Self defence. What is it? What are the principles of good self defence? What do you do when someone is walking behind you? What if someone approaches you at a train station? Tim Brown shows us how he applies the principles of good self defence to answer these questions and more.
Links and further information
- Personal Strength Self Defence Training
- Personal Strength Self Defence for Women and for Teen Girls ebooks
- Personal Defence Readiness System (TM) with Tony Blauer
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Iain Abernethy and the Martial Map
Hello! Today we’re going to answer some common questions about Self Defence. Tim (Brown) is a 5th Dan black belt in Jujutsu. We were junior instructors together back in 2001, and Tim has been practicing and teaching since. We practiced Jujutsu in Sydney, Ninjutsu in Tokyo, and Aikido in Tokyo. In addition, Tim has done training in the Personal Defence Readiness system with Tony Blauer, attended various self-defence workshops over the years, read and critically evaluated multiple books on self-defence, and has published his own (self defence) e-books.
Just before we start, I want to acknowledge that some people listening may have had a bad experience. In fact, that might be why you are looking into self-defence. It shows great courage and strength to face these topics and build the skills you need to protect yourself. As you listen to this, if anything triggers uncomfortable memories or feelings, please look after yourself. If you need to, press pause and reach out to a helpline or someone you trust, and only when you feel ready, continue listening. In Australia, you can call Lifeline: 13 11 14. Whether you did as we suggest here, or you didn't, regardless of the choices you made leading up to the incident, it is never your fault for being attacked. We all have the right to live safe and free from violence.
Here’s the interview:
Interviewer (Nicky Weeks): So, Tim, could you start by outlining the principles of effective Self Defence?
Tim Brown: I will answer that, but first I think it’s important to outline what I consider self defence to be – and what it isn’t. Many martial arts instructors and the general public see martial arts, fighting and self defence as being one and the same. All distinctions between them are completely lost and I think that lack of clarity is a big problem.
About 10 or 12 years ago, a UK based karate instructor named Iain Abernethy outlined the Martial Map, which is basically a Venn Diagram showing the areas of overlap – and not – between traditional martial arts, fighting and self defence. I encourage you to check it out. I add a further category to it by including combat sports – to clarify between martial arts and fighting since the rising popularity of MMA (Mixed Martial arts).
So, Martial Arts – well, there’s a huge range of them – many ‘traditional’, some ‘modern’. They often have a rich cultural history, generally can be said to have developed from combat styles that were used on ancient battlefields such as Japan, China, India, Greece, etc. They are often schools with lineages, and have adherence to a specific set of techniques, which can be rarely modified despite advancements or changes in combat since the system was developed or codified. In other words, sword fighting remains sword fighting, and Kenjutsu schools don’t tend to run sessions on how to use a katana to defend against someone with a gun. While these can also be used for self-defence or combat sports, they are often practiced for a variety of other benefits such as mental and spiritual development, health and fitness, preserving cultural heritage or the study of an art, in much the same way that one learns to play music or dance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing martial arts here, I’m a martial artist, but I have a particular interest in the self-defence aspect of it.
So, moving to combat sports – this is where participants use hand-to-hand or weapon techniques on each other in a competition setting with a predetermined, known and agreed-upon set of rules. These can include striking (such as boxing or Muay Thai), grappling (such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling), weapons (such as Fencing or Kali), or a mix of any or all of these (such as MMA). There are specific rules of engagement and a known and predictable set of outcomes that is agreed upon by the competitors. I.e. a win, a lose or a draw, with the conditions for each of these outcomes both known and agreed upon before competing, for example loss via knockout, submission or points. Now it’s important to highlight that the rules (including weight, gender, age and rank/experience divisions) are in place in order to protect the competitors and to allow for a fair competition within the given set of parameters.
So, ‘fighting’ on the other hand – this is violence. This is not a sport or a martial arts competition. The distinction I’d draw between this and self defence is that both participants in some way consent to the violent confrontation – even if there aren’t any rules.
