Monday, April 5, 2010

The "Ground" Game: Is It Necessary to Know How to Defend from Down There?

This morning, as my hubby-to-be and I were doing a little spring cleaning, I playfully hit him with a pillow. Since the laundry basket was in back of me, I thought nothing at all of him walking behind me to toss the pillow cases in it - until he bum-rushed me from behind and pinned me on the bed. Not the position anybody wants to be in at all - especially since he's a 6'3", 215 lbs runner who lifts weights with his athletes (he's a track coach) at least three days a week. Not only is he rock solid, he also studied judo as a kid as well as some practical self-defense stuff while in the military for 20 years.

Keep in mind, we spar from time to time (in the kitchen, LOL), and because he's as long as I am, he's a good person to train with as he keeps me honest - meaning I can't just sit back and punch/kick since he can reach me from where I can reach him. But being pinned was totally different. I tried everything I could to get him off me - thrusting my hips, rolling onto my side, even reaching for his arms to go for a wrist or shoulder lock - all to no avail because he outweighs me by 60 lbs and was Just. Too. Strong. To make matters worse, when he shifted his weight, he made me roll, trapping me on my side with my hands above my head. Everything from my armpit to my hip was exposed. Had he been an evil doer with a knife, I would have been toast.

Although he would never hurt me, that same scenario with someone who would is actually one of my biggest fears. Every now and again in the dojo, someone will remind us that most fights end on the ground, so it seems logical that knowing what to do once you get there is important. But I hardly feel confident on the ground - defending or attacking - and I doubt that I could protect myself from or actually get away from a person who really is trying to do me harm once I'm down there.

At a seminar on inside attacks a few summers back, a woman raised a hand and asked about what a shorter, weaker person would do against an attack from behind where the assailant pushed them forward. She told us about how a friend got off a bus, passed a guy she had a "funny feeling" about but kept going. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital bed about a week later. He'd not only grabbed her from behind and pushed her forward, but he slammed her forehead into the pavement several times, which knocked her out almost instantly. Not sure if she was sexually assaulted, but she was robbed. The friend doesn't remember much of that week she spent in the hospital because she was in a coma.

Although she was not a martial artist and probably would have benefited greatly by trusting her gut about that funny feeling she had (which we women have been socialized to totally ignore, it seems), I wonder how much a good ground game might also have helped her? The only thing the facilitator could think of to alleviate the immediate and most dangerous threat - the trauma to her head - was to placing the arms between her head and the pavement. But had the attacker pinned them to her side when he grabbed her, that would not have been an option, even.

What do you think: should ground work be an ancillary or even a necessary part of traditional karate training? I wasn't always so sure before, but perhaps I need to re-think that...


  1. Hi Felicia. I understand your fear here. Grappling, including ground fighting used to be part of karate originally but has been lost from most systems now. We have re-introduced a bit of ground fighting into our system recently and strangly it's quite enjoyable! A book I would recommend is 'Karate's Grappling methods' by Iain Abernethy. It includes ground fighting methods. The ISBN is 0-9538932-0-0

  2. Thanks, Sue. Will check it out for sure...

    A few months back, we got mats in my old dojo and we'd gone to the ground a few times as a result just to get a feel for things. I was always OK with female training partners my height, smaller or lighter, but when I got to "play" with male training partners, it was a real mess. I know it's a practice thing, but still. It left me with SUCH a feeling of dread - so much so that it actually shocked me...

    The stuff I don't know how to do yet could fill VOLUMES!

  3. Look back, the original Okinawan Karate has grappling and everything else. It was a borderless system of defending oneself.

    I really enjoy watching Kenji Ushiro Sensei. He is very traditional.

  4. Your friend lost that battle from the get go. When she ignored that "feeling" that something was wrong.....she lost. At that point, no "technique" or training was going to help after her head slammed into the concrete. People need to realize that avoidance is the most important part of self defense. I'm a 23 year Law Enforcement Officer, Close Quarter Combat Instructor and Martial Artist. I teach the 3 As, Attitude, Awareness, and Action. Hopefully with the right attitude and awareness you won't have to go into the final action phase.Women are ingrained with that extra "sense" that tells them when something isn't right. Know that if something looks bad, smells bad, tastes bad, feels bad.... it's bad!!

