There have been a few humorous video clips posted recently by martial artists on Youtube which I have seen and had a good laugh at. I think that the intention behind these clips has been good in highlighting a dangerous preoccupation with confrontation within the martial arts industry, so my intention is certainly not to denigrate the martial artists concerned. I would, however, like to discuss the danger of taking this tongue-in-cheek humour seriously. I have heard some of my students mention the tactic portrayed in the video clips in jest and we all know that what is mentioned casually in jest can sometimes program our response in real situations.
The video clips in question typically show a martial artist (identified by their uniform) squaring off aggressively against an opponent and then rapidly turning and running away just before combat ensues. The most recent one I’ve seen showed a martial artist running rapidly away from one of his students armed with a sword. The caption read something like, “What to do against an opponent armed with a sword.” Luckily for the martial artist involved, his student did not respond and pursue but stood idly watching him flee unexpectedly with a confused expression on his face.

As I said before, I believe that the intention behind these clips has been good. Because of the nature of self-defence and martial arts classes, we can often erroneously portray confrontation as the goal of self-defence instead of getting to a place of safety. When teaching self-defence, it is always important to stress that getting to a place or position of safety away from the dangerous situation must always be our main goal. That said, turning and running away from a determined attacker armed with a sword may quite literally be the last thing you ever do.

Let me explain. On ancient battlefields, during standard pitched battles, the casualties were apparently relatively low on each side. That is until a rout occurred where one army decided to run away. At this point in time, the advancing army would often chase down the routed force and cut violent swathes of destruction into their ranks. There are a few good videos on Youtube posted by contributors like Lindybeige that discuss this phenomenon. There are also a few historic sources that you could research to convince yourself of this.

Why did this happen? Well, there are a number of reasons, but the reasons that are of interest to us within the scope of this article are:

  1. Reduced Defence. When an army routed, the soldiers would often drop their weapons and shields to be able to get away faster. This would leave them almost defenceless against their pursuing foes. In addition, the routing soldiers would be running away from their pursuers which would mean that their backs would be exposed. It isn’t a great stretch of the intellect to realise why it is harder to defend yourself against someone attacking you from behind, so I won’t explain it in detail.
  2. Collapse of Morale. When an army routed, the morale of the routed soldiers had essentially evaporated. They had given up any and all hope of overcoming their foes and were desperately fleeing in a last-ditch attempt to preserve their own individual lives. It was every man for themselves. This collapse of the routing army’s morale meant that even if a routed soldier found themselves in a defensible position, they would most likely abandon it and continue fleeing. In addition, if confronted by an opposing soldier, they may not be mentally prepared to fight for survival.

These reasons combined with others that are outside of the scope of this article made the attrition rate so high. The advancing army, gaining psychological strength and morale from the turn of events, would literally steam-roll over the poorly-defended routed army and the death toll would be atrocious.

So what does this mean for our martial artist facing an opponent armed with a sword who is determined to hurt him? Well, the things that he has to bear in mind before turning and running are the following:

  1. Has his training focus been on efficient, safe and rapid disengagement from combat along with the acceleration, speed and mobility required to get away safely? If these items have not been on his training menu, then he should reconsider his tactics. His opponent may be faster and more agile than him and may run him down. Like anything attempted in a self-defence situation, it is a gamble. But we usually like to gamble when we have some odds stacked in our favour in terms of what we have prepared ourselves for.
  2. When he turns and runs, he exposes his less defensible back to his opponent who is armed with a reach weapon. If his opponent is intent on harming him, the time spent in turning and running may give his opponent enough time to reach a position where he can strike with the reach weapon at an undefended target.
  3. He needs to consider the psychological situation that he is in. When he turns and flees without any consideration of tactics, he has become a routed force along with the reduced confidence and weakened mental attitude that comes with routing. He may be capable of a fair turn of speed, but his opponent will have gained even more morale from his rout which will increase his aggression, speed and confidence. If the swordsman is intent on harming the martial artist, the martial artist is in considerable danger if he has become a routed force.

Bearing these points in mind, it should become clear that things are never simple. Just simply running away may not be the best tactic to apply in a self-defence situation. This is the golden rule. Self-defence just isn’t simple. If anyone tells you anything contrary to this, they are ignorant, deluded or trying to sell you something. Good, sound combat tactics have to be applied to everything, including withdrawing from combat.

My advice to my students is that getting to a safe position is the end goal of any good self-defence strategy but getting there while minimising our losses is the trick. If someone is intent on attacking you with a reach weapon (like a sword) and you have decided to retreat, at least consider how you may use the local terrain and any make-shift defensive weapons you may have to allow you to disengage before fleeing. You may find that retreat is impossible under the circumstances due to situational factors.

​Perhaps the terrain is not to your advantage (limited room) or you have nothing at hand to use as a makeshift defence. In these situations, the best tactic may be to move into your opponent’s space past the reach of their weapon as quickly and safely as possible and then neutralise the threat in some way (by disarm, takedown or overwhelming attack) before getting away. It is impossible for me to say which tactic would be the best to employ because each situation is unique and the tactic used must evolve to meet the situation.

By all means, run away, but please make sure that you disengage effectively before you run.

Written by SiXiong Lester Walters, head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia