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Kelly McCann on How Limiting Your Arsenal of Self-Defense Moves Can Actually Improve Your H2HC Skill

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

I was recently fortunate to train, have dinner with and catch up with two friends who recently returned from Afghanistan. They’re members of a special-mission unit composed of some of the nation’s best warriors; they are to warfare what Olympic athletes are to sports.

One is a serious martial artist and MMA practitioner, the other a combatives junkie who seeks exposure to virtually anything he believes will hone his self-defense moves, including kali, jeet kune do and more esoteric systems. Both practice hand-to-hand combat (H2HC) techniques and straight combatives regularly. Both have closed with enemy forces scores of times over the past eight years.

Their unit has the intensity, funding and diligence to approach training and fitness in the most scientific and sophisticated ways. They’re able to take advantage of any training course the Command agrees is useful.

Their fighting program encompasses boxing, jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, MMA and various forms of straight combatives. They believe the aforementioned combat sports promote conditioning and athleticism and foster a fighting mentality, while combatives leverages each of those skill sets and provides a streamlined, functional battle-space approach.

Why Less Can Be More in the World of Self-Defense Moves Our conversation got around to martial arts, combatives, personal preferences, H2HC, organizational needs and training. Interestingly, despite being exposed to a wide variety of self-defense moves, both agreed that isolating and mastering fewer H2HC techniques that are, or become, personally intuitive — no matter where they originate — is critical to prevailing in individual combat.

In other words, truly mastering the fundamentals of some self-defense moves results in a higher probability of achieving success than does having a passing familiarity with significantly more H2HC techniques — many of which might easily fit into the nice-to-know category. They pointed out, for example, that of the many submission techniques that exist, fewer than 10 account for the majority of wins in MMA. Among them were the arm triangle, leg triangle, rear-naked choke, kimura, Americana, heel hook, armbar and guillotine. Similarly, any boxer who can get in and out cleanly, use angles, fire jabs and crosses like rifle shots, intuitively counterpunch, implement a bomb-proof guard and move well solidifies himself as an opponent worthy of respect. In both examples, they’re pretty fundamental techniques, yet that’s what normally wins in combat sports. My friends’ point was that their H2HC experiences proved the same. Relatively few fundamental self-defense moves answer the mail over and over again.

How Many Self-Defense Moves Should You Learn for Optimal H2HC Capability?

There’s a simple, truthful elegance to answering the question, “But how many self-defense moves should I learn?” with one word: “Enough.” The trouble is, finite curricula sometimes leave people feeling doubtful, as if they don’t have enough tools or H2HC techniques in their toolboxes.

I suggest they worry whether they have the right tools in their toolboxes and whether they’re reliable. Concern about the sheer volume of self-defense moves is usually the result of resisting the grind that living a combative or martial life is. It’s the result of accepting one’s skill level with any given technique instead of improving the execution of those self-defense moves; adding more when a person hasn’t mastered what he’s got is futile. Is another H2HC technique really necessary, or does the person just lack the skill to adapt and apply the fundamental in a broader set of situations?

In What Direction Should H2HC Training Be Geared?

Think of it this way: One combatant develops very basic knife skills that include lightning-fast thrusts, angled movements, and the explosive ability to get in and out quickly. Another concentrates on a more complex inside skill set involving trapping, redirection and counter-cuts. Who would win? They train the same amount of time, and each hones his self-defense moves. One approach is stark and simple. The other is more difficult, requires more dexterity and has more component pieces. I think either would be formidable. The exacerbating factor relative to our discussion here is duress, of course, and what each is able to execute under circumstances that have significant consequences. Although the search for better H2HC techniques that more completely answer our tactical reality should never end, we all should focus on fewer self-defense moves and grind out our training, which means we’re grinding in our motor memory.

Retention of Self-Defense Moves Although I’ve never seen a study focused on it, I’d certainly like to know how much true motor memory we have. How many self-defense moves or H2HC techniques can we actually retain and maintain in that nearly intuitive state? I expect that it’s fewer than people imagine. I also think skill atrophy occurs at a faster rate than most realize, leaving us to suddenly discover just how perishable performance is, especially when we’re under duress.

Consider people’s general appetite for developing and maintaining a high level of skill. The very fact that you’re reading this means you have an above-average appetite and buy Black Belt and/or read articles on because you have a more developed and serious interest. The average person’s level of interest, attention to detail, workout intensity and frequency of training are probably less than yours — meaning that dwell time on an ever-increasing set of self-defense moves and H2HC techniques simply isn’t significant enough to master the moves. As dinner with my friends wound down, the joint emptied and waiters hovered. The one who’s dedicated to the fighting arts simply said, “Yeah, you can search forever for the next big thing, but preparing for combat, you either get it or you don’t. Less really is more.” A couple of days later, the other one followed up dinner and our conversation with an e-mail I thought summed up my feelings perfectly: “The more operational experience guys get and the more they bang hard in training, the more they see through s**t that requires a blueprint.”

About the author: Kelly McCann is a former U.S. Marine special-missions officer responsible for counterterrorism and counter-narcotics. He now serves as the president of Crucible, an elite empty-hand and weapons-training facility that provides security support services and trains military, government and law-enforcement operators to do whatever it takes to survive. Kelly McCann is the author of the book and DVD series Combatives for Street Survival: Hard-Core Countermeasures for High-Risk Situations. His book teaches you how to prevail in any street conflict with devastatingly effective principles and brutal techniques.

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