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Leigh Simms
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The 3 preconditions required for effective self-defence techniques

The 3 Preconditions Required for Effective Self-Defence Techniques

Some Martial Arts record physical self-defence techniques in forms (kata, poomsae, taolu) which can then be extracted and drilled against a training partner. Other Martial Arts go straight to the partner drills.  Regardless of the process, this blogpost will be provide a useful framework for you to place you physical self-defence techniques within. The purpose of a physical self-defence technique is to ensure the defender can adequately protect themselves when confronted by an enemy/enemies. This usually means using physical force to harm the enemy, which in turn aids escape. There are going to be occasions where escape is not an immediate option and restraining techniques will be required, but for civilian self-protection this is not a common occurrence. Before I move forward to discuss the three preconditions, I want to discuss what it means for something to be effective? For the purposes of this article, I will use the following definition: -

Effective: successful in producing a desired or intended result.

Therefore, effective Self-Defence Techniques, for the purposes of this article, will mean: - a physical fighting technique that successfully harms the enemy enough to ensure the defender can escape. Let's move on to discuss the three preconditions...

1. Practical

The first and probably most obvious condition a technique needs to be effective. The technique performed needs to have a realistic prospect of working given the circumstances. The key word in the above sentence is "circumstances". Let's start to look at some examples to explain what a practical self-defence technique is. 

An armbar from the ground is a highly practical technique for BJJ or Judo. But when it comes to the circumstances of self-defence its value is significantly reduced. When confronted by non-consensual violence, purposely putting the enemy in a ground armbar is a bad tactic and should never be the aim. Firstly, breaking the enemy's arm does not necessarily mean the enemy will give up and go home. Secondly, being on the ground immediately makes you highly vulnerable to third party attackers. This may be the enemy's friends or unconnected persons joining in the fight for various reasons. The circumstances of the environment can assist in determining the practicality of a technique but there are other circumstances to be taken into consideration.

The defender and the enemy's characteristics will also define the practicality of a technique. If the enemy severely outweighs you then certain throwing techniques will be inadequate given the circumstance. Whilst, there is nothing wrong with a throwing technique in a self-defence situation, sometimes the technique will not be practical due to the characteristics of the persons involved. 

A grab to the testicles is not going to do much good against a female enemy. A hair grab against a bald person will also be redundant. These two examples exemplify how certain techniques, which can be practical against some enemies, will not work against certain enemies. That is not to say they cannot be adapted, they can, and that is one of the core aspects of having a practical technique. As the circumstances of the environment and the persons involved will always vary, a highly practical self-defence technique will be one that can easily be adapted to cover as many different variables as possible. 

I am not saying that any of the techniques above are not practical. From the armbar to the hairgrab, all can be practical but it depends on the circumstances of the situation. In order to ensure the techniques you are practicing are practical we need to establish the parameters the technique is being practiced within.  

In summary, establish the circumstances in which a technique is practical and drill the technique within those circumstances.

But being practical is not enough. In order to truly be effective we need to ensure the defender remains safe from harm and that does not exclusive to the harm which comes from the enemy.

2. Legal

There is always at least two enemies when it comes down to physical self-defence. Firstly, the enemy in front of your at the time of the attack. Secondly, after the event, you may need to deal with the legal consequences of your actions.

Protecting yourself from physical harm only to end up in prison for a number of years may be a worse decision in the long run. Occasionally you can take a beating and recover with little or no long term consequences, but the effects of being convicted can last a life time. Please note that I am not advocating being afraid of the law or that the law is against people defending themselves. I am just illustrating the point that being on the wrong side of the law is not somewhere we should aim to be. 

Stomping on the head of the enemy once they are on the ground is practical. It is going to work, and it will do so with high effectiveness. The enemy won't be getting up to continue to attack you any time soon. It may even be a technique that is historically recorded in your arts forms. But it is not an effective technique if the legal jurisdiction you are in would determine the technique as illegal.