So, this is the thing where, you know, there’s a bar situation and one guy invites another guy outside, they have a fight, or there are people fighting over territory, or there’s some kind of ego thing going on that’s causing violence or conflict.
Principles of self defence
So, getting back to your question about outlining the principles of Self defence – and thank you for everyone who’s still listening – I think Self Defence is where one (or more) of the participants, the ‘defenders’ do not consent to engage in confrontation or violence. Self defence uses principles and techniques to prevent or defend oneself, or another, from harm, from an aggressor. This includes:
- physical skills, as well as
- environmental awareness,
- verbal de-escalation skills,
- understanding of appropriate force, etc.
Now the individual techniques, as well as the focus and emphasis of particular aspects from the above list, may vary significantly across locations and practitioners, but should be simple and effective and easy to get right. The ultimate goal in this situation is avoidance, survival and escape, and it’s ‘messy’, you know – forget Bruce Lee or the Matrix. It doesn’t look like martial arts or a movie.
So, other vital aspects of self defence training include ’emotional climate training’, ‘target hardening’, and scenario-based training.
Emotional Climate Training
Emotional Climate Training is super important. It’s practicing the verbal and physical skills under pressure. A good self-defence system will use the gradual immersion method to expand comfort zones without overloading the participant or triggering a survivor. Gross motor skill techniques only! – No fancy stuff that requires precision – as precision goes out the window under pressure. Large surface area tools to large targets. Elbows, hammers, rakes, biting… Fast, simple, nasty. Protect your head. Hurt the attacker. Fight back. Hard.
Target hardening is having an understanding of attacker motivations and how to disrupt the script by lowering perceived value. For example, if you’re at an ATM and become aware of a ‘dodgy’ character nearby, someone you’ve just got a bad feeling about – rather than completing your withdrawal and becoming a higher value target, instead hit the cancel button, hit the ATM, swear and exclaim “Insufficient funds! What the hell? My bloody wife/husband/roommate/whoever!” Right? You are demonstrating to a potential mugger that you have no money, have a temper and you have a tendency to hit things. Not a great target!
So, scenario-based training is a great way to reduce fear of the unknown through role play and practice. Relevant verbal and physical techniques can be drilled in a safe and supportive environment.
Nicky Weeks: Thank you Tim, that was wonderful and really engaging. Let’s talk about some common scenarios. So, what would you recommend if someone is walking home when no one is around except for someone who is walking behind them?
Tim Brown: Sure. With any scenario there are a number of variables (such as daytime or night-time, threat assessment of the person regarding their size, or your perception of their capabilities, that sort of thing) but, from a principles perspective, we care about
- isolation and
- escape routes.
So, these are all red flags for risk. The strategy should be to try to reduce these risks.
If the person was more than about 20m behind, I would increase my pace to create more distance, particularly if heading towards more light, more visibility. People, yeah? If the person was closer than that, or I was heading towards darkness, I would move to a position where the person was no longer behind me – I could watch them closely, while on guard, as they (hopefully) go past, and then resume my journey after a time. If it is an attack, and turns physical, at least I wasn’t attacked from behind. If it isn’t an attack, and some random thinks I’m a weirdo for 5 minutes – and I get home safely – big deal!
Nicky Weeks: Yeah, great suggestions. And I guess turning around in that sort of scenario would have the advantage of being able to identify who is following you.
Tim Brown: For sure. I mean, if the person had a plan of attacking you, they may do it anyway, but you’re making it harder for them. So, referring back to the idea of target hardening, you’re not being as easy a target as they’d been hoping for.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, that’s really helpful. And what about if someone is alone at a train station and someone approaches them?
