When it comes to winning a fight, there are plenty of predictable challenges, but the one people tend to focus on the most is learning a combative skill set.  Martial arts gyms around the world have created an industry that revolves around the idea that the person with the darkest colored belt will inevitably emerge the victor of any altercation, so, as a black belt holder with years of experience both winning and losing fights, allow me to dispel that myth right off the bat: in a real fight, a belt does nothing more than hold up your pants.

That isn’t to say that martial arts training isn’t important, and the skills you pick up along the way can certainly lead you to victory, but it’s the combination of those skills with the ability to think while having parts of your face pushed into your skull, and a willingness to absorb that pain along the way to victory that really determines a victor.  As a rule of thumb, a tough guy with a black belt is a formidable threat, but if a weak-willed, glass-chinned wannabe somehow manages to get himself one, well, now he’s just a weak-willed, glass-chinned wannabe with a black belt.

One of the bigger challenges many people don’t anticipate when it comes to learning to fight is the need to overcome the behavioral inhibitions our comfortable way of life embeds in us as we grow up.  We’re all taught right from the start that we should keep our hands to ourselves, not hurt one another, and that people who try to injure or kill another person are bad.  These are all good rules to maintain on the corner of County Street in small town Vermont, but when the going gets tough, that reluctance to harm your fellow man can result in defeat, and even death at the hands of an opponent with no such reservations.

The thing about training someone to fight is, most people have an idea in their head of what a fight looks like – an idea that’s been informed by years of dramatic television scuffles and cinematically shot, telegraphed uppercuts in movies.  In real life, even those who really know what they’re doing often don’t look as cool as the movie stars people want to emulate when fists start flying.  That’s just the nature of a fight: they’re ugly, awkward, scrambling messes of hands and feet.

When I’m training someone in self-defense, the first thing I have to get them to overcome is the giggling awkwardness of punching someone you know in the face.  It seems silly – we all know that we have to hurt another person in order to win a fight – but when it comes time to actually lay that hurt down on one of your peers, people default to a social politeness setting, throwing loose baby jabs and worrying about hurting each other.  Normally, I’m able to dispel those awkward issues by the end of the first day, because nothing reminds you that you’re here to hurt someone like having me jab you in the ribs every time you drop your guard.

Recently, while working with a young woman who wanted to learn how to better defend herself, I was explaining that, at her size, it was important that she not let me see that she has a knife until she’s prepared to use it.  A knife is an excellent defensive weapon, but I weighed more than a hundred pounds more than she did, and I’m pretty savvy when it comes to knife defense.  If she brandished her three-inch blade ominously, it might dissuade a casual attacker, but if someone’s intent on doing her harm, letting them see the knife ahead of time will only allow them a chance to plan to counter it.  I explained myself a few more times before I had to ask about her quizzical look…

“You mean, you want me to actually kill the guy with this?” She said looking at the blade in her hand as though the idea of using it to harm another had somehow changed its shape.

“Well, like we discussed, I want you to do everything in your power to avoid a situation that might call for that, but if it’s you or him, yes.  I want you to kill your attacker with it.”