With cellphones and cameras so prevalent nowadays, a large number of altercations and fights are captured on video. This footage is often shared online, it goes viral and everybody and their brother have an opinion on it. That’s fine, of course, but so what? Having an opinion isn’t difficult and not particularly useful. A more interesting approach is to look for ways you can learn from that footage and improve your self-defense skills. I mentioned this in passing in my previous webcast, but wanted to expand on it a bit more, hence this article.
Learning, by definition, means you search for information and knowledge you don’t currently have. That means keeping an open mind and is in direct conflict with holding on to your opinion and only looking for information to confirm it. The first step of the learning process is to start with the right mindset:
Check your bias before you begin.
We all have a bias, one way or the other. We all have filters the information in the video has to pass through. Be cognizant of them and try to remain objective. Focus on learning, not on confirming your moral or political beliefs, which technique you think is perfect for self-defense and which one sucks, etc. Instead, look at the elements as they present themselves as opposed to how you would want them to be. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time.
This can be hard, as we live in an age where having an opinion is valued more than having an informed opinion. But it can be done if your desire to make progress in your training is bigger than your ego. In this article, I’ll give you some tools to use for that goal. View them as filters through which you pass the information in the video, so you can distill information out of it.
Let’s start with the first one, context.
Context means the circumstances surrounding the event, the facts and factors that influence how it happened and how it is perceived. Think of when you say “you took my words out of context” when somebody distorts your words to fit their agenda. The exact same thing applies when you watch footage of a fight.
There is always a context, so your first step is:
Try to figure out what it is.
Some questions to ask:
- What happened beforehand?
- What happened afterwards?
- Who else was involved?
- Where did it happen?
- Who made this video?
Sometimes you can’t find out all those things. Be cautious then and assume your conclusions will be of limited accuracy, at best. When I review such footage, I generally write the caveat “I wasn’t there and neither were you.” That’s a reminder that we often only have limited or even faulty information to work with. Only an idiot claims his conclusions are absolute truth when working with information he isn’t 100% sure about…
Another contextual issue is one of presentation.
In today’s world of click-bait articles and videos, presentation is often used to create a narrative or promote an agenda. This makes it harder to learn something because the presentation distorts the facts and sets you up to come to specific conclusions. Some points on this:
- Is the video edited or not? Creative editing can easily force you to come to a conclusion that is 100% false.
- Disregard the title of the video and the text written along with it. Look at the video first and only then read additional information. That way it can’t influence you beforehand.
- Disregard opinions of and comments by others. Make up your own mind before letting somebody else do it for you.
- Disregard commentary by bystanders and others in the footage. They might also be biased and as you lack context for them as well, look only at the facts as you see them.
- Now, watch the video, think it through and form a preliminary opinion.
- Then and only then, look at all that information you previously ignored to check for elements you might have missed.
This sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. It’s mostly tuning out those other sources first and only then allowing them back in. If you think I’m exaggerating, read this and remember how the narrative that Zimmerman was a racist gun-toting lunatic was established so quickly early on. If I recall correctly, NBC settled the lawsuit out of court…
Also read this and watch both videos in order. Then go read the comments on my blog and on Youtube. Notice how many people fail to follow the instructions to get more context and how many argue about everything except the point I was making. If you want to learn self-defense, setting your ego aside is a good first step…
The title of this article is “How to learn self-defense from video footage.” Self-defense is not the same thing as fighting, street-fighting, dueling or beating somebody up. Self-defense is defined by the laws of your country and state. These can and will vary wildly. What is valid in San Francisco, California might not be so in Brussels, Belgium. The only way to know what the laws say where you are is to study them.
Your opinion on them is irrelevant.
Your feelings regarding them are irrelevant.
Only the law and how it is interpreted by the legal system matters.
You don’t have to agree with it, but the law is the law. Dura lex, sed lex.
My answer about how to learn about self-defense laws is always the same:
- Read about it in a way you can understand without needing a law degree. Start by reading this book.
- Look up your self-defense laws. The local library is most likely to have the information.
- Talk to a LEO and ask him how things work when they roll up on a scene where people claim they acted in self-defense.
- Talk to a lawyer specialized in self-defense cases and ask him what is myth and what is reality.
- Go to court and sit in on self-defense trials. See how things actually play out.