For a more extreme example, shooting someone with a handgun is highly practical but is almost always illegal if the enemy is empty handed.

The concept of self-defence weapons is a grey area across the martial art world. In the UK they are illegal. Carrying and using so called "self-defence weapons" (such as the Kubotan) can get you into legal trouble.

I recommend that everyone researches the laws of your particular jurisdiction to ensure the techniques which you are practicing can be legally justified. For those from the UK who are interested in understanding the Law, you can obtain a copy of my book entitled: - UK Self-Defence Law from my website.

But being practical and legal is not enough. There is a one more precondition that needs to be addressed.

3. Ethical

The questions of what is a practical technique and what is a legal technique, both have objective answers. Within the confines or a set of circumstances and legal system, the question of whether something is both practical and legal can be determined and it will remain the same as long as the circumstances remain the same.


What will change is whether or not the the defender thinks what they are doing is ethical.  When it comes to self-defence, ethics is a subjective concept. What I think is right to do in a situation may be different to what my instructors think, my students think or my training partners think.  Take the following as an example: -

You (being an adult over the age of 18) are being attacked by a 13 year old girl with an edged weapon. You have tried to restrain her but she has cut you numerous times and has managed to create some space before relaunching her attack. You have no means of escape and you have a choice, do you now try to restrain her again or do you decide to use percussive impact?

There is little doubt that punching the girl has a higher chance of being practical than the restraining her and for arguments sake lets say that legally speaking it would be justified, but would you be willing to go ahead and punch the girl?

We can change the variables here and this time you have a edged weapon as well. Would you be willing to use it if the situation dictated that striking was unavailable.  What if she had a firearm instead of an edged weapon? What if you both had firearms?  Luckily for most of us, these hypothetical questions do not enter our existence and the further the extremity of the example, the rarer the chance of it occurring. 

But not all ethical questions are thought experiments. The use of pre-emptive strikes are a very real world example that comes up in common non-consensual violent situations. 

Personally, I think that pre-emptive strikes can be ethical depending upon the circumstances. Under certain circumstances, pre-emptive strikes are also both practical and legal. Therefore, I train pre-emptive strikes as a part of my self-defence training. However, I know people who do not think that pre-emptive strikes are ever ethical, therefore I know they will not use these techniques should an enemy become intent on causing them harm. Whilst there is nothing wrong with pre-emptive strikes from a practical or legal perspective, the techniques are not effective because the defender will not use them in a real situation. 

If you don't think it is right or just to bite someone or to gouge their eyes, or if you are a male and believe you should never hit a woman then it doesn't matter how practical or legal the techniques are! They are not effective because they will not help you to successfully achieve the outcome of staying safe from serious harm.

Before ending, a word of caution. We do not live in an ideal world and the world of non-consensual violence is unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous. Sometimes we may have to compromise our own morals to remain safe, sometimes we may need to go beyond the law to remain physically safe, sometimes we may need to risk our health in order to remain "moral". All these scenarios come with consequences (physical, psychological, legal, social etc..).

The only way to reduce the chances of being injured, ending up on the wrong side of the law or dealing with emotional trauma is to practice self-defence techniques within the framework of what is objectively practical in the given circumstance, legal within your jurisdiction and ethical for you personally. 

Until next time...

Leigh Simms

Les Bubka
Les Bubka's picture

Hi Leigh

Very good article, I think many instructors are not aware what is the Law in UK.

I was one of them till I started to read stuff on this forum :) 

I will share it though our fb page tomorrow :)

Kind regards 


Tau's picture

Ethics is an interesting one. We've touched upon the scenario of if your attacker is a woman. This can expanded upon to if they're much younger / much older than you etc. There's an argument that this is part of my professional role, ie what if my attacker is my patient? What other physiological factors may be present? As a child I was taught that it was wrong to hit a person wearing glasses (!) but this kind of conditioning may spill over into adulthood and perceptions of ethics, especially with a logjam of information where a situation is happening.

Marc's picture

Hi Leigh,

good article. Those are the three most important points.

