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What is Self-Defense training?


How do I find a school that teaches it?


How do I know that I am learning to defend myself, for real?


The main point of this article is to help potential Martial Arts students understand what self-defense training is all about, before being sucked in by the old “we do everything” used-car sales pitch some instructors use. In addition, this article serves to help students who already are members of a Dojo to understand if they really are training to defend themselves. To begin with, we must define what a self-defense situation consists of.


First, self-defense situations almost always show up unannounced. You usually do not have the luxury of knowing anything ahead of time; not who will attack you, how many will attack you; where or how you will be attacked; for what purpose; or anything like this. Attacks happen… period. Even once the attack has started, attackers rarely tell you what they are planning to do. It is not like a competition, where only certain techniques are allowed. Your attacker may use a weapon (gun, club or knife); he may punch and kick you, grab your hair, bite you, or wrestle you to the ground.  One or two may hold you, while another tries to injure you.  All you can do is try to defend yourself, in the best way you can. That is where self-defense training comes in.  In a way, self-defense training is like carrying a weapon with you, at all times, the sole purpose of which is to rebuff attacks. That is what we are trying to achieve here; to teach you to carry the weapon of self-defense with you at all times… a reliable, versatile weapon that 1) you can ALWAYS have with you;  2) is legal;  and 3) is adaptable to virtually any situation.  But where can you find such training… and from whom?


Concerning the instructor:

There are certain questions you need to ask yourself before you sign up for self-defense training, and many of these pertain to the instructor.  Does the instructor seem knowledgeable?  Alternatively, does he or she appear to be cocky and avoid answering specific questions?  Is he genuinely concerned about teaching you self-defense? Do you see many trophies around the Dojo and is sport competition stressed?  On the other hand, does his main goal seem to be signing you up for the monthly fee or contract?


If you feel at this point that there is still a chance that this instructor might be able to teach you to defend yourself, you should ask the following question:.



Please note that I asked how long the instructor has been teaching, not what rank he is.

Ranks have nothing to do with ability and experience. Originally, the idea was that instructor ranks would indicate the ability and experience of an instructor; but unfortunately, ranks are abused to such a degree now that they cannot be used as any indicator at all as to the expertise of an instructor.  It now is widespread that many instructors have very high ranks at a younger age than could be earned in any traditional manner. In addition, ranks vary greatly from one style to another, and are not standardized in any way. Therefore, the rank of the instructor is almost irrelevant. All a potential student needs to assess when choosing an instructor is whether or not that instructor demonstrates the will and ability to teach them what they desire to learn.


Next, you need to look at the Dojo and training methods.  What techniques would you be learning?  Will you learn techniques that will help you defend yourself in any situation? For a technique to be valid for realistic self-defense, it must meet the following criteria:



This leads to further questions. In your Dojo, will or do you practice unrehearsed self-defense scenarios to see how well you can apply these techniques in any situation? Do you practice techniques in kata form only?  Learning techniques in kata form is a necessary step to develop proper technique. However, kata training alone will not prepare you for a real self-defense situation.   After you learn the techniques, principles and applications in kata form, you must assess your skills by practicing these techniques against someone who truly is trying to resist you. Studying these self-defense scenarios is the only way to evaluate your skills. By reflecting upon your performance in these scenarios, many thoughts and questions about your abilities should arise, such as:



There also are psychological and physiological changes that the body and mind go through when being attacked.  This often is called the “Fight or Flight” phenomenon. This phenomenon must be understood by your instructor and included in your training.  In class, you need to know and understand what it feels like to be grabbed, punched, kicked, wrestled or attacked with a weapon. You must know what these attacks are like, and you must learn to immediately assess any situation to defend yourself properly.


In addition, you must train for any level of an attacker’s skill.  Your attacker may have some Martial Arts training or none at all. However, even untrained attackers can be very dangerous, because of their experience in street fights, their lack of inhibitions, and their size and strength. Face it, most attackers will be bigger and stronger than you are; if they don’t perceive themselves to be bigger and/or stronger, likely you won’t be the one they attack. So, when evaluating what a given Dojo has to offer you, you need to ask yourself: will you be learning techniques for all these situations?  





Real self-defense training is difficult, as all real martial arts are difficult. These techniques, executed properly, can cause serious injury or death to someone attacking you. Therefore, you always should use physical defense as a last resort.


Even if you are practicing real Martial Arts under a competent Sensei, there still is no way to completely simulate a street attack in the Dojo. However, training must be as realistic as possible, without getting to an unreasonable danger level. Only a highly-skilled and knowledgeable instructor can assess where this danger line should be drawn.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind when watching a class:



One important statistic to keep in mind is that many real life attacks end up with combatants having fallen to the ground. Therefore, this MUST be addressed in your training. An experienced instructor also will understand the underlying principles behind the techniques he teaches. Only techniques that follow specific criteria will work for real, when needed.


More questions are:


Do you see techniques performed by high-ranking students or instructors that look like they work by some sort of magic (such as people falling down without even being touched)?


What about pinching, poking or slapping?


These latter ‘techniques’ might change an attacker’s mind from just wanting to beat you up for your wallet to actually wanting to kill you. These types of techniques do not work! The “Jedi Mind Trick” does not work on real attackers that are hell-bent on hurting or killing you. If you see any of this kind of nonsense, please run away as quickly as possible and look for another school. Finally, you must understand that what is called Martial Arts today is not necessarily self-defense training. Most Martial Arts Dojos do not teach realistic self-defense applications, nor do most instructors in these schools even understand what self-defense training really is. You must educate yourself as to what criteria a Dojo must meet to have you as a student. And, do not expect every Sensei to be honest with you.




Jim Barry

Budokai South Defensive Arts Institute


Budokai South Defensive Arts Institute
Minami Budo Ryu
Ju Jitsu / Aiki Jujitsu / Judo / Self Defense
Aiken, SC
Phone: (843) 864-3125
Email: newtobudokai@gmail.com

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