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Updated: Dec 5, 2023

When teaching self defence, I sometimes come across a less discussed topic around training in Krav Maga or martial arts applied as self defence.

This is the difference between capability and capacity for violence.

Capability is the physical skills you acquire during your training. It’s the movement you learn. The damaging strikes you throw and the combinations you master. The counter-techniques you you learn in response to violent attacks.

Capacity is something else. It’s your instant psychological readiness to inflict pain, injury or even death onto another human being through the aforementioned capabilities.

Simply, capability is how you do it. Capacity is; will you mentally be able do it?

Krav Maga is pain given for free, as we sometimes say, maybe a little in jest. However, if you stop and explore the subject - and indeed, personally scrutinise it, it raises a number of very deep questions about your beliefs, values and morals.

This dilemma is on occasions evident in daily self defence training. It’s the new student who finds certain strikes or techniques morally difficult, even with a willing and protected training partner. Gauging eyes or kicking the groin are typical examples of this. Many overcome this sentiment with training and logic about what reality will require them to do, but some will cease learning self defence because of it.

It’s just too non-compatible with their personal notion of values or morals.

I’m not making any value judgement about those who find it difficult. I hope they will never be placed in the situation where they are again confronted with the same dilemma, but this time in anger - and their personal safety is jeopardised because of it. It would make the situation extra difficult for them.

Those who already train or teach Krav Maga - and who by implication may not feel any reservation about giving out pain - are hopefully in a better position, but even those - myself included - are not necessarily mentally prepared to test our limits unless we’ve been there.

Since 'having been there' is rather unlikely for most extreme types of violence, there’s value for each practitioner to think through what they would do should the occasion arise.

Better being prepared mentally than not. As you face the situation, it’s not the time - nor do you have it available to you - to seek out an inner psychological or philosophical monologue on what you’re prepared to do.

Let’s play some stuff out.

A terrorist is coming towards you with a butcher knife. You can’t run - but you have a gun or a knife. Would you shoot? Where? Aim to kill? Would you stick the knife into the heart or the throat? What’s your go-to instinct, not your logical thinking-it-through process? The instinct is where you’ll go.

I imagine most self defence practitioners would affirm their readiness to do this. Maybe. If you’re critical of those who don’t immediately confirm their position, know that killing another person - even an ‘evil’ one or an ‘enemy’ - can cause even trained military or law enforcement personnel post-traumatic stress and psychological discord after. They’re both trained and licensed to do it. You’re not. It’s not all that clear cut psychologically - even if your brain’s logic instruct you to. Be careful with your judgement here.

Now imagine the same situation but you’re in your kitchen and the opponent is a minor, a teenage intruder with a screw driver. You have a bread knife within reach. Would you use it? If not, what physical damage are you prepared to inflict on someone who in law is a child, but can easily kill you? Does anything change? What’s your instinct - not your logic - telling you now?

What’s if it’s a ten year old with a gun? Would you shoot if you had a gun too?

What if - if you're a male - it was a woman intruder with a knife? What if they were drunk or under a substance and not thinking clearly?

Or a mentally ill person?

Does this change your considerations - because the threat level is plausible still the same, maybe even bigger? What’s your instinct saying to you now?

What if it was a family member? What if your own children are present and can see it? What if CCTV cameras are catching the incident?

The threat doesn’t necessarily change but your own moral or value position may alter. Dead is dead is dead - for you, that is. But...

Your instincts based on your ethics may change your approach.

Is killing a woman ok? A person who is simply drunk or mentally unstable, but not ‘evil’? Would you kill another parent’s child to make sure your own children have a father or a mother? Someone you’re related to?

All can easily kill you with a weapon. Your own cognitive dissonance can make your response - and certainly the psychological aftermath - much harder to deal with.

A female is as fully capable of hurting you with a weapon as a man is, but male-on-female violence is culturally seen as unacceptable or socially reprehensible. Social norms will not keep you safe though.

If you’re hesitant about a drunk or mentally unstable person who’s not psychologically in control of their actions, you’re mixing up your sense of self defence with your sense of justice. That’s understandable - but ultimately won’t keep you safe.

Killing a minor is even more socially reprehensible than killing a woman. That said, a child with a weapon can be the cause of murder. Again, self defence here will probably have deeper and harder psychological consequences than any other violence in self defence. Nevertheless, it’s your choice to make. What’s your instinct?

A family member is probably somewhere in the same mentally difficult zone or even beyond. Isn’t wanting to protect them as contradictory to hurting them? Arguably, the family member ceases to be ‘caring family’ in the act of hurting you, but reciprocating the response isn’t necessarily easy, is it?

When you consider these scenarios, be careful about your logic. It’s easily your mind trying to justify something your gut doesn’t want to do. Listen to your instincts. They’ll come out when called upon. Now, align your training with your gut.

Something to think about. Self defence can be as difficult as anything. It can contradict many of our deep-seated ethics and values.

Have you done the thinking yet? Better now than when called upon, as hard as it may be. After all, training self defence is all about preparation.

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