Does Self Defense Work?

By on December 19, 2012

woman scaredViolence in society is pandemic: punch ups, muggings and even fatalities are frighteningly common in a society that is bulging at the waist with unsolicited assaults. Due to astonishing growth-rate of violent crime in Britain, skills in self-defense are almost a pre-requisite if you want to get from the cinema to the Chinese and home again in one piece.

But what is self defense?
And does the martial art that you are taught in the dojo and sold through the magazines really work when the mat is concrete and your opponent does not now the rules?

One of the many things I have learned in my thirty years of martial arts training, from working with masters and from my own experience  is that self defense and martial arts are not the same thing. Sport MA and self defense are not the same thing either. And recreational training – twice a week at the local sports hall – certainly does not constitute a serious investment in real self protection.

When people talk martial arts they think that they are automatically talking self defense but they are not. And when they talk self defense they believe that it is synonymous with martial arts. Again, it is not. The two are very different, and they should be separated and taught as such.

There is nothing wrong with sport martial arts, I love it, I am a big fan. And recreational training is better than no training at all. But if people are ever to survive a violent encounter on the pavement arena, it is imperative that they learn to distinguish between the two.

If you train twice a week in martial arts and think you are a serious player in self defense you’ll be in for a big shock when it kicks off outside the chippy on a Friday night. If your penchant is for sport martial arts (and all that it entails) and you think it automatically translates to the street you too will be in big trouble when the pub-warrior breaks your rules and twats you while your un-zipped at the communal trough, or turns up for round two at your work or your home with a hammer and a bad intent.

I must stipulate that I am not having a go at traditional arts, at sport or at the recreational player.

I have a deep love for martial arts and all they represent and for its practitioners but mine is the reality game so I have to honour the truth above all else.

And my truth is not based on theory of folk law or how well I can make it happen in the dojo, it is based on vast experience in all things real. I do hope that the reader might learn from my knowledge, so that they do not become a victim of violent crime, or the next digit on a home office statistic about unsolicited assault. Because it is not bad technique or even bad teaching that gets people killed in street encounters, it is denial.

People are in denial. With their art, with their ability and with reality its self.

You may well ask, what is the truth?

The truth is that real self defense is not and should not be about a physical response, as I will explain further into the article. When I teach self defence I may flirt around martial technique, and encourage people to invest in a core system, but the bulk of my teaching is in the art of avoidance. And if an encounter does by necessity become physical I teach and I preach the pre-emptive strike (attacking first). It is the only thing that works consistently. All the other stuff that you see, that you are taught or that you imagine might work ‘out there’ probably will not.

Here is my advice for those with an open mind: if it works for you I am delighted, if not don’t complain, I’m not interested – just press delete.

I’m sure you have already seen – and are tired of – the wristlocks and shoulder throws that garnish just about every article and DVD on self-defense. They only work in Bruce Lee films and on police self-defence courses so I’ll spare you the embarrassment of a photo-shoot-re-run. If you don’t mind I’ll stick to the stuff that works when the pavement is your arena, and there are no referees with whistles and bells to stop a point scoring match turning into a blood and snot debacle.

As I said earlier, my premise is basic but empirical (I have as they say, ‘seen the elephant’) and at some point it might prove life saving.

Whilst some situations actually start at a physical response (in which case you either fight like a demon or you get battered), most are preceded by some kind of pre-fight ritual and introductory dialogue; even if it is only the uninspiring ‘are you looking at my missus?’ The Real art of self-defense is not in bringing the affray to a messy conclusion with a practiced right cross, rather it is in spotting the attack ritual in its early stages so that a physical encounter can be avoided.

Hard Target

I can tell you with sincerity and emphasis that violence is not the answer. Reflecting this, my opening advice is to avoid violence whenever and where ever possible. Make yourself a hard target by giving volatile environments a wide birth. James Coburn was succinct when he advised us to ‘avoid arseholes and big egos, avoid places where arseholes and big egos hang out’. He could have added ‘don’t be an arsehole and don’t have a big ego yourself’. It helps. The inevitable consequences of toe-to-toe encounters are rarely favourable to either party so around-the-table negotiation should always be exhausted before sending in the troops.

