Martial Arts and Self-Defense Are NOT the Same Thing

Back when I first introduced myself to the staff at East Wind, the studio owner asked me about the possibility of including self-defense training alongside tai chi instruction.  I was hesitant to answer, largely because I didn’t quite know how to answer her.  It’s taken a while to form a satisfactory response; it’s a valid question, and one to which any martial arts instructor ought to have a ready reply.  This post is an attempt to answer her question; and in so doing, share it with students who may be asking the same thing in their own minds.

Martial arts is only one part of self-defense.  It’s my belief that it is in fact a lesser part.  The topic of “self-defense” includes subjects like:
o  Situational awareness
o  “Managing unknown contacts”
o  Establishing boundaries and enforcing them
o  Conflict resolution
o  Farnam’s Law (“Don’t do stupid things in stupid places with stupid people at stupid times of day/night”)
o  De-escalation/“verbal judo”
o  Movement-and-positioning
o  Attitude and comportment (“Not looking like an easy target”)
o  Physical fitness
o  Legal issues
o  Emotional, moral, spiritual issues connected with self-defense (“Am I mentally/emotionally/spiritually ready to put someone in the hospital or morgue on purpose, and under what circumstances; and if so, can I quickly find the setting on the ‘response knob’ that’s appropriate to the situation?”)
…and so on.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, even without knowing how to throw a punch, bind an arm, use pepper spray or present a pistol.  The trouble of course is that nothing in the above bullet-list is even half as “sexy” as punches, arm locks, gas and guns.  So people take a pistol or carbine class, enroll in a Jiu-jitsu dojo or the like, and think they’ve got self-defense all figured out.

No…no, they don’t.

A fair few instructors fall prey to this tendency as well.  I’m personally acquainted with a fellow whom I know has taught many “women’s self-defense” classes, whose “credentials” consist of (I swear I’m not making this up) a long period of martial arts study and the fact that he’s got into a lot of bar fights.  It’s beyond question that the man can acquit himself well once a fight has started; but what do his qualifications say about avoiding the fight in the first place? 

Many instructors also present a model for self-defense that’s statistically near the bottom of the list.  How many times have we seen videos or heard presentations that start with the phrase “So you’re walking down the street and some guy comes up to you and…”  This does happen, but nowhere near as frequently as the instructor presents it.  What’s more, few self-defense instructors – though the number is thankfully growing – address the fact that we’re statistically FAR more likely to know the person we’re defending ourselves against, often intimately.  It’s hard to find an instructor who understands complications of domestic violence, or the fact that we may have to deal with friends/family of the attacker afterward.

I’ve laid all these things out because self-defense is MUCH more than simply knowing a martial art.

Now, can tai chi be used in self-defense if it comes to it?  Certainly – that’s exactly what it was developed for.  Can I teach this skill set?  I like to think so.  But that’s not the same thing as saying I’m qualified to teach all the other items in the “bullet-list” above. 

I’m not. 

A good instructor – one worth your time and money – will not only be aware of these issues as I am but also (unlike me) have put considerable time and study into them. 

Such a person will be an expert on at least several of these issues – I am not, and I don’t claim to be either.

I can’t recommend good self-defense instructors in this area, mostly because I haven’t gone out of my way to look for any.  But I can share the example of some people I know who are VERY good instructors, whose qualifications and focus can be discovered with relative ease.  One of the hardest aspects of self-defense training, from the student’s perspective, is finding an instructor who’s worth the time and expense of their classes.  It’s not always apparent, and many instructors are better marketers than they are trainers.  The ones I list below are focused on the elements of self-defense I mentioned above.  Take a look at them, see what they talk about, and see how they present themselves.  In this way, you’ll have a better idea of “what right looks like,” and this can help you sort out who is worth spending a weekend listening to and who isn’t.

o  Annette Evans,
Annette Evans is an attorney from Philadelphia who used to compete with Team SIG.  She is the author of “The Dry Fire Primer” and her Facebook community “On Her Own” discusses self-defense from a woman’s perspective.  She is an expert in the field and worth paying attention to.  It’s one thing to get a self-defense class from a 30-year retired police officer who’s 6’5” and built like a linebacker; it’s another thing to see the issue from the perspective of someone who’s NOT so physically intimidating.

o  Greg Ellifritz,
Greg Ellifritz is a clear expert in all areas of personal defense, and his “reality-based” training addresses everything from “Stranger Danger” to domestic violence, legal issues and safety while traveling.  His “Weekend Knowledge Dumps” on his blog are worth the time all on their own.

o  Craig Douglas,
Don’t let the intimidating name put you off.  The group and their coursework are the best in the nation – period.  Their classes are intense and physically demanding, but the knowledge they impart – and the confidence one gains at having put the knowledge to use under realistic conditions – can’t be had from anyone else.

o  John Johnston and Melody Lauer,
There aren’t many self-defense courses that address the important concerns of parents.  Among the many different courses offered by John and Melody is “The Armed Parent,” a course dedicated to self-defense with one’s kids in tow.  It’s a complicated topic; and while there may be others, to my knowledge these are the only instructors paying the matter any attention.

o  Massad Ayoob,
No list of self-defense instructors is complete without the Nation’s expert on self-defense law.  Mr. Ayoob has been at this for more than 40 years.  He’s pretty much the Anthony Fauci of self-defense law.  A training certificate with his signature on it carries a LOT of weight in legal circles, and with good reason.

Me?  I just teach tai chi.