5 Things Your Self-Defense Class Must Include

This coming week, I have the opportunity to start a new self-defense class with our local community college. I’ve been reading books on the topic like a fiend for the last couple of months to gather as much relevant content as I can. Over the course of the 8-week program, I hope that I can send my students into the big wide world with a newfound respect for the topic of violence and a healthy understanding of personal protection.

When I first pitched the class to the college in August, I had to take the time to consider the curriculum I would teach. The college expected it as a natural part of the process of offering the class to the public, so I sat down with a notepad and began to jot down my initial thoughts. Not surprisingly, a lot of the material I put on the paper was attuned to the idea that self-defense is a physical event and thus included such things as defense against a wrist grab, headlock, bear hug, and a bunch of other maneuvers (which I’ve subsequently dubbed ‘parlor tricks’) that are expected to free a ‘victim’ from an aggressor.

Since that first list, I’ve done a lot of reading, and much of the curriculum has changed as a result of what I’ve read. I’m going to boil all of those pages down into the following 5 points outlining exactly what you should be looking for in your next self-defense class. Not having these specific elements has the potential to create a world of difficulty for you. At best, the class could put the instructor in the unwitting position of accessory to a criminal act with you as the primary perpetrator. At worst, the class could wind up getting the student – you – killed should you find yourself in a defensive situation.

So let’s take a serious look at why you should take a serious look before signing up for the self-defense class advertised down at the ‘Y’.

1 – A Certified Instructor
I started learning martial arts from books I found at the library when I was 14. I practiced what I read in my back yard until I went away to college at 18. In college, I took karate classes at the student rec center. I started teaching self-defense in my junior year to college and high school women.

I was a yellow belt at the time.  Not exactly the pinnacle of martial training, if you catch my meaning. Hopefully all of the students I had back then survived any threats they may have encountered.

Your instructor should have (at the very least) a legitimate certificate indicating that they’ve gained a proficiency in martial arts after several years of ongoing training. The style of martial arts that awarded the certificate is fairly immaterial (but only fairly); it’s the level of training that is important here. Be wary of anything that smacks of an online course or correspondence training. Instructors who learned their craft by watching YouTube videos or DVDs or filling out online forms can be detrimental to your future.

The instructor’s certificate should be ready for your inspection at a moment’s notice.  He or she should be able to tell you who his/her instructor was, where the school is located, and provide you with a phone number that you can call for more information.  Anyone who balks on giving you this information is someone from whom you should distance yourself.

After you’ve started learning from this instructor, you should still maintain a healthy dose of skepticism.  After all, there are still 4 more items on this list.  If any of these are missing, you might choose to reconsider your affiliation with that particular teacher.

2 – A Clear Disclaimer
It seems that every instructor who teaches a self-defense course feels compelled to say that his class is, “The only self-defense course you’ll ever need,” or that his course will prepare you for any attack with little effort on your part.  “Destroy your attacker in seconds” is pie-in-the-sky sloganeering that, honestly, could have pretty devastating consequences for the defender.

Self-defense is not a static event.  It is ever-changing, always dynamic.  Just like the violent perpetrators who devise new and creative ways to separate people from their property, money, or chastity, the defender must be willing to hone his/her defensive skills against the seedier elements of society.  No single class can cover everything, no matter how many hours it spans.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m getting ready to start a 16-hour self-defense (I preferentially call it self-protection, but that’s a topic for another blog) with our local community college.  16 hours is a long time to teach students, but I can only begin to scratch the surface of violence, defensive psychology, awareness, avoidance, developing a defensive presence, and basic physical techniques.  There’s a lot of ‘defense’ left out that a student might need in a violent encounter.  I’ve got to do the best I can with the time I’m allotted.

Besides, violence is not instinctive to normally docile people, and trying to deprogram a student’s sense of passivity in a relatively short self-defense course is not possible.  Just getting my students beyond the point of being polite when they should be gouging out their attacker’s eyeballs is going to take time.

For those reasons (among others), a self-defense seminar should have a clear disclaimer that states something to the effect of, “There are no guarantees.”  Any course that fails to tell you that there is no super-secret technique that will stop all attackers in their tracks is not worth the money or time you invest in it.  Further, planting seeds of invincibility will leave a defender horribly confused when the super-secret technique fails to drop an attacker.  The ensuing beat down of the hapless ‘defender’ will be the stuff of legend, I’m sure.