The interview

Pre-fight management is vital if you want to survive an altercation intact; the winner is usually the one who controls the seconds before an affray. Most situations start at conversation range and with some kind of dialogue. If this is mismanaged the situation normally – and quickly – degenerates into a scuffle and then a scrap on the floor midst chip wrappers and dog-ends. The current crop of defense innovators recommends the floor as the place to be when a fight goes live. In the No-Holds-Barred one-on-one match fight sports arena they’d probably be right, but outside the chippy where the terrain is less predictable and the enemy nearly always has allies, taking the fight to the cobbles is suicidal. It leaves you open to (often fatal) secondary attacks, especially if you’re facing more than one opponent.

The fence

If you are approached and the dialogue starts (this is known as the interview), take up a small inconspicuous 45° stance and put up your fence: place your lead hand in that all-important space between you and your antagonist to maintain a safe gap. The fence gives you a degree of control without your aggressor knowing. Placed correctly, your lead hand and reverse hand will block the thoroughfare (without touching) of the attacker’s right and left hand. If he moves forward to butt/kick/punch, be prepared to shove him back and/or attack. Try not to touch the assailant with your fence unless you are forced to, as it can trigger aggression and possibly a physical attack.

If you want to stay in one piece, don’t let a potential attacker touch you at any time, even if he appears to be friendly. An experienced fighter will feign friendliness, even submission, to make an opening for his attack. Another common ploy is for an attacker to offer a handshake and then head-butt/knife you as soon as the grip is taken. If you fall prey to the verbal opener you will quickly become work experience for a student nurse at the ER, so use your fence to maintain a safe gap until the threat has gone.


Expect to be scared because, no matter how experienced you are, you will be. If you are not taught about pre-fight, in-fight and post fight fear in your dojo maybe it is time to look for a different teacher. Fear will be present, not matter how capable you are. And if you have not learned to manage massive floods of adrenalin you are un-prepared. Get yourself as close to reality in training as possible, so that you can get used to this often overwhelming feeling.

Fear is the natural precursor to confrontation. Every person who I have talked to in this arena privately tell the same story; at the point of contact they’d rather be any where in the world than where they are. So don’t let self-doubt enter the equation if you feel like crapping your Calvin’s because you’re not on your own, we all feel fear even if some of us pretend that we don’t. Shaking legs, trembling voice and feelings of cowardice are all natural by-products of the adrenal release.

Verbal dissuasion

Try and talk the situation down. Again, the battle will be more with your own ego than it will be with your antagonist. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t want trouble and beat a hasty retreat. Better to follow the Judo adage and walk away with confidence than to end up in an affray that might change the course of your life for the worst.


If talking fails to make the grade (and you think it might work) you could try posturing. You don’t have to be big to be effective, you just need to convey bad intent. Posturing entails making like a woolly mammoth in an attempt to psyche out your antagonist. Create a gap between you and your aggressor by shoving him hard on the chest. Once the gap has been secured go crazy; shout, salivate, spread your arms, bulge your eyes and drop into single syllables. This triggers the opponent’s flight response and often scares him into capitulation. As soon as he backs off beat a hasty retreat.

Again this need to be practiced in the dojo. Whilst it might not fit in with your idea of the traditional ethos, it is essential preparation for the contemporary enemy. Posturing is like using your kiaa, but with expletives. If you look back at warfare throughout the ages you will see that everyone from the American Red Indian right thought to the Paras in Northern Ireland used posturing to intimidate the enemy forces.

If escape, dissuasion and posturing crack at the spine and if you have honest belief that you are about to be attacked you are left with two choices; hit or be hit. As a realist my duty is not to tell you which to choose, only to offer you the options, and allow you to select for your self.

The pre-emptive strike

If your choice is a physical response, my advice is to be pre-emptive and strike first – very hard – preferably on the jaw (it’s a direct link to the brain). The concept of defense at the point of contact is not only unsound it is dangerous and extremely naive. Waiting for someone to attack you is strategic madness because blocks don’t work! The Kwai-Chang-Cain theory of block and counter-attack is even more absurd, especially if you are facing more than one opponent. There is no finesse about fighting multiples, they do not line up and attack you one at a time they strike like a swarm of bees and luck is the only thing that’ll keep a beat in your heart. If you look at any contemporary CCTV footage of street attacks you will notice the immediate and ferocious nature of this kind of attack. It is merciless and it often leaves people dead.

