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Self Defence for Dummies

Catchy title, but it should probably read: Self Defence for sensible people

You can’t teach your granny how to suck eggs… anon.

I always start my self defence talks to schools and businesses with the same quip. It’s meant as a humourous method of breaking the ice, but also makes a more serious point about the sort of self defence course I teach. It goes like this. You’ll have to imagine the charisma oozing from each word as I speak… incidentally, so do the live audience, but that’s beside the point:

“Hi my name is Barry, and I’m here to teach you self defence. This is funny, because you already know about 90% of what I’m going to teach you. But hey, I still get paid so this good for me.”

Now on first look that might seem a little bit unprofessional but it’s meant to be funny, and believe me my delivery is hilarious, but the first 10 minutes of my talk on each course makes the point that everyone already knows how to keep themselves safe and well in most situations. This of course is surprising to most people, but it’s borne out by almost all of my experience in the field and from about 10 years of coaching, hearing victim’s stories and having people relate their experiences to me. A little critical thinking on the matter should lead most people to the same conclusion.

Did you ever notice that self defence articles always have a photo of a darkened street in them? Well here's another one, but I decided not to include a bloke in a hoody, which is the other necessary ingredient.

My first point is that when you ask a mature, thoughtful individual who has been a victim of an attack what they would have done differently to prevent it, the answer you usually get is not “I wish I had known Kung Fu”, but something far more simple, along the lines of “I wish I hadn’t walked home alone that night”. Even if the first answer you get is “I should have hit them first”, some more thoughtful analysis of the situation usually, almost always, gives you a root cause before the incident occurred. So the “I wish I’d punched him before he punched me”, after careful reflection becomes “I wish I’d just taken the bus instead of walking home that late”.

I’m not trying to say that it’s always the victims fault. Instead, I’m trying to point out that there is an inherent flaw in the way we perceive self defence. It is not about learning how to fight hand-to-hand like a special forces soldier (how much had to hand fighting do you really think a modern soldier does?), or how to best target the groin of you’re a girl (and what is the self defence industry’s obsession with the groin anyway?). Doubtless there are many situations that require a physical response to a physical threat, but you have to question how many, and of those, how many could have been very simply avoided.

Road accidents provide a good analogy for what I’m talking about. Everyone at school learns the Green Cross Code. We’ve all had a song taught to us on how to safely cross without getting knocked down by a car. We’ve all been through driver training and sat a test. We have pedestrian lights and footpaths. Yet people still get hit by cars. But no one ever comes away from being knocked down by a car saying “if only I’d learned how to roll on a bonnet like a stuntman”. What they do say is “if only I’d looked both ways before crossing”. In my experience, that’s the way victims of assault react too. Sure they might initially think of some reaction that might have helped them in the conflict, but by and large once anyone puts any thought into the matter they can find something in the lead up that they could change to avoid the situation. Usually it’s as easy as hailing a taxi or crossing the road- the self defence equivalent of obeying the Green Cross Code.

My second point in my self defence talk is that the two most common types of violent attack are muggings or drunken fights. One of these is reasonably likely to cause death… and it’s not muggings. By some considerable distance, the most common cause of death in violent altercations is not stabbing or shooting, it’s falling backwards and striking your head on the ground. This usually follows a punch or a shove, and is usually when the victim is intoxicated. Does this mean that you should never drink alcohol? No of course not, but getting home promptly and avoiding hotspots like fast food outlets or where nightclubs let out for the night is a good idea. Alcohol always brings its share of problems, and no more than when the ready source of it dries up and the night air hits. Ask anyone who works in the security industry where the worst spots are and while some pubs and nightclubs will crop up, you’d be very surprised how many fast food outlets are on the list.

Then there’s mugging. This is usually top of people’s lists- the common or garden bag snatch or more recently, iPhone snatch. People ask how to avoid this all of the time, and I usually respond by asking how they think they should avoid it. Don’t you just hate that kind of response? People always say the same thing- don’t walk alone, don’t flaunt your possessions, stay in well lit areas and so on. In other words, they already know how to minimise the chances of being robbed. What they’re actually asking is how to prevent the incident occurring once the battle has been joined so to speak. Most thefts of this kind usually pass off without the person being harmed, once the possession in question has been handed over. What you’re left with is a sense of loss, injustice and yes, a sense of shame that you should have done something about it. It’s a serious blow to your confidence, and that’s the real problem here, not the loss of a handbag. The important thing to remember is that whoever took your stuff was always likely to win. This wasn’t a fair fight from the off. They have the element of surprise for one- you’re waiting on the bus and they’re looking for someone. Secondly they’ll have tactical advantages such as weaponry, numeracy (more than one attacker) or aggression. We could go into how to stop these, or, more simply, you can hand your handbag over and deal with things like cancelling credit cards, getting a new phone, getting your contacts back and so on. The alternative is to not hand it over and try to equalise these tactical, numerical or weaponry advantages. I am an accomplished fighter, and I would hand my phone over 9 out of 10 times if I saw a blade or multiple attackers. No possession of mine is worth the potentially catastrophic alternative.

All of this sounds pretty miserable. Some people would say that what I am saying is that you are going to lose when you’re attacked. This is not my point. My point is that the odds are stacked against you once you are attacked, but that if you are currently thinking of learning to fight as a method of self defence, then you are aiming at the wrong target. Here’s an extreme example. I’ve seen gun defence taught by Irish instructors. Gun defence is largely redundant in Ireland since we have such tight handgun laws, but people still get shot here regularly and it makes the front page, so you would be forgiven for thinking that a necessary precaution to take would be to get some anti-gun training. However, the hard evidence suggests otherwise. Firstly, the chances of you being assaulted with a gun are slim, very slim. Secondly, as per the mugging example, in the very unlikely event that you are held up with a gun, your best option is to relinquish the goods or cash you are holding. Lastly, and this is the key point, if you are genuinely worried about being shot as a matter of course, then you need to look at the way you make your living, because the chances are you’re in the drug trade. Cases of mistaken identity aside, these are the people who get shot in Ireland.

Now I don’t mean to make light of a very serious topic, and I do think that there is enormous benefit in knowing how to fight, but I do also think it’s important to point out that many people have found their training to be sadly useless when an incident has occurred. So I think it’s important to be realistic, and to understand where the best results come from, and I hope this little article has shed some light on where your focus should be if you really want to avoid attacks.

Just some food for thought.


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