Tim Brown: Thanks, great question. I guess I’d like to put a little disclaimer on all this stuff which is, if what I tell you sounds like I’m teaching you how to suck eggs because it seems obvious, then I’m telling it to all the people who it isn’t obvious for. So, if you’re at a train station, and you’re by yourself, then sit or stand in a well-lit area, preferably with CCTV present. If approached, stand up. Use the fence if needed (so this is just getting your hands up between you and the approaching person – so that you can act physically more quickly if needed). Politely but firmly shut down conversation. Try not to engage. It’s treading a fine line here because the ‘hook’ that a potential attacker might use to try to engage you is an excuse to engage you. As far as the attacker is concerned if you’re too passive it’s an invitation to encroach. If you’re aggressive or rude it’s an excuse to act offended and respond with aggression and encroach. The challenge is to be assertive but not rude. This is why having planned and practice ‘choice speech’, or a variety of verbal strategies should be part of self-defence training. Trying to create effective tactical conversation on the fly, while under pressure, is almost impossible – don’t do it.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you, so, what would you say and do in that situation? Say they approached you and asked you the time for example.
Tim Brown: “Sorry, don’t have a watch.” or “there’s a clock over there, have a look.”
Nicky Weeks: Yep, awesome. And if you do have a watch? Just to be tricky.
Tim Brown: “I’m happy to tell you but could you stand a bit further away please?”
Nicky Weeks: Yeah, cool. And I guess when you look at your watch, you’re holding it up between you and the person so you’re not actually taking your eyes off them. Yeah, ok. Cool! Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, I’ve heard conflicting opinions on mobile phones and whether it can be useful to call a friend or pretend to be on the phone. What are your thoughts?
Use of mobile phones
Tim Brown: Ah so, I’m going to sound like a lawyer by saying ‘it depends’, but this is a tricky one. If the phone is a distraction to you, then it’s a liability. If you can use it to make yourself a harder target, then it could be a good tactic. Part of this should be listening to your gut. If you’re really worried – call the police – even if it’s just to have an operator on the line. You can give your location and a description (if you can). If nothing comes of it – that’s ok.
Nicky Weeks: Yeah, cool, that makes sense. So, calling the police if you’re really worried, but calling a friend who’s not really able to act quickly – not much use?
Tim Brown: If you’re calling a friend, then there’s an opportunity cost that you’re not on the line to police. So, all that would happen is if you did get attacked, your friend would hear you getting attacked, have to get off the line, call the police for you, and then have the police come anyway. So, it’s really adding in a step that’s not necessary. I mean, either you’re worried enough to call the police, or you’re not, but I would say, err on the side of caution, if you’re worried.
Nicky Weeks: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I guess if you were on the phone to your friend, you’re somewhat more distracted anyway. So, here's an interesting one. Where is the safest place to stand in an elevator?
Tim Brown: Mm, elevators. So, if you think about isolation, visibility, and escape routes, an elevator is the perfect storm of not good. So, many people may stand next to the buttons. Now, in my opinion, that gives them an illusion of protection, but the reality may be that this gives the potential attacker the excuse they need to get close to you. Instead of pressing the button for a floor, which is a normal social interaction thing to do, they can press the stop button and launch an attack. Now I would stand in the corner diagonally opposite to the buttons. That way, the attacker cannot stop the lift and be in close proximity at the same time. This creates time and space for a defender to respond.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome. I like that one because for me at least, it wasn’t intuitive, because I guess it’s natural to want to be closest to the escape route, but it makes a lot of sense to give yourself time to respond and know that something’s happening, because they have no other reason to do that.
Tim Brown: Yeah, I mean, the tricky thing is that – and something I’d like to mention as well is the idea of mirror imaging, which is where, you know, most people most of the time consider themselves nice people, right? And, and, you know, socially understanding and empathetic and all the rest. So, it’s a problem for nice people when they attribute their values to someone who doesn’t share them, and so, a nice person wouldn’t attack you, therefore you can be off-guard when you encounter other people because they’re nice people, because that’s your assumption. But, really, really what you need to do, is not become paranoid or fearful all the time, but just go, if I’m in a situation where one or more of my red flags are big tripped, I need to just run my self defence program that I know, which is okay, creating distance, creating time, putting a barrier in the way if I can, understanding visibility escape routes, you know, and if I’m being isolated, and just having your level of vigilance shift, commensurate to the situation you find yourself in.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I guess, those same principles can be applied to any situation you’re in, whether it’s even people that you’re familiar with but potentially don’t fully trust, that sort of thing. Sort of helps you to, I guess, put in principles without becoming paranoid and constantly thinking about it as just ‘this is what I do to keep myself safe’.
