Self Defence; Does it really do what it says on the tin?



In every town and city in Britain, there are people attending public classes, courses and seminars on the subject of self-defence. These can include self-defence for woman, the elderly, vulnerable, the disabled or just the population at large.


One source of self-defence classes are the ‘martial arts clubs’, a group of people practising the fundamentals of a usually oriental fighting style, originating from different systems, from countries such as India, China, Japan, Korea etc.

Martial arts traditionally runs on a hierarchical basis whereby, in the past, the most experienced, skilled and highest graded person, usually a black belt, would be considered the leader of the club or school. In Japanese terminology, this person would be called “sensei” (in Japanese culture; different names in other countries), more commonly translated as “person born before another” or “one who comes before”. It does not specifically mean “teacher” but by the inference of being older and more experienced, it related to someone with more knowledge and developed skill than a newer student.  Of course now, due to international development and the spread of martial arts training to the majority of countries around the globe, a “sensei” is not necessarily older in age, but will most likely be experienced and skilled enough to pass on the philosophy and techniques of a martial art to those, of whatever age, who wish to learn, and there are many reasons why people wish to take up a martial art. Those can be:

  • For health and fitness
  • To learn a competitive sport (not all martial arts hold competitions)
  • To learn self-defence
  • To provide social interaction, forming friendships
  • To learn a new skill
  • For mental health development
  • To understand body mechanics and learn more about your body’s capabilities

The list is varied but not exhaustive.

Martial arts styles are a way of teaching the fundamentals of forms of combat in times when a human had to regularly fight for their very existence. In modern times many styles have been ‘watered down’ to fit in with current laws, sensibilities and ways of life as well as in the development of sport and social interaction. That doesn’t mean that martial arts are ineffective; far from it. A potential student has a vast choice of martial styles and invariably they choose one that suits their requirements. Some join to learn to fight and defend themselves; some for competition; others for tradition or for fitness of mind and body and many for a combination of reasons., but!

Is it self-defence?


I always say that martial arts and self-defence are on the same spectrum but are different animals. Martial arts deal with passing on knowledge, and training in a system that originated from traditional fighting styles mainly from the Orient. Over the years, while some of the traditional, often feudal fighting styles, have remained true to their origins, many are  diluted and there are newer styles that have emerged but, since we mostly have the same limbs and body parts, these are often based on more ancient styles of combat, going back many centuries. Some may claim that they have devised a new martial art, but I can guarantee that it will have been drawn from an already established style or combination of styles. This is how martial arts evolve.

I have attended, sometimes as a guest instructor,  various martial arts clubs in Britain and Europe over the last thirty-five years who have organised a ‘self-defence’ course, often aimed at women and more likely than not, after a particular event has become prominent in the news eg. the rape or sexual assault/s in the locality, an increase of reported domestic violence incidents, national or international news coverage etc. therefore, is the specific course aiming to draw in people who feel vulnerable because of what is reported in the media, or does it aim to amplify irrational fears and insecurities among a particular demographic in order to gain higher course participation? 

There are, of course, many reasons why a particular section of society would want to undertake a ‘self-defence’ course; to learn something new, hone some skills already learnt, increase their knowledge of a wide and diverse subject, to feel better equipped, help build confidence and self esteem; the list is endless.

Sometimes I used to see adverts that, while attempting to draw in women to participate, they would add the promise that after a short period of time, six, eight, ten weeks maybe, after completing a course, they would be “confident enough to defend themselves in any real-life scenario.”

Sorry to burst that bubble but that is not an endorsement anybody should offer or can back up, theoretically or practically. Nobody knows how they will react to a particular fear induced and stressful verbal and/or physical altercation. Training to any level does not include dealing with the one thing that you can never reproduce in any training environment, the FEAR FACTOR.

What you have in a training environment at best, is more knowledge than you had before, which might be useful in helping you to defend yourself from an assault, attack, abduction etc. but there can be NO GUARANTEES that you will be able to remember, let alone implement, techniques and drills that you have learned on a short course, which can often be taught by people who have little or no understanding of REAL violence.

A high ranking martial artist does not necessarily understand raw violence if they have never worked in that environment or been exposed to it personally. Many of the techniques that I have seen, both in real time and online, use totally fictitious and unlikely scenarios and even more dubious ways to defend against those fantasy attacks. Teaching these to small groups is bad enough, but sharing them on a worldwide online platform, such as You Tube, will draw people in and give them a false sense of security.

There are groups out there who claim to have the ability to reproduce the ‘fear factor’ to a training environment but,what they are actually doing, is putting people under a severe level of ‘stress’ by overwhelming them emotionally with shouting, posturing and screaming profanities, while subjecting them to physical pressure by unleashing one or more ‘attackers’, who are often wearing full rubber protective suit/s. Stressful? Yes; Real Fear? ABSOLUTELY NOT. The ‘victim’ knows it is not real regardless of what type of spin is put on it.

While certain levels of stress do trigger the release of the hormone adrenaline, causing a number of recognisable symptoms (eg. heart rate increase, shortness of breath, mind going blank, being given no time to think etc.), the participants still know that the attack is not REAL and for many reasons, none more so than the health and safety of participants and having to adhere to a legitimate insurance policy, plus the fact that an instructor should know when to step in and terminate the exercise, if it looks like the ‘victim’ is being overwhelmed, this does not constitute real life and is a different feeling than that of RAW FEAR, where you do not have people guiding you or stopping the attack if it starts to go wrong. Feeling real fear is the way for the body to release adrenaline to aid a ‘fight or flight’ physical response. It is a different feeling to a controlled and stressful exercise, which can be anything from running away, through brain freeze, to fighting like a demon. Nobody can predict how anyone will respond.

There is one thing that I can assure you of; that until you have experienced real, unadulterated, terrifying fear, you will never know what it feels like, no matter how much training that you undertake. If a person ever tells you that they do not, nor ever have felt fear in a real violent attack (physical assaults are rare, so do not believe that there is a ‘ninja’ around every corner), they are lying or, they had their bodies anaesthetised with drink and/or drugs at the time and their feelings were somewhat scrambled and inhibitions lowered.




PART 2 – Self defence is 10% physical, 90% AWARENESS.













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