Traditional martial arts are often criticized–and rightly so, in many cases–for training against unrealistic attacks. Most often, the attack that gets the most complaints is the infamous straight lunge-punch in a long front stance that comes from 10 feet away, and wouldn’t hit the defender even if they stood still. A close second to that is the wrist grab, and lately it seems to be coming up a little more frequently in discussions about kata application. The general complaint is that no one attacks a potential victim by grabbing their wrist. Another complaint is that, if someone did grab your wrist, you could simply strike them with your free hand until they let go. These issues are really only addressing the wrist grab in isolation, rather than as part of a larger context, and they also ignore the use of the wrist grab as a learning tool. All-in-all, I believe that wrist grabs are unfairly judged by some, and overused by others.
The idea that “no one attacks you by grabbing your wrist” is one that is typically pointed out by men, and they are usually talking about attacks against men. This does seem to be true for that scenario, but statistics show that women are often attacked by grabs. The #1 attack against women is a grab to the upper arm! The upper arm may not be the wrist, but the concepts applied to deal with a grab to the upper arm are the same ones used against a wrist grab. In addition, wrist grabs are often used to control the arms of a victim–especially a weaker victim–in order to prevent them from fighting back. To say that no one needs to worry about wrist grabs is ignoring an entire group of people who do have to worry about them.
When your arm has been grabbed, you may be able to strike your opponent, but you are certainly at a disadvantage. As I explained in a recent article, limb control can seriously hamper your opponent’s ability to fight you effectively. This is just as applicable when you are on the receiving end! Depending on how your opponent grabs you, and how strong they are, you may very well be able to strike effectively, or you may not be able to mount much of any real offense. They can turn your shoulders, or pull you off balance, so that it is difficult to reach them, and even if you did land a strike, it would not have any body weight behind it. If you can strike them effectively, then you should certainly do so, but if you can’t, then you need to address the problem directly instead of continuing to pursue a failing strategy.
This brings us back to the initial idea of wrist and arm grabs not being attacks that happen in real physical altercations. Often, when you see a self defense technique being demonstrated or taught, the technique being defended against is meant to be the first attack you are encountering in a self defense scenario. It is important to remember that technique drills are focused on practicing a technique in isolation, or in a very specific situation, but they can be applied more widely than they are practiced. Even if your opponent does not grab you as their first attack, that does not mean they are not going to grab you at some point. In grappling arts, and in MMA, there are many instances of limb control, which includes grabbing the wrist. You can see in the animated GIF, above, how wrist control can be used in MMA as a way to open your opponent to strikes–especially knee strikes–and takedowns.
In a more self defense oriented context, you still may end up having your arm grasped by your opponent. When untrained people find themselves on the losing end of a fight, they often try to grab their opponent to stifle their offense. It can also happen as a natural reaction to some forms of attack. If you attack someone’s face, throat, or groin while you are defending yourself, it is entirely possible that they will grab your wrist to stop you from doing so. In some cases, wrist-grab-based technique drills will actually start with you attempting to do one of these things, which causes your opponent to grab you. You can see this reflected in kata, as well, where the next technique in the kata deals with your opponent’s defense against the previous technique. For example, you can see this employed by Ryan Parker Sensei in his Naihanchi Shodan Flow Drill video, and in Taira Masaji Sensei’s renzoku bunkai flow drills.
While wrist grab defenses can be perfectly applicable in combat sports and self defense, they are not always drilled for those reasons. Sometimes, training from a wrist grab is simply a teaching tool for working techniques from a point of contact. Muchimidi (sticky/heavy hands) and tactile sensitivity take a lot of time and training to develop, while the techniques they allow you to use can often be learned relatively quickly, in comparison. To get around this problem, we give students a place to start by putting them in contact with the opponent’s limb from the beginning. You can see this in the “wrist grab defense” video, above, where the wrist grab is serving as a starting point for teaching a standing armbar. Typically, the uke (receiver) will grab the wrist of the person practicing the technique, because this establishes clear attacker/defender roles, but you could have the person practicing grab the uke’s wrist, instead. This helps the student become accustomed to maintaining contact in transition to a technique, and allows them to learn effective techniques that they may otherwise have to wait to learn until they were more advanced.