As a Krav Maga instructor, I am a big advocate of everyone learning personal safety strategies. Part of my personal ethos is helping other people avoid some of the negative experiences that have shaped my life. For many, once they experience violence it its worst forms, there is no going back. Even with a lot of support and healing, both physical and mental scars will remain.
Training in self-defense and martial arts in general can not only be a very practical and pragmatic tool to avoid and deal with violence, but it can also be a vehicle for self-discovery and healing for many after a violent assault.
Assume the Worst
With spring upon us in Australia, unfortunately so is the higher likelihood of violence. Assault is seasonal. The number of assaults here peaks in the spring and summer months of October to February, and is lowest from April to July. Criminals are opportunistic, so when people are more out and about, so are they.
Many people who are assaulted ask, “why me?” In realistic situations, there doesn’t need to be a reason for violence. The person can simply be having a bad day and you are now their target. It’s irrelevant. You are in wrong place and at the wrong time, and getting caught up emotionally in the situation or taking it personally isn’t going to help, nor is it the right internal dialogue. Our number one priority is to survive and to remove ourselves from the situation.
Everyone has read the clichés about assumptions. But I can safely say when it comes to self-defense training, there are some safe ones to make. Most people assume that “it won’t happen to me,” but the statistics on violence in Australia show another story. Survey data from 2012 shows that both men and women in Australia experience substantial levels of violence.
- 1 in 5 women and 1 in 22 men had experienced sexual violence
- 1 in 6 women and 1 in 19 men had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner
- 1 in 3 women and 1 in 2 men had experienced physical violence
Assumptions aren’t a bad thing when it comes to personal protection, either. In training, I tell my students, “if you prepare for the worst, only the best can happen.” Research indicates that when women partake in effective self-defense training, they end up stopping violence brought to them more often than those that don’t.
If you ever find yourself presented with a threat situation, here are some other pretty safe assumptions that might save your life.
It Will Feel Sudden
In many real-life situations there is a build-up, whether it be verbal abuse, someone following you home from the bus stop, or muggers silently stalking their prey near an ATM. When the victims are interviewed about the lead up to their assault, they generally mention that there were signals displayed, or an “interview” prior to the assault, and often those signals were missed or ignored.
What many people underestimate is that the transition from non-violent to violent is usually very sudden and explosive. Most are caught unawares by the ferociousness of the assault. This is very different from movies or tournaments where two martial artists bow to each other, then take fighting stances before they trade blows and duel within a set of predefined rules and with preparatory training. This is why sport fighting isn’t self-defense.
Training for situational awareness can help prepare people for real world violence. The use of role playing, scenarios, and timelines can help them learn to detect threats, look for and recognize non-verbal and verbal cues, and the signals attackers display when selecting and interviewing victims. Effective training includes preemptive strategies to deal with the situation before it becomes physical, and how and when to choose to make it physical on our terms, rather than the aggressor’s. Training needs to address fear, surprise, and pain, in ways that emulate real life. An absence of this in training is setting people up for failure with false confidence.
One of the biggest erroneous assumptions that is repeatedly taught in self-defense schools is that you must wait until you are attacked or assaulted before you can respond. This is a dangerous and utterly stupid way to train. Most technique training has us wait until we are assaulted before we respond. In essence, you get good at being assaulted over and over, instead of being proactive from the very beginning. The point is to avoid being a victim, and that means responding verbally or physically before it happens.
They Will Have a Weapon
It is a potentially fatal error to assume your assailant is not armed. When you speak to people who have been assaulted with a weapon, in many instances they state that they didn’t even realize their attacker was armed until sometime into the assault, or even afterward. Some stabbing victims, in the heat of the moment, just felt like they were being punched. They didn’t even know that there was a sharp object involved and that they were, in fact, being punctured.
