Monday, December 7, 2009

Self defense basics

I don't teach self-defense, because i am not sure it makes sense as a concept. There aren't any easy techniques that will make much of a difference if you are attacked. Violence doesn't really work that way. I have always hated "self-defense" techniques in the martial arts because they don't work and can give people false confidence. When I did karate, we were once taught a knife defense technique that involved putting your hands on your hips and swiveling to intercept the knife with your elbow. Say what now? Were I to teach self defense, I wouldn't teach martial arts techniques, but would instead concentrate on awareness.

The most important single thing you can do to keep from getting mugged or attacked or run over by a car is to pay attention. That means paying attention to the world around you using all your senses.

If you walk around without paying attention, you will probably be clumsy. If you do it long enough, you may find yourself in an unhappy surprising physical confrontation.

When you walk around you should know where you are and who is around you and you should be paying attention to them. You should definitely be aware when someone is paying attention to you. That doesn't mean that you need to walk around suspiciously eying people down. It means that, in general, you should have your attention focused outward when you are out in the world. The more dangerous the place, the more you should pay attention. Do you hear people walking up behind you? How many and who are they? Do you look at the window reflections around you? What are the people around you paying attention to?

I got mugged when I lived in a bad neighborhood in DC. You know what fighting style I used to defend myself? None, I used Dumbass-not-paying-attention-to-what-was-going-on-around-him-while-waiting-for-the-bus style.  

If I hadn't been sitting there in a daze, I would have easily seen it coming. If you are in a bar and a fight breaks out and you didn't feel it coming, you probably are not paying enough attention.

If something happens, the first thing to do is stay relaxed, say the unexpected and don't participate in any fight or mugging rituals. If someone wants to fight, don't act weak, but say or ask something incongruous. If you are about to be mugged, negotiate. "C'mon man, I got mugged 5 times this week."

My brother is a master at this. He used to skate on the edge of conflict just for fun. He was talking to my friend at a bar one time and said, "Dude, people take reflect your attitude if you lead them. Watch this." My brother is not a big guy, nor much of a fighter. This huge football player is walking by and he says, "What the hell do you think you are doing? You just walking around like you own the place. You want some?"

The football player is furious and yells, "What did you say, you little punk?"

My brother just breaks out a big smile and laughs, saying, "Ha! I'm just kidding, man, you're awesome! Gimme five! You want a beer?" They walk off to the bar like good buddies.

When people want to hurt you, you sometimes have a chance to "put them in your movie." Lead the situation. When I would walk around my neighborhood in DC, if I saw a group of young men sizing me up, I would walk right up to them and ask them a question. "You guys seen Tom around?" Tom was a badass dude who lived in the neighborhood so it would make them second-guess themselves.

Anyway this stuff isn't easy to do I'll admit, but it's easier than learning to fight a huge dude or ten people, or someone with a gun.

Also, always trust your gut (your body) and don't feel like you have to engage people on the street. Most of the time if someone is going to harm you, they use an opening to get close to you that makes you feel like you have to respond or you not being nice.

So then if all this doesn't work and you end up getting attacked by someone that can hurt you, you have to run. Run like the wind.

If you can't run, attack, attack and attack again until you can run.

Never go with a person because they have a gun or a knife, take the chance of getting hurt on the spot.

Also, last but not least. You would think I wouldn't have to say this one, but it seems to occur so often that I guess I will say it. Don't get drunk alone in a dangerous bar or club (unless it is "your" bar) or walk around alone and drunk in a dangerous city.

These are just a few basic principles that come way before martial arts, pepper spray or carrying a weapon.


  1. One minor point I would add: I've noticed 'bad guys' like to use the trick of offering to shake one's hand to put nice people with polite upbringing off guard and get them to open themselves up to a close-range attack.

    I've had this happen to me twice - the 1st time the guy didn't actually attack but I realized he was sizing me up and considering it while my hand was already being gripped by his. The second time I flat out wouldn't take the guy's hand and established my space with an unthreatening 'palms out' hand position while we talked things over.

    I think Geoff Thompson's book "The Fence" is an excellent book on real world self defense which teaches some concepts related to this kind of stuff.

  2. Rory Miller says some pretty similar stuff in "Meditations on violence". He gets into a lot of research of and statistics on violent assaults (he summarizes some important points that have already been made by others), and also about the "chemical" side of it, the different stages of adrenalization and how they affect both your skills and your decision making ability. Very good book.

  3. Great insight. I have taught self-defense courses, of which 90% consist of developing awareness, ways to deter attack in the first place, etc. etc.

    One of the sad things I see in "self-defense" courses is too much emphasis on physical technique-- and many of these techniques are ridiculously hard for someone to repeat under duress without constant training (one lady once showed me a "self-defense" technique she learned from a BJJ instructor-- it was a triangle choke with the legs! Since she didn't train regularly, I don't think she'd have much of a chance to pull that off).

  4. I know these articles are pretty light, which is another way to say that I don't think I am saying to much that is groundbreaking. I am saying a lot of basic stuff, 1. because it seems obvious to me that most martial arts teachers don't seem to be taking these points into consideration, 2. A lot of people may not know these basic things, and 3. I am practicing talking about concepts that interest me so I can go back to them at some point and flesh them out more.

  5. One problem with the way that martial arts is taught is that too many students think that because they can use the techniques in class against a cooperative opponent who is not actually tying to harm them means that they are better than they really are. Filled with confidence, they won't try to defuse a situation, and when the resulting violence does not go in their favor they will blame whatever martial arts they were studying rather than their own ability to apply the techniques, and more important to evaluate situations.
    It is tempting to criticize the instructors for raising the students' hopes but if you want to run a business it is probably not beneficial to tell someone who has been studying for a year or two that he is not actually able to defend himself against a guy 50 pounds heavier in a bar and needs to train harder.

  6. No one ever wants to fight me... (sigh)... I spent a good part of my not so long adult life wanting someone to start shit, but to no avail.

    Conversely, I have friends who seem to get picked on all the time. I think awareness and attitude are paramount.