The truth about self-defence – Does it actually work?

by | Sep 9, 2023 | Self-defence | 0 comments

Self-defence  – A life skill that should be taught at school

Calls by campaigners to include self-defence for girls in PE lessons got me thinking about how best to examine the subject of self-defence. Dictionary definitions like ‘A countermeasure that involves defending the health and well-being of oneself from harm’, or ‘the use of force to protect yourself against someone who is attacking you’, don’t quite cut the mustard in encapsulating what is at stake here.
Terms like ‘countermeasure’ and use of ‘force’ fall short in emphasising the severity of what could amount to the worst experience of your life. At the softer end of the spectrum, self-defence is about applying verbal skills that allow you to walk away from an escalating disagreement and even encourages you to make sure your mobile phone is regularly backed up (yes, still best to hand it over to that knife wielding beast.) At the harder end, It needs to be about realistically stopping a testosterone fuelled, 200-pound man, intent on the most heinous acts against a woman.
Arguably, it’s a life skill to protect us against a life altering situation that we don’t want to happen. It therefore warrants some very careful consideration. In this article we explore the reality of self-defence and how best we can choose a method to learning it.

Self-Defence Courses – Are they like crash diets, do they actually work?

Self defence like a crash diet
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How likely are you to remember a set of techniques you practiced two years ago during a once-a-week self-defence course that lasted six weeks?
Even if those techniques were effective and taught well, without regular practice your muscle memory (learned instinctive reaction) is unlikely to remember them enough to react instinctively, especially in the face of debilitating aggression, or as discussed in a previous article on violence, tonic immobilisation.
The ‘like riding a bike’ principle of never forgetting doesn’t hold and because some self-defence courses and many martial arts overburden the hippocampus (part of the brain that manages your memory) with trying to teach hundreds of techniques, the likelihood of instinctively reacting with the right technique at the right time becomes unlikely.
Riding a bike, as we can all attest, is a very simplistic set of moves; your hands steady and direct the steering, and with the help of your leg muscles your feet push down on the peddles. As a kid, I was almost permanently attached to my BMX, so in my forties, after a long absence, riding a bike, is literally like riding a bike! If only it was that simple with self-defence!
Mu-shin Self-Defence does provide 90-minute, 3 and 5-hour ‘Fortress‘ masterclass that teaches skills like tactical communication, situational awareness and a simplified, yet powerful combat system. The difference to other self-defence courses, is that once the masterclass is finished, students can continue to embed these skills to muscle memory with a home ‘practice pack,’ review video and visualisation meditation. Our monthly newsletter reminds our masterclass students to at least review these life skills once or twice a month, even work them into their regular fitness routine, so they embed to muscle memory and become instinctive. The review video gives you training drills to practice alone or with a partner. We would prefer students train with us regularly with our Mu-shin Fitness programme, but in reality not everyone has the time or desire, but we believe everyone should have an embedded set of skills that at least gives them a fighting chance against a larger violent attacker.
For those that are willing to invest time and have desire to learn a martial art, there is no shortage of choice. From the various boxing arts, traditional, Maui Thai and kickboxing, to the Japanese arts of karate, judo, aikido, ju-jitsu. The Chinese arts of kung fu, wing chun, and since their introduction at the Olympics, the growing popularity of the Korean art of Taekwondo. Brazilian Ju-jitsu has also gained popularity, along with the more aggressive approaches of Krav Maga and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) practice.
There is much to consider when committing to this longer-term pursuit of self-protection, though this article will not provide a review of the above named styles of martial arts, instead the aim is to understand the general system of training and application and ask the tough question, is this going to sway the odds in my favour if I come across a violent maniac?

The advantages of investing time and money in martial arts

Twice a week to training in a martial art is seen as the average in countries like the UK. This is perfect for some, and students remain motivated in their quest for their next coloured belt, with most styles allowing four to five years to tick off the illustrious black belt from their bucket list.
This can be a problem in itself, the first dan (or first degree) black belt is seen by many as the pinnacle of their martial arts training and many ease off the gas once reached, even giving up and moving onto their next hobby. For those that stay, learn quickly that the first dan signals the end of the lower grades, and ‘the beginning’ of the high grades.
Martial arts and self-defence
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The distance between first and second dan is quite lengthy in some styles, often two to three years and represents a great opportunity to consolidate all the knowledge and skills gained from the first dan syllabus and begin to understand the deeper essence of effective technique, application and most importantly, how this can be applied to the rigors of street attacks, and outright brutal violence.
If you’ve got your certificate up on the wall and are no longer training, you might be missing out on turning your martial arts skills into an effective strategy for the street. Systems like ju- jitsu only really start to teach the more useful atemi waza (striking the vital parts of the body) as you progress through the dan grades. As you’ll read later, knowing where to hit your attacker is vital to reaching a conclusion that favours you! The lesson then, is to make martial arts a lifelong study, not just another certificate to put on the wall.
Another advantage in training martial arts is you learn a philosophy. The Japanese added the suffix “-do” to most of their martial arts, which means the ‘way,’ indicating a much deeper and more philosophical approach to martial training (originally, just to be effective on the battlefield) As pressure on mental well-being mounts, following the ‘way’ can provide direction and relief for many. Personally, martial arts has been a rock throughout my life, a consistent calming influence and provider of that much needed brain drug, endorphins! It even sparked an interest in meditation, which offers huge benefits to mental wellbeing.
Many people with troubled backgrounds and violent tendencies have really benefitted from martial arts training, no longer feeling the desire to seek an aggressive outlet, but instead releasing that pent up energy safely and more positively in a dojo (training hall) or boxing gym, helping to keep that ego in check. Though there are exceptions to this rule.
It can come with a ‘family’ like atmosphere, and joining a style connected to a large international association bring opportunities to make new friends all over the world when attending international courses and competitions.
I do have a rather biased view when it comes to martial arts and can identify more pros than cons. However, when the question of realistic self-defence is introduced, my allegiances start to waiver.

