When it comes to martial arts and self-defense – especially the striking arts such as tae kwon do, karate, kung fu or Muay Thai – our initial reaction is to block and strike back until the threat is vanquished. 

Shouldn’t our priority be to keep a verbal conflict from turning into a physical altercation in the first place?

It is by no means the fault of the particular arts, or even that of the instructors who teach them, that self-defense is initially taught this way. These are combative arts. We train to perform amazing kicks, we hit pads and heavy bags to develop powerful strikes, we even break bricks and boards to show how effective the art can be.

The fact is, the best way to get out of a fight without hurting yourself or others is not to get into one.

Every altercation starts with verbal interaction and we need to work harder to keep it from going any further. Not surprisingly, it’s easier to instill this concept into the minds of young children than teens or adults. With little ones, you can tell them to walk away, get a teacher or say “leave me alone” before they ever need to use their skills. 

It’s also easier to communicate the ramifications of their actions at that age. I can say “If you fight, what happens?” The inevitable answer is you get in trouble. I say “And when you get in trouble, it’s not just with school. It’s with the other guy’s parents and your mom and dad too, right?” Thus, relaying to them the potential “layers” of trouble they can get into by fighting. 

Then you communicate the long-term effects of getting in trouble on a regular basis. “Kids who get in trouble often can get suspended or could even be expelled. It is all about controlling your emotions. Your temper.” This makes sense to them. I would continue “If you don’t learn to control your emotions when you’re young, you can get into far greater trouble when you’re older.” 

“Basically, kids who become teens and don’t control their emotions go to a correctional home or Juvenile Hall. Adults who don’t control their emotions go to jail.”

Those are the extremes of course, but the situation is all too common. Once you have small children thinking that way, the message is delivered. 

The bigger problem is that by the time you get to high school, you’ve either witnessed or been involved in a physical altercation. You’ve also been called out if you don’t fight. Been called a wimp…or a lot worse. This is a much more difficult time to convince someone to just walk away. Their heart, their courage, their very manhood has been questioned. They need to be macho and fight! Right? Wrong. 

The fact is the prisons in this country are filled with inmates who wished they had thought before they acted. They should’ve taken a breath. They should’ve walked away. But they didn’t. They threw a punch, or a kick, or applied a choke in a blind rage. Or more likely these days, they just pulled a trigger. And it changed their life FOREVER. 

Lawsuits, court fees, insurance premiums, hospital bills, loss of job and income, loss of freedom, maybe even loss of life. The total cost is almost immeasurable. 

Now those same individuals are told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside (if ever) and are referred to in the system as just a number. I bet you if ask 100 inmates if the crime they committed was the biggest mistake of their life, 100 of them (if they were thinking clearly) would say yes. 

You can’t get those moments back. But most of those conflicts – not all of them – that got them in that cell in the first place were entirely avoidable. There are good reasons to fight, like when your life or that that of your loved ones is truly threatened, but most of the time it’s just too much testosterone. Or alcohol. Or both.

It is by far the most difficult lesson to learn; to walk away. Depending on your environment, it is a challenge an individual can be faced with on a daily basis. It takes more courage to just walk away than to ball up your fist and hurl it at someone’s head

It’s not easy to teach either. You can’t get through to everyone every time. Just as there is no self-defense technique that will work every time, regardless of opponent, there is no one way of convincing everyone why they should walk away from a fight. 

One of the most effective ways I have learned to help adults realize how foolish fighting without a good reason is to tell them “what if it was a child in front of you?” I would continue “If a child came up to you and called you a jerk, said you looked stupid or bumped into you, would you say haul off and hit them?” Most adults would say no. Then apply the same logic to the individual in front of you. They are just as immature as a child and are baiting you into a fight. They are bringing you down to their level. In essence, they are controlling you. Everyone can understand that. 

So next time you find yourself in that situation – or are trying to get a friend or loved one out of a potential jam – try to breath and envision your aggressor as a 5-year-old little girl. Are you still angry enough to fight? Hope not. 

Avoid the physical altercation and you’ve truly mastered “The Art of Fighting Without Fighting”.

Until next time,
James Hirth
Chung’s Martial Arts