Tim Brown: That’s right, I mean it’s the same idea as having boundaries with people, or behaviours that you’ll accept from someone and if they cross it, that’s a problem. It’s the same kind of thing. It’s just higher speed and higher stakes potentially, but it’s the same principle.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you, yeah that makes a lot of sense. So, now imagine things did get physical, what physical techniques do you feel everyone should know?
Physical self defence
Tim Brown: Fence, which is just getting your hands up and in the way with an idea to responding quickly and protecting your head, because if you don’t protect your head and you get hit in it, and you get knocked unconscious, your ability to defend yourself drops to zero – so the fence is really important. The spear, which is a basic, gross motor skill interception technique, elbows, hammerfists, gouging, biting, knee to the groin, so, all gross motor skill-based techniques. Less complicated to do under pressure. Yeah, and it’s important to practice them often enough that you do them competently, and quickly and with power, and actually practice them regularly enough that they stay sharp.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you, and can you tell us a bit more about the fence and the spear?
The fence and the spear
Tim Brown: Sure, so the idea of the fence, as the name suggests, if you had a factory or a house that had valuable things in it, it's much harder for a thief to get in take your stuff if there's a fence in the way. So, this is you putting an arm fence, a hand and arm fence, between you and the potential aggressor, so you can keep them at distance, you can respond more quickly because your hands are already up, and the fence is covering the centre line. So human anatomy means that you have a lot of vulnerable targets running down your centre line, be that your nose, jaw, throat, sternum, groin, you get the idea. So, the fence is covering that centre line, and it actually makes potential physical attack by an attacker a little bit more predictable, because they either need to get that fence out of the way because it's a psychological as well as physical barrier – so they either need to get the fence out of the way by grabbing your wrists and doing something with them, in which case, you’ve practised a wrist escape! (Because you've done self defence training) or, they try and go around your guard by doing you know, like one of those haymaker round sort of looping punches. Or, attempt to do a headlock or hair pull or you know, a bear hug or things like that, which are all basically the same physical action, they have the same trajectory, and so that feeds into the spear, which is a gross motor skill spontaneous response to intercept whatever that round trajectory thing is. So, you end up having practised one response to about 6 different attacks, which means you can get better at it, you’re specialising.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you, that’s really, really helpful. So, if people are looking for places to practice physical self-defence techniques, what do you recommend they look for?
What to look for in a Self Defence course
Tim Brown: That's tricky because everyone is different, but I’d start by: you walk in the door – how do you feel? You know? It actually needs to sort of gel with you as a person, and if there's not a good personality fit with your instructor, look elsewhere. Apart from that, certainly places that teach the principles of effective self defence that I outlined earlier. So, having an understanding of attacker tactics and motivations, because it's all very well to learn techniques, but devoid of context, you could be learning things that you don't need to know, and not learning things that you do. So, also train in being aware of your surroundings, creating distance, so – back to the idea of run if you can – so, you hear ‘run if you can’ from a lot of places, what you need to keep in mind is though, that you know what you're capable of, and part of overcoming fear in a self defence situation is focusing on what you are capable of instead of fixating on what the other person is capable of, or what they could do to you, or what they prepared to do. But you don't know how fast they can run, for example, so if you do a quick, you know, visual assessment of your potential attacker and go ‘I don't know whether I could outrun them or not’, well then, running actually might not be a great option, because you're presenting your back to them. So, the advice should be run if you can, for sure, but if you can't, understand you may need to fight. So, de-escalation skills are important, places that teach verbal as well, important. Working on target hardening. Work on gross motor skills only. Right? So hurting the attacker, understanding of appropriate force as well, so it's not just smash and smash and smash forever! It’s- know when to stop! And getting away, right, run if you can, fight if you must, but it's not violence for violence’s sake. It’s self defence. The other thing I would highly recommend is find places that have trauma-informed instruction, because you don't know – I mean you could be a survivor going there, or you could be training with survivors, and it's really important that everyone’s empowered and nurtured while they’re training, because we want to be more confident while we get more competent. Also, emotional climate training should be a component of the physical training, including immersion rather than flooding, for the same reasons – you don't want to be triggered or so far out your comfort zone that you're not learning. So, also, I would prefer to train at a place that was encouraging and empowering rather than competition based or ego based. And the other thing I would recommend is that you do scenario-based training, because that's going to make it far more specific to your situation.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you, great answer. And you’ve mentioned target hardening quite a few times, and I know you’ve gone into a bit about what it is, but could you just remind us what you mean by target hardening; what are some examples?
