moral and technical standard. Beyond that, they will differ in abilities and capabilities in their own way. As instructors, it is always our intention to develop students to be better than we were at their level. However, no two people can ever be the same and each will reach varying levels of understanding as they walk the martial arts path. Could a student that has a limiting physical injury that prevents them from completing certain requirements ever attain black belt status? Absolutely! Can someone with special needs or impaired development reach the level of black belt? Of course! In deserving students, that belt is around their heart long before it is around their waist.
Black belts are a unique breed of people that never gave up, that worked through pain, injury, and disappointment. We grew and refused to stop growing and learning in the never ending school of life. Because once it’s in your blood, you can’t possibly stop. Each one of us has sworn in our own way to change people’s lives for the better and help them on this amazing journey. As black belts we may look and act different, but at our core each of us balance an unending cycle of instructor and student as we walk our individual paths to black belt.
First off, before we can honestly discuss balance, there are a few terms that need redefinition. The words strong and weak come with connotations stemming from centuries of English language usage and tradition. In fact, simply using my word processor’s synonym button for each of these words I get robust, sturdy & tough as meanings for strong while synonyms for the term weak reflect the alternate meanings of feeble, fragile, pathetic. In order to truly understand Hapkido’s way, one must reject the preexisting stigma the words strongand weak conjure up and learn how they exist within and throughout our martial art style.
Though one could say that when you are strong you are sturdy, tough, etc., these synonyms are not accurate when put into the context of Hapkido. What makes a person strong in Hapkido is twofold. First, you are strong when you are centered over your core and prepared to attack. Notice that this has nothing to do with being six foot four inches tall and 280 pounds with a scar on your face. In fact, if you size up your would be attacker in this light there is a good chance that you’re going to psych yourself right out of the fight. Sizing up your attacker with the mentality of how they look to determine their strength is a formula for failure
The implications for weak are even less accurate. I prefer to think of weak not as the antonym of strong but rather the absence of it. If strong is being stable and centered over one’s core, weak then is being out of balanced or uncentered. It has absolutely nothing to do with somehow being feeble or fragile. What Hapkido teaches us is that we should resist meeting strong with strong; that is to say, force with force. If your attacker moves forward in good fighting stance and initiates an attack, chances are they are strong, at least at the outset. If you become strong as well, then a punching and kicking battle of strong vs strong will ensue, the outcome of which is very unpredictable.
The implications of this weak position is important to note. By being weak one can overcome a strong attack by transitioning the attacker’s strong, centered self into a weaker unbalanced self. Think of strong and weak like yin and yang. There is a constant flow from one to the other and back again. One cannot remain one or the other indefinitely, when strong moves away weak fills the gaps and vice versa. So as we adjust our balance and utilize the opponent’s momentum, we get stronger and more in balance while the opponent goes the other way. Again resist thinking of weak as bad, it is simply not strong. This is why when two Hapkido students interact, the flow of energy can flip from one student to the other several times, moving from strong to weak and back to weak to strong.
So then how does one defeat a “strong” opponent? The Hapkidoist assumes the space of weak momentarily. Rather than going right at the attacker with strength or force, one observes the direction, body movement and force of the attacker’s energy and blends with it. It is at this point where the transition of the attacker’s force becomes unbalanced or weak while your energy begins to take over moving you into the strong position. This is because as you affect the balance of the attacker you are moving their core past the distance that their stance can support, or leveraging forward momentum to absorb rather than stop the attacker’s energy. In either case there is always a balance between strong and weak.
Technically speaking, unbalancing an opponent means moving the attacker (with or without their assistance) in such a way as to move their core beyond their balance limit. In most cases an attacker is initially strong because people in general are strong front to back and back to front, mostly due to a normally front foot forward fighting stance. They can remain centered and throw a jab or step into a cross or hook landing with their feet into a good balanced stance. One note on their stance is that though strong front to back, laterally side to side they are much weaker and likely to lose their balance in these side to side directions quicker. But one can also exploit the forward momentum that comes with a stepping strike to unbalance an opponent.
In the context of balance, Hapkido has two types of techniques, those that are unbalancing and those that are not. Most of the soft techniques start from a weak perspective while the hard techniques relay of strong position up front. Certain techniques once initiated will act to place the opponent core beyond their limit while others assume that you have moved in such a way to unbalance the opponent prior to initiating a technique.
The more unbalanced an opponent, the weaker they become and the stronger you have the potential to become. This can be accomplished in several ways. First the defender must avoid the attack by stepping off line, moving laterally, back or forward, either remaining on the inside or moving to the outside of the attacker’s space. In most case in Hapkido we prefer to step off line and move in, thereby closing the distance which limits the attacker’s options for a follow-up strike. Once there, we will often utilize momentum, either ours or the attackers to move them off balance. This is why Hapkido is great for people (men, women or children) who may not be as physically strong in a conflict as their adversary. By upsetting the attacker’s balance, they become weak, so it takes much less strength or force to take the attacker to the ground and subdue them. This is why Hapkido is known as the great equalizer, and understanding strong and weak is a major part of our way.
David Ventura, CSN Hapkido 1st Degree Guazabara @www.PDMartialArts.com Port Angeles, WA