Will Leisure-Time Martial Arts Training Help You In A Street Fight?

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A research team wondered if officers who practice martial arts in their leisure time would perform police-trained defensive tactics better when physically attacked by a suspect.

To find out, the team tested 66 officer volunteers, 59 of them male, seven female, at the Amsterdam Police Training Centre in the Netherlands.

In addition to their police DT training, 18 practiced kickboxing and 14 karate or jiu-jitsu in their off hours, averaging two to three times a week across eight to 21 years. Fifteen practiced krav maga, the Israeli military self-defense system, although these officers had less training experience (fewer than four years, on average) and tended to practice only once a week.

The other 19 volunteers had no martial arts experience whatever, beyond their police training. In the Netherlands, the researchers point out, “officers [typically] train their arrest and self-defence skills only four to six hours per year.”

With the volunteers and role-playing opponents alike suited up in protective gear, the officers were subjected to a series of assault trials.

Under conditions the researchers considered “low anxiety” (LA), the officers had to react to suspects’ haymakers or front kicks by punching, kicking, or blocking, the normal drills taught in their police training.

Later, “high anxiety” (HA) attacks occurred in much tighter quarters. As they were led to this room, the officers could hear the suspect inside banging on walls and shouting threats. Once inside, the verbal abuse continued as the suspect randomly attacked not only with fists, feet, and tackling but with an electrical shock knife and a simulated club. Besides responding conventionally, officers were randomly told to fight back against club and tackle assaults “in any way they saw fit” to “test their ability to improvise.”

In both LA and HA tests, the officers were encouraged to “read” the suspect’s behavior and anticipate the coming attacks.

Afterward, the officers self-rated their anxiety levels and the amount of mental effort required for their responses, heart monitor readings were analyzed, and experienced trainers reviewed video of the volunteers’ performances.

Not surprisingly, participants reported “higher levels of perceived anxiety and mental effort and also had higher heart rates in the HA-condition,” the researchers state.

In terms of self-defense at both levels, officers with martial arts experience generally “performed significantly better than participants with no martial arts experience.” Indeed, in the HA environment, the evaluators gave an average score of less than three out of a possible five to subjects with no martial arts experience–“insufficient performance,” in the researcher’s assessment. However, the study notes, there was a deterioration in the performance of all groups as the intensity of the assaults increased. In HA conditions, even the best groups–kickboxing and karate/jiujitsu–scored less than four, although they did maintain their performance better than those who had only their police training to rely on.

While the generally less experienced krav maga practitioners underperformed the other martial arts students in some cases, the researchers emphasized that it’s not valid to draw conclusions from the results as to the relative effectiveness of different martial arts systems for on-the-street police work.

However, they say, the findings do indicate that training in some martial arts discipline just “one hour on a weekly basis may increase officers’ performance in threatening circumstances. More experience will probably lead to better anticipation of others’ intentions and [more automatic] self-initiation of actions, which is most important in the line of duty.”

The research team was headed by Dr. Peter Renden, a member of the faculty of Human Movement Sciences at the MOVE Research Institute in Amsterdam.

The study is published by the journal Ergonomics, under the title “Police arrest and self-defence skills: performance under anxiety of officers with and without additional experience in martial arts.” A free abstract of the study and a link to where the researchers’ full report can be purchased is available by clicking here.

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