This leads me to one of the biggest flaws in a lot of self-defense training: having two different techniques for the same threat. Intelligent self-defense systems such as Krav Maga have just one technique to deal with a number of similar attacks. Take a straight punch and straight stab. The action is basically the same so why not treat it in the same way? If a victim is surprised with a weapon, instead of the punch they were expecting, are they going to be able to change from one technique to another in the blink of an eye? Heard of Hick’s Law? Too many choices equal freezing and poor decision-making time.
Intelligent systems have a hand and a body defense and deal with the stimulus in the same way. That way, regardless if the attacker is armed or not, your chances of survival are higher. In high-stress situations, gross motor skills take over, critical thought and fine motor skills are lost.
They Are Not Alone
I don’t care how good your training is. If you’re confronted by a group of 7-foot-tall bikers built like brick shit houses who are intent on ripping your head off, your line of thinking needs to be “how am I going to get out of this one?” The choreographed rubbish you see in most movies, where everyone attacks the defender one at a time, and the defender miraculously knocks everyone out with just one strike, is unrealistic to say the least, and again feeds false confidence.
In the real world, you can safely assume that honor has gone out the window, and the mob rules. Assuming that your assailant is not alone is important in your decision-making process. If you assume that the person you are confronted by is alone and you decide to act with a strong physical response, unaware that a table of their friends is a few feet away, you are probably in for a bad night. Assuming they are not alone puts you in a better position, should things go physical and you are caught up in the chaos of dealing with more than one attacker.
Multiple opponent awareness and high-pressure training drills are crucial in your practice, and active scanning for further threats (including weapons, exits, and common objects to use to assist) should also be a part of completing a scenario/role play or technique in your training.
They Are Under the Influence
Sometimes, regardless of your best attempts to logically, calmly, and rationally talk your way out of a situation, your violent offender isn’t going to respond the way you would like. This is far worse if they are under the effects of drugs or alcohol. At a high level of excitation and arousal, logic and rationale have already gone out of the window for most people, let alone someone who isn’t sober.
De-escalation, defusing, or even compliance is possible in some situations, but in others, it won’t be. Unlike sport fighting or martial arts practice, your goal is not to “win” but to survive. Assume that your attacker might be irrational or incoherent, so you can plan your next step if your attempts at a peaceful resolution fail.
Smile for the Camera
In the age of ubiquitous mobile phones and CCTV, you can safely assume that your actions will be caught on camera. Why is this important? If things go legal after an incident, you may have to justify your behavior and use of force in front of an investigator or a judge. If you are a tactical operator, you will need to justify your actions according to the use of force continuum guidelines and operational procedures.
Remember, the first rule of self-defense is avoidance. If you chose the art of not fighting as your first response by fleeing, complying, posturing, de-escalating, and negotiating, then you will find that besides being able to avoid violence in the first place, if you show this on footage, even if things do go physical and then legal afterwards, the ramifications will be few because you took the steps to avoid the situation before things kicked off.
Many self-defense experts teach that the only solution is to strike the offender. This is socially and legally irresponsible. Would you really belt a slightly drunk family member or friend being an ass hat at a party? Context is everything. Sometimes a “soft” option is required to deal with a lower-level violent threat than the false bravado offered by egotistical instructors.
On the flip side, many people also think that self-defense is a passive act; or that it is primarily defensive or non-aggressive. All the magical and superstitious clichés such as “using your attacker’s force to overcome them,” or “using a minimum amount of force” come to mind. But as those who have experienced it and fought to save their lives or the lives of others will testify, violence is ugly, stressful, and desperate. There is no fairy tale in this pressure cooker.
Self-Defense Training Needs More Than Drills
Training tactically is crucial to survival. Techniques are fine, but training should also include role playing, scenarios, timelines that include hard and soft options, practicing situational awareness, training assertiveness and boundary setting, stress inoculation, and contact work. Training should always cover preventative and pre-emptive material, along with active scanning to find exits and further threats. It should create automatic assumptions while remaining adaptable to the situation.
Learning how to outwit, rather than just outfight predators is part of any realistic self-defense training. Self-defense starts long before any one touches you. Experience is something you get after you needed it, so maybe assumption isn’t the mother of all fuck-ups after all.