Five Things To Avoid When You Want To Learn Self-Defense

Martial arts is crammed with egos.

If you don’t believe me, see how many practitioners will try to disprove that statement by claiming superior humility.

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I don’t claim to be exempt from that, either. Heck, at a recent gathering, after a woman asked for my opinion on a self-defense situation, another person interrupted with advice of her own and I felt my muscles coil. It wasn’t just that the unsolicited advice was totally inappropriate for the woman speaking with me (and, my darlings, it was so terrible!). It was also the fact I’ve little more than a score of martial artists in my style to whom I defer because of rank. I’m certainly not accustomed to random people barging into my instructional conversations. My ego indeed caught me off guard.

But ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s the demonstrated confidence in one’s ability coupled with the social confidence to claim competence in front of others. Despite what some cultural conditioning and the oddly-lauded “Tall Poppy” philosophy tries to claim, confidence is a good thing. It’s that sort of ego that says, “I matter, my skills are strong, and I’ll meet you on equal ground.”

But sometimes those egos get in the way of seeing and admitting limitations and inexperience. And nowhere in the world of martial arts is that more apparent than when it comes to discussing self-defense.

Someday I’ll talk about how great martial artists can be crappy teachers, how many don’t become truly good teachers until they’ve gained depth and breadth of life experience, about how giftedness in any art or skill tends to decrease one’s baseline ability to teach it. Today isn’t that day.

Instead, I’m going to offer five things that’ll help you screen out unhelpful self-defense offerings. More specifically, we’re going to look at some of the silliness martial arts schools and instructors use to hook you into a program that—no matter how much the instructor believes in it—won’t be of that much help to you if you’re attacked.

But first, I’m going to write an immodest paragraph or two on my own background. Y’see, I’ve read a bunch of self-defense talk and heard more than my share of tough talk. I’ve watched vulnerable people swallow crappy advice as truth and internalize implications of helplessness from instructors who’ve been in the teaching business for a year or two. Heck, I’ve been there! I remember believing I knew so much when really all I knew was more than I had before. So let me tell you now, martial artists just itching to defend self and style before you’ve read the rest, you’ll learn more in your tenth or twelfth or fifteenth or twentieth year than you did in your first decade. Be patient.

So here’s my background—strictly those parts that relate to speaking with at least passing authority on self-defense instruction. You get to decide if it matters to you.

I’ve trained for over fourteen years in Shorei Kai, hold Sandan rank, and the title of Sensei. My self-defense training is grounded first in traditional Okinawan karate (here’s a great article on the differences between Okinawan and Japanese karate), with elements of Judo (one of my instructors coached the women’s Olympic Judo team), and a smattering of Pikiti Tirsia Kali.*

I’ve taught for twelve of those fourteen years, and will continue to teach. I teach five-year-olds and sixty-five-year-olds. Women and men. Business owners and law enforcement officers. Surgeons and teachers and stay-home parents and military personnel. People who’ve had to fight for their lives and people who are terrified they might one day have to confront a mean person. I’ve taught self-defense to children, to abuse survivors, to seniors who thought they had no options.

Some students ended their years-long association with a certain style to come train with me. An ex-drill sergeant opted to train under me for years. So did a cop and a SWAT-trained EMT who wanted more diverse ways to protect themselves. All those folks also entrusted me with training their children. And I have a standing invitation to resume teaching at any time with one of schools ranked the nation’s best by the AAU.

Ahem. ^lets out a long breath^ I’m not accustomed to horn-tooting quite that much. Moving on.

This isn’t about giving you the Bestest Cool-Sounding Flashy Fighting Technique EVAH. It’s about highlighting some of the common bad advice and sales techniques to avoid when choosing a self-defense guide or instructor.

First: “If you just study Karate/Krav Maga/Tae Kwon Do/Akido/MMA/Wing Chun/Jiu-Jitsu/Muay Thai/Insert Style, you’ll know how to defend yourself!”

Hmmm… no. You’ll have techniques, and you’ll be more physically fit, and you might lose the hesitation to hit someone. But fixation on a single style is like navigating a city by making only left turns. Sure, you might come up with an advantage or two, but a right turn might save your life.

Style fixation, and its resulting lack of diversity and options, prevents experimentation and imagination—two things that are critical in the chaos of a self-defense situation. You have to know what to do when your go-to set of techniques fail, when an injury or chronic condition weakens or prevents proper execution, when aging demands your body move differently.

That doesn’t mean folks who train in one style and one style only don’t learn how to defend themselves. But do beware the school that “saves” actual self-defense applications for “advanced” students. That’s a great indication of limited training, inexperienced instructors, or both. No one looking for applied self-defense should be told it’ll come their way only after a few years of paying for sport-focused instruction.

Heck, I teach my youngest and newest students how to break holds, use an attacker’s momentum, and stun the attacker.  No one moves out of my basic class without knowing the power of the elbow.  And yet, I’ve heard from people who are ranked at first or second degree black belt in their styles and have almost ZERO at-speed, random-attack self-defense training.  Sigh.