If you honestly believe that you are about to attacked, hit them before they can hit you. Once you have landed the first strike, run. Many defense gurus advocate a second strike, a finisher. I advise not. Your first strike buys you vital getaway time. If you’re dealing with a determined attacker (many are very experienced in the street) and you don’t leg it after the first strike, chances are he’ll grab you and snap you like a twiglette.

Self-defense is about doing the minimum a situation will allow to ensure your own survival. It’s not about defending a corpulent ego or misguided honour.

The pre-emptive attack is the only consistently effective technique I Have found. As for the current trend in ground fighting, forget it! Grappling is an amazing art, I have spent many hours learning the art of grappling, but it is a supplementary support system as far as self defence is concerned. It is a match fighting and competition art, not suitable for a concrete mat – and if you face multiple opponents (and cowards always usually come teamed up) and choose to grapple the chances are you have just chosen to lose, and in an arena that is as brutal and explosive as it is unpredictable to lose often means ‘to die.’

My advice is to stay on your feet, hit first, hit as hard as you can, using your fists (or your head). These are (usually) the closest naturally available weapons to the target (your opponents jaw), and offer the safest and most direct route. At this point it would be a great advantage to have a heavy investment in a punching art – preferably western boxing. Most people think they can throw a good punch. From my experience – and certainly under pressure – few can. A great way to learn is to go to a boxing club or do focus pad work with a friend to develop the skills.

If you do employ the pre-emptive attack make sure you know your legal rights (a little more on this later) or you might be in for a double jeopardy when you have to defend them against the second enemy – the law.

You dictate reasonable force; although you may have to defend your interpretation of reasonable in a court of law. If you are so frightened by an assailant that you have to hit him with everything but the girl on your arm, then that is reasonable force. If, however, you knock someone to the ground and then do the fifty-six-move kata on their head, you might well be stretching your luck.

I can’t guarantee that you won’t end up in the dock, but I feel that it’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.

Forget the films where the good guy – using empty hands – prevails over the knife-wielding psychopath without ruffling his own hair or popping a shirt button, because on celluloid is the only place it’s going to happen. Someone once asked me at a self-defense seminar ‘what could you do against a knife?’

‘About 50 miles an hour’, I replied.

I’ve faced a few blades in my time and on every occasion I was terrified. If your antagonist is carrying and you have the option, run. Even with 30 years of martial arts training under my belt, it was providence and not skill that kept me alive.

If you are facing a knife, the best-case scenario is that you don’t die. If a knife is pulled and running away is not on the option list, throw anything that isn’t nailed to the floor at the attacker, and then run. If projection range is lost your only other option is to blitz the attacker with head strikes until he is unable to continue his attack.

The rule of thumb here is that stabbers don’t usually show the blade, they just sneak up and insert it when you’re not aware. If they do show you the knife they are usually just posturing. Always check the hands of your antagonist – if you can’t see the palms, or a hand is concealed, you have to presume they are carrying.

If the attacker does have a weapon and doesn’t respond to your verbal dissuasion, your options are two-fold: give them what they ask for (and just hope it’s not oral sex) or be prepared to get cut in the affray.

As important as the law may be, contemplating the legal implications of defending your self in the face of ensuing attack would be unwise. It can cause indecision, which usually leads to defeat.

I call the law the second enemy: I feel duty bound to highlight the inherent dangers of dealing with – what can be – a sticky judicial system, post-assault.

Many people are convicted for what they say and not what they do. This means you could legally defend yourself and yet still be convicted and sent to jail (do not pass go…) if you don’t claim self-defense (correctly) when giving a statement to the police. Many of my friends ended up in prison because they didn’t understand the law.

Paradoxically many known criminals have avoided prison because they (or certainly their solicitors) did. So, if self-defense is your aim, then an appreciation of this judicial grey area has to be an imperative.

