Surprising Ways In Which Old Style Training is Optimal for Modern Violence

Most traditional martial artists arrive at a point in their training when they realize violence “ain’t what it used to be”. Sure, humans are essentially unchanged. We still have two hands, two feet, a brain, and a mouth which we can use to get ourselves into trouble…but quite a bit has changed beyond that. Nowadays we have to concern ourselves with easily concealable weapons like folding knives, guns, mace, Tazers, etc. Not only that, but we operate inside of a civilized society with rules and consequences for violence.

Certainly our old styles are too antiquated to handle that sort of environment?

In some ways…yes…but don’t run off and burn your belt just yet. The old ways may need tweaking in order to compensate for modern law and tools of violence, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw them out entirely. In fact, in some ways old styles may be even better suited to the reality of modern civilian violence than many military and mixed martial arts.

Psychological Insight with Rory Miller

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Rory Miller and consuming a large amount of his published material. He has quickly become one of my favorite voices in understanding violence and finding ways to cope with it in modern society. He has an understanding of traditional martial arts and decades of experience in detentions and law enforcement. As a result he can dig down as deep as you want into psychology and law but still explain it in a digestible way.

If you’d like to kickstart a Rory Miller library of your own I would recommend these two DVDs:

facing violence ___ logic of violence
Facing Violence Logic of Violence
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In “Logic of Violence”, Rory explores the different kinds of predators that an individual may face. In addition, he discusses the most probable victims for each of those predators and how they go about determining the best places to hunt, who they hunt for, and how citizens can understand which predators may be targeting them.

At one point, he breaks down the different predator types like so:

predator types

In order to understand the fundamental point of this blog post (ways in which old style training is optimal for modern violence), we need to investigate Rory’s structure a little closer.

You’ll notice in the chart above that predators are broken into two fundamental groups: asocial and social. Asocial predators are the ones with no desire to look good in front of others. They want something from you (your money, your body, your watch, etc) and the violence they inflict is to that end. They may simply enjoy the process of killing or raping and thus the action is the goal.

Social predators are very much concerned with how their actions are perceived and who perceives them. The monkey dance for example is often exhibited when two males compete over ego, a female, or territory. An educational beatdown may occur if a stranger or group member breaks the perceived rules of a particular group (think biker gang).

I won’t belabor the different predators here, but if you want to understand each type be sure to check out Rory’s work linked above.

The most interesting thing about the predator types is how different they may act. Asocial predators, for example, do not want an audience. They want to finish their task as quickly as possible. They also want the weakest, most lucrative targets they can get with little thought of ego (beating up an old lady and stealing her car won’t get the crook street cred but it will result in a financial gain).

A monkey dancing jerk on the other hand wants as many people as possible to witness his show of strength and dominance. As such he will puff his chest out, make declarations, and be sure to prove a point while fighting someone he deems worth the effort (a social predator would be more likely to challenge another fit male rather than an old man).

With that understood, let’s look at the habits of martial arts training and why old methods are well designed to deal with these predatory situations.

The Ironic Ego Build for Fit Athletes

One of Rory’s favorite quotes is as follows: “A lot of martial arts involve fighters teaching fighters how to fight fighters.” Once you break that down and wade through the meaning, it makes a lot of sense. Take a peek into many hardknock schools and you’ll likely see lots of fit, tone, big individuals that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. These schools are supposedly teaching students how to survive encounters on the street. They talk about defending against muggers and knife wielding murderers. But here’s the twist – most of the individuals training are NOT the primary target for resource and process predators.

If you were a mugger and you were watching for people to attack, would you choose the bulky, 6’0″ guy wearing the “tap, snap, or nap” T-shirt? No. So many of the fantasies regarding street self defense are misplaced.


As we discussed in the predator chart above, fit men are at risk mostly from social attacks, either from a single challenger or a group that wants to beat him down. Now if we take a trained martial artist and add in an inflated ego and bloodlust thanks to constant aggressive training he becomes even more of a target. The means and methods of his “self defense” have, in fact, heightened the probability of him getting attacked.

Here is where old style training kicks in. As opposed to the more modern mindset of “strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir”, the old method was steeped in ritual and process to promote humility. Students were (and still are in some places) inclined to clean the dojo floor, dust around photos of old masters, bow into and out of the dojo, etc etc. This process feels belabored and humiliating to a lot of modern artists, and certainly it has been abused by many instructors. However, what these habits tried to instill was the idea that a puffed up ego would not get a student ahead in the dojo. With ego deflation as part of the training, the student was more inclined to keep that ego controlled when in “real life” environments.

There is an old saying that the stalk with the most rice bows the lowest. Similarly, it was considered a great sign of individual character when a martial arts master went unnoticed in a room, and many masters would do everything in their power to divert attention away from themselves. Do these qualities not sound more fitting to survive social violence encounters, the kind likely to befall modern civilians who are fit and able?

