02 August 2012

Thoughts on Women's Self-Defence

I'm submitting this as a very late contribution to a recent Blogging Carnival on Women's Self-Defence. Unfortunately other priorities did not allow me to be part of the planned Blogging Carnival date. Regardless, I hope that this short essay may add some value to the discourse of Women's Self-Defence.

You can find links to the official contributions to this blogging carnival here.


Every two weeks I host a martial art workshop. Generally I facilitate the workshops myself, but often I also get other instructors to present it. I try to keep the workshops different and interesting in order to get as wide an audience of martial artists to interact with each other as possible. After these bi-weekly workshops the participants usually enjoy a meal together at a local restaurant and just get to know each other better. During one such a conversation, one of the participants, a female who had recently been in a potentially violent situation, said that the reason she decided to join the workshop was in order to learn to defend herself. The particular theme of the workshop for that day was Basic Hapkido Principles and she wanted to know if I think she should take up Hapkido or Taekwon-Do (knowing that I teach both), since she is feeling somewhat unsafe at the moment.

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Knowing that her need for self-protection is an immediate one, I told her that she would be better off taking a focussed self-defence seminar, and then, at least for the short term, taking up a non-traditional system such as boxing, kick-boxing, Muay Thai or amateur MMA classes. Incidentally the gym I teach at has an amateur MMA (stand-up fighting and grappling) program as well, but that was not the reason I made the suggestion. There are many other things that self-defence advice should include, particularly "soft-skills" such as building awareness, but when all else fails some fighting skill is prudent and acquiring some martial art skills are imperative.

The question is, why did I as a nearly 20 year practitioner of traditional martial arts and long time instructor of Taekwon-Do tell her not to take up a traditional martial art but instead take up a combat sport? Don't I believe that traditional martial arts are good for self-defence? Actually, I think that traditional martial arts, when taught with the correct emphasis, can be excellent vehicles for acquiring self-defence skill. The problem is that traditional martial arts take a long time to become proficient at. If your only goal is to gain some fighting skill in a relatively short time, then taking up a combat sport, I believe, is better.

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For a majority of women the biggest hurdle in acquiring self-defence skill is their conditioned (or natural?) aversion to offending or hurting another person and also their acceptance of being “oppressed”. Often, my biggest struggle as a martial art instructor with women is getting them to do their techniques with realism. And just because they can do it with a sense of reality on a target pad or punching bag, doesn't mean that they will do it with the same, albeit, controlled realism on their training partners, for fear of hurting the other person. Getting them to forego their fear of not being ladylike is a surprising but difficult obstacle for many women. If nothing else, combat sports for example Boxing, Kickboxing or Muay Thai, force a person to very quickly get used to “hurting” other people. At the same time, the high frequency of contact during practise also forces the student to get used to getting hit, getting used to “violent” contact. These two skills—being used to aggressive contact and the willingness to “hurt” someone else—are crucial ingredients for self-defence and the rate at which you acquire these skills are generally much higher among combat sports than traditional martial arts. For example, in a typical combat sports class one may start basic sparring even from the first class. In a traditional martial art it is often the case that the student is guided into sparring over an extensive period.

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Personally I still believe that in the long run properly taught traditional martial art training is a better option to prepare one for self-defence scenarios as it teaches a variety of skills preparing one for a variety of scenarios. A combat sport limits the type of techniques one may use because of the rules of the sport. A traditional martial art, on the other hand, may include many "illegal" techniques such as elbow and knee strikes, eye gauging, biting, throat and groin attacks, and so on. However, if a woman has not overcome her aversion to punching a person, she is even less likely to bite or scratch at the eyes. While combat sports are limited in technique, the faster forging of a fighting spirit is probably the biggest value for a person wishing to gain self-defence ability. Often merely putting up a spirited fight may dissuade the attacker from further action. Violent crimes tend to be performed by criminals picking on easy targets. Many a person have defended themselves by shear determination, not by martial art skill. It is this fighting spirit that contact sparring can develop and such sparring experience will happen much quicker in, say, a kick-boxing or MMA gym, than in a traditional martial art gym.

It is for this reason that if somebody where to ask me, what “style” should I study in order to protect myself in a short time, that I advise them to take up a combat sport, as I did with the women that posed me that question recently. This, of course, must be done in conjunction with at least an introductory course in realistic self-defence.

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On the other hand, if one want to learn a strong foundation with a variety of ingrained techniques that can by applied in an array of different situations, I would definitely suggest a good traditional martial art school that has proper emphasis on self-defence training. Traditional martial arts also have a variety of fringe benefits, including the progressive and increasingly difficult goals (be they short term belt exams, breaking more boards, learning more difficult techniques), that set up regular victories over a long period to recondition a person into establishing a good self-worth. One's sense of self-worth is probably one of the greatest impulses to carry oneself in a confident manner; in other words, carrying one self in such a way that you communicate that you are not an easy target. But one needs to be careful: I believe it is better to train at a mediocre sport combat gym, than train at a poor traditional martial art school, for at least at the sport combat gym you will get exposure to contact sparring, while at a poor traditional martial art school you are likely to gain mere illusions of proficiency.

1 comment:

Ymar Sakar said...

One of the funny things is that Tim Larkin's program often have an easier time teaching women than the men. Men are almost pre programmed to do the whole male aggression and competition thing, so putting them into a fighting arena with rules like sparring, is great. Less so for women. But the opposite is true when it comes to TFT, where social competition is not the point of it to begin with. Women, more interested on survival and less on winning, learn a lot faster because they have a no holds barred attitude whereas the men are still thinking about knocking their competitors off the bar stool. By the time the males have figured out that it is truly about asocial situations and that they have nothing to do with social conflicts people imagine in their heads, that is when they start to really learn. By that time, however, the women have had 24 hours to learn at their max pace already.

The women are also paired with men as often as possible. Not allowed to smile, speak, or converse like what often happens in "training locations". It's not a social thing. It's an asocial thing.

This produces a feeling often known in martial arts circles as putting your life on the line. Where danger meets reward, and people begin to feel the tension in the air and combine it with their techniques.