Gorillas in the midst: the question of wrist grabs

In my view people sometimes get caught up asking the wrong question: ie. a question that contains one or more false assumptions which serve to distract you from seeing the full picture.

Consider the following video as an example. Watch it carefully and see if you can answer their question correctly...

An episode of "Sleek Geeks" featuring a memory/concentration test.

It is my strong feeling that wrist grab defences are subject to a similar "distracting question", namely:

"Why practise defences against wrist grabs when they are not realistic attacks?".

This question contains a number of false assumptions that serve to distract you from the otherwise obvious "gorilla". What are they?

First, this question assumes that applications proceeding from a wrist grab are always intended to teach a defence against a wrist grab attack. In my opinion the primary purpose of wrist grabs is to put you in the correct range for the application of a technique in a basic setting. After all, once you are in a combat situation nothing requires you to wait for a particular attack; you might simply grab your opponent's arms in the same manner as if he/she had grabbed your wrist and you were responding! The notion that every self defence application must start with a defensive move and hence must have an attack is false and the assumption is unwarranted. Some applications are proactive.

The second false assumption is that wrist grabs are always unrealistic. That might be the case in gloved ring sports, but controlling your opponent's limbs (by trapping, grabbing or otherwise) is standard form in civilian self-defence, just as it is in civilian attacks. Indeed, my article "The art of checking" examines instances where you grab a wrist to "control" your opponent.

I remember as a prosecutor watching surveillance footage of an attack where a woman was dragged 50 yards by a wrist grab, then raped in an alleyway just out of sight of the camera. Had she known even the basics of wrist escapes she would have been able to slip out and perhaps escape - particularly when the attack occurred in broad daylight and people passed the point on the street where she was first grabbed less than a minute later. Had she put up even a modicum of resistance she would have delayed the movement off the street until bystanders had arrived on the scene.

The third false assumption is that all applications must be realistic in order to have a purpose. Different stages of learning require different strategies. As alluded to above, I see wrist grabs as a basic start to understanding or applying certain principles, mostly because they do not have the distraction of a strong attack; the student can focus on perfecting his or her movement. Once the student can apply the relevant principle sufficiently well the instructor can introduce progressively stronger and more realistic attacks and have the student attempt to apply the principle in that context. You must learn to walk before you can run...

As indicated in my article "The art of checking", I often grab the wrists in sparring to control; maybe not for more than an instant, and maybe not in the way applications are normally effected, but grabbing the forearms/wrists is something I've found to be very productive in trapping.

There is an issue with wrist grabs, but it has nothing to do with whether or not they are a useful platform from which to apply techniques, or whether wrist grabs are "realistic". Rather, the problem with wrist grabs is that they occupy one of your arms. For this reason you have to use them selectively.

Another problem is the grip reflex. This will often not allow you time to let go when the grabbing hand is needed more urgently for defence or some other task. I have noticed that it is part of human nature to "hold onto what you've got". In the confusion of combat this can be very dangerous. You can't afford to "think about letting go" of a wrist/arm because by then it might be too late. Furthermore you need to be careful not to "chase a grab" for the sake of it. Being obsessed with grabbing is likely to distract you from incoming attacks.

A video where I discuss the grip reflex

As a matter of interest, many forms/kata/xing contain "friction holds" in their bunkai; ie. controls (usually of the opponent's forearm/wrist) that rely on friction rather than a full closure of the hand. This avoids the grip reflex issue while maintaining control for the time it takes to execute a punch/strike.

The "sokumen te awase" uke as used in the second half of the above video illustrates a "friction hold" using a hooked wrist rather than a pure grab.

On this topic my friend and colleague Russ Smith made this observation:

    "I now put a focus on avoiding "the hand chasing the hand". By this, I mean utilizing the forearm / elbow, etc. to manage the incoming hand, leaving my hand free to "endanger" the opponent."
Consider his video below:

Russ Smith demonstrates a "control" drill.

So grabbing has its issues, but "realism" is not really one of them. Apart from their function in teaching basic technique, wrist grabs can and do occur in combat. Indeed, you can use them quite effectively to control your opponent. The real issue with wrist grabs lies in the fact that they occupy one or both of your arms. But then again, kicking leaves you balancing on one foot, throwing a punch leaves an opening etc. Every technique has its time and place. When considering wrist grabs or any other issue, don't get so lost in the detail that you don't notice the gorilla in your midst.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. I would never have said I saw a gorilla or didn't see one, simply because I blocked out, consciously, all extraneous data in order to concentrate on the ball.

    People who don't do that, will often fall into mis-perception mode where they "witness" stuff they never witnessed to begin with.

    Magician sleight of hand and con man hitting up marks, relies upon both focus and lack of focus on the target's part. When people are not certain, they often try to rely upon "experts" to tell them what is really going on. This has some fundamental problems, not least of which is deception and con artistry.

  2. Various missionaries of various faiths and orders, sometimes come talk to me and in the course, when I want to show them a principle in self defense, I use the basic wrist escape. Even if they are true pacifists in terms of using violence and are totally against escalating conflict, they do still accept evasion or escape methods. In this vein our views concur, and allows me a bridge to communicate some ideas such as using my energy against the weakest point in the grip, rather than contesting strength against strength, escalating things, making people more emotional in struggle, etc.

    I don't like grabbing wrists. I prefer to put pressure on them via friction grips that don't require me to send a command to my fingers first. I've also noticed that when people pull or push when I'm grabbing them with my wrist, I don't continue to grab on but instead let their momentum flow out, since I don't want to be pulled or pushed via my arm. This has often resulted in me having a "weaker grip" than I thought. Because to get a "strong grip" I have to do things that intentionally make me lose my balance...


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