What Every Karate-ka Should Know About Practical Ground Fighting
“A stranded goldfish.”
That’s how I’d describe most Karate people when they get thrown to the ground.
(I know, because I used to be one of them.)
Because sadly, many Karate schools don’t teach reality-based self-defense tactics.
And reality, by its pure definition, will always involve an element of ground fighting; whether it’s you lying on the ground, or your opponent.
Hence, if you don’t know the very basics of ne-waza (ground techniques), you’ll never be fully capable of handling the inherently unpredictable nature of a physical encounter – along with the unique demands it places on you in terms of physical stress, tactical skills and situational awareness.
In other words, the ground is a dark and evil place.
So don’t make the mistake of not practicing for it.
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) legend Rickson Gracie probably said it the best:
“I am a shark, the ground is my ocean and most people can’t even swim.” – Rickson Gracie.
Truth be told, I’m not an expert at ground fighting. I am neither a grappling wizard nor a submission artist. In fact, my first full-contact fight was actually lost on the ground, due to a basic armbar setup which I had never encountered before.
But I can’t lie:
I still secretly giggle when I see the fear in the eyes of visiting Karate-ka to our dojo, as they are thrown to the ground and outwrestled without having any experience in the realm of ground-based fighting.
The reaction is always one of the following:
- Sprawl ‘n brawl… (panic)
- …or ground ‘n pound (anger).
- But usually they just lay ‘n pray (fear).
I hope not.
But if you do, and if you want to know how to improve your understanding of ne-waza, this will be the perfect article for you. And hey, it doesn’t even matter if you consider Karate a sport or martial art.
When I recently asked Ádám Kovács, Hungarian/World/European kumite medalist and World Games Champion, what his blue belt in BJJ meant to his Karate fighting, he told me: “It definity changed my view of combat.”
So read this article closely, folks.
Although I’ve previously written a couple of articles on the topic (including The Most Effective Submission Escape Ever and How to Defend Against the Rear Naked Choke (RNC)) I’ve never gone in-depth on what knowledge you really need in order to understand the shark-infested waters of grappling.
So, today I’ve invited my colleague Lori O’Connell, Canada-based chief instructor in jiu-jitsu, to talk a little bit about her latest work involving the use of ground techniques for civil self-defense.
Sensei Lori’s knowledge, recently published in a combined book/DVD combo entitled When the Fight Goes to the Ground, draws upon her 17 years of experience as a teacher in the martial arts, including living in Japan (Iwaki) for 3 years and training both BJJ, MMA, Western Boxing, Shotokan Karate, Aikido, Hapkido, Tai Chi, Taekwondo, FMA (Filipino Martial Arts), fencing and more. She has also been featured in several instructional videos, and is currently teaching full-time at Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu Dojo which she’s been running for over 7 years in Vancouver.
She’s also an actor, social media expert and stunt performer.
(Pretty impressive, huh!)
So let’s chat with sensei Lori about what every Karate Nerd™ should know about fighting on the ground, shall we?
Here we go:
Jesse (J): First of all, let’s begin with the obvious background question: How and why did you become interested in ground fighting?
Lori O’Connell (L): “As the popularity of BJJ and MMA grew over my martial arts career, I recognized an increased need to develop ground defense tactics to a higher level to be able to handle more skilled attackers, should the occasion arise. We have always had a ground defense curriculum in our style, but at the time, we were more focused on traditional “set defenses” to “set attacks” on the ground. We needed a develop our ground defense system further to incorporate more live training so students could be more adaptive to cope with the wide variety of circumstances one can face on the ground, so they can more effectively get back to their feet and escape.”
J: Makes perfect sense. With that being said, do you think more should people be interested in ground-based martial arts?
L: “Well, it’s important to make a distinction here: Is your focus on submission grappling on the ground for sport, or being able to get out of a ground-based attack and get back to your feet in the most efficient and effective way possible?
On the street, the ground is a dangerous place to be. Size and strength advantages are harder to deal with. You face the possibility of environmental hazards, like rocks, broken glass, or even the ground itself. You’re also more exposed to any communicable diseases your attacker may have. And you’re more at risk in multiple attacker scenarios or when edged weapons come into play. When it comes to self-defense, avoiding the ground is sensible, especially for more traditional striking martial arts in which the majority if not all techniques are taught from a standing position. But you may not always have the choice. That’s why it’s a good idea for anyone interested in self-defense to learn some form of ground combat.”
J: Exactly. But unless somebody has already experienced the humiliation of feeling like a stranded goldfish, they don’t really understand what impact even a week of basic Jiu-jitsu training might have! So, what are some common misconceptions about ground fighting that you’ve encountered?
