What does training for self-defence even mean?

Self-defence is a loaded term in the martial arts world. Everyone kinda has their own definition of what they mean by it, and this leads to a lot of people talking past each other when they try to discuss it. (As an aside, it’s absolutely the same in the – limited – academic research that exists on the subject).
It’s technically a legal term, and there are worse things than to use it that way. For the sake of a more universal definition, and for clarity in what I am about to write, I’ll give the simple definition I used in my dojo:

” In self-defence, the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence on us, and to go home safely at the end of the day. Preferably uninjured and in no legal trouble. “

When we are training for self-defence – and we aren’t always, there’s plenty of other stuff we can do in the martial arts that has little relevance to it – that’s what we are training for.


So to break that down a little, self-defence focused training means a couple of things. First, if the goal is to prevent other people from inflicting violence upon us, that is quite different from the goal being to win fights. It means that we acknowledge that a lot of the time the easiest way to do that is to head off the violence before it happens. The old saying that prevention is better than the cure definitely applies here. OK Dan, sounds good, so we want to train for the avoidance of violence, what does that mean?
Well, to avoid it, we first need to know what it looks like. That means we need to look at the problems that we or our students are likely to face. Of course those are quite different for each individual, so we need to develop a decent understanding of different types of violence and how they occur, and what dangers each student might face, based on demographics and lifestyle. We need to understand how the victim selection process for criminal violence works, and what the factors are that lead to fights breaking out. OK, so now we know what can happen, what else do we need to be able to avoid violence?


Well, it does kinda help to see it coming. So we need to work on awareness. What are the warning signs of the above? What does a potential approach for a mugging look like, when is someone gearing up for a fight, what are the red flags that suggest a relationship might be turning sour? We need to work on the relevant knowledge, and train awareness skills such as attention control. Note that I say “train”, we actually need to practice this stuff. Now let’s say we’ve done that. Very good. That’s a nice start, and to be fair if you had limited time you could do significantly worse than just learning those things for self-defence. But it’s not always possible to avoid everything, so as responsible trainers – or students- we shouldn’t stop there. What do we do when we are surprised, or our efforts at avoidance have failed? De-escalation or deterrence seem like a good start. So we go back to the different kinds of violence that we looked at above, and practice how to talk them down. Usually apologies for the social stuff, the fights over status and sports teams. The opposite for the predatory things, we train to set and maintain boundaries, and signal that we are not going to put up with crap. OK, so far so good. Does not work 100% of the time though, does it? So we need more.

We need tools for if avoidance and de-escalation don’t work. Then we come to physical options I guess. We’ve already looked at how violence happens, so we know what we need tools for. We need something to help us recover from a sudden attack we didn’t see coming, and we need to understand the effect such a thing can have on us, like triggering a freeze response, and causing an adrenaline dump. This is also where it gets a little tricky not to get our wires crossed as martial artists. Physical is our toy box, and boy do we love our toys. We need to be careful that the toys we pick are appropriate for the goals we’ve set. We want to go home safely at the end of the day. OK, one of the best ways to do that is to go home really fast right away, aka escape. So we should train for that. First we need to work on the mindset of doing that early and often, and second we train to do that as the end point of our physical tactics. Again, we need to practice it, not just pay lip service. Telling ourselves or others to run away is all well and good, but there are skills involved which need actual practice to be useable.


OK, so now we have physical skills that might get us through the initial phase of an assault and we’re practising to escape, we can look at what to do when that’s just not possible. In those cases, we need skills to make our attacker unable to hurt us, which means physically disabling them. So we need to understand what that means – usually they are unconscious, badly injured or in a position from which they cannot hurt us any more. So we need to practice doing that decisively. Now we are in the part most of our martial arts tools are really designed for, with one big caveat. We need to go back and take another look at what actually happens, and then make sure we are practising to use our tools for those problems. If we’re looking at knife attacks for example, we might have a really good tool for dealing with someone trying to stab through armour with their backup weapon in feudal Japan, but a modern knife attack might look a little different. Which doesn’t invalidate our technique – and more importantly the principles behind it – but it does mean that if we want to train for self-defence we need to make some changes.
We also need to acknowledge the areas where maybe our toolbox isn’t so strong. For Aikido, we might not have a lot for when we get dragged to the ground, or when we need to hit someone.
So then we have a choice, we can acknowledge that and get the training somewhere else, or in the case of our students, refer them elsewhere (as an aside, if you are not willing to do that last part even where it would better serve your students, kindly fuck off out of the self-defence sphere). Or we can acquire tools through extra training and adaptation of other things we have. We don’t need to be experts at everything, but we need to at least have some basic tools for the most common things that happen in a physical assault.


Then we need to make sure that those tools are usable under realistic conditions. That means a certain degree of stress testing, “live” practice and simulating realistic conditions to a degree that is practicable to our circumstances. That’s a whole big topic all by istself, so I’ll put a pin in it for the moment. The last thing I’ll say on the subject here is that a lot of the serious violent assaults we want to train against look very different from consensual, mutual fighting, and if we’re drawing on sources for training inspiration, we need to be a little bit careful what we pick.
One more thing we have to cover when we talk about the physical skills begin applicable is the emotional component. I’m not talking about the whole “rah rah channel your inner warrior and be empowered” stuff, I have issues with that for a number of reasons. No, what I’m referring to is that a lot of the stuff we’d have to do is icky, hurty and breaks a bunch of taboos (not to mention people). And that requires some work to deal with. It’s all well and good to be all tacticool and practice super special neck breaks, but if we completely ignore the emotional component of doing something like that (not to mention ethics and, you know, the f***ing law!) we’re setting ourselves and our students up for a potential freeze, or a really shitty aftermath.


Speaking of aftermath, this is also something we need to address. What do we do after something happens? Succeed or fail, if we’re not dead, we need to deal with what just happened. A lot of this is outside the scope of a martial arts class, but we need to at least address basic self-checks for injuries, immediate medical care, that people should get long term help if they need it (you’d think it wouldn’t need to be said…). Practising articulation to be able to talk to first responders. Things like that. It also really helps to have covered the legal basics of self-defence for wherever we live, and the ethics and potential social cost of using violence.

So that’s the thought process that goes into the frame for self-defence training. Or an overview at least. If we cover all of that to a decent extent, we have self-defence training. If not we don’t really. Notice how there is some overlap with traditional martial arts practice, but it’s not all that much. Our toy box of physical training is nice, and can be very useful, but it only really applies to a small part of the problem.

And that’s the biggest thing: Self-defence is about solving a problem. It’s less about accurately transmitting a system, even less about the traditions and cultural aspects of said system. Like in all such cases, it really helps to solve the actual problem the person actually has, rather than the one we so conveniently happen to have the right tool for.

If you want to get a more detailed dive into the necessary aspects of self-defence training, I highly recommend Rory Miller’s excellent book “Facing Violence“.

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