Global Resilience Solutions > 2013 > February

Female Resilience: What’s the Best Self-Defense Training for a Woman Today?

A man may seldom if ever think about the possibility of being physically attacked, yet for a woman, this is an ever-present psychological reality she has to deal with.  This may explain why the psychological and emotional benefits a woman derives from learning to defend herself  seem to outstrip those that men derive from it.

If you’re a woman and you’ve been in school in the last fifteen years, chances are you’ve either taken or been offered a class in self-defense. Even if you haven’t, there’s probably at least one dojo or community center near you offering such a class. Given all this choice, how can you be sure that if you invest time and money learning to defend yourself and your friends and family, you’ll actually come out with the ability to do so?

The effectiveness of what you’re learning depends on a number of factors- the experience of the instructor, the composition of the class, and most of all the shape of the program. You might encounter

Purpose-designed programs: You may find programs that are designed specifically for women’s self-defense and nothing else. The quality depends heavily on the expertise of the instructor. The pros of such systems include a focus on managing real-life situations; the big problem with many of them is that the actual techniques will have had comparatively little field testing.
Modern self-defense systems: There are a number of modern systems available which incorporate focus on real-life situations relevant to modern life, most of which include plenty of hands-on practice and have a relatively short time-to-combat effectiveness.


A Word of Encouragement

If you don’t think that you have it in you to defend yourself, that you’re not courageous enough or strong enough, think again. Society teaches women to be fearful, it tells them that they are not as brave as men. That is a crock. Women can be enormously courageous, even in the physical arena. Find their stories and get inspired. A little strength is good, but speed, agility and creativity are better. Without belief in yourself, you’ve already made yourself vulnerable and undermined your own resilience.


Some Hard Truths

  1. If you don’t train against live opponents in a serious way, you will not gain the feeling for body mechanics that you need in a self-defense situation.
  2. If you don’t train seriously against (a variety of) men, you will not be able to defeat them in real life. Men have different body mechanics, different mass distribution, different musculature and different psychology than women. You must train against men both to get the feeling of it and to overcome any physical intimidation you may experience.
  3. If you don’t train for victory, don’t bother training at all. Not every opponent you meet will be easily discouraged. You have to be prepared to do what it takes to neutralize your attacker’s ability to harm you or your family, and to do so when necessary without hesitation. This doesn’t have to mean inflicting lasting bodily harm (although that is always a possibility), but it does mean that you can’t hold back when an assailant escalates.


A few of the things to look for in a system:

– Hands-on practice at no less than half-strength.
– Real-world scenarios
– Focus on combat psychology
– Grappling
– Knife, hard object and gun defense (tip: guns are pretty simple to deal with; it’s the knives you’ve really got to watch out for )


Here is what we have to say about a few of the systems that are out there.

We do NOT recommend:

Kickboxing– Kickboxing often markets itself to women for self-defense and fitness purposes, and it is totally unsuitable for the former. Kickboxing is, by definition, ranged combat, while modern self-defense situations are largely close-in and in confined spaces. If you’re going to use kickboxing to defend yourself, make sure there’s plenty of grappling and lock-breaking incorporated. Also be aware of the fundamental problem with kicking above groin level- if your leg is up there, it can be trapped fairly easily, and it is not supporting your balance. There are several non-kickboxing systems that nine times out of ten will be able to use your high kick to put you on the ground. (Note that South American Capoeira may be an exception to some of these problems due to its radically different kinematics.)

Sporting Styles- While Karate, Judo and “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA) can produce deadly martial artists, all three are essentially sports in the West. Combat in the ring, as we will explain below, is severely lacking as a preparation for real combat. While the strikes of Karate and the grappling techniques of Judo may be useful, the systems on the whole are not designed to give you the kind of comprehensive self-defense training that you’ll find useful on the street. MMA has its own problems which we will not get into, but suffice it to say that successful self-defense training is more about hacking a way to beat MMA fighters, boxers and other common “tough guys” in the real world than it is learning their stuff.

Long-lead-time systems– There are many great martial arts out there, designed by and for people who could devote ten years to learning the basics. Tai Chi, properly taught, is one of the world’s deadliest martial arts- but only after a good fifteen years of practice!


You may want to consider:

Wing Chun– Wing Chun, a Chinese martial art invented by a Buddhist nun, is an excellent way to hack self-defense. It teaches body alignment, combat angles, sensitivity to the opponent and simultaneous attack and defense. It is both relatively quick to learn and devastatingly effective when taught well. Make sure that you get lots of hands-on practice time, real-life scenarios and focus on modern problems like knives, guns, Western boxing and wrestling etc.

