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Q&A: Self-Defense Curriculum

(1/2) Hey, experts! I have two different questions, I hope that’s okay. I’m writing a story about a young guy (no older than 22) who gets mugged and decides to take a self-defense class because he doesn’t want to feel helpless again. What kind of knowledge would he have with only two months of classes (weekly) under his belt?

Eight weeks is enough time to cover an entire self-defense curriculum. This will vary based on the instructor and the course structure, so this isn’t an exhaustive list. Also, the sequencing will vary depending on the instructor’s goals.

You’ll learn threat assessment. This is a mix of different pieces of information, and that will be tailored to the situations your instructor expects you to be in. This includes simple things, like staying aware of your surroundings, which in turn, makes you less appealing as a prospective victim. This the most important component in self-defense training, and it is not a combat skill at all.

Learning how to avoid being in a situation is worth far more than knowing how to get out of it. Now, realistically, that is not always an option, which is why the rest of the training exists, however, anyone who has been through self-defense training will have a dramatically improved ability to assess potential dangers. That does not mean they cannot make poor choices, simply that they’re less likely to blunder into a bad situation because they didn’t see the potential threats.

You’ll learn some basic stances, though this really isn’t the focus. It’s more a necessary component for the other things you’ll learn. For someone from a traditional martial art, this can be really mind bending. Stances are one of the most important components in martial arts, but self-defense quickly covers them and moves on, without putting a lot of focus on them.

You’ll learn how to break out of holds, joint locks, and throws. Breaking out of holds is something that will probably be useful, and several transition fluidly into throws. Joint locks are very useful when you want to restrain or subdue a foe. Each joint can only move in certain directions, and your entire body is connected. Joint locks rely on pushing one joint to its natural limit, and then using that to lock down the rest of your foe.

You will probably learn ground fighting. This is combat from a prone position and primarily involves maneuvering using your hands, while striking with your legs. This has some significant advantages for a fighter with limited experience. Because self-defense doesn’t spend much time on stances, you’re going to end up on the ground, and training for that eventuality pays off in that situation. Being able to retain mobility while on the ground means you cannot be knocked down, and you can drive a lot more force with your feet. Ideally, you’ll position yourself with your legs between yourself and your foe, lashing out if they attempt to close the distance.

You’ll learn some basic hand to hand, including some kicks. This will be far more advanced than you’d get from a non-practical class, and the priority will be on being able to actively use these strikes. These will, probably focus on knee and elbow strikes, rather than hands and feet. It’s much easier for an inexperienced fighter to accidentally injure their hands while striking, and full kicks are more challenging to execute (unless you’re already on the ground.)

You’ll learn how to create an opening and escape. This sounds a lot more involved than it is. “Creating an opening,” simply means inflicting enough harm on your opponent so that they cannot pursue you right now. Escaping may be as simple as bolting and running while your opponent is trying to get their breath back.

At the upper end, creating an exit plan is something you should start doing, whether your training really sets that up for you or not. I know, I didn’t really get into the head space of keeping exit plans in mind until years later. The basic idea is, if you’re going into a place, you should have plans for how to get out if things start going wrong.

Finally, you’ll probably learn to deal with armed assailants, including ways to defend against knife and firearm attacks. Worth remembering that gun and knife disarms are extremely dangerous, and have no margin for error. It’s very easy to take a bullet or get carved up trying to take a gun or knife away from an attacker. However, the training is included in the event that you really do not have a choice. If someone is going to kill you anyway, it’s better to know how to get that gun away from them and have a chance of living, than not.

I’ve said this before, but it is important to remember, the goal is to hinder your foe long enough to make an escape, not to, “win the fight.”

It’s also important to remember, a lot of this training is simply presented, “as is,” so unless you’re consistently practicing, you’ll lose a the more demanding techniques. Throws, in particular, require a lot of finesse, so your ability to execute one in a combat situation is very dicey.

The other major point of failure is that if you don’t internalize your self-defense training, when you’re presented with a situation a lot of this stuff just gets lost. It’s not that you don’t remember how to do it, you don’t remember your options in the moment. I know; it’s happened to me.

So, looping all the way back to the original question, there’s a fundamental scenario here that’s entirely realistic and plausible, but self-defense training won’t do what you expect. More specifically, it will be what you’re asking for, but not in the way you’re thinking.

Self-defense combat training is something you use when you have no choice. Self-defense is useful when someone will kill you. They will rape you. They will disfigure you. They will abduct you and do any or all of the above.

Self-defense combat training is not something you use when someone is asking for an item you can easily replace. If someone wants your wallet, give it to them. Don’t carry cash. Keep everything on plastic. Call the bank, shut those down, and they get nothing. The plastic is meaningless. If someone wants your smart phone, hand it over. One conversation with the carrier and that phone is unusable. They can’t fence it, they can’t sell it, and if they try, they’ll get the cops knocking on their door. More than that, if your phone is insured, you lose nothing. Same with your debit and credit cards. You can replace those without cost.

You won’t feel as helpless. You know they can’t escalate to violence without opposition. But, the safe answer when someone asks for your money is to hand over your wallet. Random muggers are pretty low on the threat scale. They can be managed. You can never be completely certain that it will be a safe interaction, but you can minimize the threat as much as possible.

Taking self-defense classes and then interpreting that as the ability to go hunting muggers is a losing proposition. It will end with you face down in a gutter.

Taking self-defense classes does mean you won’t feel that powerless again. It’s just not for the reasons you were expecting.


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