L: “First of all, since most people refer to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) simply as “Jiu-jitsu”, the vast majority of people think that all Jiu-jitsu is about is submission grappling in a competitive context. That’s wrong. Most of the Japanese forms of Jiu-jitsu focus more on self-defense applications; some more traditional to the forms based on what was taught to samurai in medieval Japan, but some more updated for use in a modern context. I feel it’s important to make this distinction so people understand that not all Jiu-jitsu is the same.
Secondly, because most people equate ground fighting with submission grappling they think that’s it’s all about rolling around on the ground to either get a submission by way of joint lock or choke, or by gaining and maintaining dominant positioning. Many traditional striking martial arts consider this form of ground fighting to have impracticalities in a self-defense context, and this is true, if one limits their perspective of ground combat to what you see in a competition context.”
J: So true!
L: “Lastly, many people who primarily focus their training on ground fighting train under the assumption that “90% of fights end up on the ground” so if you can defend yourself on the ground, you’re in a good position. This is a widely touted “statistic” that I debunk in my new book. It’s not to say that many fights don’t go to the ground, but it’s not as many as people think. The few law enforcement studies’ statistics that are out there addressing this situation indicate that it’s considerably less than that.
Another issue is that if one is only training ground combat in a sport-oriented context, one is leaving out a wide variety of tools that can be used to enhance their ability to get out of a ground-based attack as quickly as possible.”
J: Obviously, self-defense tactics are different for law enforcement, and those statistics (or techniques) don’t always apply to civilians. Do you think there should be a difference depending on age or gender though? Why?
L: “All ground defense systems consist of common techniques that apply to all people, but also variations that are necessary depending on one’s personal context.
No matter what age, gender, size, etc, you are, I personally teach students to create the opportunity to get back to their feet as quickly as possible. That is the goal. Men and younger people are more able to apply strength in defending themselves, and that’s not wrong if that’s what it takes in a real situation. But when I teach, I teach students under the assumption that they are more likely to have to defend against someone who has the size/strength advantage, so I place heavier emphasis on techniques that apply the most efficient use of body mechanics as possible, as well as attacks to vital targets. This makes it more adaptable to a variety of body types and sizes. But even with our system’s adaptiveness, each person may still have to further adapt their own approach in various situations, depending on their height, weight, reach, flexibility, speed, as well as those of their attacker’s.”
J: So, in your experience, what are the most common situations one might encounter in ground fighting? What should one learn first?
L: “I hesitate to say that any one position is more common than others as there a wide variety of variables and contexts that can change that situation. Are you a man or a woman? A law enforcement officer or a civilian? Are you facing a single attacker or multiple attackers? Is it sport context or self-defense context?
- From a self-defense point of view, it’s a good idea to learn how to defend against a standing attacker from the ground, because if you get knocked down, you’ll probably be in that context first before any other ground-based attack.
- Mounted attacks are also important to learn to defend against because they are used both by people with ground combat training and by the unskilled attacker. People intuitively recognize the positional advantage of being on top of a person like that, even without any knowledge or training in martial arts.
That being said, I wouldn’t limit ground defense training to those positions.”
J: Right. But let’s say somebody only has a limited time to practice ground techniques. If you could practice just 3 techniques for the rest of your life, what would those be?
L: “Those would have to be 1) Shrimping, 2) Bridging & Rolling, and 3) Body Shifting against a Standing Attacker. These three drills are diverse body movements that help you improve/maintain your body position so that you can better defend yourself and create the most opportunities for escape.
The descriptions below are quoted directly from When the Fight Goes to the Ground (Chapter 3: Primary Tools for Ground Defense – Body Shifting & Control):
Shrimping is an important tool for ground defense. It can be used to disrupt the balance of a mounted attacker by turning on to side of your hips, which in turn creates an opening for escape or space with which to improve your defensive position. It can also be used simply to reposition your body into a more defensive position.
- Start on your back with your legs bent and your hands up.
- Pushing into the ground with the balls of your feet, lift your hips up slightly.
- While continuing to push with your feet, turn your body over on to its side thrusting your hips back as you push your hands toward your feet as though pushing on your attacker for leverage.
- Repeat on the other side.
Bridging & Rolling:
Bridging and rolling is an important tool for when an attacker is mounted on the front of your body in some way. The goal is to aggressively upset the balance of the attacker so that they have to redistribute their weight in order to stay on top. This opens up greater opportunities to strike and/or escape the mount and other positions.
- Start on your back with your legs bent and your hands up.