Systema– A Russian martial art developed for use by the Russian special forces (SPETSNAZ), Systema is deceptively soft, relatively quick to learn and provides you with principles and training you probably won’t find anywhere else. Systema is peerless in providing one-on-one (and one on two or three) experience. If you stick with it, it will teach you serenity in dangerous situations and remove your fear. You must, however, be prepared to face and conquer the two biggest fears of all beginners – falling and getting hit.

Krav Maga– Israeli Krav Maga is the world’s most popular modern self-defense system. It incorporates scenarios from real-world experience, and its methods have been extensively tested in real-life situations. If you can find a good Krav Maga school, you could do far worse.

Xingyi– One of China’s most respected battlefield martial arts, Xingyi is externally quite similar to Wing Chun. It is the quickest of the Chinese “internal” styles to learn. It is linear and aggressive, controlling and collapsing the opponent.  Historically it was a favorite among security guards escorting valuable cargo across a countryside infested with bandits, so it has been well tested.

Aikijutsu- Several harder-edged versions of Aikido have emerged over the years under different names. Though I have tremendous respect for Ueshiba’s teachings, personal abilities and philosophy, his martial art as it has been transmitted tends to follow the movements of the master without inculcating his understanding of the energies of combat, the combative body or his experience of the messy side of self-defense. Newer redactions of Aikido lack the gentleness of the traditional styles, but are often developed with a sober eye on the needs of modern self-defense.


Controlling Fear

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the logic of fear. In self-defense more than anything, you must learn to escape the logic of fear and live within the logic of courage. Self-defense classes today tend to teach women to watch out for potential threats all the time, and to a certain point, this is just prudence. But it can feed into fear. If you come to actively regard people as dangers to yourself, you are not only harming yourself, you are subliminally advertising that fear to potential predators, and virtually guaranteeing that you will lose out in any dangerous situation.

The logic of fear thinks, ‘Danger could be just around the corner.” The logic of courage thinks, “Maybe I’ll have to fight for my life today or tomorrow. Maybe never. If it happens, I will meet it with the certainty that I am prepared and that I can succeed, no matter what. I even look forward to the challenge. In the meantime, nothing is going to stop me from enjoying my life and taking people as they come.” Maybe you will prevail, maybe you won’t- but you certainly won’t if you fear the event.

When your body-mind senses danger, it floods you with epinephrine (adrenaline). This activates the fight-or-flight response. In that space, you have probably less than a second to direct that adrenaline toward the “fight” end of the spectrum. The trouble with the flight response is that is essentially blind and uncontrollable. What it did for our prehistoric ancestors in open country or dense forest doesn’t work so well in modern cities. The fight response, on the other hand, can enhance your thinking and instincts, and most importantly, it gives you options and the will to make the most of opportunities. You can still choose to run or hide- but it will be a decision, not blind reaction. It really helps if you’ve “pre-selected” the fight response before you find yourself in danger.


Some Pitfalls of the Ring

There is a tremendous difference between being able to fight in a ring and being able to defend oneself. In the ring, there is padding for the hands (which diminishes the dexterity of the open hand, which is by far the most lethal weapon on the body, and diminishes the tactile sense of the opponent), there is protective padding which psychologically reduces the threat from incoming blows, there is a regular surface, a limited area, and a lack of obstacles.

In real life, effective self defense requires improvisational ability, speed, use of the available terrain and found objects, and most of all, a trained body. Sparring scenarios, usually done bare-handed at no less than half strength, are a critical part of training; gloved sparring within a defined ring can help you get a feel for combat, but should not be your main focus. If you spend your time training in accordance with the safety rules found in the ring, you will deprive yourself of a tremendous array of real-world tactical options.


Teaching Your Body to Think

The most effective martial arts provide exercises designed to help the body interpret and deal with incoming force in such a way that your body will do the thinking for you. This leaves your mind free to strategize. Here are a few of the best, which I recommend regardless of what system you choose:


Systema Punch-Absorption and Deflection Drills:
These can be found in the “Systema Hand-to-Hand” DVD. The idea is twofold: first, you learn how to absorb incoming force with your body only, thereby removing your fear of force, and second, once you’ve done that, you learn to turn every blow thrown at you into an opportunity to collapse the opponent. Similar principles are also used in Systema knife-fighting (another DVD we recommend), kick defense, hard object defense and ground fighting.

Wing Chun Sticking Hands (Chi Sau)
Chi Sau is designed so that your arms develop an instant ability to interpret your opponent’s movements, and move automatically to deal with them. Advanced practice is done blindfolded.

Tai Chi Push Hands
Push hands is another two-person exercise, but the objective is to maintain your own posture, balance or “root” and space while collapsing that of the opponent. Early stages of the drill are done relatively slowly and softly, but there are many more ambitious forms of the exercise as well.


If you, as a woman, can develop confidence in you ability to defeat those who would harm you physically, I can almost guarantee that this confidence will propel your whole life and career towards success of every kind.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


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