Before I started learning Krav Maga, I was convinced that somehow my size disadvantage wouldn’t matter. Well, I was right in the sense that the good martial arts do have ways to compensate for serious disadvantages. But they are still disadvantages.

One of my Krav Maga instructors, a giant of a man named Kurt, stared at us as we prepared to learn a few straight punch defenses and counters. “Size matters,” he said, face like stone. He asked one of the male students to stand next to him. “Try to block me,” he coached, and he slowly swung at the student. The student responded with the proper block, but Kurt’s arm was so long that he could still reach over and tap the student’s face. Kurt turned back to the rest of us. “See? Size matters. Now I’m going to teach you how to deal with it.”

These sorts of lessons are painfully important to someone like me, a five-foot-nothing, 100-pound nothing woman. Size is, in a certain sense, everything. Especially in a practical martial art like Krav Maga, where they assume the person coming after you is out to hurt you bad – quick, vicious, and strong. They assume the other guy is going to play dirty. For example, Krav Maga focuses on staying upright and striking the hell out of your attacker, but they spend a lot of time teaching us how to get back up from the ground. Other people like to play dirty, knock you over. Especially if you’re small. Then they can get on top of you, and that’s never, ever good (unless it is a UFC fight, which my Krav Maga instructors appear to consider an interesting experiment in fake fighting). I’m a tiny woman, and I’m highly aware of all that could mean for me.

Most of the time, training consists in battling it out with someone similar in stature to you. That way, everyone can learn the feel of it without having to overcome a dangerous learning curve. Women are paired up with other women, and men with other men. It helps everyone learn better. That’s just the way it is. I’m almost always at a size disadvantage either way, but I know the difference between the two types of opponents very well. Men are harder to take out. Much, much harder. Doesn’t matter how strong I think I am, and I am (according to my instructors) very strong for my size. Doesn’t matter. I am always weaker than the men I’m up against; for me, it’s all about technique. Not strength. If it turns into a strength match, I will lose every single time.

A great example happened to me this weekend. We were learning how to defend if someone tries to come up around and tackle you, or choke you out while bringing you to the ground. Krav Maga focuses on trying to prevent that from happening in the first place, and understanding what to do if you mess up and find yourself in a bad situation. We messed around with our usual partners, trying to take each other down and defending against it. Then our instructor had us switch partners. Women were paired with men; I, the shortest person in the room, was placed with the tallest man. He was told to break through my first defense, come around behind me, and pick me up. I gawked at him. He was at least 6’4”.

If someone ever attempts to wrap his arms around you and pull you into the air, or otherwise drag you away, the first thing to do is act like a rag doll. Drop your weight down immediately; go boneless. If you can keep your feet under you, great. The focus, though, is to become difficult to move – and that means acting like you’re made of putty. When you tense up, you’re easier to carry around. Your bones and muscles give you a structure to handle, like a box. Dropping downward with loose limbs makes your attacker feel like he’s trying to pick up a rubber weight. It’s harder, and it creates space for you to move and react. (Little kids already know the secret: if you’ve ever seen one throw a tantrum by throwing themselves to the ground and going gooey, you’ve seen the basic principle at work here.)

So, I defended against my giant attacker and he broke it apart and slipped around me. I felt his arms grab around my waist from behind, and I did what I am trained to do: I let my legs collapse and dropped my weight low. The next instant, I found myself dangling high in the air. My partner got me. I craned my neck back at him, unsure what to do now. He put me down and told me to try again; I agreed maybe I did it wrong. So we went through it all again, and again he snatched me up into the air like I was his favorite stuffed animal. He wandered around the mat with me in his arms, teasing. I glared helplessly at our instructor.

Size matters. No matter what I did, my partner was too strong for someone my height and weight. The typical defense didn’t do enough to help me.

Our instructor told me to grapple with my partner more. The second I dropped my weight, I needed to do more: I needed to grab one of his legs with my arm or my leg. I call it “spider monkeying,” which is my way of trying to summarize a series of tricky-quick alternate countermeasures that I am usually asked to do because of my height. I have to grip my attackers differently, lever my weight differently, strike weak points in different ways. They’re slight differences, but they’re all the advantage in the world for someone like me. I’ve got to be fast, tricky, and frankly a bit mean.

So, we tried it again. My giant partner darted behind me and wrapped his arms around my middle. I dropped low and grabbed his leg; he did his damnedest to pull me off him. I jammed myself in closer to his waist with my shoulders, one arm still at his leg. Then I pulled at his fingers (he let go: if we were not training, I would break his fingers at that point). I turned around and practiced a few counters. It was probably twice as much work, physically, for me than if I had been sparring against a woman who more than likely couldn’t really pick me up. I had to learn how to be effective in a new way. (The spider monkey way.)

Because size matters.

Krav Maga is not about strength. Or winning. It’s about surviving. This is perfect for someone with the grave physical disadvantages I possess. And these disadvantages will never cease to be grave; I will never get taller, or stronger. I will always be forced to have the guts to close in on my attacker and put him at a disadvantage because of my tiny stature. That will never change.

It takes guts. You’ve got to have guts. Know who you are, and most importantly, know who you’re not. That seems to work pretty well in real life, too.

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