Self-Defense techniques are among the easiest techniques to learn quickly. That’s by design. You have someone for a few hours, at best a few weeks, and you need to instill in them training techniques which are simple, easy to do, and easy to remember. More importantly, the best of them usually make use of the body’s natural movements such as Michael Janich’s self-defense variant based on Silat. The body learns it quicker, it becomes easy to remember, and you fall back into it fairly naturally if taught correctly. This is most, if not almost all, Self-Defense strains of martial arts. Some strains can be overly complicated or are just bastardizations of techniques which will end up being less than helpful if you haven’t been practicing them at least three days a week.
For example, I remember the theory behind most of the wrist locks I was taught to do and I can sort of do them. The only one I can do quickly and reliably enough to aid me in a combat situation is the first escape, where you roll your wrist against the thumb, twist your wrist, and yank free. Why? It’s simple, easy to remember, and doesn’t involve a lot of complex/complicated movement or control over someone else’s body.
Comparatively, the simpler self-defense techniques I was taught, the ones that are simple movements, those I remember. Striking the top of a closed fist along the bone with my knuckles, driving my first knuckle below the belly button and turning in order to empty the bladder, pushing apart two hands testing each other’s grips by applying pressure to their thumbs, etc. That stuff I remember. You also learn faster if your teacher explains the why to you and what the techniques are used for rather than just letting you figure it out for yourself which is the more standard top down approach in some Eastern martial arts.
However, what is most important to understand is self-defense does not equal combat training or having the ability to fight. Self-Defense is not give you the power to kick lots of ass, it’s gives you techniques, methodology, and ways of understanding a bad situation so as better to extricate yourself from it. Self-Defense doesn’t teach you how to fight, it teaches you how to get away.
That’s a very critical and crucial distinction, one that is often ignored.
If you have a character who prefers to teach another self-defense moves rather than combat, it means they’re intentionally truncating what they know in order to focus on one very specific aspect of combat. That very specific aspect is called how to run away.
It’s also How To Avoid Fighting 101, How to Get Away With Your Body Intact, How to Fuck Up Your Opponent So They Can’t Chase You, Did I Mention You Can’t Fight? Run, Idiot.
Otherwise known as: I Didn’t Train You So You Could Go Out And Get Yourself Killed.
If you want that approach, consider it carefully because the teacher’s intentions here are going to be very important. You could very easily end up with a self-defense instructor like the Sheriff’s Deputy who taught Starke when he was thirteen, where the self-defense moves were just standard police training joint breaks. Then, you’ve got martial arts like Aikido which have an inward focus and place an emphasis on peaceful resolution to conflict.
It can go either way, self-defense can either be very violent or not violent at all. Either way, it’s focus is usually on survival, on assessing the situations you’ve found yourself in, on avoiding danger, on using body language to drive off predators, on figuring out that you’re in danger, and assessing how to get out of it. This may involve violent means of resolution, but not always. The true goal of self-defense is to make yourself “not worth it” as a target, thereby ending the danger before it begins.
For women, the best self-defense focuses on threats which begin within an extraordinarily close radius. While a predator popping out of the bushes is a threat, they’re more likely to face trouble from someone they know or someone who has managed to get within their physical comfort zone.
You will get a lot of arguments over what the “best” method of self-defense is, in the same way that they’ll argue over the best martial art, but most everyone can agree that it’s the one which works.
The most basic point of fact is: this character of yours is trained
in what they’re trained in, they choose what they impart to their
students. You can have a character who is trained in a very deadly
martial style but refuses to pass those aspects on to their students. In
that sense, it doesn’t matter which martial art you give them.
All martial arts can serve as self-defense when their teachers impart
the basics plus life experience and nix the deadlier aspects or parts of
the training that they don’t feel comfortable passing on.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the techniques themselves but the teacher, the students, and the intentions behind it. The most gentle teacher in the world can train a killer simply on the basis of the student choosing to use the techniques that way. A student can come out of a purely self-defense background and try to use those techniques in ways that they shouldn’t. A student can be trained to kill, but restrain themselves from it.
Who chooses to do what with what they know is ultimately the real question. Pick the martial art that makes sense to the teacher’s background, then truncate it down after studying the perspectives of self-defense professionals.
I’ve listed a few below in order to get you started, hopefully they’ll help.
References + Resources:
I like Janich as a resource because he’s very informative. His focus is on using edged weapons in self-defense, but there’s a lot of helpful information in his videos. They are truncated and a bit of a taster for his DVD series. The first link takes you to Black Belt Magazine’s YouTube channel where you can find a lot of other martial arts professionals featured.
McCann has been popular. I don’t agree with him about everything, but different voices are helpful.
Geoff Thompson has a lot of interesting information about street fights versus martial arts, both he and McCann will talk about mindset. I’d go through his videos and listen to him talk. He talks a lot about it from the perspective of personal experience and the unexpected. Other people, improvised weapons, the importance of preemption and posturing, etc. If you like what he has to say, you can check out his website.
Here is a list of martial arts from Black Belt Magazine. It’s an opinion piece so take it with a grain of salt if you disagree or it doesn’t help.