“Everything you need to know about self-defense in one seminar!”

When you think of learning self-defense, what comes to mind? Popular culture, as represented by TV and the internet, will tell you it’s about learning situational awareness, a few techniques to “stun” your attacker, and an empowered mindset. Surely you can pick that up in a couple hours?

Ok, try this on. When you think of learning Rugby, what comes to mind? Your answer probably isn’t anything like the idea of self-defense described above, and it shouldn’t be. Learning self-defense has a lot more in common with learning Rugby than it does with attending a 2-hour seminar. This post will explain why self-defense seminars don’t work.

The 2-Hour Self-Defense Seminar

Here’s the reasoning: as a self-defense coach, I have the impossible job of convincing people to regularly engage in an activity that builds skill we hope they never have to use, to help them prepare for an event that may never occur (God willing). On top of that it’s hard, it hurts, sometimes results on injury, and even after years of hard work still isn’t any kind of guarantee of “success” (meaning you survive a violent encounter).

Who the hell wants to waste time and money on all that?

So instead what instructors do is create fantasy that’s easy to buy into, and sell that fantasy in a 2-hour seminar because human attention span is typically limited to 90-minute blocks (leaving 30 minutes for discussion, etc…).

So first, I sell you the fantasy of the “expert” by citing military or law enforcement experience or my years in sport martial arts (spoiler: I don’t really have any of this). This experience isn’t bad, the skills just don’t translate naturally to the normal citizen context.

Next I’ll tell you things like “this isn’t like other self-defense seminars,” and, “learn how not to be a victim,” (begging the question) and, “learn how to use your body as a weapon,” and go on about awareness and mindset. It all sounds good, and most of it actually is. The real problem comes when I wrap it all up in a single seminar, or even 2-3 seminars. If I’m telling you you’re good to go after that, it’s fantasy.

Self-Defense Explained

We have to understand what we’re really dealing with. Back in the days of WWII, when Asian martial arts were first being introduced to the West, you had people training long and hard, and actually trying out techniques in real scenarios (meaning they picked a fight). Later, in the 70’s and 80’s when martial arts was becoming mainstream, it was all oversold as “self-defense.” We typically still see things that way, but the truth is we have two distinct but intertwined things here: martial arts, and self defense.

Look up what “martial arts” means and you’ll get yourself stuck in a rabbit hole of internet debate. To keep things simple, a martial art is a traditional system of combat preserved as an artform. It is usually a system out of context, with little application today, other than a form of personal development.

Self-defense, put simply for this post, is anything you do to successfully defend against a threat. Martial arts have a lot to say about self-defense because historically that’s all we in the West have really known about violence aside from war and boxing. But martial arts are not self-defense, and neither is war or boxing. People spend their lives studying and practicing various martial arts, and are better for it in many ways. Self-defense, as its own thing that you go and learn, hasn’t really been around that long. Problematically, we still get our idea of learning from the modes used in traditional martial arts, which aren’t going to cut it.

Learning the Game

Modern science that studies high-level athletics and motor skill shows that you’ll build skill much more efficiently by doing the thing you’re training to do. In other words, you get better at basketball by playing the game of basketball. Sometimes you isolate things like your fitness, jump-shot, agility, and ball-handling, but you don’t get better at the game by just doing those things.

It turns out self-defense is more akin to an athletic game than anything else we understand. Hey, how about that; if you want to learn how to deal with violence, you have to play the game of violence. So let’s define the game.

The very idea of self-defense presupposes a context containing you and some form of threat or attack. The goal is survival, rather than a net. There’s no ball to move, but there could be weapons. So what does the game look like? Let’s take a random gas-station mugging because it’s an easy example:

In one corner we have the Aggressor, whose objective is to take the other side’s property (in this example) and get away with it. The Aggressor lives for this game. It’s a game that either feeds their dark side or is necessitated by their lifestyle choices. Either way, they are much more mentally prepared for it.

In the other corner is the Defender; the normal person who plays a completely different game on a day-to-day basis. They don’t want to play the game of Violence, and will do much to completely avoid it if they can.

As the Defender, all you have to do is survive the encounter. You don’t know who the Aggressor is at the beginning; in fact, you don’t even know it’s game on! The Aggressor has full initiative (for you nerds). They might surreptitiously observe at first. They might consider and move on from several people before choosing a Defender. They can choose from various strategies for approaching and engaging the defender. They can choose the timing, location and weapons involved in the opening move all before the Defender even knows they’re in the game.

Once the Defender becomes aware if the situation, there is a reaction or response. The Defender now gets to choose their strategy and tactics, and the back and forth lasts until one side or the other wins. The Aggressor wins if they successfully get what they want and escape. The Defender wins if they survive the encounter.

This means that with a certain set of outcomes, both the Aggressor and the Defender win. There is another outcome where they both lose, and all combinations in between.

Unfortunately it’s not over for the Defender even if they win. The game of violence ends, and the aftermath begins involving law enforcement, government, emotion, psychology and personal relationships and lifestyle choices.

Described this way we can begin to understand the way we’ve been training for self-defense is inadequate.

Practicing Self-Defense

To learn and practice self-defense, and be any good at it, you have to treat it like it’s an athletic sport as far as your approach to training. This means time, commitment, hard work, dedication, and a drive to be better than The Other Guy. It means intentional practice at playing the game.

For 99% of people this is a non-starter. Very little about it is attractive to most people, and that’s why weekend seminars are so popular. With a 2-hour seminar we can live in a fantasy world where, after the sexy cool-guy stuff that’s entertaining, we can feel empowered by mere knowledge about the things we should know on a deeper level.

Basketball players practice basketball, boxers practice boxing, and rugby players practice rugby. Then you have an entire self-defense industry that practices fantasy. It needs to stop. People need to understand there are only two reasonable options:

  1. Practice self-defense like you want to win the game (recommended), or
  2. Ignore it and rely on hope and luck that “it’ll never happen to me,” or if it does, that The Other Guy isn’t very good either. (most popular plan)

Any other option is likely worse than the first two.

Purpose of Seminars

We all know it; all the instructors with any understanding of the topic. Seminars have a purpose, and that purpose is to give you a clear definition of what it means to practice self-defense; to help know learn about all the things you don’t know, but need to. So when you see a seminar ad claiming “You’ll learn everything you need to know to defend yourself,” it’s not really a lie. It goes like this:

  • You need to know hand-to-hand skills
  • You need to know the law
  • You need to know decision-making
  • You need to know how violence works
  • You need to know the criminal mind
  • You need to know defensive tools
  • You need to know how to use your surroundings
  • You need to know how to develop awareness
  • You need to know threat recognition
  • You need to know to train your responses
  • Et frigging cetera…

Can you learn that list in a seminar? Yes. Can you learn everything on the list in a seminar? No! The best we can give you is an overview, a taste, a glimpse through a crack in the door. It’s up to you to put in the work to do the rest, and any instructor worth a damn will tell you that.

Light the forge.