- When a self-defense story hits the news, follow it until the end. Note down your initial analysis and then collect articles and news footage as the case evolves. Once the case is decided in court, revisit your initial conclusions. This will teach you more about real life self-defense than anything else.
With this knowledge, you now have a critical part of the context needed to come to valid conclusions when watching fight footage. Without it, you can’t proceed.
Morality means distinguishing between right and wrong, deciding what is the proper way to act and what is not. This is an extremely personal issue, intimately tied to specific (sub)cultures, psychology, politics, religion, etc. As a result, morality can be extremely different from one person to the next. Because of that, people end up in conflict with one and other, when what is perfectly acceptable behavior for one man means a direct insult to another.
Here’s the thing: the law and morality are not the same thing.
In the best possible scenario, both are in alignment and we get a just law. In reality, the law is often in conflict with morality. E.g.: criminals are freed on technicalities all the time. That isn’t right, but the law says they have to be set free, giving them another chance to prey on civilians. When you look around you, you’ll find tons of other examples.
Because our morality is so much a part of our identity and culture, it can be difficult to look at video footage of a self-defense situation in an objective way, especially when you feel one party acts in an amoral manner. When your self-defense laws say you cannot use physical force in that specific situation, you might get upset or offended. This then gets in the way of learning valuable information from that incident.
Don’t let your emotions get the better of your analytical mind. Accept that some people will act in ways you don’t approve of and move on.
Now we get to the part where the people in the video footage start fighting, so what can we learn from that part? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Which techniques worked and why?
- Which didn’t and why?
- Which strategy and tactics were used? Did they work? Why?
- Was one person stronger/faster/heavier/etc. than the other and how did that influence the end result?
- How did timing, angle and distance influence the techniques and their results?
- Did the environment/surroundings play a role or not? Why?
In short, look for all the technical elements that influence the outcome of the conflict and figure out how they interact with each other.
One caveat: the quality of the video, especially the angle at which it is shot influences this process a lot. I’ve made seven instructional videos so far (check the right side of the screen) and can tell you from experience that a minor change in camera angle can give a completely different impression. This is one of the reasons why you always try to know if a video is edited or not. If it is, certain camera angles might have been selected to create a specific narrative.
Now it’s time to condense all this information into something useful. Look at it all again, ask all those questions one more time, but add a second one right after:
What would/could I do?
Don’t sick to just the general questions but make it as specific as possible. Here are some examples:
- Would you easily find yourself in the same context or is it rare for you to encounter it?
- Is it legal where you live to do what the people in the video did? If not, what would be alternatives?
- Can you justify such actions with your personal moral compass or are they overkill? If so, which ones would you prefer and why?
- Can you perform the same techniques as seen in the video? If not, why? Also, which alternatives would you use and why?
The key point is to go through this process for all participants in the incident. Look at the one who “wins”, but also the one who gets beat up, the bystanders, those who intervene, etc. You might be in any one of their shoes one day, so learn as much as possible from each video.
Is this time consuming? Yes.
Does it take some effort on your part? Yes.
But it works.
What’s more, it is one of the few ways of acquiring information that works in real-life without having to bleed for it yourself. If you are unwilling to put in the work, then you are unwilling to learn. If that’s the case, then why are you practicing self-defense techniques to begin with? Or are you discovering new information that conflicts with your previous training, morality and personal beliefs?
Isn’t that what learning is all about?
Here’s a video I shared on my Facebook page a little while ago. If you’re up for it, leave your analysis in the comments section here below and I’ll chime in on the conversation. Write as much or as little as you like, cover all aspects or focus on just one of them. It’s all good. Together, we can discover as much information as possible and learn a lot along the way.
This kind of analysis is nothing new. It is done in all sorts of fields, from medicine to the military and most anywhere else where the stakes are high. For some weird reason, I haven’t seen this tool used a lot by those who claim they want to learn self-defense. That’s why I wrote this article, hoping that you can find some use for it.
There are many different ways to do this and what I have written here is only one of those ways. Feel free to add, subtract and change it as you see fit so it works for your specific circumstances. In the end, the only thing that matters is that you learn something each time you go through this process, no matter how small.
P.S.: If you enjoy this how-to guide, I have many others on this page.