Hooks and target hardening
Tim Brown: Sure, well target hardening is an offshoot of understanding attacker motivations and de-motivations. So, if you understand that, in broad strokes, an attacker is after your money, your body, your life, or power, like power or control, so if you don't look like you have money, then they’re less likely to go for you if their motivation is money, right. Doesn't matter what you're wearing, if an attacker decides to attack, they’re an attacker, right. So, the thing is that you know that they don't want to get caught, and they don't want to get hurt. So, you do what you can to increase the chances of them getting caught – by making a heap of noise, calling for help, engaging bystanders personally if you can, “hey you in the blue shirt, come and help me,”, call the police, or ask for someone to call the police, and have the skills and the will to hurt the attacker if they attack you. You are not starting it, they started it. The only person responsible for an attack is the attacker, you have every right to defend yourself. So, you make sure that you make a lot of noise and you hurt them, because that's a de-motivation for continuing the attack on their part. So, target hardening is just not being what they hoped you would be. So, you're not the mouse, you're the echidna.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome. Prickly like an echidna. So, you’ve mentioned hooks, what do you mean by that? And how does that sort of play into target hardening?
Tim Brown: So, hooks are particular conversational strategies that attackers can use to assess the target that they're looking at. So, it's essentially a way that they can use dialogue to deceive or distract their target to make it easier for them to attack. So, you know, common things are, you know, “do you have the time?” or “where is such and such a place?” but it can be random questions that are just designed to mentally confuse or destabilise you, so that they can close the distance, right. So, it could be- it could be random, so, you know “hey what's your sister’s name?” so that, you’re- “what?” you know, and for the moment you're mentally taken off guard. And this- the difficulty with hooks is that sometimes attackers use them because they know that they work because they've used them before, but part of your work as a self defence practitioner, is to sort of have a look at risk assessment. And there was one that was done years and years and years ago – it was ‘Threat Assessment’ – and it was- it was a U.S. Army thing – it was basically: there's white, which is victim state, yellow, which is you're actively scanning your environments, (so this is more into sort of your awareness training) orange, which is heightened awareness, so you've identified a potential threat, and you’ve figured out what response you are going to engage with that threat, and finally red, is you are doing that thing that you decided to do in orange state. And part of the problem with disarming hooks is that they are designed to get you out of orange state, or get you out of yellow state, and back into white state. So, I guess it's the next level of understanding in conversation, or how it can go, to actually be aware that something is going to happen, and then be aware enough of within that situation and looking from without that situation, to go “this person is trying to disarm me.” Which in itself is a red flag, and it actually means that the attack has already started.
Nicky Weeks: Okay, that’s really tricky, so, the hooks can have a double effect in many ways in that they can catch you off guard, or more decrease that level of alertness. Because this is a usual scenario – I’ve been asked the time before, I’ve been asked the way to such and such before, so it’s putting you at ease. But at the same time, when attackers use these to gauge whether you’re a good victim, the polite response, of helpfully and kindly giving them whatever they want, in terms of giving directions or that sort of thing, is actually the opposite to target hardening, in a way, it’s not being that prickly echidna.
