On the Individual Nature of Self-Protection
I decided to create this article to explore a few issues that surfaced in another thread, because I think they’re worthwhile topics of discussion that could benefit from conversation on their own turf. This article will look at the role of individual risk assessment when considering and planning self-protection training. This article is aimed at students, not instructors, but perhaps it will benefit both.
Before I begin, let me clarify that I am not posting this to suggest that it is the final answer or the best approach. I am sharing this only because I think my questions and experiences may be relevant to others.
I’m not an expert, but I’m also not a beginner. This is an article about my own experiences (kind of like a user review, if you will). If you disagree, that’s fine . . . it’s expected, actually, because the whole point of this endeavor is to show that self-protection training is an individualized pursuit.
Even if I'm wrong, perhaps it will be helpful to think about why I am wrong.
(Also, sometimes the text on these articles can be hard to read. If you have that problem, you can zoom in the view on your browser.)
Self-Protection as an Individual Pursuit
The key point I want to make in this post is that students of self-protection always have to start with the risks, threats, opportunities, and other aspects of their own life. Importantly, this is not something we can expect self-protection teachers to do for us! The vast majority of us will not have access to 1-on-1 personal security coaching and training from a world-class expert. It will almost always fall on us to take the lessons we have learned and apply them to our own situation. Doing that effectively requires a very careful analysis of the risks facing us, the resources we have available, the preparations we are willing to undertake and commit to, and the capacity we have for actual improvement.
To illustrate this point, I probably need to give you some examples. I’m going to use examples from my own life. When I first started training in the martial arts, it was because I was getting bullied by older kids at school. These kids were several years older than me and had a huge size advantage. I expect a lot of people went through similar problems when they were growing up. I lived in a small town, so it wasn’t a question of whether I could avoid the bullies. I couldn’t. We rode the same bus, we passed each other in the hallways, we lived close to each other. I won’t bore you with the details—the point is that this younger kid needed self-protection training, but of a very particular kind. The problem was that the martial art that I was studying (combined with all of the other things I was doing) was completely ineffective for this purpose. What I needed was a very specific toolkit to keep me from getting tormented by these older kids: a toolkit to help me escape from them, or if escape wasn’t possible, to at least reduce the risk of injury. This toolkit needed to take into account the fact that I was small, the fact that I was sometimes stuck on a bus ride with these bullies, the fact that the bullies would lie to teachers and play the victim, the fact that the bullies absolutely would try to get revenge if I “one-upped” them, and the fact that the bullies themselves were kids, etc.
Fast forward several years. I continue martial arts training. My training includes techniques like neck cranks, chokes, eye strikes, groin strikes, etc. I live in a rural area and barely get out except to go to school or to training. I have a self-protection toolkit, but it’s a liability – I don’t have the maturity to really understand the impact of using some of these techniques on another person, and I don't do enough live training to actually have combative skill. Nevertheless, as a side effect of studying martial arts, I develop a completely unjustified confidence in my own abilities. Because of this confidence, I don’t have problems with bullies at this phase of my life.
Fast forward several years. I have a job that brings me in touch with a lot of drunk college students. For a time, I’m a bartender, and I also do a very short (and actually comical) stint working the door. I get years of experience managing drunk people. I develop good awareness skills for the specific environment of dealing with drunk people in bars. I use de-escalation skills multiple times per month. But these are specific de-escalation skills that are used for dealing with drunk people. My job is to keep myself safe but also to try to keep some of them safe. I’m not typically dealing with hardened felons or professional criminals. Throughout my time in this environment, I never use striking or groundfighting skills. Despite the fact that I’m training regularly in submission grappling, I never once take someone to the ground intentionally in a live situation, and I never once try to submit someone in a live situation.
Fast forward to today. I travel all the time for work. I spend a lot of time in airports and different cities. I have a very unpredictable schedule and I often find myself trying to navigate unfamilliar areas on short notice with tight deadlines, which doesn’t leave much time for preparation. My self-protection skills now have to take into account that I am spending a lot of time in new environments. I need to think about the fact that I may have a self-protection situation on an airplane (for example, with a drunk passenger). I need to learn about safety in taxis. Sometimes the environment itself is a major threat (e.g., heat safety in Arizona in July, etc.). I have to learn about managing disruptive/dangerous behavior in the workplace, and counsel people on how to address it.
The point I am making is that all of these concerns technically fall under the umbrella of “civilian self-protection.” But they are all different. When I was a kid dealing with the bullies, I needed to spend 95% of my time building a skill set that would keep me safe from them. Escape meant getting and staying within eyesight of a teacher. When I was living in a rural area, escape was a much different formula (and police response time was over 45 minutes). When I was bartending, escape meant running across the street to the police station. When I’m traveling in a new city, escape is complicated (and can’t be summed up in a sentence), but the general plan involves running, hard, for several blocks and then getting in the first taxi I see. If I run out of breath before I find a taxi, it means finding the best place I can to hide and call for an Uber.
If I’m traveling with my girlfriend, escape is rarely an option, because she usually wears shoes that keep her from running (and I can’t convince her otherwise). If she’s with me, I can’t run away. I have to try to eliminate or at least delay the threat in front of me.