The Ideal Training When Victimization Rises

We discussed how a great many martial artists are strong and capable individuals, making them non-ideal targets for process and resource predators. But then, who would be ideal? Women perhaps due to less inherent physical strength (even well trained women if they catch the eye of a determined predator)…but who else? What about children? The elderly?

Have you ever seen old boxers walking around? Not only are their bodies battered but often their minds as well. Every now and then we hear a great story about an old time boxer fending off some punk kids, but all too often the extreme punishment of the sport takes it’s toll during middle age and later in life. Same goes for many football players, pro wrestlers, and pro fighters. They were athletes training at the top of their game, but now they are lucky to move around without assistance.

On the other hand, there are seniors in old style martial arts like karate that can move with alarming speed and fluidity:

Of course karate and other hard styles can go overboard and instill too much bodily abuse, but the essence of longevity is there for students to explore.

The key to old style training is the combination of self defense capabilities with body awareness, wellness, diet, and moderation. A good, balanced program will feature challenging elements like body conditioning and sparring but spell them with bouts of kata training, meditation, and kihon (basics). This diversity allows the practitioner to become skillful in his/her prime years but continue training passed that time. In fact, the solo training becomes even more important for maintaining fitness.

Underestimated even in many of today’s modern schools is the old emphasis on wellness and diet. The idea of keeping the inside of the body fit used to be as important as the outside. Of course, it’s harder to sell diet and wellness as part of a business model and modern students hardly consider it any business of the Sensei. However, when observed carefully, these old ways allow for training well into old age. As we established, old age is the exact time when even fit males start to become targets for resource and process predators. In his book “Karatedo: My Way of Life”, Funakoshi recounts multiple self defense encounters he had later in life. It wasn’t dynamic fighting that saved him but good common sense techniques like using implements (an umbrella for example) and simple but effective techniques (groin strikes).

If Funakoshi was unable to move efficiently in his autumn years he would have become just another victim despite decades of hard training.

Simple and Reliable Concepts

In his video and written material Rory does very little explanation of the techniques he likes to use. Instead he prefers the viewer/reader to apply what they already do in a functional context. However, one stipulation he does suggest is that techniques should be simple, robust (can go wrong but still be salvageable), redundant (work on almost anything), and congruent with your mindset (works with your ideal distance and body type). One of his favorites is a two hand “augmented” technique that looks like this:

rory_augment11 rory_augment22 rory_augment33

In Okinawan Karate we refer to this technique as “meotode” or “mefutode”. It is one of the most fundamental positions we adopt and is featured prominently in our kata. Watch Seisan below for an obvious example of this technique in action:

The fantastic thing about this body posture is that it meets all of Rory’s common sense requirements for a good self defense method. It closes off the most vulnerable parts of the body, works with the natural body flinch reflex, can be used with open or closed hand, keeps all body weapons in play, and builds upon itself in redundancy so that if an initial movement fails it has a followup coming directly after. Best of all, there are routines to drill it so that it becomes muscle memory.

The funny thing is, it isn’t a glamorous fighting method. It probably won’t win any tournament competitions and wouldn’t be ideal in a professional bout. However, in a real self defense situation when the body is tight, adrenaline is high, and the mind is resetting down to what it has trained the most…this technique is a winner and it can be found in old karate, kung fu, and others.

 Defense First Mindset

“Karate Ni Sente Nashi” is a phrase that adorns the walls of many dojo. It means “There is no First Attack in Karate”. Some people like to interpret that literally in that a block is always thrown before a strike. However, I tend to interpret it more philosophically. The main idea behind the phrase is that the mind does not act aggressively toward others without provocation. If a kareteka senses danger he/she may choose to take the initiative but it was only due to the fact that all other options for resolution seem to have failed.


This is an important concept to study as it coincides with the modern legal paradigm of I.M.O.P. IMOP means “intent, means, opportunity, preclusion” and are the four major ingredients that make up a self defense encounter. If an attacker has the intent to do harm, the means to do it (physical power, weapon, etc), and the opportunity (same room, same street, etc) then the situation is close to self defense. However, the final piece, preclusion, is just as important. Preclusion means the victim did everything in their power to remove themselves (and loved ones if applicable) from the situation before resorting to violence.

By keeping “Karate Ni Sente Nashi” in mind during day-to-day living a martial artist will inevitably attempt to forego the ego of violence and instead seek a way to resolve/remove the situation. If the individual can properly recount the events and the steps taken to avoid the encounter he/she has a significant advantage defending their case in a court of law.

Conclusive Roundup

It may sound like I am a little down on modern styles, but actually my goal is to suggest the value of both. Modern styles tend to speak more openly about the law and the importance of diversifying training (scenario drills, groundwork, etc). I also believe traditional styles are unsurpassed in terms of adopting an attitude toward training that is geared toward longevity, humility, and overall wellness.

By listening to Rory Miller, an astute observer of violence and the human condition, we hear echoed thoughts from styles developed generations ago. I am encouraged that we can continue to learn and grow in a manner that accepts the reality of danger while optimizing our ability to cope with it. Let’s keep our minds open to wisdom from the past and ears open to wisdom in our modern world.