On Her Own

Self-defense classes hit it all wrong

‘Tis the season for women’s self-defense seminars. I’ve seen them run year-round, but they seem especially popular this time of year, as girls prepare to move away from home for the first time and go off to college. Anybody can run one, so there’s a lot of variation in content and quality. One of the most common themes, though, is a chunk of time spent teaching students how to hit bad guys to get them to stop attacking and hurting their intended victims. It seems to make sense: we think of fights as involving fists and feet because that’s what we see in professional fights, in movies and on TV, and in grainy videos of street or schoolyard fights. We don’t often remember that many of those involve mutual combat and aren’t accurate depictions of what we worry about when we take these kinds of classes: a bigger, stronger attacker trying to hurt a smaller, weaker victim. And that’s the scenario that makes me skeptical about any of these short, couple-hour to couple-day women’s self-defense programs that have a significant focus on striking skills. I believe the time would be better spent on more effective strategies first. Let me tell you a few reasons why:

Hitting people where you want to hit them isn’t as easy as it looks, especially when the person you want to hit doesn’t want to be hit. In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC, one of the largest and most prestigious mixed martial arts promotions in the world, most of the very top fighters only land about 50-65% of the significant strikes they attempt. That means that of all of the attempts a fighter might make to hit someone in a way that can cause real injury, they can at best land slightly more than half of them. Even then, many significant strikes that hit their opponent will cause actual damage. It’s true that they are skilled fighters going up against well-trained opponents, but the few hours of striking instruction that can be gained in a seminar-format class won’t put you ahead of the average attacker and their ability to dodge or block your punches, elbows, knees, and feet. More likely, the defender will be at an equal or lesser skill level than the bad guy they face, a bad guy who almost certainly has more experience with violence than the defender.

The other problem with getting a strike to connect with another person is that not every part of the body will be harmed in a fight-stopping way even if you hit them and hit them hard enough. This is both a targeting problem and a power problem. While there are points that will be more painful than others if hit, they are not consistently placed or findable in every person and varying levels of pain tolerance can make them unreliable, especially when softer blows are landed. People don’t really have magical “off buttons” with some exceptions that can be really difficult to hit because they’re small and often armored or easily defended, even instinctively defended. Most of the “off buttons” many of us think of, like getting hit in the groin, might be really painful – but maybe not enough to make someone decide not to hurt you. Pain compliance as a strategy for discouraging bad guys is very risky because the attacker may be very motivated to hurt you, so they might not care if they are getting hurt or might not feel pain because of physical or chemical reasons, including high tolerance for discomfort. It may also take longer than you have for the pain to kick in if the attacker is highly adrenalized or taking drugs such as methamphetamines, or they may recover more quickly than you are prepared for. At best, against most bad guys, you will get a moment of reprieve – but then what?

Other “off buttons” are real, like certain parts of the head, but require powerful strikes on target in order to be effective, not just a light tap. For women in particular, though, hitting hard enough to have a physical effect on an opponent is rare. Going back to UFC, it’s the rare woman fighter who has so-called “knockout power,” the ability to throw one strike with enough oomph behind it to make the other person unconscious. Almost all of even the very top women have UFC career records of fewer than five true knockouts or even technical knockouts, TKOs, where a referee has decided that the other person is on the verge of being hit into unconsciousness or serious injury. For that matter, actually knocking down an opponent with a strike so she is no longer standing is exceedingly rare among women UFC fighters, with similar records among the best in that area. All of those fights were against opponents of similar size and weight, too, and it becomes increasingly harder to knock someone out or knock them down when they are larger than you. Better technique helps, but can only do so much to make up for limited upper body strength and overall mass, and isn’t always possible in the midst of a fight for your life.

Meanwhile, striking is not without risk to the defender. An improperly formed fist or badly positioned foot can be injured in the act of striking. Even with proper technique, you can get unlucky with where you hit, leading to cuts, immediately painful bruises, and broken bones…results that aren’t rare with people who don’t have a high level of skill. Like your attacker may not be stopped by those types of injuries, you may not be either, but it’s worthwhile to consider if other techniques or strategies might have a lower risk of harm to you, especially harm that can potentially cause long-term debilitation or may leave you unable to defend yourself effectively in the moment. Worse, you might be so confident in your ability to stop an attacker with your seminar striking skills that you are willing to rely on them to get you out of avoidable trouble or depend on using them instead of more effective tools. If the only experience you’ve had with strikes is against a compliant training partner who grunts and reels every time you hit them no matter what as long as you are in the right general neighborhood and have some force behind your blow, then you might not realize that an actual bad guy won’t react in the same way. Often, the people inside padded suits will exaggerate the effect you have on them, making it less obvious to you that what you’re learning might not work in reality.

When you imagine the hours of training and practice, and the years of experience, it takes for a professional woman fighter to be able to hit hard and on target – and realize that even excellent competitors may never be able to hit with fight-stopping effectiveness and instead rely on other techniques and strategies for success – it becomes increasingly clear that a few hours at a casual seminar aren’t sufficient to build the necessary skills to rely on striking. It’s true that striking can work against bad guys and it’s also true that certain types of strikes are easier to find success with, if correctly taught and practiced. However, they are still physical skills that cannot be mastered by brief and infrequent exposures. The vague familiarity gained from a few hours of training won’t be enough. You can learn to stop bad guys with them, but it will take a lot of time that might be better spent on other skills that are more likely to be effective even if you become the best in the world at hitting people.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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