Tim Brown: Yeah, another common hook which can really sort of destabilise people, mental preparedness wise, is the creation of ambiguity between the people. So, for example, if I put on ‘bad guy’ hat for a second and wanted to try and create ambiguity in our interaction, I might sort of insult you, and then sort of apologise, and laugh it off as a joke, and then kind of insult you again, and again go “No, no, no, that was a joke.” – in the meantime, I'm closing the distance. So, and it can be something about what you're wearing, or something that you've just said, or you know, “Oh, that was a pretty stupid thing to say. No, no, I'm just kidding, that's alright.” – as I get closer. You know? So, it really is a sizing up process. So the way to try and circumvent that is to just not fit the desired mould, right? So, person says, “Huh, that was pretty stupid thing to say.” “Yeah, it was. Step back.” You know? Just don't play the game, get the person off the script, yeah. Because you can tell really quickly when it's a script, when the verbal stops coming so smoothly and easily. The tricky part is, that the person can feel like they're being taken off the script, and switch scripts. Yeah? But if you've identified that someone is basically trying to hook you, the important thing is – don’t engage them in that hook. They start insulting you, don't rise to the bait. Don't start insulting them back, because keep in mind – these are people that don't share the same value as yours, and it would be, (values as you, I should say), and they might insult you, but if you insult them back, you're the bad guy, because you insulted them. It's an affront to their ego, or their misguided sense of honour, or whatever else. So, the best part is to politely but firmly not engage. Don't play the game, don't stick to their script.
Nicky Weeks: Okay, yeah, that’s really helpful. And the, sort of the kind, friendly part of me – which is quite big – feels discomfort at the idea of being sort of prickly, or not giving the time if someone asks or not giving directions if someone asks, but I guess I can be that kind, helpful person most of the time, because it’s usually light with heaps of people around, and I’m not worried. It’s when someone approaches me and asks those questions when it’s dark, and there’s no-one around that that’s-
Tim Brown: Exactly, I mean you’re always running that ‘isolation, visibility, escape routes’ program in the back of your mind, yeah? If you’ve got a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, believe it, and act on it, and be proven wrong, and get home safely and giggle about how ‘silly’ you were. Instead of ignoring it, brushing it under the rug and being proven right. That would be tragic.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome. Thank you, this has been a wonderful discussion. So, can you tell us a bit about the self-defence training that you offer?
Tim Brown: Sure! At Personal Strength, we offer age-appropriate programs for kids, teens and adults.
The kids’ programs are mixed and are for 5-8s (Little Ninjas) and 8-12s (Ninja Kids) and include ‘mat chats’ as well as physical techniques, to cover topics that complement physical training, so respect, self-control, managing big emotions, managing situations when other kids are mean, verbal de-escalation strategies, stranger danger, appropriate use of self defence skills, and more.
The teens programs have both mixed and girls-only classes, and also include mat chats and mini-workshops on boundaries, consent, respectful relationships, that sort of thing. We do role-plays to practice verbal skills, and transition to physical self defence, and we also work on emotional climate training so these things can be done under pressure.
The adults’ programs also have both mixed and women’s-only classes, that include mat chats (more of a reminder to most adults!) and on boundaries, consent, respectful relationships, that sort of thing. More of a discussion around longer-term grooming and coercive control behaviours are also discussed. And we do role-plays to practice verbal skills, and transition to physical self defence, and work on emotional climate training as well. And all the times that the skills need to start ramping up in intensity, there’s use of protective equipment, and all the sessions are trauma informed.
Nicky Weeks: Awesome, thank you Tim. And, you also have a couple of eBooks out. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Self defence eBooks
- self defence strategies and tactics;
- psychological preparation – so this is an intro to the emotional climate training we discussed earlier; there are some
- verbal de-escalation skills; there are pictures and descriptions of
- effective physical techniques such as the fence and the spear, and how to do elbows, and that sort of stuff; and there are
- specific scenarios, relevant to women and teen girls, respectively.
The eBooks include only the most important and easiest to learn and do under pressure techniques and tactics. If you get a chance – check them out! Thanks.
Nicky Weeks: Thanks Tim! This has been really wonderful, and I learned a lot, and I hope our listeners did too.
Tim Brown: I really enjoyed it, thanks.
Ask questions in the comments below
Nicky Weeks: So, if you have any scenarios that you would like Tim to discuss in future episodes, please leave a comment below.