3 – A Minimum 50/50 Mind/Body Curriculum
I’m known to just drop in on random martial arts schools when the opportunity avails itself, and as fate would have it, I did just that a couple of weeks ago.  The school was just starting its first night of self-defense for beginners, and, true to form, the first thing students learned was on-the-mat techniques (rising blocks and elbows, from what I saw).  Granted I did not stick around to watch the entire class, but what I saw was pretty typical of most self-defense classes I’ve seen over the years: let’s learn how to beat people up to make them leave us alone.

Where most self-defense classes fall short is in the mental preparation for self-defense.  Just as an example, Rory Miller in his book Facing Violence does a superb job of describing what happens to an average person confronted with an unexpected violent encounter: (s)he freezes.  That act (or, more precisely, inability to act) is sufficient to render a victim inert and easily overcome.  Just what an aggressor wants.

And that’s just one element of the mental aspect of self defense that must be covered but is seldom (if ever) mentioned by the average self-defense instructor.

A well-balanced self-defense class will cover such cerebral basics as:

  • Flight, Fight, or Freeze
  • overcoming social barriers in a defensive encounter
  • managing the survivor guilt associated with a defensive encounter
  • normalcy bias (closely linked to the Freeze)
  • non-physical approaches to defense
  • awareness (‘situational awareness’ is the current buzzword)
  • the OODA loop
  • when to defend and when to run
  • rapid decision making under duress
  • and about a thousand other defensive details 

Note that not a single thing on that list requires an on-the-mat approach to being taught. And every one of those items is essential knowledge for self protection.

At a minimum, your self-defense course should spend half the time in a classroom-type setting during which the instructor teaches what I term ‘defensive theory’ (the mental side of self-protection). If all you do is learn a series of strikes, kicks, blocks, and joint manipulations absent an established and fundamental understanding of defensive theory, then you are being trained to be an aggressor, not a defender.

And that will end poorly for you.

4 – An Opportunity for Male Participation
This is actually an unusual requirement in self-defense circles. I did a quick Google search for self-defense flyers.  Of the first 50 images I scanned, there were 7 unisex course offerings.  The other 43 courses being advertised were offered exclusively for women (with that verbiage proudly emblazoned on the flyer).  There is a natural assumption that men don’t get attacked (they get into fights) or, if they are attacked, they have a natural ability to fight their attacker.

Neat idea.  I wish it were true.

Violence prevention falls on the shoulders of both men and women.  To put the onus on women to defend themselves without equipping men with defensive skills is to deny the necessity for men to be equal participants in bringing violence to an end.  Further, by educating men alongside women, both genders get the perspective of the other where violence and defense are concerned.  The unisex class opens a whole new range of learning that can benefit all involved.

Also important is the opportunity for women to be paired with men for practice. As a male instructor, I get punched, kicked, slapped, and poked all the time by my female students. They’re always reluctant to hit the instructor (or a relative stranger who is male), and it takes considerable prodding for them to commit to actually putting their hands on me. I seldom encounter the woman who is not willing to (playfully) punch, kick, slap, or poke her husband/boyfriend/male friend. She will have less reluctance to grab his shoulders and drive a knee into the bag he’s holding (with the usual, “Now you better watch out at home,” commentary), and she is far less twitchy when he curls his fingers around her throat for choke defense.

Putting men and women together makes them partners in their own safety as opposed to creating the illusion that self-defense is something that only applies to women.  If the class you want to attend is advertised ‘For Women Only’, it’s perfectly OK to inquire as to why the instructor is excluding men from the class.

5 – A Specific Focus on Self-defense and the Law
Self defense does not equal a license to beat the stuffing out of someone just for being obnoxious.  However, to hear the instruction provided by some online instructors (who teach their on-site classes in the same way, I presume), one could easily believe that violence is always justified when exercised in a defensive manner.

Unfortunately, the law isn’t quite so cut-and-dried where personal defense is concerned, which is why specific instruction in self-defense law is mandatory to keep the student from seeing the inside of a prison cell.  For example, I’ve seen enough videos that teach choking out an attacker.  Is that legal defense?  If you don’t know, you run the risk of spending a night in jail.  Is it legal to slice your way out of an attack with a knife?  How about stomping on the opponent you just threw to the ground?

Failure to know your legal rights and responsibilities (which is a much more important area) can cost you years of your life in jail and/or thousands of dollars in legal fees.

I have the phone number of my local police department’s public outreach officer. For any self-defense class that I teach, I give him a call and ask him to schedule an officer to come and speak to the students about their rights and responsibilities.  Further, I have a defense attorney with whom I maintain regular contact who advises me on the nuance of self defense and the law. If there’s a question my students present for which I do not have an answer, I go to him.

Ask your instructor if he will be teaching about your rights and responsibilities under the law. If (s)he looks at you like you’ve grown tentacles from your forehead, you might want to reconsider attending the class.

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