The disadvantages as a mode of self-defence

Karate for example evolved in Okinawa in the 17th century when commoners were forbidden to carry weapons, so an ’empty hand,’ (Kara – empty / Te – hand) form of combat was created. To offer a realistic and powerful solution of empty hand combat, the system itself is incredibly technical and teaches how to leverage your entire body weight into your technique, with an emphasis towards finishing things with one perfect strike. One of the most popular forms of karate (there are many) Shotokan, aligns itself with the Japanese term ‘ikken hissatsu,’ translated to mean “kill with one strike”. Its not meant as a violent training philosophy, more an attitude towards pursuing perfection in each technique. Combinations are also taught, but the philosophy is one of self-perfection. Extensive repetition is at the heart of this approach (extremely important for muscle memory,) which sadly puts some people off.
To make it work effectively, like many martial arts, requires a high degree of technical perfection. Hence why serious practitioners in Japan practice three to five days a week. University students as much as five days a week for three hours a day! Professional instructors, especially chief instructors train daily, something most of them have done more than 50 years. It’s no surprise that when watching these guys perform their art, you are without doubt that they could defend themself against all manner of street agitation!
Aikido takes the need for technical precision to an even higher degree. I found it very effective when I was training four days a week in Japan but once or twice a week in the UK, I really struggled to find the technical proficiency needed to redirect the attacker’s energy against them. With more and more new techniques added on top of the ones I hadn’t quite perfected, I felt my overall effectiveness waiver and questioned how well it might work in a real street situation.
And this is the rub with many martial art systems, undoubtedly effective but once you consider the size of the grading syllabus and the level of proficiency needed to make each technique effective, a once or twice a week training regime may not be enough to build instinctive reactions to a street attack.
Boxing systems are based around a much smaller syllabus of techniques, with just the jab, cross, hook and uppercut as a relatively quick to learn striking system. This is performed in a more upright stance, making it easier to put your body weight into your strikes and concern an attacker. Boxing is effective when you are landing punches, if you find yourself in closer quarters or on the ground, then boxing lacks a response.
The opportunity cost of training fancy moves
With work, school, family etc, the reality is, our training time is limited, so we must consider the opportunity cost (in this case, the loss of alternative techniques) of practicing the impractical. My first few years or practicing karate I learnt a strike called koken uchi. You can imagine this strike by bending your hand towards your wrist and bringing your fingers together, this creates a prominent edge with your wrist to strike to softer targets, like the neck. One historical explanation of this strike is that the samurai’s protective gloves made it impossible for them to form a fist, so instead, koken uchi was the alternative if you found yourself without your sword. The question is, if I’m trying to maximise my time towards realistic self-defence training, and I don’t own a pair of samurai gloves, am I wasting valuable training time here?
There are a many of these types of techniques within the traditional martial arts syllabuses and personally I really enjoyed learning them, but if self-defence is your absolute priority and you don’t have ten hours a week to train, then you might not want to invest time in what is the most probable attack and defence scenario.
The argument of time wasted can be taken even further to highlight a growing issue in martial arts and self-defence training, an issue that’s always been there but accentuated by the sharing of training videos online, especially through social media.

