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Like children and the disabled, violence directed against the elderly often grabs news headlines because of the shock it will cause in those who read or hear about it. The callousness of these crimes hits right at the heart of society’s core. Those of us who are not elderly yet are often angered by such news, as we can relate the victim to an older member of our family. Those of us who are elderly often see this as yet more evidence that certain criminals see the elderly as targets. However, according to the British Home Office’s website “Elderly people are no more at risk of crime than anybody else, but they are often more concerned about crime than other age groups”. Whether or not this is accurate is a debate for another day, but surely the elderly, as adults with equal rights, at least should be allowed access to the same self-defence systems as younger members of our society. CCMA (Clubb Chimera Martial Arts) takes the premise that self-defence training is only really efficient if those who need it the most can apply its tactics in confidence, under pressure and with efficiency.
The Elderly and Martial Arts
From Master Po to Mr. Myagi, the mysticism that surrounds martial arts has put across the message that age can be deceptive and just because a person appears to be in their twilight years does not necessarily mean that they are not able to match a more youthful aggressor. Small could beat big, weak could beat strong and old could be young. In fact, there was often the heavy hint that that martial arts were a bit like magic and the wiser you got the more powerful you became. Sadly, like all the mysticism attached to martial arts the truth presents a far different story.
What is true, however, is that there are plenty of examples of martial arts masters who continued to train into old age and commanded tremendous respect. From Aikido’s founder, Morhei Ueshiba (who died at age 86) to Taekwondo’s founder, General Choi Hong Hi (who died at age 84) to Jigaro Kano, who gave Judo exhibitions until his seventy-fourth year, the importance of teacher lineage in traditional martial arts has ensured that these revered men remained an active part of the institutions they initiated until their deaths. Today, we have glowing examples in the likes of Dan Inosanto (born 1936), Helio Gracie (born 1913, now deceased) and Wally Jay (born 1917) of elderly gentlemen who show the world what it means to make martial arts a lifestyle choice. As much as this says about the respectful nature of the martial arts community and the health benefits continued study provides, it is small consolation for the novice OAP who wishes to learn an efficient way to defend himself.
Although well-intentioned, the martial arts community has regularly patronized the over 60s. The minority of elderly people who decide to actively take up martial arts are often treated like kids for fear that they may be damaged in the contact areas of training. It is small wonder why a large percentage have naturally migrated to abstract versions of Tai Chi Chuan, where the art’s roots in combat have all but been forgotten. It would appear that this isn’t a new idea either. Shuang Yang Pei Ho is another slow moving and complex method of training, which also appeals to the old for this very reason. I remember one instructor of Chinese martial arts discuss how some forms were actually designed with the elderly in mind.
From a health perspective this might sound fine. An elderly person gets an opportunity to do a low risk activity that will stretch their muscles, increase their balance, reduce stress and you’ve heard all the rest. However, I have always pondered that the same might be said for a yoga lesson or any other form of practical activity that has been modified to go at the pace of the average elderly person. Sadly the same cannot be said for the average violent attacker. They tend to not adjust the level of violence they will use on their victim depending on their size, ability or age.
A classic stock martial art instructor defence is to say: “It will take time to make it truly effective”. This idea that you need to practice for a life time in order to be able to handle yourself in a life threatening situation is in stark contrast to just about any other form of life preservation discipline you can learn. Children who learn Road Safety are not expected to go on to become traffic police and attendees of First Aid course, even advanced ones, do not generally intend to be paramedics. Yet the skills they do acquire are immediately effective in real life situations. This idea regarding the implausible application of abstract movements to realistic encounters is entrenched in modern quasi-traditional martial arts training is for those who have seen “The Karate Kid” film, think “wax on, wax off”. Failing this argument the defensive abstract martial arts teacher can always lean back on the “higher art” pacifist snobbery, whereby you are encouraged to feel embarrassed about seeking out a system that will teach you how to fight in the first place. If you are going to learn how to fight so you don’t have to fight at least learn how to fight in the first place.
Fortunately a lot of this rubbish has been debunked both from a modern point of view and from an historical/traditional perspective, opening the floodgates for modern realistic self-defence instructors and realistic traditionalists alike. Sadly the more vulnerable areas of society are rarely given access to the more credible training. This is down to several factors that need to change.
Teaching the Elderly Self-Defence
Biologically there is a lot of data that can be produced to argue against having elderly people engage in any form of pressure testing or full contact combat training. It is a tough fact for many to accept that as we pass a certain point in our lives we slowly begin to deteriorate. Unfortunately it is acknowledgement of this that deters the average elderly person from training and the average instructor from encouraging the elderly to participate. There is a mutual consensus regarding limitations and few people are really willing to look into it properly.
All forms of heavy contact activity carry with them the risk of serious injury. It is an undeniable fact that strikes to the head, regardless of your age, cause brain damage to some degree. Chokes can easily build up scar tissue around the arteries, no matter what age you are, and increase the risk of restricted blood flow, which can cause strokes and numerous other serious health conditions. Alongside these there is the risk of dislocating and breaking joints when you grapple, and all the usual bumps, cuts and bruises you get from superficial impact-based trauma. As they say, this comes with the territory. It is something instructors have to deal with no matter who is training. Therefore training has to be adjusted according to the individual’s requirements.