Don’t get me wrong: focusing on the sport (aka tournament) aspects of an art isn’t bad in and of itself, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it’s really bad if you’re expecting self-defense and are told sporting techniques will save your life.  And if you’re looking for a physical fighting system that’ll benefit, rather than break down, a person as they age.

Second: “The best self-defense is knowing how to fight from the ground! Why stand on your legs when you can use them as weapons?”

Okay, I’m calling this one out specifically—even though it’s really close to the first point above, because I have a personal issue with it. As the popularity of jiu-jitsu and MMA has increased, so too has the number of people who are absolutely certain every citizen should learn to fight on the ground and want to fight on the ground.

And really, proponents of this “method” don’t even claim to teach people actual ground fighting or grappling techniques. Instead, the person attacked is commanded to simply fall to the ground, on her back, and kick her feet in the air.

Yeah, that’ll work wonderfully if:

  • You know how to fall, since breaking your hip, busting your tailbone, cracking your wrist or smacking your head on concrete is a bad way to start your self-defense endeavors.
  • You have the leg and ab strength to keep twisting and kicking until help arrives (10 to 20 minutes!) or until your attacker gets tired of watching you and voluntarily leaves.
  • You can easily and quickly get up and run away once your attacker leaves and/or is distracted.
  • Your attacker doesn’t have, say, a baseball bat to crack against your kicking and flailing legs.
  • Your attacker doesn’t have a buddy who can kick you in the head while you’re flailing your legs in the air.

And really, from a self-defense perspective, I watch something like this and consider how many times the karate student could have struck the jiu-jitsu practitioner had the goal been to save his life rather than safely subdue an opponent.

Yes, I do indeed have a very big problem with this piece of junk advice. If you told it to my mother, I would never forgive you. If you rattled it off to one of my students, I’d tell the student you’re very inexperienced and should be forgiven for speaking dangerous advice with great enthusiasm.

Third: “Use your keys/your pen/your cool pokey-sharp thing I’ll sell you! Because that’s all you need!”

That piece of advice isn’t altogether terrible, but is utterly incorrect if you’re looking for the best and safest advice. It comes from a place of inexperience, for it assumes an untrained person with a weapon is safer than an untrained person without a weapon.

If I didn’t care about your outcome, I’d laugh at that assumption.

Let me give you an analogy: I assume you can use a pencil reasonably well to write your name. Now tape that pencil to the end of a ruler and write your name while holding the ruler. Which gives you the best control—the tool closest to your hand, with which you have the most experience, or the more removed tool? Certainly you could eventually master the pencil-ruler tool. But it would take practice. Such is the truth with any weapon, for the weapon is an extension of your own body. If you want to achieve greater competence with less training, ditch the weapon you haven’t trained with.

Weapons are easy to fumble and drop. If you talk to folks who’ve been in combat—folks who have a great deal more weapons training than you likely do—you’ll eventually hear from someone who, in terror, couldn’t get their hands to operate the device in their possession. Don’t think you, without any training whatsoever, can operate your weapon flawlessly.

Besides, depending on a weapon for self-defense assumes a dangerous situation will always telegraph itself soon enough for you to have that weapon in hand rather than your purse or pocket. And most of the weapons touted as “So Cool No One Can Touch You!” things are best used in close quarters—the opposite of what a person with little training wants. If you absolutely, without question want a weapon in your hand, choose a distance weapon. My favorite, honestly, is a cane. Consider it.

But you know what you’ll never drop? What you’ll never have to hope you brought along? What you’ll never have to search for when in terror?

Your own hands. Your fingers. Your nails.

If a self-defense instructor can’t teach you how to use them, find another instructor,

Fourth: “Sparring will teach you all about self-defense.”

Oh, dear gods, no. No. NO.

I mean, I can see the advantage if all of your sparring looks like this. On the other hand, even as Rousey obviously and completely dominated the fight, she didn’t ram her knuckles into Correia’s throat, gouge out her eye, or literally stomp her face into the mat.

Sparring is a game. It might be a game like flag football, or it might be a game like rugby, but it is a game nonetheless. It has rules. It has limits. It has timed rounds. It has officials ready to step in if things get too rough. It involves choosing strikes and targets based on point value and rule-allowance, avoiding strikes and targets based on penalties and sportsmanship, and facing opponents who have agreed to those same limitations.

That’s about as far from good self-defense training as you can get. After all, what I’m going to target if under attack are all the things sparring rules in all styles don’t let me target. MMA fighters are forbidden to, say, jam an opponent’s head into the mat.  But if someone on the street takes a swng, and I can get that person off balance, I’m going to do my best to introduce that person’s head to the ground at speed.

Sparring trains you to avoid the most effective self-defense techniques available—a truth that disproportionally impacts potential victims who are not as big and strong as their attackers.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to watch that fight clip again because… wow. That is an awesome thing.

