Accessibility and Aggression: The Weirdly Harmonic Rules of Krav Maga

I’ve been taking lessons in Krav Maga (Hebrew for “contact combat”) for about eight months now.

I’m an aggressive person exactly zero percent of the time, but we all have to stay in shape somehow, and, due to my hatred of going to the gym and my inability to throw, catch, hit or kick anything smaller than a person, I ruled out most of the hand-eye coordination sports. I fully committed to Krav the day I took my first lesson for a number of reasons, but the best one was just that the pragmatic nature of the fight “system” appealed to the designer in me.

Quite surprisingly, there are lots (LOTS) of parallels between the Krav’s practical application and the way we approach designing engagement campaigns at Black Sheep. There’s some behavioral psychology involved. There’s some design thinking involved. And, best of all, accessibility for all is a HUGE tennet of the fight style. In the (approximate) words of one of my instructors, “If the only person who can successfully use this skill in combat is a 200-pound man, Krav doesn’t want it. Krav is for everyone. The skills have to work for everybody.” That’s a lot of inclusivity for one of the world’s most notoriously violent hand-to-hand fight styles.

Krav Maga owes its start to Imi Lichtenfeld, who was born in Hungary in 1910 and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. In the 1930s, Imi (a Jew) found himself having to defend friends, family members and neighbors from anti-Semitic mobs terrorizing his community. An ex-gymnast, wrestler and boxer, he proved to be quite effective at street fighting. As Nazi Germany enveloped swathes of Europe, his lack of popularity with local authorities forced him to find a home elsewhere.

What he found was Palestine, where he joined the Haganah, a paramilitary –organization fighting for Jewish independence. He was present for the formation of Israel and, having taught hand-to-hand combat to many soldiers already, he was asked to further develop a fighting system that he then taught to the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, as the military’s chief instructor. This was Krav Maga. It’s interesting to note that the IDF includes mandatory conscription for women as well as men, a consideration Imi had to keep in mind when creating a fight style anyone could use effectively.

Krav isn’t technically a martial art. Unlike other sport fighting, Krav is not particularly elegant or narrow in its application. It’s about doing what’s most effective for survival and what comes easiest to the practitioner (hello, user experience). It’s not opposed to change if an issue becomes apparent or a better method is uncovered (hello, design thinking). Krav in the United States is based on eight core principals, which I’ve taken straight from the Complete Krav Maga by Darren Levine and John Whitman, the official guide of Krav Maga Worldwide:

  • Techniques must be movements based on natural instincts. 
  • Techniques must address the immediate danger.
  • Techniques must defend and counterattack simultaneously.
  • One defense must work against a variety of attacks.
  • The system should be integrated so that movements learned in one area of the system complement, rather than contradict, movements in another area.
  • Techniques must be accessible to the average person, not just athletes.
  • Techniques must work from a position of disadvantage.
  • Training must include the stress experienced in real attacks.

Testing new skills isn’t done by the best athletes, but by those less experienced—in the same way that website testing should be done not by those who built the website, but by those who will need to use it. 

Darren Levine, author of the above book, friend of Imi Lichtenfeld and one of the people largely credited with bringing Krav practice to the United States, tells a story about Imi any designer or strategist would be proud of. It’s detailed in the book as an excerpt of the eulogy he wrote for Imi:

“When Imi came to visit me, I had just bought a new sports car and I was really excited to show it to him. I was really proud of that car. But when Imi got in the car, he started shifting and fidgeting around, reaching over his shoulder. He looked unhappy. Finally, I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘This car isn’t good. The seat belt, it’s too far back. I can’t reach it with my right hand. I can’t reach it with my left hand. I’m a lazy one. It needs to be easy, or people won’t wear their seat belt. It’s not safe.’

At the time, I was just disappointed. I wanted him to be impressed with my car. But later I realized that he looked at that seat belt the same way he looked at everything. It had to be simple, effective, or people wouldn’t be able to do it. That was Krav Maga.”

Jo Layne Skillman