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On The Razor’s Edge: Lady Sensei on Knife-Defense

There seems to be a culture of self-defense practitioners and enthusiasts who watch knife-defense videos on YouTube while exclaiming, “that (expletive) will get you killed!” Or “that’s a bunch of (expletive)!”

lady sensei

Black Belt Plus

It’s quite a spectacle out there on social media, with spirited discussions and ongoing debates on the subject of what constitutes realistic knife defense. What do these people understand that others don’t? Tensions can run high as they dismiss — or compliment — the effectiveness of various techniques. Before you get too impressed with any technique you see online or in person, there are several things you should understand about knife attacks.

Students and disciples generally learn the gospel of the knife from their beloved teachers, who often learned it from their beloved teachers. Most accept their lessons without question, and like family heirlooms, they preserve them and pass them on with great pride to the next generation. Some teachers, however, have a more contemporary approach. They change with the times and encourage creativity. Less of a reflection on the teacher, it has more to do with the differences between martial arts and self-defense.

Unfortunately, knife attacks are very difficult to standardize because categorically each one is an ambush. Knives are weapons of passion, speed and surprise, and for this, there is no easy defense. Accessible and concealable, they’re capable of causing a quick and tormented death and/or massive damage.

Without warning, you can be caught off-guard, grabbed and stabbed with the speed of a sewing machine. Survival can be a crapshoot and almost always involves a lot of luck. If you plan on pursuing knife-defense training, commit to doing it with your entire mind, body and spirit— and consider studying the following to bump up your training.

Neurological Stimulation: Preset training is a great introduction that can help you create muscle memory. Once the skills take root, your sessions should become progressively more challenging, creating more exertion as you fine-tune your ability to observe, orient, decide and act — often called the OODA loop. You must learn how to move and manage distance while under pressure. Unlike prearranged attacks, dynamic unrehearsed training can help you act decisively, shorten your reaction time, quicken your reflexes and use the environment.

Physiological Response: You must expect to experience an adrenaline rush and an increase in heart rate. In an instant, consciously or subconsciously you’ll decide to fight or run.

You might even freeze in the face of fear. You’ll experience a breakdown of your fine-motor skills unless you’ve trained at extremely high levels to master this phenomenon. This is why all the flowery, fancy moves you know won’t be possible during mortal combat.

knife fight

Additionally, your breathing will become shallow. You’ll resort to using your grossmotor skills — if you’re able to move at all. Blood will flow to your arms and legs to give you the strength to fight or to run in an effort to survive. Adrenaline will temporarily raise your pain tolerance.

Psychological Profile: Knife attacks are very often personal. They’re usually preceded by a confrontation or escalation with an individual, or perhaps you have had some prior relationship or contact with that person. Alternatively, the perpetrator may have intense feelings about you or what you represent.

The person may feel violated and want you to suffer for what he or she believes you’ve done or thinks you deserve. Convinced of this, the assailant may not mind taking a bath in your blood — and being your judge, jury and executioner. If drugs or a psychotic episode is involved, the person might even exhibit superhuman strength or become impervious to pain.

Verbal De-escalation: It’s imperative to learn to defuse and redirect conversations that are headed in the wrong direction, so make active listening a part of your training. Criminals who confront you expect you to take an opposing view. Their actions are designed to insult you, dehumanize you or embarrass you to the point at which you engage with them.

Yes, not falling into their trap is easier said than done, so at the very least, you should remember that an assault is highly likely to be preceded by a confrontation or an argument.

Once you realize that the tension is rising, know that an attack is likely to follow.

The Law: Understand the laws in your state that pertain to knife use. If you maim or kill someone, there will be repercussions. You very well may think that because “the other person started it,” you are allowed to “finish it.” The law may or may not agree.

Before you decide to acquire a knife, know what’s legal to carry. Never assume that self-defense gives you the right to deploy your knife and kill someone. You could lose your self-defense claim if you participate in the escalation that leads to a more serious outcome. This is why you must know when to just walk away from the big mouth.

Even if you’re justified in your actions, you can still end up serving time for intent or worse. You also can be sued in civil court, where the burden of proof is lower than in criminal court even if the other person was the aggressor. Hiring a defense attorney will cost you a hefty sum.

These are just a few considerations you should have when attempting to identify quality knife training. It should be dynamic and simulate these and other variables as much as possible. It’s imperative to know and understand how your body will function and possibly react under extreme stress. Engaging someone with a knife should be an absolute last resort; chances are you will sustain an injury or worse in an ambush or confrontation. Situational awareness and walking or running away should be on any list of recommendations. While the debates and arguments continue on social media, remember that no matter your style, system or rank, you’re still going to need some luck because there is no effective defense against speed and surprise.

Gerry Chisolm, aka Lady Sensei, is a New York–based martial artist who teaches vee-arnis-jitsu, ninjutsu and combatives. The founding president of the Women’s Martial Arts Network, she was Black Belt’s 2020 Instructor of the Year.

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