I have had a few interesting conversations recently as it pertains to self-defense. This topic seems to be coming up more and more, so I thought I’d share a few basic tips. First and foremost, every effort should be made to avoid a physical altercation and really any type of dangerous situation. The advice in this article will be almost entirely focused on that. If you want to develop effective skills for actual fighting, be it sport competition or self-defense, that takes A LOT of dedicated training. Your best bet for that is to find a qualified martial arts school and show up 3x per week for 5+ years. That said, here are some things that anybody can do which will be helpful should you find yourself in a concerning situation:
ONE: Be dressed to move. Your clothing, especially your footwear, should allow you to quickly create distance between you and the threat (be it an attacker or a car who ran the red light and is coming at you in the crosswalk). Sandals, flip flops, and many other styles of footwear can make this difficult, so take this into consideration.
TWO: Be aware of your surroundings. I see both pedestrians and drivers glued to their phones all the time, and I’m sure you do too. Keeping your phone away and being aware of your surroundings not only makes it easier for you to see a potential threatening person, it also makes it easier for you to notice non-human threats like a car that is about to run a red light, a big bump on the sidewalk you might trip on, or the big dog who has locked eyes on you and has their ears perked up. The latter actually happened to Mira and me once as we were out for a walk – we went around a blind corner and a big German Shepherd was guarding the property. Thankfully we noticed immediately and reversed directions as quickly as possible. The dog did charge us, but we got away in time before it ran out of length on its chain.
THREE: Consider walking with a flashlight. I often leave work well after it is dark. My neighborhood does not have street lights, and it is incredibly hard for cars to see pedestrians. I often carry a small flashlight that I shine on the ground, mostly to make my presence more obvious to cars. You could also probably do this with reflective clothing or something similar.
FOUR: If you are near a person you feel is concerning and/or threatening, the way you stand matters. This topic just came up within the past day actually. One of my BJJ students was waiting for the bus, and someone else near the bus stop was smoking something he believed to be meth, and was agitated and threatening. He even threw something at my student. Thankfully it didn’t escalate from there. When talking it over with my student I suggested to stand in such a way where you can see the person out of your peripheral vision. If you stare right at them it can come across as confrontational, which of course we want to avoid. However, if you turn your back on them then you might not see an attack coming. A nice way to split the difference is to stand sideways, because you can still monitor the threat without coming across as confrontational.
FIVE: Do your best to avoid a physical altercation, but also know when it’s unavoidable. Circling back to #1, always avoid if possible. However, sometimes it can be hard … you may be backing away trying to create distance, but they are following you and making it difficult to get away. A situation like this can be terrifying. First off, if there is anyone around who might be able to help you then do whatever it takes to get their attention and get their support. Additionally, it is helpful to have an idea of what else to do as this is going on.
You definitely need to keep an eye on the threatening person, so make sure you are watching them as you are backing away. Secondly, you need your hands ready to protect yourself. A good strategy is to have one hand outstretched at arm’s length (open palm as if saying “STOP!”), and the other hand over your heart. This position is not especially threatening, meaning you probably won’t escalate things with this person, and it creates two advantages for you:
First, the outstretched arm will help you gauge distance … if the threating person is beyond arm’s length away then it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to hurt you without some sort of long weapon. This allows you to continue backing away while maintaining an arm’s length or greater distance from the threat. This measure of distance also lets you know when it will be time to actually engage in a physical altercation … if you are backing away and doing your best to keep arm’s length or greater of distance, but the threatening person is coming at you so aggressively that they close that distance (they get inside of arm’s length) then at that point you have no other options – you need to defend yourself.
Secondly, if the worst case scenario does happen and you do need to defend yourself, the hand over your heart can quickly and easily rise up a few inches to either cover your face to block their punch, or it can make a fist and you can throw your own punch should you feel the need. If you kept your hands down at your sides you could not do either of those things nearly as quickly or easily.
Of course, I hope you never find yourself in a dangerous or threatening situation, but if you do I hope you can keep these things in mind. They are worth practicing from time-to-time, even if is just by yourself at home (especially #5, which takes the most skill).
If you are more of a visual learner, we cover a lot of this material and more in our free online self-defense workshop, also on this site. You can access it through the link below. If you live in the Portland, Oregon area and are interested in training with us in person you can do that through the other link, also below.