I would perhaps add:

4. Intuitive. What I mean by that is that ideally the technique would build on natural reflexes or reactions, like a flinch response. Also (after an appropriate amount of training) the technique should fit the way the individual person "does" their defense. If we teach an effective technique but the person training it realises in the end that "this is just not what I would do", then we should accept that and maybe offer a more fitting alternative.

5. Strategy. The technique should work within an overall strategy. Simple examples would be "enter, do damage, escape" or "get to the outside, hit the head, escape". Of course, strategies could be more sophisticated than that. The idea behind a general strategy would be that we can not train all techniques for all possible situations, but if we have a strategy then we might intutively come up with techniques that will follow that strategy and get us out alive.

Leigh Simms wrote:

I recommend that everyone researches the laws of your particular jurisdiction to ensure the techniques which you are practicing can be legally justified. For those from the UK who are interested in understanding the Law, you can obtain a copy of my book entitled: - UK Self-Defence Law from my website.

For German self-defense law I recommend: Fabien Cathagne, Notwehrrecht in der Praxis - Handbuch für Kampfkünstler, ISBN 978-1484168301

All the best


Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Hi Marc,

I like numbers 4 and 5. I actually use number 4 when analysing how "practical" a technique is. So it is in there, just in a different place than where you put it :)

Marc's picture

Leigh Simms wrote:

I actually use number 4 when analysing how "practical" a technique is. So it is in there, just in a different place than where you put it :)

I see, that makes perfect sense.

Paul_L's picture

Good article. This is a topic that comes up in training from time to time. Our sensai will take us through what would be proportional and what is justifiable and what is not.

Even in training chaos can ensue and in a real situation you can only do what you can at the time. Having as much understanding of the cause and effect of an action as possible will certainly help with your justification of perhaps a result that was more injurious than you aimed for, assuming that there was no intention to go too far.

Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

I think that's a good point note. "you can only do what you can do at that time".

I have seen some people use that quote to say learning the law is irrelevant as "you can only do what you can do at that time".

That clearly is not the case because most of us act in a way in which we deem to be within the law. Even those who think it is irrelevant and that you don't have time to worry about it when a "real fight" kicks off.

Case in point, I have asked people who have used this line of thought, if they carry a firearm when out in public. So far everyone who has replied has said that they don't. When questioned why, they say it is because it is against the law. in their Country. Now, if they truly believed that the law was irrelevant, they would have no reason not to carry a firearm.  What I am assuming is going on here, is that those who think the Law is a non-factor in Self-Defence training are either a) ignorant to what the law actually is and/or b) in disagreement with what the law allows. 

Luckily, in the UK, we have self-defence laws which do not prohibit pro-active self-protection (ie pre-emptive strikes, no duty to retreat etc..) but are still able to punish those who chose to go above and beyond what is required to remain safe (ie commiting revenge attacks after the event, purposefully harming a defenseless attacker etc...)

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Leigh Simms wrote:
I have seen some people use that quote to say learning the law is irrelevant as "you can only do what you can do at that time".

Me too … and ignoring the law is not a good idea. It is fair enough to say you should not be thinking about the law during a violent event, but in doing so we are largely missing the point. The time to think about the law is when constructing a training program. The conditioned reflexes need to be both effective AND lawful. There is a false notion that the two are contradictory i.e. you can’t adequately defend yourself within the law. Can’t speak for the law all over the world, but here in the UK that’s certainly not the case. The smart things to do tactically are fully in line with the law of the land.

As Rory Miller has stated (when discussing US law), the much-used phrase, “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” presents a false choice. You don’t have to choose between death and imprisonment. Legitimate self-defence is legal. However, by ignoring the law we are giving a space for misinformation, misunderstanding and confusion to enter (all too common). This results in an unnecessary fear of legal consequences, which results in hesitation, which results in ineffective action.

We should learn the law and train in accordance with it, and in that way we can legitimately “forget” about it in the moment and act confidently, effectively and lawfully.

All the best,