- Pushing into the ground with the balls of your feet, bridge your hips up explosively leaning on to your left shoulder.
- Pass your left leg behind the right and roll over into a plank position with the body straight supported by your forearms and the balls of your feet.
- To return to your starting position, pass your left arm behind your right putting your weight down on to your left shoulder on the ground.
- Pass your left leg behind your right, turning your body back up into the bridged position. Lower your hips to reset.
- Repeat on the right.
Body Shifting against a Standing Attacker:
This type of body shifting is for use when you’re down on the ground and your attacker is standing. When you’re in this position, your legs offer you the strongest tools for self-protection. Therefore, the greatest threat to you in this position is if the attacker is able to get around your legs, whether it’s so they kick your head or get on top of you. The goal of this body shifting technique is to keep this from happening.
- When your attacker is facing you directly, stay flat on your back facing them with your legs directly between you. Keep both legs bent to make it harder for him to determine your reach.
- If the attacker tries to move past your legs, lift your hips and reposition your body to maintain your original position.
- If the attacker tries to move more quickly around your legs, shift your weight on to your side. To keep your legs between you and your attacker, lift your body to minimize drag and walk with your legs, keeping your legs uncrossed. This keeps the attacker from taking control of your legs by pinning them together.
- If an attacker changes direction suddenly, they may be able get past your legs on the other side. To prevent this, push off the ground using your elbow and aggressively roll your body to your other side.
No ground defense system is complete without attacks to vital targets (i.e. eyes, nose, groin, ribs, etc), but I feel that this part of the strategy is more intuitive.
The body shifting movements described above are something you have to teach your body to do. Just training them by themselves is only a start though. One should also train applying them within the context of an attack, using them to either displace your attacker’s body or your own body in ways that give you access to better targets or in ways that allow you an opportunity to get away from the attacker and back on your feet.”
J: That last point bears repeating: Getting up is v-i-t-a-l to your survival. What are some more important points to keep in mind if I’m on the ground and my opponent is still standing?
L: “Well, in addition to keeping your legs between you and your attacker (as described above), you should be ready to use your legs to attack your attacker. The most accessible targets are usually the knees and shins. If you manage to land a good kick causing the attacker to stumble or pause, take the opportunity to get back to your feet as quickly as possible. The third most important thing is to have your arms ready to block kicks to your head if the attacker manages to get around your legs. After a well-timed block, try to wrap your attacker’s legs with your arms (and legs if possible) to take out their base then roll in the direction the attacker’s balance is weakest.”
J: Great! These exercises are quick and easy for any Karate-ka to incorporate in their training. But, just to avoid potential pitfalls, could you share the top 3 mistakes you see beginners make when they first learn ground fighting?
L: “The biggest mistake beginners make at first is being tense and using too much strength. They intuitively try to fight back explosively using their strength, and if they’re on the underside of a dominant position, they tire themselves really quickly. Being tense also makes it easier for an attacker to sense your movements, allowing them to more easily counter them.
The second mistake is that they tunnel vision their approach. Beginners will learn a rehearsed defense against a rehearsed attack because this is the easiest way to learn, but if there is anything different about the attack that prevents them from doing their move effectively, they get stuck because they’re so focused on the one approach. I encourage students to adapt their movements and use different tools as situations necessitate, but it takes time to be able to make these adjustments intuitively on the fly.
The third mistake is more when the students has sport grappling experience without having ever trained their movements for self-defense specific scenarios. Often times these people fall back on what they know and try to apply submissions once they’ve improved their defensive position. That’s all well and good in a grappling tournament, but may have undesirable consequences if there is harmful debris on the ground, if the attacker has friends who join in and attack while you’re prone, or if the attacker decides to pull a knife.”
J: I agree 100%, Lori-sensei. You’ve provided my readers with great actionable content thus far, but it’s time to wrap up. Let’s end with this: How can a regular Karate enthusiast, without any significant ground-based experience, practice these principles to improve his/her chances of actually surviving the ground?
L: “There are a number of simple moves a person could learn with a willing partner(s), which can be applied and combined in a variety of ground defense contexts. Of course, I highly recommend finding a qualified instructor to at least introduce you to to overall concept of ground combat. But even if the only option you have in your area is a sport oriented submission grappling school, you can still learn a lot about the foundational movements then use additional sources, like my book/DVD, to learn to apply them in a self-defense oriented context.”
J: Thanks a lot Lori-sensei – good luck with teaching, training and spreading your awesome work to the rest of the martial arts community! You are a great source of inspiration, and I wish you the best of luck with your new book.
L: “Thanks for having me Jesse-san! I appreciate the support, your website is great!”