I first applied this concept when I looked towards training the other vulnerable end of society: children. Before I began pressure-testing children in realistic self-defence methods I was regularly told that I would not be able to do it because of the vulnerability of children. Yet, despite the onward onslaught of Health and Safety and the Political Correct lobby, children still spar full contact in Boxing clubs, Muay Thai clubs, Judo clubs and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu clubs, and they have traditionally engaged in hard contact sports like
Rugby for generations. Certain limitations are put in the place because children, by definition, are not wholly responsible for their actions. My argument was always that children do this kind of thing to each other back home and at school all the time. Fighting and play fighting with siblings and other children are a natural part of growing up for the young, so why should a child come to a self-defence lesson only to learn how tickle each other with low contact techniques or do moves against only compliant partners. This is the place they have been sent to learn how to fend off the physical bully or escape a potential adult abductor, the concept of learning how to be less effective in order to have a better chance in a real situation is just plain dotty. Therefore, with the blessing, supervision and the cooperation of parents, I organized ways for children to engage in activities that would test and improve their abilities, but still keep them safe in controlled conditions.
Training children presents more barriers than training the elderly. There is far more responsibility placed on the instructor who teaches children than there upon an instructor who teaches an independent adult. If an elderly person has made a decision to learn realistic self-defence then he has just as much right to access it as a younger person. This is the main point. He may have physical limitations, as might a younger person, but the challenge for him and his instructor is to be able to work around them.
The key problem with technique-based approaches is that they fail when students do not fit the syllabus criteria. It is a one system, one school approach. I have seen well-meaning martial arts and self-defence instructors struggle to accommodate students who cannot perform certain techniques. I have been there myself back when I taught a more structured form of kickboxing and got some elderly students. You end up having them make do with what they can do, which really is a distilled version of their real potential. Learning everything via techniques is a cosmetic approach to training. Self-defence for today’s citizen whether they are young or old has to be an organic process if it is going to be something the individual can use. Therefore we need to look to the individual to see what can be achieved rather than look to the syllabus.
More than anything, an elderly person has the advantage of experience. He has lived longer than most of society and that alone is proof to his subconscious of his ability to survive. Acknowledgement of his vulnerability is just another example of this wisdom he has acquired. Whatever methods he has used, they have worked to keep him alive. What he is now training for is an experience that, statistically speaking, probably will never happen. This is all the more reason why an instructor’s job is more about cultivation than it is about actual instruction. Despite being born into a civilised society most people, at some time in their lives will have expressed anger physically whether it was fighting as a child or kicking an inanimate object.
CCMA follows a process of common sense, which gives birth to principles, which then provides two simple strategies, which contain tactics. Common sense is an ambiguous term, but essentially we mean a combination of personal intuition and obvious data. An elderly person has had a lifetime of learning how to become independent, so it is easy for him to understand that self-defence is all about taking charge and being in control at all times. Generic principles might be that your priority is escape, you take charge of your fear or ego and you understand that above all else your safety is of paramount importance. In order to get there you might need to fight, which means you will need to be pre-emptive or attacking the attack all the way. Two simple strategies are provided from this point on. Strategy One is all about creating and maintaining distance. Strategy Two is all about closing distance temporally and is the back-up plan that is used in order to get back to Strategy One. The tactics of Strategy One might be avoidance, using your voice, using your body language, running, protecting your personal space, striking and pushing. The tactics of Strategy Two include covering, biting, gouging, pulling and grappling.
Technique selection is dependent on the person’s individual ability and the range the situation provides. It is not up to the instructor to tell the student what he will use to save his life. He will use what works best for him. There are methods of controlled and progressive pressure testing that a student will progress through at a very fast rate if he is not hung up on getting technique correct. Furthermore the student needs to be empowered and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. The only honest way for an individual to feel that he is in control and has power over his training is to teach. Commitment to anything is increased the faster the learner becomes the teacher. Teaching means that the student uses his initiative to improve a drill and he is constantly thinking about how to make the conditions his training partner is in more realistic to yield more productive results.
By giving students responsibilities and working within parameters rather than set techniques, you let them work through their own weaknesses. Self-defence technique selection must only be a very small number of high percentage methods anyway. Lack of flexibility and strength may inhibit certain grappling methods. This has not stopped the increasing number of late middle age and elderly people from taking up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in recent years. Besides, unless you are involved in security, grappling is really only ever a back-up plan and even then it is more about transitioning to a better position rather than trying to finish the situation. Brittle bones may flag up concerns regarding impact based work. If this is the case then open hand strikes and elbows may be preferable to punching. The good thing about elderly students is that they are more aware of their body’s limitations than most and with careful supervision and guidance will work out for themselves the best way to apply the very small number of tactics that can be applied under pressure.
What the Elderly Can Teach the Teacher
Training children made me think again about the limitations human beings face in real life situations. Like any other form of common sense safety, working on avoidance and awareness became a big part of the training. Understanding how to equalize certain situations becomes more relevant. The elderly also bring this into focus and help really to stretch our thinking into ways to solve a situation non-violently. This is the sort of honesty that needs to be more present in the gym and at the bedrock of any self-defence system no matter the age or ability of the students.
It seems so ironic that the more vulnerable areas of out society are often those who are less targeted by reality-based self-defence training. If our systems really our robust and modern, designed for the threats of today then they also must be truly accessible to everyone. What helped spur me on when I first started training children in self-defence was the fact that children had survived potentially murderous situations and they had fought back successfully. The same can be said for the elderly. Remember, an elderly person has lived a life and survived through worse conditions than most of the rest of the population. The chances are they are going to bring attitude to training and with the right mental attitude at least half the battle is won.