So, all of these are different. Avoidance, awareness, escape . . . all completely different. And that’s just for me. If I were a police officer, or doorman, or prison guard, the answers would all be different.
Here in America, the legalities are different too. Every time I go to a new state, I have to think about its laws (both for work and for self-protection). In one state, I can carry a pistol concealed so long as I don’t go in certain buildings. In another state, I could instantly violate criminal law if I carry that same pistol improperly. And there’s no way I can rely on a self-protection expert to explain all of this to me. I have an obligation to take this on myself and do the best I can. And it all falls under the umbrella term of “civilian self-protection.”
This also means that I need to think carefully about what I’m preparing for. At home, firearms are my primary means of self-protection. This means I have to practice getting to them. I have to spend time thinking about which shots are safe to take (in terms of the bullet passing through the wall) and which shots are not safe to take. It means figuring out where the best place to position myself would be if I realize someone's in the house (and I hvae time to prepare). It means doing research on the time of day when home invasions are most common. It means studying material from firearms experts and taking classes when I can afford them. It means an obsessive focus on firearms safety. It means using NextDoor to keep an eye on crime in this part of the city. And so on.
Striking a Balance
Simultaneously, I have to strike a balance. While it would be great to spend multiple sessions per week training purely for self-protection (with an emphasis on multiple enemies and weapons awareness, etc.), using scenario-based training and sometimes force-on-force training, I have to acknowledge that I’m not going to do that. As best I can tell, there are no schools in the region that even offer that kind of training at a reasonable price. I could go to the trouble of founding my own martial arts club solely for this purpose, but then I wouldn’t have access to the depth of knowledge available at my current schools. So I have to take my existing resources, match them to the risks, and supplement where possible.
I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary in encountering these obstacles. I expect that many of us have similar challenges matching our self-protection training and resources to our individual lifestyles, our families, etc.. I think we all instinctively know this, but it’s my belief that it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
Why does it matter? Well, the key is understanding what a reasonable portrait of self-protection looks like for the individual. Now that I’m spending a lot of time traveling, I need to start shifting to a deeper understanding of self-protection for those environments (which I’ve been doing). I have to think about airport security. I need to spend time thinking about the shoes I’m wearing when I’m traveling, in case something does go wrong (as it has in the past) and I have to get away. I have to think about cybersecurity and wi-fi networks, because I have to comply with certain laws relating to handling confidential files. And so on.
But if I were living in a rural area in America, I’d probably want to focus almost all of my self-protection training on the carry and use of firearms (and all of the attached soft skills), with a much lower emphasis on unarmed combat, and zero worries about air travel.
The bottom line is that self-protection is different for each of us, and that has major implications for how we structure our training. Are we going to devote 60% of our in-class training time to developing skills that work against multiple enemies who are trying to cause serious bodily injury to us? Perhaps, but I would argue that this isn’t going to apply to everyone. What if we are talking about a small-statured adult woman who is trying to protect herself from an abusive stalker? Perhaps we start her off with firearms training and work from there, because that’s going to be more effective short-term than trying to develop unarmed combat skills that will work reliably under pressure. (Trying to teach her to fight off multiple enemies while unarmed comes much, much later on the curriculum (if ever)). Do we spend 80% of class time roleplaying angry pre-fight rituals? That might be good for some people, but it always depends on who is taking the class and why.
What if we are talking to an adult woman who has an abusive teenage son? The de-escalation training she’s going to receive is not the same as the de-escalation skills I needed as a bartender handling drunks. What if we’re talking about a nurse working with dementia patients who get violent later in the day? Again, his or her de-escalation training is different, and more importantly, this person will need an in-depth understanding of all applicable regulations that govern work in that setting.
I fully understand that it is difficult/impossible to cover these different areas in a group class. There is a need for a structured curriculum. But these different scenarios lead to completely different focuses in training. Finger locks, pepper spray, choke holds, groundfighting, preemptive striking, knife defense . . . the answers and the training all depend on the situation. And we can’t answer them by focusing solely on: “Well, would this work or not work against X?” with X alternately standing for multiple enemies, hardened criminals, large athletic men, people with knives, trained opponents, and so on. That question does not capture the variety and the need to look at the probability of a desirable outcome. It doesn't indicate that self-protection is an individualized pursuit.
In a nutshell: an individual should begin their self-protection training with a thorough risk assessment that honestly captures the issues relevant to their own life. This means things like their age, injuries, family, friends, social networks, work, location, income, mental health . . . the whole picture. Start from the ground up. Self-protection becomes a process of (a) the individual putting in the work to learn from experts but then (b) applying it thoughtfully and critically to their own life and their own resources.
Let me emphasize that this isn’t meant to be an indictment of any particular person or approach. I don’t know how most of you structure or approach your self-protection classes. Some of you probably have already found ways to address this problem in your day-to-day teaching, and if so, I'd be interested in hearing more about it.
Again, this is the result of me applying the lessons I have learned during my own training to the experiences and problems I’ve had in my own life. I’m open to constructive criticism, but I do ask that we focus on the core point: the individual nature of self-protection training. (For example, maybe you disagree strongly with the idea of firearm ownership. That's fine, but it's probably a discussion best saved for another place.)
Thanks for reading and for your time.