One-off Self Defence lesson

MarkerPenHaving been training martial arts for over 3 decades I struggle to consider the concept of a one-off self defence lesson for an untrained student but last week I tried delivering one.

It all started when my friend Vicky asked for help after being attacked by an ex colleague, a large and tall guy with some serious mental issues.  After several episodes of increasingly violent verbal abuse on the street he finally decided to swing a punch at her.  Vicky was fast enough to dodge the attack and nothing else happened but she was obviously very shaken and scared when it happened.

When she asked for my help I was obviously prepared to offer my knowledge and expertise but I immediately clarified how martial arts need to be learnt and assimilated over a long period of time so the right kind of reaction becomes automatic and natural.  Apart from technique and reflexes martial art also offer two key factors:

  • the mental training to rationalise a dangerous situation in order to react in a calmer and more effective way
  • the necessary fitness and physical conditioning to fight back

I though I could try compressing a few basic concepts aimed at helping Vicky to increase her level of personal safety and security, all in one hour session.  Vicky is in her early forties, physically fit by spending regular time in the gym but she never practiced any martial art or fighting sport; she is medium built, about 1.70m tall and she often wearing shoes with high hills.

We started the lesson as a set of conversations where we discussed scenarios and possibilities.  I often teach that the best physical self defence could be considered when you can run away; wearing high hills reduces this possibility by a fair amount.  I suggested having a conscious awareness, when walking, of the type of floor she is walking on to understand how slippery it would be if a fast movement, sprint or other action was required.  The very best self defence is to avoid the danger altogether so we started enlisting how to improve personal security when travelling, when at home and when out both for work or socialising.  Increasing awareness about the environment and where a potential attacker could be hiding will reduce the chance of an attack to the absolute minimum.  Without becoming obsesses we should mentally rehears situations when an attacker could be behind a corner or in a dark alley or in a park behind a tree; this will gradually educate the mind to consider and evaluate various what/if scenarios.

For practicality I suggested to consider having handbags with a long strap so they can hang from a shoulder and both hands could be available at all times for both attacking and defending. Some people suggest having an acoustic alarm, a pepper spray and/or a small object that can be used as a weapon when things get difficult.  A pen could be a good weapon; I have nothing against it but it can easily break (unless you use a metal one) and, if used to hit the wrong place it could potentially kill an attacker… a bit too extreme.  For me a big and thick permanent marker (or whiteboard pen), used in a hammer fist punch, could be a great weapon reducing the risk described above.  In general the law states that each self defence action should use reasonable force… a very grey area indeed. I warned my one-off student that any action she takes against an attacker could have legal repercussions for her if she injures the other person.

Vicky and I then started playing a bit physical; we first worked of the very attack she was recently victim of.  Most street attackers, when untrained in martial arts, will attack by swinging punches in a very broad and circular motion.  For the untrained person that is what feels as the most powerful attack.  I am always pleased to have this theory confirmed when, once in a while, I witness a street fight, usually late at night, among drunken.  The swinging punch could be dangerous if it hits you in the face but, luckily, it is very easy to block or even to dodge as Vicky already demonstrated.  For the swinging punch I suggested using blocks similar to Pak Sau from wing chun.  By turning the centre of gravity and walking slightly toward the punch we can actually neutralise even a very strong punch delivered by a much heavier opponent (as it is usually the case when a woman is fighting a man).  It took just a few minutes for Vicky to pick up the technique and apply it well and with the right timing.  It took a bit longer for her to relax when she saw me attacking her with increasing power, despite the attacks were controlled and would not hurt her even if she completed miss the block.

We then tried to familiarise with the concept that an attacked could sneak out of a corner and grab her with the intention of pulling her toward a concealed place or in his car; we worked on a couple of defences from wrist/forearm grabs.  We also briefly worked on a strangling position from behind.  To simply explore on attacking technique I showed how a hammer punch delivered in a descending motion toward the head, face or collarbones could be more effective and devastating than a jab or a cross that would require months or years of training and conditioning.  I here realised how for Vicky it was painful to hit the palm of my hand with medium strength so presumably delivering a really hard blow it would be excruciating.

