Earning his Krav Maga Black Belt in 2009, Instructor Christian has been a Krav Maga SF Instructor since 2005. He has a second degree Dan Black Belt, has worked as a civil law Enforcement instructor, and is trained in many martial arts systems. These include Jeet Kune Do, Choy Lay Fut Kung Fu, Shorin Ryu Karate, & Ninjitsu, among others. I got a chance to catch up with Instructor Christian to ask him about Krav Maga, discipline, toughness, and the self-defense mindset.
KMSF: Instructor Christian, you’re proficient in a lot of martial art and self-defense systems. What sets Krav Maga apart from all the others, in your view?
CV: For me, a lot of it is just based on simplicity. Simplicity of movement. It’s based off of natural reaction. That’s one of the big things for me. One of the things I sometimes compare Krav to is Jeet Kune Do… Bruce Lee’s art. What he did is took a lot of these little things that work the best when put together and tried to take the best out of different systems. I believe Krav has done a lot of that as well. The one exception is that they added more in terms of natural reaction. So if I throw a ball at your head. So those are natural responses to things. So if I go to punch you in the face, our natural reaction when our hands are up is to do an inside defense, as an example. Or, depending on how well you move your body, maybe you just slip. So a lot of these [movements] are just built off natural reactions.
KMSF: And does that make total proficiency in the system a little more accessible to people—does it mean they can become fluid in all the ranges of movement, defense, and countering, that the art has, faster? Or does it have any other advantages?
CV: There are a lot of advantages, and then there are some disadvantages as well, especially with Krav. Because it’s based on natural movement, and the other key thing you’ll hear a lot of is that you’ll use the same defense in many different scenarios, in many different situations. So that’s one of the things: it’s not always the best defense, but it is one of the defenses that you can use in several scenarios.
So rather than learn one specific defense for one specific thing that may never happen, you learn [something like] a 360 defense, which applies in many different scenarios. It helps you to learn things quicker. The challenge on that is that you also have to make sure it’s done right. If you learn it poorly, now you have a poorly learned defense against four different [attacks]. I find it’s very important that when you learn a technique, you learn it right, so you can apply it right. Because you can see what happens when you learn it poorly, and when it’s not applied correctly. You’re putting yourself in a potentially worse situation.
KMSF: You talk about “flipping the switch” in some of your level two classes, and I think that’s a great description of how real it can get in a situation, and how quickly. What do you find to be the strengths of the Krav Maga mindset and the kind of decision-making we focus on in Krav?
CV: There is a purpose in mind, and that’s survival. Other systems, in my opinion, stress different areas. Again, not to say that one is better than another, but I have found that Krav Maga has a stronger focus on survival and natural movement and reaction than others. I believe there are many ways to help build and support the mindset: continue to learn and challenge yourself. Do an endurance event like Goruck or SealFit, and you’ll understand what “Embrace the Suck” is all about. Several of our Instructors and students have done these, and there’s not one that will not tell you it didn’t make them mentally stronger. When a few of us did a Goruck Heavy event, which is a 24 hour endurance event, I remember a quote from our class that was more or less: “Hard times make Hard people.” Basically, embrace the suck, endure, and continue moving forward. I will tell you that bond is something I carry with me to this day. You have to earn it every day.
If you’ve been through a hard time, and that thing happens again, then you’re a little bit harder to it. You be like, “Okay, I accept this,” as opposed to being totally reactionary to it. That’s one of the things I think is important. [With] these endurance events, or whatever challenge you do, a Spartan race, Tough Mudders, you tend to learn something about yourself. And I think that [mindset] tends to get driven into you a bit more, especially [in] these ones that are based on ex-military or active military. It’s definitely something that you will carry with you from that point going forward. And at the end of it, it’s like you’ve earned something. Earn it every day. Whatever you do, go after it. Have that mindset that you’re becoming more mentally tough. The more you do things that challenge you, the tougher you become as a person to endure. You know, life is hard. Sometimes, if you’re not mentally tough or physically tough, things can really not work out well for you. And if you’re a little bit tougher in your mindset, you’ll be able to endure things a little bit easier.
KMSF: That’s interesting…
CV: You also asked me about the light switch.
KMSF: Yeah, the light switch. It seems like it could have elements of both. The light switch seems like it could have some very hardened reactions once you hit the switch, but it also seems like it could be a little “trigger” switch, depending on the circumstance. I know we focus a lot on de-escalation in the earlier levels, and personally, I think that’s wonderful because this is adapted for civilian use. So what do you think about someone having a really hardened mindset but also being able to stay adaptable, but also natural in the way they engage in the world? Is this something that is easy or difficult to achieve a balance with?
CV: I think for everybody, it’s a little bit different, and a lot of it is based on your experience. Some people seek out the challenge, some people shy away from the challenge. Some people ignore the things that go [on] around them, you know, the “ignorance is bliss approach.” And maybe that works in some scenarios, but sometimes, when it comes down to it, you may not be able to take that path. If you’re doing Krav Maga, and someone’s choking you, you can’t [be] like, “no one’s choking me.” No, someone’s choking you, and that mindset has to kick in, that light switch has to kick in. And again, that light switch is basically: make the decision to do something. Fight, flight, just don’t freeze. If you going to do something, if I have to strike, I have to be combative, you have to commit to that. You can’t do half a light switch. It’s not a dimmer. You have to go all in and go all out, like “I’m getting home alive.” You have to make that judgment call.
