The best self-defense lesson I ever learned was from a woman who asked me to teach her a few things. She lived in a sketchy part of a sketchy city. We had a few days together, and she knew my background. Her background was in medicine. She said she’d had some bad run-ins, and would love to learn a few martial arts things. Things that might help her out if problems came up again. I said sure, I could do that. Might help if she told me about some of the problems she had run into before.

She related her most recent episode. She was driving along when some guy in apparent distress flagged her down. She stopped and rolled her window down. The guy punched her, reached through the window and grabbed her. She grabbed one of the knives she kept handy in her car and stabbed the guy in his brachial artery, and stomped on the gas when he let go.

I asked her about knives. I was in the car with her at the time, and she pointed out where a few of them were. She carried one on her at all times. At her apartment she showed me a few more, tucked in strategic locations. I told her, with my experienced eye and deep training in many martial arts…that I could teach her nothing about self defense. She had already demonstrated that she had weapons, knew what to do with them, and was willing to use them. I told her that was all self-defense was. Anything past that was just really just for boys showing off to each other.

I always chuckle a little when I see the arm-chair martial artists talk about self defense. They seem to create these elaborate fantasy scenarios in their minds, and then extrapolate the craziest maxims from them. Intent, adrenaline, tactical awareness and other phrases get passed about with confidence. They believe what they are saying because someone told them it was reality-based. Uh huh.

There is some pretty good “tactical” stuff out there these days, and it’s pretty good for what it’s meant to cover…which is helping out a soldier or cop who’s fucked up. Sometimes that can translate to a civilian world, but mostly, not so much. Most of us don’t face death when we screw up at our jobs. We just get chewed out. The mindset, the reality, is different.

Yes, there do exist out there the crazed slobbering human werewolves who think of nothing but the most perfect surprise attack. I can say with confidence you won’t ever meet them. You might, but I’m comfortable playing the odds by saying that.  I suppose it’s also possible you might suddenly find yourself in a fight for your life against a ninja hired to kill you in the most dramatic duel possible. You are far more likely to run into a different kind of problem, though.

Men have to worry about pack-beasts looking for an excuse to show off. Usually a drunk pack-beast at a bar, sporting event, or Granville street on a Friday night anytime after 11pm when their girlfriend is shrieking at them to be a man and beat someone up. Women have to worry about sadly more common things that I’m just gonna gloss over here.

I’ll skip the details but trust me when I say I know about the full spectrum of violence from personal experience. I have lived a full life and have experienced things that I could have done without. I know what the mindset is like from the wrong side, and I know what it takes to successfully prepare yourself for icky things.

So first off, I want you to think about that giant hairy biker guy you saw at that bar that one time. The incredibly tough dude that everyone was terrified of because he was scarred and radiated a deep menace? Yeah. That guy. I want you to keep this in mind: That guy gets the crap beat out of him. He’s been, and will be, on the losing end of fights. Always keep this in mind…being the biggest, baddest, toughest SOB on the block doesn’t mean you are safe. Being tougher, bigger, badder doesn’t help that guy and it won’t help you. You just have to accept yourself as who you are and deal with that.

Find out what bothers you. The comments and looks that get under your skin, the things that squik you out a little? Learn those things and know them. Manipulative people will absolutely know those things about you, and use them to their advantage. You don’t have to necessarily fix those issues, but don’t hide from them. Be aware of your flaws and triggers. Often the first alarm bells that go off in the back of your brain are when someone starts to test those things out. Be more aware of yourself than other people are.

You have to be willing to act, and that can be a pain. The ability to act in a stressful situation is not second nature to us. We are social creatures and always want to do what other people do. We do not want to stand out, we don’t want to look foolish. We hate being put on the spot, because it means we are being separated from everyone else. When crappy things happen, that’s what we suddenly feel. Sometimes it’s a pure fear, but mostly it’s the sudden feeling that a million eyes are upon you.

You can skip the fancy “reality-based” scream sessions and padded suits. They have their place, but you get a better and more realistic training by stealing a page from competitive athletes. In studying how to overcome tournament choking, they found that rehearsal worked. Practising doing an action under stress helped an athlete perform under stress. But here’s the trick: Simply turning on a video camera and telling the athlete they were being recorded resulted in the athlete feeling almost the same stress as competing. Yeah, we hate being watched when we do things. We hate being judged even more.

So, practice acting under stress. You don’t even have to practice martial arts. Just do something that requires you to act under some kind of watchful, judgemental eye. You know why cops project such authority? It’s the uniform. Wearing the uniform makes you feel like eyes are on you, constantly. Cops never get to escape that feeling of being judged, of being singled out. It makes you decisive. And it becomes habitual really fast. So find something to do that puts you in that situation often enough to practice it. Martial arts classes can be a terrible place yo do this. It’s way too easy to fit yourself into a quiet little comfort zone in most schools. If you can find a school with a terrible evil monster for an instructor, go for it! I found working as a bouncer to be excellent practice, your mileage may vary.

As for weapons and how to use them? I’d love to suggest all kinds of things, but really you need to go with your own comfort zone. Picking up the techniques from any martial arts style is a good thing, and I include gun and knife use under the umbrella of martial arts. Everyone should book out a year of their life to taking some regular classes in something that appeals. A year of classes two or three times a week should put you were you need to be. Practice after that should be routine, a regular part of your life in whatever way makes sense to you. Just remember that everything in life, even living, takes practice…so put the time aside.

Self defense is a big topic, and I’m not even scratching the surface here. I’ll be posting on the topic again. If there are any angles of the subject that interest you, let me know in the comments below.