In the past few years, there’s been a surge of gyms offering “women’s self-defense” courses, and from a business standpoint, it’s a smart move. Every day, there are stories about women who are beaten, raped, and murdered by people who are much bigger and stronger than them, so it makes sense that we’d want to take whatever precautions we could to prevent ourselves from becoming a statistic. Hell, I started my own jiu-jitsu journey nearly five years ago after a close call, and I’ve since used it to defend myself in another sketchy situation. It’s a dangerous world out there, and we should absolutely be doing everything we can do stay safe in it.
The problem, though, is that many of these classes and tips have the potential to do more harm than good. I came across a video yesterday filmed for women’s lifestyle magazine Marie Claire and promoted by My San Antonio that featured fitness coach Lena Marti teaching five “self-defense” moves. The problem? Every last one of them was utter BS and actually put the victim in a more vulnerable position than they started in.
Thankfully, most of the comments on the video were by people who saw right through the nonsense. Even to the untrained eye, it’s pretty clear that Marti’s moves wouldn’t work against anyone who was over the age of twelve and, you know, awake. But that’s probably because, at least as far as her website suggests, Marti has no certification (and an unknown amount of any training) in any kind of martial art or self-defense system. She’s an accomplished fitness coach and model, but unless she’s leaving out some pretty significant information, she’s less qualified to teach self-defense than a brand new blue belt.
I’m not trying to rag on Marti here. This woman is a successful badass who can out-lift, out-run, and out-hot me any day. The issue is that she’s far from the only underqualified person who’s giving bad advice to women who don’t know any better and might fall for it. Lots of women don’t do their research before they watch these videos or take these classes, and the result is that they shell out a lot of cash for advice that could get them killed if they tried to use it.
Even taking a class from someone who’s qualified to teach it, such as a certified krav maga instructor, can have the opposite of its intended effect. While yes, learning something is better than nothing (and it actually helped this woman who used what she learned to defend against an attacker), it can also lure women into a false sense of security. Knowing what to do if a problem arises is good, but ignoring basic safety precautions because you think you can handle an assailant can land you in the hospital or the morgue.
Moreover, many of these one-off classes don’t emphasize the need for realistic and constant repetition. You get paired up with people who move at a snail’s pace and with 30 percent of the effort a real assailant would be giving you. You learn between five and ten moves, practice them until you kind of have the hang of them, then go on your merry way confident that you’ll be able to remember them if your safety is in jeopardy.
But those of us who have ever been in a real fight (or even competed in a local martial arts tournament) know that that’s not how it works. It’s always different when you’re practicing with people you know and trust. When you’re trying to truly defend yourself, your adrenaline dumps. Thinking isn’t something that happens unless you’ve conditioned yourself to remain calm and keep your head in these situations. You’re not going to have time to review the step-by-step instructions for a move you practiced for five minutes over a year ago — your body is going to rely on instinct, and unless you are conditioned to properly defend yourself as naturally as you’d hit the brakes if someone stepped in front of your car, that move is going to be useless at best and dangerous at worst.
Am I saying you should just give up on being able to use your own body as a weapon? Absolutely not. But if you’re going to spend your time or money either taking a class or watching a video on self-defense, this is how you make sure you’re doing it right:
Check the teacher’s credentials. Just because a person calls themselves a “self-defense expert” doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Have they trained in krav maga or another defense system for at least a few years? Are they certified? Have they taught before? You can set your own standards for who you want to learn from, but make sure they have some kind of right to be teaching others how to protect themselves.
Practice until you can’t get it wrong. Not until you get it right. Again, for these movements to work in a real-life scenario, they have to happen before you can even process what your body is doing. The ideal thing to do would be to sign up for regular classes, but if you can’t do that, at least enlist the help of a friend to drill the techniques you learned until they become second nature to you.
Don’t go easy on yourself. When you practice this stuff, don’t partner up with someone who’s going to go easy on you. Tell your partner (who will ideally be much bigger and stronger than you) to try to control you using all their strength, just like a real attacker would. Practice in tight spaces, bad lighting, and when you’re already exhausted. It’s going to suck, but if someone actually attacks you, it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to do it in a way that’s convenient for you.
Don’t get cocky. Ideally, you’ll never be close enough to an attacker where you’ll have to worry about striking or choking him. Your objective should always be to avoid the danger, and that means being aware of your surroundings and finding an escape rather than looking for confrontation. Even if you’re well-versed in self-defense techniques, there’s no guarantee that your attacker won’t have a weapon on him or that he won’t be too fast or too strong for you. Any self-defense technique should only be used as a last resort and with the knowledge that if you use it, it might cost you your life if you fail.
To be clear, the victim of an assault is never, ever to blame. But there are some terrible people out there, and dedicating time and effort towards learning how to protect yourself is a wise move. Learning something is better than learning nothing (provided that the information you learn is accurate), but if you truly want to use your body to defend yourself when all else fails, it’s going to take more dedication than a 60-minute class or a quick video could offer.