  5. Kata like Empi, Nijushiho, Unsu, Heian Godan and Kanku Dai all have moves that involve going to the ground, throwing and/or recovering from a throw, however briefly. A group attack is a situation you want to stay upright for as much as possible, but it's not always possible.

    In Living The Martial Way, I remember the author saying chosing to focus on kicks and strikes over throws and grappling was like a modern soldier saying he could just focus on hand grenades and not learn to use a rifle.

    There is a style out there called Snake Boxing which I understand still works well with striking arts, weapons and groups(I haven't had a chance to study it yet.) There are too many ground styles like Judo and wrestling that are now about:
    1) perfect ground conditions (soft, no concrete, no broken glass or sharp objects to roll on)
    2) One on One
    3) No weapons
    4) weight classes
    5) striking, pressure point grabs, eyes and testicles and throat are very secondary and frequently "against the rules."

    So, pick your ground work teacher carefully. A friend of mine remembers being a bouncer and when he fell on top of one person in a fight, he was kicked repeatedly by several other "patrons" while he was left rolling around on broken glasses and borken beer bottles. He saw another fight where one person one the ground grabbed a broken beer bottle and started using it while pinned down - the harder the first person laid on him, the deeper he was cut.

    The lady got sucker punched, and is very lucky to be alive - it sounds like she took a throw designed to fracture her skull or break her neck on impact. You're absolutely right about your advice to her - it's not about how you fight back after your brains are splattered on the concrete and you're already unconscious, it's about what went very wrong to end up there in the first place.

    Good luck. Start by not seeing karate as a strictly striking art when going over your kata, and see what happens.

  6. Hi Felicia, I would definitely agree that the ground game is important. Almost every fight i've seen ended up on the ground one way or another. Im very new to martial arts and had begun training in aikijutsu a little over a year ago, but was fortunate enough to be introduced to the sister art of daito-ryu known as kito-ryu. I've noticed that training on the ground as well as standing has made me more confident in myself as a person and as a practitioner. I guess for me this confidence comes from always having a "plan" in the event that i was taken by surprise or whatever. Training for as many possible scenarios as i can think of has done wonders for my confidence. Anyways thank you for sharing this article

  7. Hi, Mitchell - and you're right. Okinawan karate does have grappling in it and everything else. But we don't spend loads of time working those traditional aspects at all. Funny, though, that this blog post lead to one of my instructors spending class time walking us through the ins and outs of taking someone to the ground, keeping yourself from ending up there and what to do with your body, hips, hands and legs if you had to go to the ground...

    Will have to check out more video of Kenji Ushiro Sensei. Thanks for the info and for stopping by :-)

  8. Hi, Keith,

    The woman was not a martial artist - not that that makes a difference in this respect - but my point was that women in general have been sort of conditioned to ignore those instincts that tell us a person is up to no good. We second guess it and end up convincing ourselves that we are over-reacting or letting our imaginations run away with us. Again, the best illustration I can think of is the number of serial killers who walked with limps or canes to garner sympathy and eventually assistance from their victims. Who would ever think that a man asking for help into his car would ever do us harm? Betcha their internal "something's not quite right" alarms were ringing as well, but tending to think we're over-reacting kind of calms that, unfortunately.

    Good for you for teaching the 3A's. Wish every young woman could benefit from your program...

  9. Hi, Rug - "Living the Martial Way" is, sadly, one I've never read although it is on my "to read" list. Good advice about going over the kata and seeing what else it contains! I'll definitely give that a shot...

  10. Hi, Gary. I've heard that adage about most fights ending on the ground lots and lots in karate. I've never been in or even seen a real, live fight before, so I don't quite have a reference point per se, but I do understand how it could happen.

    The instruction about grappling that I have gotten always encourages getting back on your feet and possibly the heck out of dodge as quickly as possible. Everything done on the ground seems to be to get untangled from the adversary and back vertical quickly, which seems logical. Trouble is that perhaps that may not be practical at all - so what do you do if you can't get up - or even on top - quickly? That's what I know I need to work on. And I will...

    Kito-ryu sounds interesting. Glad it has given you confidence and helped you to formulate your "plan"...