The Cost of 'Living' - Self-Defense vs. Martial Arts

How to find a self-defense course that is right for you or your child.

photo by: Max Kotchouro
Basic self-defense knowledge can mean the difference between life and death, or assault and avoidance, but is it necessary in suburban America? If so, what is the best type of training for you? How do you find a good course, or even know what to look for? How involved does the training need to be for it to be effective?

Do I need it? 
There are many reasons we can find to spend our free time doing activities we enjoy, working around the house, or when it comes to teenagers - shuffling them from one activity to the next, or letting them enjoy a breather from school/work. I am asked from time to time by people who live in relatively safe areas, about the necessity of self-defense training. My response usually involves a few questions. “Do you know where you will be in the next 5 years? Do you plan to travel? Do you ever go into urban areas at night for social activities? Would you like to know some basic ways to defend yourself without a firearm, spray, or other weapon in the event of a home invasion, or mugging?”

When it comes to teenagers, especially young women, I don't believe anyone thinks their child will not benefit from a course in self-defense/rape prevention. Especially when statistics show that 1 in 4 girls in college will be sexually assaulted. Yes, that's 25% of all college women - that is based solely on the 'reported' cases, so actual rates are depressingly higher.  

What type of training is best for you?
Martial Arts versus Self-Defense Training - Most of us don't know the difference, but there definitely is one. A big one. A majority of Martial Arts styles do teach self-defense, but the pace to learn competency in real world scenarios can be long and arduous, and not always fitting to the body type of the individual training that particular style. 

In addition, some styles focus predominantly on competition fighting, which does not allow for hitting targets one would normally want to hit in order to disable an attacker that is trying to take your life, your virtue, or harm a loved one. I recommend martial arts training for those looking for self-defense and improving their lifestyle by learning effective skills while enjoying the process, and camaraderie, of training and improving one's self.

Self-Defense training is typically streamlined and focused. It lacks the benefits of self-improvement, personal growth, teamwork, goal achievement, and fun you get from training martial arts, but replaces it with short term orientation that produces effective results - quick, simple methods to get you out of a bad situation. 

What is a good style of Martial Arts for you?
There is no simple answer to this as it depends on your body type, goals, and how well you use the style you are taught. Some of the more effective arts for self-defense are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, San Shou/San Da, Tang Lang Quan, Judo/Shuai Jiao, Muay Thai, Boxing, and Wrestling. If you are of a smaller stature, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the better arts as it focuses heavily on the ground and using leverage, not strength, to increase effectiveness. At it’s core, it is better to find a good school/instructor teaching effective arts, rather than focus on the style.

How do I find a good self-defense course?
Look for a course that promotes principles such as - simple, easy, highly effective. Courses that rely on multi-step responses to a bad guy's attack, or the use of fine motor skills, will fail you when you need them most. Simple, clean techniques that use gross motor function, and are reinforced through repetition, will be easier to depend upon under dire stress and an adrenaline dump. Martial Arts training uses repetition to reinforce fine motor skills in combat, as weekend self-defense course should rely heavily on gross movements that your body uses under duress.

The course should address physical differences such as size, gender, strength, and not rely predominantly on punching. Punching, apart from being a refined skill in and of itself, will be harder for smaller and/or weaker opponents to produce enough power to disable or slow down an attacker (think 115 lbs woman versus 280 lbs male...).

Ideally the course offers scenario training with suits and trained attackers, but also addresses the setting of 'verbal boundaries' and how to deal with obnoxious, what I like to call 'space invaders', or the creepy family friend or relative that likes to touch you while no one is looking. These are subtler situations that, like date rape, do not always warrant a full on death dealing blow, but rather a lower key response that sends a strong message of deterrence.

The length of the course should be relatively short. 40 hours of self-defense training is not a bad thing, but if 40 hours is required in order to get you through all the material, then see my previous statement on simplicity and efficacy under stress. Usually a two hour focused course is 'ok', but should not be all encompassing. 8 to 12 hours of training is substantial, and if reinforced every few years, can be extremely beneficial.

Look for courses that cover defenses from common attacks, body/neck holds, and grabs, while promoting the use of weapons you will have on you at all times (your limbs). Reaching in your purse, or pocket for a weapon when being caught off guard, puts you in a worse position as you use your natural weapons to fumble for something you likely will not find in time. 

Note on weapons: Weapons can be great tools, but do you have it on you at all times? Is it accessible? Is the person able to take it away from you, and are you prepared for defending against that weapon now that it will be used against you?

The course should address ground self-defense. Anyone can end up on the ground in an altercation, and many attacks end up here. Does the course offer extensive knowledge and training on how to deal with a larger, stronger, heavier attacker that has you pinned on the ground? Again, with simple, and effective techniques.

As previously mentioned, verbal boundary training is a must. For some people (specifically those that have trouble telling other people “no”), this can be the toughest type of training, but the most rewarding. 

Scenario training puts you in a stressful situation against a suited attacker so you can test the material you learned. Stress has an amazing ability to reinforce learned material in the brain. Having the opportunity to use what you learned, gives you the confidence to know that it works, and you can succeed. Make sure the course offers some type of stress testing.

Lastly, weapon disarmament. Weapon disarm courses should be considered with care. Gun disarms are a viable training course and useful knowledge to have, while knife defense training is a slippery slope. Knives are very dangerous, and it is extremely difficult to teach knife defense to an untrained person, especially in a short course. Also, buyer beware, there are many knife defense techniques that will not work, and are based off unrealistic attack styles (Jim Carey’s ‘In Living Color’ skit comes to mind).

How much should it cost?

What should a self-defense course cost? This varies from free courses to expensive courses. We’ve all heard the saying “You get what you pay for.”, but let’s add a little perspective. Sometimes a person offering a free course is doing so because they believe strongly in helping others to avoid becoming a victim. Perhaps they were a victim themselves at one time, and decided to channel their horrible experience into something positive in this altruistic manner. 

We live in a monetary based society, and like it or not, we rate the value of something based on the price. This is good, and bad. Charging money for something does not automatically mean it is of higher quality. It is ultimately up to the consumer to research the courses, or try the free one first, and see if it is adequate by using some of the suggestions/criteria above. If you are satisfied and received a good service, then count yourself lucky.

When dealing with paid courses, how much is too much? This becomes tricky, ultimately we are talking about the value of your life, or your child's life, and the value of the material/skills being passed on in order to teach you to protect yourself or your family. A good course will likely cost more money, but may be unaffordable. If money is not an object, what value can be put on knowing your child is a bit safer in life? Or you walking away with the confidence to handle a bad situation? 

We’re not simply talking about life or death, the true cost of 'Living' can mean surviving a sexual assault, mugging, or domestic violence, and dealing with the emotional trauma for years or decades to come. If these situations can be avoided altogether, the savings in monetary, emotional, psychological, and physical currency will be priceless. Choosing a good course and instructor is above all else. In the end, you will walk away feeling that you can rely on the material you learned, and hopefully, you will never need it!

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