Can you really learn self-defense online?

This is a much debated topic in the martial arts and self-defense world.  Some instructors feel that one cannot learn martial arts or self-defense from online training, others feel that it compliments live in-person training and at the opposite side of the spectrum there are others that are of the opinion that it is the way of the future.

When browzing the internet for online training, there are quite a few online training institutions that offer online training in all sorts of martial arts styles and self-defense systems. Some are obvious scams and others offer quality online martial arts and self defense training and are run by reputable instructors who also operate actual training facilities where they teach their art or system. Some use a system where students get access to video training portals and learn techniques and attend follow-along classes. Students also have to complete assignments ranging from writing tests all the way to filming themselves from various angles doing their techniques. The instructor then review the videos and grades the student based on correct execution of techniques. Others provide the student with access to video based classes and supplement it with hardcopy materials such as manuals, audio CD’s and even practical live training sessions.

The worldwide COVID 19 Pandemic and resulting hard lockdowns forced many training facilities to permanently close their doors or to look for alternative ways to retain their students and keep them training. Suddenly even the most traditional martial arts schools and hardcore self-defense instructors were forced to consider online training.  Instructors started training their students online in a variety of ways ranging all the way from sending their students pre-recorded videos  to going live on Facebook, YouTube, Skype and Zoom. Many instructors realized that the way they have been teaching cannot be duplicated online and were forced to revise their teaching methodology. Other instructors transitioned seamlessly and their students receive better quality training than ever before. From the students perspective, changing over to virtual training was also perceived as both positive and negative. On the positive side many students report that online training affords them the opportunity to replay recordings so that they can look at the finer details of a technique. On the negative side some students feel that they do not feel a connection with students and the instructor and that they find it difficult to mix training with their home activities. 

But can you actually learn self-defense online without any prior training?

My view is that you definitely can, provided that you train with a reputable instructor and that the training medium used allows interaction between the student and instructor when needed. Self-defense is actually 80% about being able to avoid conflict and 20% about being able to physically defend yourself during a violent altercation. This is where the dilemma starts for many martial arts and self-defense systems, especially those systems that only focus on technique. Many systems rely on complicated technique that requires a lot of repetition and instructor guidance to master. Systems that focus a lot on sparring, grappling and sport based competition really struggle to teach online as a training partner is often required to master the finer skills. Of course this is a generalization as it may be possible to teach some complicated techniques online, especially if students had prior practical experience. Systems that teach gross motor movement, less complicated techniques and how to use everyday items as improvised weapons tend to excel at online training. Think about it, what is complicated about learning how to palm strike, grab-twist-pull the groin  or stick a pen into the eye of an attacker?

Over the years I had the opportunity to train live in various styles of martial arts under various instructors. I also had the opportunity to train online in various reputable self-defense and martial arts systems.  For the purpose of this discussion I want to use karate as an example. I trained in karate since age 6 and graded to junior black belt at age 11. I won many championships including the SA Championships in my age group. Later in my adult life I also trained in karate but later changed over to reality based self defense. Recently at age 49, nostalgia took hold of me and I got this urge to start training karate again. After looking at local clubs I realized that their training schedules clash with my own class times when I teach the COBRA Self-Defense System.

I thus started looking at online training options and decided upon a specific online karate school. I researched the instructor and concluded that he was a legit 7th Dan who runs a brick and mortar school and who has won many championships in his country. From day one it felt to me like exactly the same experience as being in a live class. The instructor even sounds the same as my Sensei when I was a boy.  The classes are tough and conducted in exactly the same way as live classes. The instructor teaches by means of a checkpoint system where each technique has a few critical checkpoints that you need to pay attention to. You have to film yourself and send videos for grading. He also hosts weekly live online classes via Facebook and Zoom. Here is the best part: he picked up a few fine details/mistakes that all my Sensei’s  in all my years of live training missed! How is that even possible? I will tell you how it is possible:

  • if you are an instructor with 20-80 students of different skill levels standing in front of you, is it possible to give 100% attention to each and every student for the entire duration of the class? NO.  
  • When you grade your students for their next belt you often have a couple of students at the same level lined up and doing their techniques. Can you watch every detail of every move of every student at the same time? NO.
  • You all have that one student who really excels . You look at him or her and immediately know they have what it takes. They look cool when doing their stuff and seem to get everything right the first time. You do not pay as much attention to every step of a technique because they just look cool when doing it and they are so fast when doing that kick! That is where you as the instructor miss stuff. That is where little Johnny learns flashy technique but cannot really generate force when doing the technique because he is actually not doing it correctly although it looks as if he is. 

Advantages of learning online

  • The students can watch and re-watch the training as many times as he/she likes. If the student does not understand a technique the video can be played back or clip-by-clip to see exactly what is done.
  • Humans learn through visual, auditory and practical stimulus. Some people learn better by seeing, others by hearing and others want to practicaly do stuff. Most humans learn best by combining all senses. Online training caters for every learning style. 
  • If the online course includes assignments that the student must complete, even better because then it also allows the student to analyze and dig deeper into the training. It also helps with focus, concentration and memory retention.
  • The Instructor can view  and re-view video recorded techniques of students from various angles to evaluate correct technical execution.
  • Consistency of training. In live dojos and self-defense studios instructors often make use of assistant instructors who may teach a technique slightly different, which may sometimes confuse students. 
  • Less intimidating. The average person who wants to learn self-defense or martial arts are often intimidated to go to a training facility. The idea of training against others who may be beter skilled or who look intimidating or wearing a uniform is often the biggest mental barrier for new students.  Online training eliminates that fear and barrier to training.
  • It is a great tool to keep students training during holidays or when they  cannot come to a studio for some reason.
  • It is accessible to students who may not be able to afford live classes, who cannot travel to live classes or who do ot have a training facility near them. 
  • The studio is never closed and there are no class times. which means you can train whenever and wherever you want.

Disadvantages of learning online

  • There is a lot of  misleading stuff on the internet and some “training systems” are really awfull and only aimed at making the site owner money. 
  • If the system does not offer some sort of interaction with the instructor either online or in person, there are no quality controls in place. This could lead to students learning techniques incorrectly which is very difficult to correct at a later stage.
  • Requires a stable internet connection and purchasing of sufficient internet data may increase training cost
  • No interaction or very limited interaction with other students. This limits opportunity for practising skills against others.
  • Requires student commitment and self-discipline to train.
  • Difficult to learn advanced techniques and the finer details of  sparring .

Learn C.O.B.R.A. Law Enforcement Based Self-Defense Training Online!

C.O.B.R.A. Self-Defense offers a great online training option. Watch the video below to learn more.