General side lesson: The time Rousey spent in the ring in her last three fights totals somewhere around 60 seconds. Think about that in a self-defense context—how quickly a fight happens, how quickly one person can overpower another. And keep in mind the average 911 response time can vary from ten to twenty minutes.

This is why I take self-defense training very, very seriously. Making a 911 call in the midst of an assault is most often little more than a frantic and heart-wrenching invitation for someone to take statements after the worst of the altercation has occurred. That’s not a knock on law enforcement. It’s simple, inarguable reality.

Writerly side lesson: My darlings, please don’t think a sparring person’s mindset and abilities is the same as that of a person who must fight to survive.  There is a difference. Suss it out.

Fifth: “I’ll teach you what the military/law enforcement does that’s so awesome, because I served/am serving in the military/law enforcement.”

There are incredibly cool things one can learn from military and law enforcement personnel. I’ve learned some, and taught some, and really enjoy being able to train with people who will realistically struggle, block, and evade.

But keep in mind that many techniques used by law enforcement are intended to subdue and restrain an attacker rather than end a confrontation so the victim can flee. (And if you have an overwhelming need to debate the morality of law enforcement officers, go do it somewhere else. Not a request, folks.)

My self-defense goal is the opposite—an excellent thing to remember since most of us don’t wear a radio, and can’t call for backup without giving up that marvelous restraining technique we’re using to hold the bad guy.

Besides… ten to twenty minutes for the 911 response, remember? If you want to challenge yourself, fill a big coffee mug with water. Hold it in front of you for ten to twenty minutes. Now imagine that coffee mug is struggling and wants to kill you. How long do you think you could keep it up?

Also remember the context of military fighting techniques. The lessons are taught to very fit and able-bodied folks, all of whom have voluntarily chosen to increase their likelihood of facing deadly violence. Very few current and ex-military instructors who end up teaching civilians have ever studied the best ways to teach people who are not super fit, who have physical challenges, and who don’t see themselves as fighters. After all, those are the students military and law enforcement regulations and programs are intended to weed out.

So I’m not talking down on what military and law enforcement personnel are capable of. I’m pointing out that, when it comes to teaching a spectrum of students, their focus and experience tends to be quite narrow. And I didn’t reach that conclusion on my own, my darlings. My understanding of the divide between teaching civilians rather than military personnel was a result of military personnel sharing experiences with me, and of my teaching military personnel how to better teach a diverse student body.

On the other hand, I must say some of the worst self-defense advice I’ve ever heard came from a male law enforcement official who tried really hard to think of things easy enough for the womenfolk in his life to handle. It included using your credit card to slash the attacker’s face.

Yeah.

Moving along…

So. Now you’re probably wondering what actual self-defense training should look like.

Um.

Here’s the thing: Just as I can’t tell you the best self-defense strategies without knowing your physical make-up and your emotional challenges, I can’t tell you the best self-defense options for the same reasons.  Are you a person with few if any chronic physical conditions, who can face the rigors and contact and pressure of Krav Maga? Then go for it! Are you a person with fragile bones, iffy balance, and a fear of physical confrontation? Krav Maga isn’t for you!

Every person must understand and accept, without judgment, individual gifts and limitations. Only then can your seek out and choose the self-defense instruction best suited to your abilities, needs, and intentions. Now, hopefully, you can begin your search forewarned of the pitfalls.

If comments are closed here, you can always pop over to Facebook for questions and discussions!

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5 thoughts on “Five Things To Avoid When You Want To Learn Self-Defense”

  1. Interesting reading and very much along my lines of thinking regarding self-defense.

    If you ever teach again (now that you are in Denver) I would love to enroll my wife (if I can talk her into it) as it would help relieve my worries when I’m not with her. That is, if you teach again and if you take new students.

    I do want to add one thing; my previous dislike of martial arts (I had some training way back when) related more to the associated philosophy and rituals (I’m really not well suited to them).

    So, aside to the sometimes highly stylized training (good for muscle memory) I could also not get into the “formal” aspects of the training that I saw as separate from the actual techniques.

    I assume you’ll educate me on to why that is important, but for me it detracted from my desire to continue what training I did have (minimal).

    Once again, great piece.

    1. I do plan on teaching again, though I’m still figuring out how and where and all those things. When I do make the decision, I’ll certainly let local folks know! (I also teach private seminars, so that remains a possibility…)

      For the ritual aspects… It really depends on the style and school one chooses. Some are very strict about certain protocols. Others, not so much. In the style I trained in, the rituals and protocols were based on demonstrations of respect: we bowed, but not excessively, and we addressed on another with earned titles (sensei, shihan, etc.) or with granted titles (mister, missus, etc.) Other styles do have more elaborate requirements for protocol, meditation, and so forth. It’s often a matter of finding what’s most comfortable for you.

      For me, certain protocols help set my training space and time apart from “everyday” life. Training becomes it’s own retreat in that way. However, I’ve attended seminars where the protocol requirements seemed to go on and on and on… And all I could think was, “Okay, can we get to the good part already?!?” 🙂

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