Post-assault, you’ll probably be suffering from what is known as adrenal-induced Tachypsychia. This can cause time distortion, time loss, memory distortion and memory loss. You may also feel the innate urge to talk, if only to justify your actions (Logorrhoea). All of the latter affect your ability to make an objective statement if the police become involved. When/if you do make a statement it is hardly likely to be accurate considering these facts. Six months down the line when you end up in court to defend your right to self-defense, everything will hang on your statement. So make sure you’re clear about your rights. If you’re not clear, insist on waiting until the next day before making a statement or ask to see a duty solicitor (or your own). It’s your right. Don’t put pen to paper otherwise. A police cell can be a very lonely place when you’re not used to it, and the police can often be guilty of rushing, even pressuring you for a quick statement. This pressure can be subtle but effective; being left alone for long periods of time, being told that you might be sent to prison, even the good cop-bad cop routine (yes, honestly). Many a tough guy has turned from hard to lard after a few hours surrounded by those four grey walls. Under these circumstances it’s very easy to say things you really don’t want to say, just so that you can go home.

If you have to defend your self and you damage your assailant my advice is not to hang around after the dirty deed has been done. This minimises the risk of legal (or other) repercussions. Attack victims (especially those who successfully defended them selves) often feel compelled to stay at the scene of crime post assault. Do your self a favour; make like Houdini and vanish? Your life and your liberty might be at stake. Better still don’t be there in the first place, that way you won’t have to worry about long months waiting for the court case and the possibility of suffering from a sever loss of liberty.

In conclusion

Be honest about your ability and your standard. If you are not as good, or as fit, or as tempered or as experienced as you should be, make the investment and place yourself before teachers of proven experience. Either that or be honest with yourself and your students about your ability, your knowledge and your lineage. There is great freedom in brevity. It doesn’t matter if a technique or an art (or an exponent for that mater) might not work in the street, who really cares at the end of the day, as long as you stipulate that in your manifesto. There is nothing nicer than doing ‘art’ simply for arts sake. If you kid yourself that you are better able than you actually are it might get you killed. When a live situation places your belief under scrutiny and you can’t make your martial art work at the most vital time, it might get your wife or your family killed.

Be honest with yourself about what a real attack actually is: it is terrifying and violent, it is explosive, it is unpredictable, it is savage and it does not abide by any rules. Often it follows you home or it turns up at your place of work and gets really personal. If you underestimate it, real violence can shatter you. Too many people in the martial arts grossly underestimate it. I speak to folk all the time who have stayed so long is safe systems that they have sanitised reality, they have stripped away all the limb-trembling uncertainty and the depressive terror that a real fight brings, and they teach defense techniques like dance moves, as though applying them for real is a walk in the park. A walk in the park it is not.

If you are teaching it as a self defense you have an obligation, an obligation, to qualify the potency of everything you sell as self defense, because someone’s life may one day rely on it.

Train in martial art and love what you do, partake in the sport, it is a great pastime and a solid discipline, but above all else ‘know’ what you do, know its weaknesses and know its strengths, understand where it is lacking and fill the gaps. All you need to do here is be brutally frank with yourself and with your art. This is the age of CCTV, we have all seen numerous real street encounter on film, or outside the pub. Be honest: how would your art and you ability fit into those scenarios?

I watched a ferocious gang fight in a pub when I was fifteen years old and a purple belt in karate and I knew, I just innately knew that my art, my ability and my preparation at that time would not survive an encounter like that. It simply would not fit into it. And because I could be honest with myself I was able to change the way I trained. I still practiced traditional martial art because I loved what it gave me, I still dabbled in the sport (even though I was not very good at it) because it offered challenge, but I separated the self defense element, I isolated it, placed it in its own box and practiced it as a different art.

And self defense definitely is a different art.

Once you are able to strip the wheat from the chaff and master the physical elements of self defense things get really exciting, then you can start to look at bigger game, the art of fighting without fighting, where you dissolve threat at the level of thought….
But that is another article for another day.


to your health




About Dean Coulson

• International Best Selling Author of the Fit Formula • Feature writer on Nutrition for the Uk’s biggest selling Martial arts magazine – Martial Arts Illustrated • Presenter & speaker - Tour the UK with Bafta Award Winning writer Geoff Thompson. ( ) • Owner and Performance coach at Assert Fitness Ltd. Taking our clients Dreams and makes them a reality, through the realms of coaching all aspects of health and fitness to busy professionals. • ,