Combatives - by Jon Mackey

The term 'Combatives' has become more popular of late.

Many self defence clubs have now rebranded themselves as being "combatives". This rebrand is similar to when MMA burst onto the scene and many clubs rebranded what they were doing as MMA, even if it wasn't.

Like MMA, the term Combatives is widely misunderstood. Like MMA, Combatives is conceptual as opposed to any formulated system with a complete curriculum. This misunderstanding is common among self defence clubs and, in many cases, they purport to be teaching 'combatives', as opposed to training in the principles of combatives.

In fact, the terms 'self-defence' and 'combatives' are so far removed from each other that in combative training circles, the term 'self protection' is deemed a more holistic and universal approach to training for reality which differentiates from self defence.

Self Defence V Self Protection

"Defending is the art of losing" as the old adage tells us - and this is relevant within the context of self defence training.

Typically, self defence training incorporates learning how to free yourself from already applied invasive techniques. Such techniques vary and are invariably unrealistic, such as the wrist grab, the twin lapel grab or other such moves. The problem with this style of training is that it is teaching us to deal with an attack which is already in motion, therefore the student is on the back foot and defending, already losing. What differentiates self defence training from self protection training is that self protection aspires to a much broader and realistic approach.

The self protection spectrum covers all stages of conflict. Obviously, there is a build up stage or a pre-conflict stage where a sequence of events has accumulated and has resulted in your person being assaulted. This pre-conflict stage is the most important aspect of self protection and incorporates the often overlooked concept of awareness.

Self protection training covering pre conflict stages will cover subjects such as victim selection and target hardening, pre conflict cues, situational control and dialogue techniques incorporating the 'fence' concept made famous by Geoff Thompson. These valuable lessons are often ignored within the confines of self defence training.

Post conflict stages or after the assault may deal with interacting with the law, calling an ambulance, keeping a situation calm or employing first aid to yourself or others. Post conflict stages could deal with come back or a follow up scenario.

In every event and whatever the scenario maybe you will have to deal with some event under the kybosh of adrenalin and noradrenalin, which impairs your ability to make decisions and think straight. Again another vital component ignored in self defence training.


The in-conflict stages of our self protection training is what separates this style of training from self defence.

The word "combative" is in the dictionary and means "argumentative and willing to fight" - for example, "he was a combative individual." The word "combatives" is not referenced in the dictionary, but is used within the modern Self-Protection fraternity and has come to mean the use of anything that works, or has proven itself to work in a real conflict dynamic.

Martial arts are reciprocal by nature, such as - "you apply this technique, then I will do this, you will react this way then I will do this", or "your turn - my turn - your turn - my turn."

Combatives is non reciprocal. It is a one-directional aggressive response to any threat, namely "my turn - my turn - my turn - finished," bearing in mind the force to threat parallel at all times.

Sun Tzu suggested that the art of war or conflict was the art of deception and of anything that worked. Combative principles will include the pre-emptive strike, forward pressure, aggression, attachment or indexing and ballistic gross motor movements which are accessible under adrenal stress.

Fine motor skill, such as target acquisition, wrist locks and specific pressure point acquisition and even decision making are rendered useless because the part of the brain that coordinates these movements is by-passed due to the hormone adrenalin and noradrenalin which activates our fight or flight response. Understanding the effects of adrenalin on the body is rarely understood or trained in self defence. This is a significant biological response undertaken by the body to aid you in combat for survival, to misunderstand it is a mistake.

The physical elements of combative principles takes up about 10% of the over all self protection curriculum. The objective is simple - hit hard, hit hard enough to remove the threat, hit continuously to remove the threat. You remove the threat by removing the intention of your attacker. His or her intention to hurt you must now be replaced by one of self preservation.

In order to tackle this intention immediatley, 90% of the striking skills honed are directed towards the high line or, any part of the anatomy from the clavicle up. Any part of the head is game, where if we create enough ballistic impact we can cause enough trauma to the brain where the nervous system, over awed by the blow automatically shuts down, rendering the attacker unconscious - or where the trauma to the brain causes a sudden pause (seeing stars), which may give me enough of a stumble in my attacker's intention to either remove the threat proper by following up, or high tail it and run. The objective being get home safely, whatever the cost.

Like all physical conflicts, it's so much easier to understand them, than it is to partake in them. It sounds pretty straight forward to pre-emptively strike and then blast forward with knees and elbows or whatever the range gives me to deal with an aggressive subject. These are striking skills, easily learned and honed to perfection.

When I mentioned earlier that the principles of striking took up about 10% of the self protection curriculum, that left us with another 90% to discuss. This 90% is mindset.

Unless you cultivate the mindset to do whatever it takes to prevail in a physical conflict, then all of your super classy strikes will amount to nothing under stress. If you have no concept of what adrenalin will do to you under these conditions, then you are likely to lose all of your well-trained skill out your backside as you go to foetal position on the floor.

Mindset is everything in these situations as depicted by the 'Vital Pyramid' (pictured below) to highlight the fact the cultivating a mindset or combative mental approach is the foundation for all other principles.

The Vital Pyramid

The areas of mindset are very complex. It can be easy to pretend you have the mindset needed; it is also very easy to say "meh, I'll never need it," and hopefully you won't. But on the chance you do, can you leave it to chance?

Training for reality means you must bring your training as close to reality as possible. Training under non-compliant conditions allows you to work scenarios with zero compliance. Adrenal stress inoculation training is used early on in combative training; the idea is to get the fundamentals down, then test it ASAP.

To quote Lee Morrison "This is what we mean by installing the BIG piece then refining the details after. In other words, give the student a dynamic experience as soon as possible based on the concepts he/she has been given then, give them demonstratable proof that it works."

You do this by debriefing after the scenario/experience, looking at what they did well, and at what needs improving (refining the details), then give them another experience thus building confidence in the student. For examples of this type of stress testing, you can watch this video on YouTube.

Training in combative principles and self protection methods is becoming much more available now on Irish shores since the arrival of some of the most well know combative advocates in the world. Instructors such as Lee Morrison, Den Martin, Peter Consterdine to name a few have all taught combative seminars in the recent past.

The term 'self protection' was brought into the mainstream, however, by Geoff Thompson through his own experiences as a doorman on some of Coventry's roughest clubs, and through his infamous 'Animal Day' sparring sessions, which led to a new breed of self protection instructors.

Combative principles, however, have been around since the Neanderthal man, streamlined and progressed by such exponents as Fairbairn and Sykes from the WWII era. Today these exact same principles have evolved and developed into the explosive, no-nonsense approach to the physical element of self protection known as Combatives. Self defence will soon be a thing of the past.

Jon Mackey

Red Star Combatives