Pre-Emptive Strike: Modern Reality Based Training Or Traditional Karate

I am a big admirer of Geoff Thompson. He has done a lot to promote the cause of reality training and is very much into keeping it real. His training methods are often as much about how to avoid getting into a fight (not taught in many martial arts) as has how to actually conduct the fight itself. Traditional martial arts generally teach you how to win in a fair fight. But that’s the problem, most fights aren’t fair. Sometimes you could be outnumbered, your assailant(s) could have a weapon and they often start from right up in your face without warning (rather than bowing first from a safe distance before gradually moving in).

So assuming that you’ve done all the avoidance techniques and the guy is still coming in and it is clear that the conflict is going to become physical, what is universally the best tactic to use?

Note, I said tactic, not technique.

In the words of Geoff Thompson himself:

“And if an encounter does by necessity become physical I teach and I preach the pre-emptive strike (attacking first). It is the only thing that works consistently. All the other stuff that you see, that you are taught or that you imagine might work ‘out there’ probably will not”.


“If your choice is a physical response, my advice is to be pre-emptive and strike first - very hard - preferably on the jaw (it’s a direct link to the brain”.

In the Karate world in particular, people used to quote Funakoshi when he famously said:

“In Karate, there is no first strike”.

This has been taken to mean that we have to actually wait for an attacker to throw the first strike and then try and block and counter it. This is a dangerous game to play. Geoff is spot when he describes this as:

“not only unsound it is dangerous and extremely naive”.

It’s not so bad when you are in a competition and your opponent is just out of range, then suddenly tries to attack (usually whilst still maintaining full leg or arm range). But in a street where somebody may be right up in your face, nose to nose, screaming obscenities at you, its not so good. Also, in a street fight an attacker is likely to grab you and pull you around or off balance (a tactic that is banned in Karate, TKD, Kickboxing and some others sport fighting systems).

So why would Funakoshi give advice that would leave his students in a vulnerable position? Well it is widely accepted by many now that something has been lost in the translation and what Funakoshi really meant was, that you don’t instigate or look for the fight. However, when in a situation when physical threat is unavoidable and you cannot get away, Funakoshi wrote in his book, Karate Do Kyohan:

“When there are no avenues of escape or one is caught even before any attempt to escape can be made, then for the first time the use of self-defense techniques should be considered. Even at times like these, do not show any intention of attacking, but first let the attacker become careless. At that time attack him concentrating one’s whole strength in one blow to a vital point and in the moment of surprise, escape, seek shelter, and seek help.”

Funikoshi is clearly talking about a pre-emptive strike. He recommends that you strike a “vital point” which is not so different from Geoff Thompson recommending that you strike the jaw as it has a direct link to the brain. He was trained for reality, not competition. This is the part that has been overlooked in the way that so many people have trained for a number of decades. I believe that this is largely because Karate has been dumbed down (see my 5 part video course if you haven’t already) and the fact that for such a long time Karate has been interpreted through the eyes of competition fighters.

Geoff Thompson and the other modern reality based martial arts teachers are not the first ones to train this way. Clearly the old Okinawan masters did too. However, after decades of being dumbed down for social and political reasons, Geoff and the other masters of reality based training have helped to bring the “lost” elements to help us make our training more complete.

Some people will (quite reasonably) have a concerns about the legalities of using a pre-emptive strike. Firstly, as you can never be sure how far an attacker will go, it is best to make that you are still around to deal with the legalities. No point being killed for the sake of worrying about going to court.

Secondly, in the UK at least (and I suspect most other countries), if you feel that you are in a real danger of being harmed by a would-be attacker, you are legally entitled to use a pre-emptive strike. I don’t know about other countries, but this is a defence that will stand in a British court. However, you will have to give good reason why you thought that you were in very real and very imminent danger. Somebody giving you a dodgy look will not be accepted.

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4 Responses to Pre-Emptive Strike: Modern Reality Based Training Or Traditional Karate

  1. I think that some of the “real applications” were lost before the war too. When Funakoshi took Karate to Japan, the Japanese were going through a period of rapid modernisation and saw martial arts as obsolete except for physical and mental development. Funakoshi would have had to go with the flow and dumb it down a bit to get acceptance!
    But I completely agree, I don’t believe his own training did not take account of real applications (especially when you look at who his masters were).

  2. It’s quite possible that the “real life” applications of Japanese martial arts were lost after the war. The GHQ prohibited all forms of martial arts (though karate was marginally allowed as it was not specifically listed in the document prohibiting the practice of traditional Japanese martial arts) and they were able to re-commence only after having donned the facade of the “Do” and sports.

    On another note, I’ve read that Funakoshi Sensei would never take the inside corner when turning corners as doing so would mean walking in blind to a possible ambush. I find it hard to believe such a man would NOT train with real life situations in mind.

  3. Shu, thanks for your comment. I agree with you. I think the only problem is that in many traditional karate clubs this is treated a bit like an “academic” exercise. The attacker assumes his stance from just out of range, says absolutely nothing and when he’s about to attack the defender intercepts. It is a good exercise, especially for developing timing. It could however be taken a step further.
    With people like Geoff Thompson (mentioned above), they have you almost nose to nose with the would be attacker shouting and screaming obscenities at you. This is what is more likely to happen on the street and this excercise helps to “desensitize” you to this kind of abuse.
    I would not be surprised to find that the masters of old trained a bit more like that too, but that it got droped as karate became a “DO”. I could be wrong on that last bit, it’s just my guess.

  4. The concept of “sen no sen” says that the best time to attack is when the opponent has the intention of attacking but has not done so yet. Taken literally this is about the instant between intention and action during combat but I think it can be applied more widely to encompass the situation of combat which then suits this article perfectly.

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