Principles of Self-defence
GO Self‑Defence
Self-Defence &
Master Gary Eikenberry, 7th Dan black belt, Chief Instructor
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Elements of real world self-defence

There is much more to defending yourself than learning to fight back.

The objective of self-defence training is never to destroy an attacker or potential threat.

You train in order to learn to first avoid, and, if avoidance isn't possible, second, to control and finally to escape a dangerous situation while minimizing injury to yourself as well as to other parties involved. However, when there is a significant difference in size or strength between the attacker and defender, it may be necessary for the defender to be prepared to inflict pain or injury in order to create the opportunity for escape.

Principles of Self-defence

  • Physical techniques will only get you so far: No matter how much training and practise in martial arts or self-defence techniques you may have you aren't truly equipped to defend yourself if that's all you have. Practical self-defence isn't about out-battling an opponent. If you thwart an attacker by not becoming a victim by avoiding or escaping attack in the first place you succeed.
  • Avoidance: First, you must learn to recognize and avoid potentially violent situations before they occur. This is where we win with our brains and our perceptions rather than our fists and feet. When it isn't possible to avoid a confrontation you may still be able to avoid entrapment. This can mean walking out into the middle of the street instead of trying to hide in a doorway or alley or it can mean doing something so totally bizarre and unexpected that you create an opening for escape where one didn't previously exist.
  • Minimize risk of injury: You WILL be injured if a confrontation escalates to a physical attack. Therefore your first line of defence after avoidance is to de-escalate things before they reach the physical attack stage. This could involve capitulation (your money, iPod, etc. or your life should not be a difficult decision) or sometimes speaking in a calm, firm but non-confrontational voice to convince the assailant that he or she doesn't really want things to get out of hand either. But remember two things: First, attacking another human being is not necessarily a rational act, so don't be surprised if attempting to reason with someone engaged in an irrational act is unsuccessful. Secondly, someone who does attack is probably not the most trustworthy individual, so don't be surprised if they don't hold up their end of the bargain.
    If things do escalate, the key to survival is to use dodges, redirection and misdirection and, if necessary, releases, escapes, blocks, holds and throws to minimize exposure and injury. You should counter attack only when it does not increase your risk. If a counter attack doesn't create an opportunity for escape or isn't definitive enough to at least temporarily disable your attacker or discourage pursuit, it will only escalate things and therefore make your situation worse.
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  • De-escalate: Any and every blow that is struck increases the level of intensity, therefore decreasing the chances of extracting yourself from the situation. There are two keys to de-escalating the level of a physical confrontation. The first is separation. When the distance between potential combatants increases the intensity of the conflict tends to decrease. The second key is control. First get control of yourself -- don't let your actions be determined by an attacker. Secondly, if the other party to the conflict is not inclined or able to control him or herself, you may have to.
  • Control: This may mean physical restraint, employing control techniques such as holds and joint locks, but you may also control an attacker with positioning or engaging a third party intervener, but in any case the objective is to prevent further escalation and injury.
  • Create the opportunity for escape: On the street our objective is survival, not victory. The sole purpose of counter attacking should be to create the opportunity for escape -- sometimes that means neutralizing (by means of inflicting serious pain or injury) one or more attackers. If, however, you can escape without counter attacking, do it. Creating the opportunity for escape may be as simple as attracting attention by making noise, exaggerated gestures or other behavior to attract attention (and potential witnesses) to your situation.
  • If you must fight back: Any counter attack that does not create an opportunity for escape is a waste of energy and an ill-advised exposure. If you can't create an opportunity for escape with a counter attack, don't count on overpowering an adversary. The most effective counter attacks are usually sweeps and strikes to vulnerable areas such as the knees, followed by techniques which inflict pain.
    Remember that sparring in a martial arts class is a training exercise, not a self-defence simulation. In self-defence there should be no wasted blows -- even a strike that penetrates an attacker's defences is wasted if it is not delivered definitively to a vital point. The easiest vital points to strike include the knees, throat, temples, the base of the skull and the eyes. Important control points are the wrists, elbows, shoulders and knees.

The 3 circles of self-defence

  • Threat circle: In a confrontational situation, a threat exists whenever a potential attacker enters a perimeter which extends around you in all directions at a distance consisting of approximately three of the attacker's strides or 1 1/2 the distance of the attacker's extended leg. This is roughly the distance necessary to give the average person time to turn and initiate escape. Your primary objective objective in avoidance or escape is to get and keep potential attackers outside the threat circle.
  • Outer circle: The outer circle is the distance of your extended arms. At this distance -- which is sometimes referred to as engagement or combat distance -- the opportunity for defence and attack are roughly equal. The advantage tends to goes the attacker, or, in some cases to the bigger, stronger or better trained individual. However, at this distance, a real life physical confrontation almost always means the likelihood of being injured, whatever your level of training. It is desirable to minimize the amount of time spent at this distance.
  • Inner circle: The control circle is very close -- starting at approximately the length of your upper arm. In this area striking (punching, slapping and kicking) attacks or counter attacks are difficult to execute with force. Control, leverage and release techniques, which depend more on technique than strength, are most effective. In most circumstances a trained defender should have or should be able to gain the advantage over an untrained attacker at this distance. If avoidance is not possible and a potential attacker penetrates your outer circle, your objective should be to move through his or her inner circle, neutralizing any attack or hold and create the opportunity for escape. The vast majority of the release, escape, throw, control and even ground techniques we teach involve working through the inner circle.
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