You may also make the judgment call that, let’s say, I’m somewhere and I get hit in the face. Does that that mean I should go and just start beating on this person? No. Maybe make a judgment call, like, “Okay, that was unintentional.” Sometimes, it is intentional. Sometimes, it’s good to walk away with your pride [hurt], because you don’t know what else is happening. It could be he’s got five friends behind me. He could have a knife. You have to make a judgment call. And whatever you do, you have to commit. But like you said, you have to be adaptable. Situations change. They’re never static.
Situational awareness is a very important aspect that I try to instill in the students. Situational awareness can get you out of ever having to use Krav Maga at all. But sometimes, the situation comes to you, and you have to make that choice. Fight or flight.
KMSF: Let’s talk about the sheer brutality of Krav Maga. This is something that can be characterized by people who don’t understand the system as an element of notoriety to Krav Maga. Some people who may be very fond of Krav Maga may look at this as legitimizing its effectiveness, but there is one thing I don’t find at all controversial, and that’s how its very brutal and effective in its counterattacks. And these are some really dangerous attacks to do to someone, but more so to have done to you. I say it’s one of Krav Maga’s enduring hallmarks. Krav Maga, as we know, came out of street fighting, when Imi Lichtenfeld was defending his loved ones, himself, and his neighbors from racist, you know…
KMSF: Yeah, scumbags. What’s most effective about Krav Maga in real life, when it really has to be used?
CV: It’s based off of natural reactions and straight to the point. And it’s not fluffy. And don’t get me wrong. I’ve studied several martial arts in my days, and there are definitely things I love about those martial arts. But they focus on something different. For example, if you take Tae Kwan Do, there’s a lot of focus on discipline. I love that fact. If you take BJJ, a lot of it’s also about adaptability and flow. I love that, too. If you take Choy Lay Fut Kung Fu, a lot of it is really about… the whipping chain, so when you use your legs, it whips and snaps. Jeet Kune Do also has a lot of trapping. Kali has a lot of stick, stick/knife, stick on stick, two sticks, on stick, one knife, open hand, and you combine them in different ways. So each one of these has elements, and I think they’re awesome.
Krav Maga, like you said, is probably more known because it looks like glorified street fighting. Well, if you think about a lot of those attacks that you must do your defenses for, they are from the street. And as you mention, Imi’s upbringing and the way things happen today, if you think about it, you can see the way things adapt over time. A bear hug from thirty years ago was for the most part, very similar to a bear hug you’d see today. But, people adapt. People adapt how they do robberies. People adapt to how they do control. People adapt to how they do bar arms, as an example.
In Krav, what I love is the fact that it adapts. A lot of things like the Kung Fu traditions go back thousands of years. But have they adapted to the current day attacks and defenses? I don’t think so.
KMSF: Do you think mindset, confidence, or discipline is the most important to really making your defense effective? Is it the commitment you mentioned before, is it preparation? What is needed when you need to hit that switch to make sure that the switch is on and effective enough for you to get from point A to point B safely?
CV: I believe that it is all of your training that has led up to that point. And again, it can be your training of technique, or it can be your training of mindset. This is why you train, right? Because, once it happens, all that training is what led you up to that point, and it’s your training that’s going to determine what’s going to happen.
Again. I’m a big fan of making a judgment call. You don’t have to Krav Maga everybody. If you have to use it, then your training’s going to kick in.
KMSF: With regard to testing and advancing into higher levels, do you have any general tips for students?
CV: Stepping out of your comfort zone: that’s where you really begin to grow. When you start coming to these belt tests, especially at the higher levels, you start to understand that there’s going to be a lot more physicality. There’ll be more conditioning, you’ll be expected to go faster, to go harder, you’re going to be more intense because that’s how it should be. Every level, you’re expected to do more, and you’re expected to do what you learned earlier, better.
Mindset should always be there. It’s like anything, like any physical event. If you play a sport, you know, what’s your mindset? Are you playing to win or are you playing to defend? What is your goal? I don’t know if you read Simon Sinek, but, start with the why. What is your goal? Why are you doing something? Understand the why, and then think about everything else, like the how.
If you attach yourself to that core value that [lets] you say, “this is my why and why I’m doing what it is that I’m doing,” many times, you will find yourself changing your approach. It might be more commitment, it might be more discipline. For me, I like to make sure that as students get higher through the system, that they definitely become more well-rounded.
I like to make sure that it goes beyond the technique because I think the technique is awesome. I think understanding the why behind the technique and how to apply it also becomes more important. Because once you understand that then you can associate it a little bit more and understand why you want to learn this better. It’s like everything. You can take it for face value, and that’s great. Some people, that’ all they want. I prefer to give [students] a little more context. Why is this 360 important, why is this bar arm important? Where does it play out in different scenarios? If you have to adapt, where does it lead to if you do it incorrectly, or if you do it correctly and somebody else jumps on top of you? You have to have that mindset to adapt and flow, endure, and keep going.
KMSF: Personally, I appreciate the context you provide. For me, the why is always in the background, and it’s important for me to have purpose in my undertakings.
CV: The other thing is, as instructors, we have a responsibility. I’ve said this to many instructors: Inspire and be inspired. Inspire your students. Inspire your instructors. But also be inspired by them. We had a student today who said, “In the math world, [this principle] is called this.” It’s just understanding how people learn.
Never stop learning. I don’t care whether it’s math, music, philosophy, martial arts, self-defense, whatever you do—don’t stop learning. When you get to the point where you think you’ve learned everything, that’s a really bad point to be in. And that means you start to give up.
I’ve been a student more than a decade. I’ve been a student every day here. I learn from the students. I learn from the instructors. I learn from all the people I train with outside of Krav, instructors from around the world, instructors in different disciplines. Always learn.