For most of us, preparing for self-defense starts with imagining a particular type of bad guy and attack, and continues with visualizing a specific outcome that we want. It can be as simple as anticipating a nasty remark our nemesis might toss our way one morning and planning the witty and cutting reply we’ll spit back. It can be as complicated as seeing an entire movie-like scenario in your head where a stranger jumps out of the shadows to drag you into the bushes and attempt to rape you, and your brave and skilled fighting that leaves your attacker a bloodied mess just as the police pull up too late to save you but on time to arrest and prosecute. Whatever it is that you expect, it’s what you’ll naturally focus your training on and therefore, what you will be best able to defend from. That’s why it’s so important to expand your ideas about what bad people and bad situations look like so that you can prepare accordingly and be more effective against more kinds of dangers.
That’s also why it’s so important to be honest in assessing your physical skills to ensure that your expectations of how your response will work are realistic. That way, you won’t be thrown off in the middle of defending yourself because some move you’ve performed doesn’t stop the bad guy in their tracks as it did dozens of times in practice. I’ve talked before about one strategy to find out how your skills will work, which is to test them against a resisting opponent who wants to “win” as much as you do. You can do so safely in many kinds of martial arts sparring, carefully created force-on-force training scenarios, or objective evaluations like shooting standard courses of fire, measuring your results in time and accuracy, and comparing yourself with others. Another strategy to consider is to insert challenges and mistakes into your training, and into how you think about fighting your way through a violent encounter. Let me give you some examples of how you can prepare this way, and not end up in a puddle of discouragement.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, every class normally includes elements of drilling or live sparring (called “rolling”). Drilling is practicing a specific move over and over again so that you can figure out how to perform it on your partner, who acts essentially as a cooperative dummy. Rolling is more of a free-for-all, where you get an opportunity to string together everything you’ve learned in an attempt to control your opponent or force them into a submission position where they must tap out to avoid potential pain or injury. Somewhere in between is situational sparring, where you will agree to start in a particular position and will each work against each other and towards a specific goal. You can vary the level of resistance you receive by communicating with the person you’re training with or by selecting a partner based on size or skill. You can also choose to begin in less optimal positions or to limit the techniques you will use, so that you give yourself experience with being disadvantaged. In the process, you might, for example, find that you have to shift from trying to submit your opponent to focusing only on not being submitted yourself, but that you can keep them at bay for longer and longer until one day, you can turn the tables on them.
For folks who carry a firearm for self-defense, going to the range and dry firing often focus on the skills we enjoy and are comfortable performing. It feels far more rewarding to squeeze a little more perfection out of something we’re good at than to be disappointed in our results at a competition shooting match or when attempting a difficult exercise. It’s also frustrating when we run across an equipment malfunction, purposely induced or not, or our hands fumble when trying to draw or reload our guns or we just have a brain fart. Instead of starting over every time, though, I’d suggest continuing on in spite of the problems and working through what we need to do in order to safely and successfully complete the drill. It’s true that the video might not be social media-worthy (though never underestimate how much followers enjoy watching screw-ups), but doing hard things and struggling through challenging problems is how we learn to make them easier and less discombobulating. The first time might make us stop in confusion and cry with frustration, but by the tenth time, we’ll probably be relegating it to merely an annoyance or even something we start finding wryly amusing.
Don’t limit yourself to challenging yourself with skills that are specific to self-defense either. You can also learn and practice how to fail and keep going in other areas of your life, in ways that will be useful not only if you have to fight off an attacker but also if you have to face yet another setback in your personal, financial, professional, or other pursuits. Knowing that you can conquer hardship in one arena helps you know, deeply, that you can conquer hardships somewhere else too. That might mean daring to try a new recipe in the kitchen, tackling a tricky home improvement project, traveling somewhere you’ve never been before, or something else that you might not succeed at right away. If you only do what you know you can accomplish, you will not find out how many more amazing things you are capable of. If you are fortunate, your life will simply be less rich and fulfilling than it might have been; if you are not, then you may have a harder time overcoming obstacles when it really matters.
I’m not saying that practice should be a series of impossible tasks and visualization should focus on the demoralizing failures that are possible. I am saying, however, that they should also not be a series of reassuring triumphs. You need to experience and imagine defeat, just as you need to experience and imagine digging yourself out of the hole and prevailing nonetheless. You need to learn how to recognize and survive against overwhelming odds, and adjust your mental “win condition” on the fly so that you can successfully make your way there instead of punishing yourself for not achieving the most ideal outcome possible. Similarly, you need to be able to imagine a fight for your life that goes back and forth where you might be losing for part of it but ultimately find a way to survive and win in the end. See, it’s not a matter of teaching yourself to give up so much as giving yourself the mental fortitude to keep going when it’s all gone sideways because you’ll know, from what you’ve already done, that you can.