What makes a great personal defence strategy ?

The subject and concept of personal defence is so vast its difficult to accurately define exactly what it is. At the the beginning of every workshop we ask our students to provide a definition of what this 'personal defence' thing is. Often times we get the same responses, 'a method(s) of protecting myself from attack.' Sometimes though, we get the more enlightened answer that 'it's about understanding and being aware of potential threats in order to avoid or escape them.' These are the words of genius as far as we are concerned. The words that highlight the idea that physical confrontation is the bottom order (final) response in the hierarchy of an effective personal defence strategy.

Regardless many consider that personal defence is focused solely towards the specific protection of the goods (i.e the person) in that moment of threat. However the universal nature of personal defence and concepts of safety go far beyond merely factors of self protection. A truly encompassing strategy for personal defence will focus deeply into the areas of awareness and preventative behaviours. For example, where you live, what car you drive, what alarm system you have, who you interact with, what occupation you have, where you go to school, what clothes you wear etc... (the list goes on and on) these things all serve to impact upon your personal safety to a greater or lesser extent. Faced with this extensive area of influence, to sum a great personal defence strategy up into a single sentence, or focus towards a specific set of physical capabilities and techniques, is to massively limit and even potentially misunderstand the subject at hand.

Whilst this article is focusing attention towards the singular aspect of physical confrontation, it is important to again understand that this is has the lowest positional order in the hierarchy of potential personal defence behaviours.

Prevention underpins avoidance. Awareness underpins avoidance. Avoidance underpins successful personal defence and enhances personal safety. Don't misunderstand the message here. This remains the first, last and most fundamental principle. Avoid and be safe.

However where awareness slips, where prevention fails and avoidance becomes impossible, we need to better understand how we de-escalate, divert & distract and escape the situation.

In our hierarchy of personal defence then we have the following in order of priority :

1.Awareness & Prevention


3.Escape via:

(i) De-escalation

(ii) Distraction & Diversion

(iii) Physical Sanctions and Techniques

Each area is worthy of in depth study and research. Each area is a distinct set of capabilities and tactics which naturally dovetail together but equally are distinct and essentially separate from each other.

The 'hard' skills (physical sanctions and techniques) are often the only areas touched on in traditional methods of personal defence. Certainly many martial art instructors, schools and syllabus only address the physical. This again is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the subject at hand.

The 'soft' skills of verbal and non-verbal communication often get ignored or paid lip service too, yet these are the essential capabilities which can lead to conflict avoidance and resolution without and physical sanction being necessary. What's equally not emphasised in these 'hard' training sessions is what the cost of personal defence is. By this we don't mean the economic cost, no appropriately we refer to the potential physical, psychological and emotional costs that will be borne by both the attacker and their chosen victim.

The attacking part is easy isn't it? What's the psychological, emotional or physical cost here? As an attacker we're dehumanising the victim so that they potentially may be perceived as being a resource (typically an asocial or non-consentual type of violent assault) and therefore be, or possess, goods to satisfy the needs of the attacker. The victim may be the cause of some type of social infringement or slight (typically a more social or consentual violent assault) which has served to offend the ego of the attacker. Equally, or alternatively the attacker may be existing in a pre-ordained behavioural pattern over which they have no or little control (habitual offenders, typically asocial violent assaults). To fully appreciate the cost of personal defence from this perspective, we first need to establish the clear differentiation between types of assaults: social (consentual) or asocial (non-consentual).

Social violence is a fact of nature and exists in most of not all social groups. On a primate level, social violence is often used to determine seniority and authority within a given group. Often perpetuated by young males (although this is not a exclusive rule), this type of violence functions to provide instant feedback as to positioning and dominance wirhin the wider social heirarchy. There is then a strong evolutionary argument which could support that this behaviour is in some way hard-wired within our deeper, more primitive neurology. The complexity of modern society might have served to evolve a few differences in the overall process, but a lot of the primal patterns remain constant. In most social settings we use verbal and non-verbal communication to ascertain, maintain or establish this heirarchy. In some social settings however physical dominance remains the key vehicle for immediate feedback. The stereotypes of two young guys squaring off outside the nightclub, the road raged fuelled redmist descending due to yet again being cut up on the roundabout, you choose your stereotype. The fact remains that in every example you can conceive there's a choice being made on behalf of the 'attacker' and the 'defender'. That choice is to participate. To dance what Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) terms 'the monkey dance'. First they posture, next they shout, point and close distance. Then there's a shove. Next there's a wild punch and then chaos reigns. The seemingly silly but very obvious thing is it could all be de-escalated well before that violence. All it would take eruptions be for one of the players to say, 'Not today... you're right...I'm sorry and I'll try better next time...' Pride, ego and provocation have no place in personal defence.

Asocial violence contrarily is the stuff of nightmares and monsters. Perpetuated by habitual or predatory offenders for one of two over-riding reasons. Reason one, they are mentally ill and stuck in a behavioural pattern which they may perceive to be dangerous, anti-social and destructive but cannot, of their own volition, change it. Reason two, is purely resource based. You have something they want. Goods, money or your body, it's not down to self gratefication and need for these guys, it's simple greed and they have dehumanised you to seeing you as being a simple means to an end.

These types of attacks typically rely on distraction, persuasion and deception. The victim is selected often based on maximum reward for minimal effort, an lured coercively into a state whereby their natural instincts, perceptions and defences are (at least) distracted. These are the truly dangerous, monsters bypassing all attempts at prevention and awareness.

In the later category of violence can be found those people referred, appropriately or inappropriately, to a psychopaths and sociopaths. Individuals who maybe follow a script that doesn't include any sense of empathy, regret or guilt. Sure for some of these guys the emotional and psychological cost of attacking another person isn't likely to be huge (if there's any at all.)

There's a differentiation here between violence and perpetrators which must be recognised though. Social violence is perpetrated by seemingly well socialised, adjusted and stable individuals as much as it is the less well adjusted ones. The physical mechanisms (no punches are thrown) might be different, but the overall intention, goal and dynamic remains consistent. In the practice of this type of assault there's a physical, emotional and psychological cost to be borne by all parties engaged. As an extreme example in a recent workshop as we were discussing this point one of the participants highlighted that their friends brother had been victim to an assault following an argument, a monkey dance type of situation. He was hit, fell and struck his head as a result of his fall. He died. The cost here clearly was catastrophic for him and his family, although the cost for the attacker was equally as severe. Not merely the justifiable loss of liberty, but the emotional and psychological burden that he must live with, which may be impossible to fully resolve.

Personal Defence is a subject that must be considered on a physical, emotional and psychological basis. If we don't understand the potential costs of defence this may affect our decisions in the moment. If one doesn't understand the laws pertaining to acts of personal defence (and all countries have some) then again we may be in a situation whereby our actions simply don't meet the specific criteria statutorily defined.

A good personal defence instructor, class or school is one that will take you through a range of tactics. The good ones will spend as much time on soft skills, as well as hard physical ones (including practice at running away!) . The good ones will tell you all you need to be aware of regarding the laws and statutory requirements for that country. The best ones though will also understand that avoidance and prevention are the underpinning strategic priorities for any successful personal defence programme.

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