Self-defence – The inconvenient truth

I recently discovered a video on a Facebook page from a popular London based self-defence class. Picture students lined up in a dojo, with the attacker standing arm’s length from their victim, attempting to strangle them (straight arm rear strangle.) The defender turns and flicks their elbow over to break the grip, following up with a back fist to the nose. Perfect, and full marks for good technique as each student strives towards their next coloured belt.  But ask yourself, in what world would any serious attacker seek to grab someone from the rear with straight arms? especially when grabbing a woman! Sadly, its more likely going to be a grab close and tight, a half nelson (one arm fully round your neck) for example, or worse, an overarm bear hug, especially if they are looking to toss you into a van.
The very mention of ‘toss into a van’ sends shivers and puts a distasteful tint on this whole self-defence/martial arts discussion. The wording is intentional; it happened to a friend, she’s okay, mainly because her attacker lost his nerve, but we cannot be complacent as to what self-defence is about.
Self-defence training must be tasked with equipping students for the very worst-case scenarios. Time invested on unrealistic attack scenarios reduces the probability of returning home safely to your loved ones. This can be highlighted even further when discussing knife attack training, with some people still practicing the ‘thrust once, and hold the knife out long enough so I can execute my ‘Steven Seagal’ type wrist throw.’ It places people in the world of dangerous fantasy. Brace yourself and search out videos on YouTube under the title ‘Real knife attacks.’ The truth is unpalatable, but it will set you free to train realistically.
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There is both the physical and mental element of being attacked and defending yourself. Physically, it’s worth noting that the hand has 27 bones and if you plan to use them as weapons, such as punching, then extensive conditioning is required to avoid breaking one of those bones. Boxing puts some emphasis on conditioning the hands, training heavy bags with gloves and gel mitt, though bare knuckle needs to be included to not only condition but to get used to using your fists al natural. Some martial arts invest time in knuckle conditioning but there are also other parts on your body that require far less conditioning. You can learn about these in our Mu-shin Self-Defence blog.
Lets be clear about boxercise classes, they are just a pure cardio workout and shouldn’t be relied upon to equip you with the tools to defend yourself. Even those great workouts created by Les Mills, especially body combat, are great for a cardio workout, and because of the intensity and repetition of techniques, will embed in the muscle memory, but unfortunately there is a lack of partner application and understanding of partner reaction (also a problem in some martial arts.)
If you decide to observe a potential new martial arts club look out for realistic partner reaction. Logically and anatomically, if someone hits you in the face with a jab cross, you are going to retreat backwards wincing in pain, not double over, gifting the opportunity for them to follow up with the perfect knee strike. Practicing these non-viable combinations over and over may take up valuable space in your muscle memory. I confess, in the past I have been guilty of drilling these moves, but mainly in the name of providing a good fitness workout, much like the Les Mills system does.
Mental preparation is a tough one. My friend confessed that even with many years of martial arts training and a recently completed self-defence course under her belt, when a man was trying to ‘toss’ her into a van, none of her training kicked in. She froze initially and then resorted to a form of argy bargy, that at least demonstrated to her attacker that she wasn’t the weak and vulnerable victim he hoped she was, encouraging him to give up and move on.
Her initial ‘frozen’ response is called tonic immobilisation and unfortunately its quite common. Results from an interview of 298 sexual assualt victims, 70% said they experienced significant tonic immobility and 48% reporting extreme tonic immobility. It is extremely difficult to prepare someone to cope with extreme fear, one way is through the power of visualisation. I cover this more in my Mu-shin Self-Defence article.
Pressure testing students can be ugly, but at some point, needs to be approached in the safest and most delicate way possible. Unfortunately, many self-defence courses and martial arts don’t cater for this, some assume the pressures of competition sparring will be enough to help student respond effectively to a violent attack.
Unfortunately, the picture I have painted of self-defence training seems complicated, but it reflects the different degrees of situation, aggression (violence) and response. Most of us will never need any of it. Some of us will find ourselves in a little fisty cuff situation, in a bar, over a carparking space etc. Only a tiny minority will need it to prevent a life altering or ending situation.
This is why at Mu-shin Self-Defence we have two approaches. Firstly, our Fortress masterclasses. The first one is just 90-minutes, and not only teaches students a quick-to-learn simplified combat system, but also nonphysical training, like tactical communication and situational awareness. You’d be amazed how a potential attacker can ‘move on’ if you plant the right seed of doubt in his head! There is also a 3 and 5-hour masterclass that cover a lot more realistic scenarios like how to avoid being ‘grabbed and stabbed,’ the most common knife attack scenario. As mentioned earlier in the ‘like riding a bike’ discussion, self-defence just isn’t if you don’t review your skills regularly, this is why each masterclass comes with a review video and visualisation meditation, so you continue to embed to muscle memory long after the masterclass, and you have a chance to overcome tonic immobilisation.
Secondly, we have created a 4-level fitness self-defence programme that focuses on making ‘fitness a habit and self-defence instinctive.’ We are careful not to overload the hippocampus with too many techniques, with carefully designed training drills to give you a cardio workout and help embed techniques to muscle memory. You complete a once a week face-to-face session then have a choice of ‘technique only,’ ‘cardio’ and ‘HIIT’  videos to continue your fitness training at home. There is also a visualisation meditation created for each session.
I am an ardent believer that to enjoy a long and happy life, regular fitness training needs to be present. Fitness bestows all kinds of benefits to both your physical and mental well-being, but what if, your fitness training provided challenge and variety in the form of embedding self-defence skills into your muscle memory. What if you could attend a face-to-face session but supplement your fitness and progress with post session recap videos from home? What if you could increase your practice and overcome tonic immobilisation from your sofa or bed by listening to visualisation meditations? If that interests you, then find out more at my blog on Mu-shin Self-Defence. 


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