I completed the session by suggesting to have a friend to practice these techniques and rehears them until they become second nature; I invited her to come back to me with questions as all the concepts clear and fresh in her mind at the end of the session would quickly start fading and become blurry and less obvious as time passes by.

Being used to teach to students which are with me for the medium or long period I always like to approach each concept gradually and ensure that the student can assimilate it well.  Here I had to really squeeze lots of concepts in a very short time.  I noticed how strange it could be for a person not used to martial arts training the simple concept of being grabbed, held, punched and other violent situations that are somewhat familiar and everyday practice for people that are training martial arts regularly.

Self Defence: the Casey Heynes case

This is a martial arts blog and some of you may find strange to find this article: at the same time I believe that self defence, whether properly trained in a gym or the simple result of someone’s self preservation instinct, should be seriously considered as a topic from which everyone can learn about, even in a blog about martial arts.  Ultimately why do we practice martial arts?  Many people will not list self defence as the primary objective of their training but nobody can deny it can be very nice side effect.

Casey Heynes is a 15 years old boy who defended himself after years of abuse: it happened just a few weeks ago and the 40 seconds video that somebody put on line went viral and hit every corner of the world in just a few days.  For many people around the globe Casey became instantly a hero who stood up to his assailants and put an end to a life of misery.

See here below the news video with inverviews:


Bulling is unfortunately a pretty standard practice and I know very few people that were not bullied when kids.  Whether you (used to) wear thick glasses (my case) or you are overweight or any other visible difference you can offer a good reason to be bullied.  In some cases it can be just verbal abuse but very often it becomes physical and even painful. Whatever the nature of the bullying it can cause the stress and anxiety and can cause permanent damages to someone psychological and emotional well being, reducing self esteem and jeopardising chances of success in later life.

Casey ended a life long situation of being mistreated by simply fighting back.  In his definition he snapped, acted irrationally for a few seconds; he did it in a way that could have caused some serious injuries to the boy who initially started the altercation but I truly hope that this event taught him something about bullying.  Casey’s action, as explained in this video was more that just an act of defence; it was the desperate need for justice from a boy that about a year before was contemplating suicide to put an end to a life of abuses.  His father and the rest of his family were far from understanding what the boy had to bear on a daily basis.

How many movies portray the weak or abused boy/girl/woman or whatever other character and the usual hero turning up and beating up or killing the baddies?  We like and sympathise with the weak ones because in many case we can identify with them at some point of our life; we like and feel satisfaction when the hero sorts matters out in many cases we would like to be one of them.  Casey is receiving so many messages of support for his act for exactly the same reason.  Support messages are sent from boys and girls as well as from fully grown up adults that used to be (or sometime still are) the weak ones, the bullied ones, the abused ones.

I remember when I was at primary school before I started martial arts; there were a few bullies who truly enjoyed imposing their will to the smallest and weakest ones (yes I was one of them).  If I start thinking about those times and mentally go back to those scenes I can still feel the anxiety and the frustration of being unable to defend myself from the nasty and cynical behaviour of those guys.

So what lessons can we learn from this episode? Here is my list:

  1. if you are a 12 years old  boy of 50Kg or less do not bother a 15 years old 80Kg+: when he retaliate he will hurt you
  2. when we see bullying and abuse we should not ignored it and let it happen; we cannot all become heroes but referring the abuse to the relevant authority and ask to immediately address the issue.  The same when it happens to your friends, children or any other person you know of
  3. if you are a child there is nothing wrong to report to your parents or other authoritative people the fact of being abused
  4. if you are a parent keep an open dialog with your children: try to find out whether bullying is happening to them or their friends

One of my missions in life to advocate for martial arts, their broad diffusion across a much broader range of individuals starting from young boys and girls.  In my opinion a more generalised and systematic practice of martial arts among young people would have a number of benefits against bullying including:

  1. better discipline and respect for authorities
  2. better self confidence for the weak or shy ones: confidence is not about threatening like “leave me alone or I’ll hurt you” but simply have a higher self esteem and naturally project it to the people around us
  3. better chance for the weak to fight, verbally or physically, his/her way out of a bullying situation
  4. more respect from the potential bullies: martial arts (should) teach respect for the fellow practitioners, even for the opponent you are fighting
  5. respect for the weak: while you learn how to hurt people you learn how you must be respecting or even helping the weakest ones.  Hurting weak people is easy… why should we enjoy it? Why should we enjoy hurting anyone at all?
  6. defence by applying a controlled response: when a person without knowledge of martial arts enters a fight can either get hurt himself/herself or cause excessive damage to the opponent as he/she is unaware of the amount of damage that could be caused; a knowledge of martial arts can help understanding how much damage can be delivered by an attack and avoid unnecessary excessive damage

I would like to conclude by sending my regards to Casey who did a good job in ending his grief the way he did it: while violence should be avoided when possible there are situation where it is unavoidable and we all know this was one of those cases.

Knife Defence

Whenever you see in a movie a guy fighting one or more attackers armed with knives don’t believe what you are seeing: most of the times it’s rubbish.  I have seen lots of knife defence that simply won’t work when, in the street, a random guy (or girl) pulls out a knife and try stabbing your guts or slashing your throat.   I am sorry to say but too many teachers out there give to their students a false illusion about how easy it may be disarming an attacker carrying knife and bad intentions toward you.

At the same time there are a few styles that seem more realistic about how to deal with armed attackers.  In fact I am inclined to follow the logic that a style that trains weapons to start with, like most styles from Indonesia and the Philippines, and move toward bare handed fighting at a later stage (e.g. when you loose your weapon you should/must carry on fighting).

I am personally terrified of edged weapons because of my relatively short experience and lack of continuous practice.  Although I probably have the knowledge and skill to fight and defeat a random attacker from the street in a life or death situation I am always hoping that day will never come.  I have been following Maul Mornie for some time and he never fails to impress me with his very logical, essential and wise defence techniques.  Please have a look at this video and let me have your comments:

Two good ways to avoid a fight

I am convinced that getting involved in a fight is something that should be avoided at all times.   There might be circumstances where fighting is absolutely unavoidable and I repeat something I have already expressed before: in a fight or flight the latter should be preferable if you are sure you can run faster than your attacker 🙂

What triggers a fight? Many different circumstances and reasons: in any case it takes more than one person to be involved.  Even if somebody is bothering you or threatening you in many, many cases you could avoid the physical confrontation by talking the situation down or simply walking away.  Unfortunately our pride plays bad tricks sometimes and we would love to be like inspector Harry Callahan, being able to state a few sentences and then punish our attacker to be in a way or the other.

The so called self defence should really be applied to situations when you are physically attacked and the only way of getting out of the situation is to stop your attacker with all possible means before he might cause serious injury or death to yourself or your loved ones.  While it is not often possible to turn and offer the other cheek very often it is possible to avoid a fight and walk home rather than risking to spend some time in a cell or in hospital as a result of a fight gone in one way or the other.

B.H is a friend of mine ex professional boxer and is surely a guy you would not like to be involved with in a fight.  With nearly hundred fights under his belt between amateur and professional is a person that spent more time in front of somebody that would like to knock him down than most street fighters will ever experience in several lives.  As it happened once a guy thought to have a good reason to punch him straight in the face.  This is a fairly common, not too exciting, experience for a professional fighter: probably similar to have a cup of coffee for the average office worker.  The simple end to the story is that the attacker was so surprised of B. not reacting at all to the attack and simply adding: “it takes a lot more to make me angry, and if I get angry I could kill you”.  This sentence made me think: it is true that a pro sport fighter is in business to harm other people for money (legally).  At the same time he will not necessarily react with anger to the typical situation where most people would go berserk.

Another similar experience happened to me personally: although I never been a pro I consider myself capable of seriously harming the average punter with bad intention that happens to be on my way.  A few months ago I drove out of my driveway in a winter, dark afternoon and somebody in another car was arriving at a distance that I failed to evaluate correctly so he had to slow down.  He blew his horn violently and repeatedly.  As I stopped at the red light a few hundred yards away I promptly checked in my rear mirror where the guy was and I noticed a car behind mine with no driver: in less than a second I noticed the guy was by my side window yelling at me what a “f*&$!%g idiot I was and blah blah”.  He was enraged and ready for a fight, inviting me to get out.  I apologise to him and said I did not see him coming (never mind he was probably faster than he should be), but he kept insulting me… after a 30 second or so and a few more insults he went back to his car, the light turned green and I went on to my meeting.  The guy was scary looking and enraged, nonetheless if he tried to grab me or injure me I could have probably got rid of him in no time, perhaps leaving him in the middle of the road… and then what?  He saw me coming out of my drive way: he could come back there and wait for me with a weapon and/or friends, he could burn my house down or anything else you can think about.  Are all these terrible consequences really worth the fact that he thinks I am a “f*&$!%g idiot”?  Not really, so I left him with his opinion and moved on.

The choices that B. and I took were safer in the end because we avoided, in different ways and circumstances, a fight that could be avoided: for B. being punched in the face is as normal as a hand shake; for me, while I don’t like to be called names, I can conclude that it is simply your opinion and it does affect my self esteem.

Differences between Aikido and Tae Kwon Do

I met yesterday a guy and our conversation drifted very quickly into martial arts (surprise!), specifically about self defence.  I was confused when he stated that he wanted to learn Tao Kwon Do for self defence because a friend of his is a high ranked student of the discipline.  My first reply was: “TDK is mostly based on high kicks, really not ideal for self defence and then, also, you are 37 years old reasonably large and heavy male, TKD is ideal with people with lot of flexibility in their legs and trying to achieve it at this age might be tricky”.  He continued with his explanation that in ideal situation he would like to be able to seize the opponent’s attack and avoid striking but simply locking his attacker in a way that would be impossible for him to hurt any further but without risks of injuring him too much.  I then added that what he was talking about was possible doing Aikido, or Ju Jitsu or other styles not primarily based on strikes… and there he came out with: “oh!, yes, Aikido, I meant Aikido, this is what my friend is an expert of…”.

To me somebody that confuses Aikido with TKD is like confusing a steak with a salad, both food but very different in content. So what are the main differences that a neophyte should look out when checking a class, of either Aikido or TKD?

Let’s list the main ones:

  • Aikido is Japanese; TKD is Korean, well no easy to spot by observing them 🙂
  • In a Aikido class you’ll see most people in white Gi, perhaps with coloured belts and the higher ranked people and the masters will wear a black hakama, a very broad pair of trousers that look like a skirt;  in a TKD class they wear white Gi, with coloured belts but their top is some times a “V” neck long sleeves shirt.
  • In Aikido you see people twirling and twisting, throwing and applying arm and wrist locks: people fall and fly around a lot; in TKD opponents are striking each other, mostly with kicks to the upper part of the body (sport rules forbid kicks below the belt).
  • Aikido is mainly defensive, e.g. it starts working when an opponent attacks you; TKD is based on attacking with strikes.
  • Aikido’s techniques can be subtle and usually require a very long time, several years, to be practiced to a level of proficiency to be useful in self defence; TKD can start to be effective with some of its techniques within a few months or a year of practice.
  • Aikido teaches, apart from the bare hand practice, the use of various weapons like sword and staff;  TKD is purely based on bare had strikes.

I have chosen and selected 2 videos to show what Aikido and TKD look like.  It was harder than I thought as many are dispersive and not representative enough.  Please keep the volume down and ignore the part of the TKD video from the boxing ring onward: