Realism in Self-Defense: It’s Probably Not What You Think

There’s been a video bouncing around my social media circles that criticizes women’s self-defense courses for making things too comfortable for their students, at the cost of realism and safety. It’s a good argument, and a real problem. All too often I see videos for self-defense techniques that rely on a compliant or practically inert opponent to succeed — the kind of attacker who grabs their victim and then patiently stands still and waits for a complex series of 8 strikes to land. Or, even worse, I see courses that advertise the fact that students will not be stressed or challenged in any way while practicing their techniques.

Poster for a local course that advertises that you can test your skills against a padded opponent who will not be allowed to hit back

I snapped this photo a few months ago, and I still get angry looking at it. Hitting an undefended, static target that can’t fight back or present a genuine threat has nothing to do with testing your skills, and is a great way to build false confidence in techniques that may or may not work against an actual attack. This kind of teaching puts women in danger, and only makes them more vulnerable in the name of making them feel safe.

Conversations about this problem in martial arts circles inevitably turn to the problem of realism, and how to prepare students for what actual violence looks and feels like. Here’s a pretty typical response that came up to this particular video:

“Realistic” martial arts and self defense training would be incredibly dangerous and harmful to the psyche. Not that many men, and even fewer women can really take it. There’s a fine line between useful and dangerous training, and advocating for the dangerous type because it’s more realistic is dumb. I agree that many women self defense classes are crap, but most women won’t (or can’t, but probably won’t) take harder.
The phrasing varies from case to case, but it’s a pretty typical message: realism in training is too dangerous, and too scary for students. They won’t come to class in the first place, and those that do will be too traumatized to get anything out of the training. It would be really great if we could make classes better, but this is as good as we’re going to get because people are too weak to be able to handle the real thing. The logic goes that any training is better than no training at all, and that we simply aren’t equipped to provide a higher level of training to your average student — and certainly not your average woman.

This is how we get courses like the one in the photo above, and this is how we get our students badly hurt when they face actual violence. It’s also a mindset that only makes sense if one doesn’t know what “realism in training” actually looks like. In the quoted conversation, I was lucky enough to get a description of this person’s understanding of realism:

I don’t think most women can handle any “real training” like that. Case in point, a friend’s fiance a few years back (now his ex-wife) was big into MMA and such, did full speed sparring and everything. Bachelor and bachelorette parties come around, both decide to party at home after food, unplanned but oh well. Men have some wrestling matches, she wants to join in. Both had a couple drinks, but neither were drunk. Big guy Vs smaller girl, overpowers and pins her under him fairly quickly and she breaks. Crying, incoherent, no longer fighting. (Mitigating factor, had a bad sexual assault in her background, but still…). If an otherwise tough and trained girl breaks in a realistic “training” bout, what does the average girl do? And don’t excuse the couple drinks, it’s a perfectly realistic situation.
If your idea of a realistic training situation looks like that (and I’m picking on one example here, but I’ve seen many similar arguments), then yeah, you have absolutely no business bringing it into the classroom. Even without the alcohol, this is a great example of how to re-traumatize students who’ve faced violence before, traumatize students who’ve never faced anything like it, and ensure that everyone walks away from the lesson having learned all of the wrong things. It’s spectacularly irresponsible, and useless as a training tool.

It also isn’t actually a realistic reflection of anyone’s self-defense skills, because the context is radically different from real violence. A grapple between friends is, well, friendly, and that means that there are hard limits on what you can do. You can’t scratch a friend’s (or fiance’s, husband’s, sibling’s, etc) eyes out. You can’t crush their throat, or even break little bones like fingers and toes. You can’t bite, pull hair, hit them in the face, or hit them in the groin. And that means that you end up with a context very similar to a combat sport, where rules (written or unwritten) limit the amount of damage that you can do to your opponent. There’s a reason that combat sports have weight classes, and that reason is that size and strength disparities manage a whole lot when you cut out truly injurious tactics. The woman in the situation that’s described above probably could have gotten herself out of that pin, but only if she’d been willing to do actual harm to her partner. She wasn’t (for good and sane reasons), and so she “lost”. In a combat sport like the MMA that she’d trained in, she’d likely still lose, given a large enough size disparity. In a real self-defense context, though? Who knows. Having access to the full spectrum of force options (including actions that could very well kill another human) changes the math substantially, and there’s no guarantee that she wouldn’t have prevailed if her life really depended on it.

It’s this second context that realistic self-defense training is concerned with simulating. A context in which lethal options are often on the table, injury is not just a potential outcome but a goal, and size and strength matter a lot less than target selection and intent. It may sound like approaching that context realistically would be even more dangerous and counterproductive than our example above, but it’s entirely doable. Whether you call it stress-testing, stress inoculation, Reality Based Training, or scenario work, there are ways to build realism into your training without psychologically or physically injuring your students. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to participate in training of this type in a police Use of Force environment for a number of years, and have successfully delivered the same kind of training to civilian students with a mix of backgrounds, from trained martial artists, to your average sedentary 21st-century human, to survivors of violence and sexual trauma. The resemblance between well-delivered and safe realistic training and a drunken tussle in which a rape survivor is inadvertently triggered is exactly zero, and it can be made accessible to anyone at all.

So what does realistic training actually look like?

When I teach self-defense, there are three things that I need to give my students:

  • the legal and psychological framework required to make good decisions under stress, and to follow through on the decision to fight back
  • the technical skills required to deal with the situations they are most likely to face
  • the experience of successfully making decisions and taking action under realistic stress

Reality is a huge factor in all three of these points, even though simulations of real violence only show up in the last one.

The Context

To start, I need my students to understand the reality of dealing with violence: to be aware of the legal and moral consequences of taking violent action, and to understand the different types of violence, and violent people. Some of this is about separating fantasy from reality — hurting another person is never pretty or clean, no matter what action movies tell us — but it’s also about empowerment. I’m not talking about vague “girl power” stuff, but about the agency that comes from understanding that you have the right to defend yourself or another in a time of crisis. That you are empowered by the state, and by pretty much any ethical framework you can think of, to act in self-defense. One of the biggest reasons that so many people freeze in a violent crisis is that they’ve never given themselves permission to act on their own behalf, and certainly not if that means harming someone else.

Once we’ve established a willingness to act, we need to build a decision tree. What are my options in a crisis, bearing in mind my physical capability, the external supports I have available (e.g. police or other intervention), and the limits of what I am and am not willing to do to another person? Which of those options are available to me in a social conflict? A robbery? A random attack with a weapon? To what extent can I see each of these kinds of violence coming? What kinds of people should I be looking out for? What environments should I be wary of? What behaviours should I treat as cues that something bad is about to happen? Sitting and thinking about violence in this way isn’t as sexy as learning to throw an “unbeatable” strike or a perfect takedown, but it’s essential. The best technique in the world is useless if you don’t have the will to actually use it; or if you use it at the wrong time, in the wrong context, and escalate a situation from bad to worse.

The Techniques

Any technique I choose had better be rooted in reality too. I need to make sure that I’m preparing my students for the kinds of violence that they’re actually likely to face. That means finding out what kinds of violent crime is most common in my community. What kinds of weapons do local criminals carry? Guns? Knives? What kinds of attacks are common, and which ones are the most severe? Are people getting grabbed? Sucker-punched? Swarmed by groups, or attacked by lone assailants? And what is the risk profile of my students? Are they more likely to be targeted for sexual assault? A male-dominance social display like a bar brawl? A hate crime? I need to know these things before I start building my lesson plans, and that means research. I can hit up municipal statistics, or find government reports that cover specific populations. I’ll talk to people who work in jobs where they encounter violence on a regular basis, like police officers, security guards, bouncers, or EMTs and nurses who treat the victims of violent crime. And I’ll have to consider my students’ personal limits. If someone has decided that they’re not willing to kill another human being, even under duress, there’s little value to teaching them a bunch of lethal techniques and a lot of value to focusing on de-escalation and physical restraint skills.

The skills I settle on can be practiced in cooperative and semi-cooperative partner drills. This doesn’t mean there’s no resistance, but rather that both partners are working towards a shared goal. Nobody is trying to win. They’re trying to help their partner learn — whether that’s by providing enough weight and resistance that they can figure out the mechanics of making it work, providing a tactical opportunity to set up the technique, or giving clear feedback on its effectiveness. I tend to start with fairly structured drills to give students a baseline understanding of what a technique is intended to accomplish and how it works, and then move onto more open-ended play that lets them explore how to actually apply it in context. This is where we figure out the details of getting things to work reliably: how to adjust angles to deal with different bodies; how to solve positional and contextual challenges that come from the environment, or the conditions under which an attack starts. Humans tend to learn best through play, and you need the opportunity to experiment safely to find the best solutions to the problems that you’ve decided are the most pressing. Once your students have got a good feel for how, when, and why to do a thing, it’s time to put it all together in a higher-pressure setting.

The Scenarios

Scenario work brings together the assessment/decision-making process with technical execution and aftercare. This is where we build simulations of a real-world conflict, and let students work through the entire encounter under realistic stress. They’ll have to recognize what kind of violence they’re dealing with, choose the appropriate tool for solving it, and then use that tool effectively. In addition, it has to feel real enough that the student experiences the cognitive and physical effects of stress hormones, and confirms that they can do what needs doing outside of the comfort of a cooperative drill. It’s scary stuff that has to be carefully managed and designed to give the illusion of danger without presenting a substantial risk of physical or psychological harm.

The first and most important way of achieving this is through boundary-setting. Every scenario must have a clear end point, so that the stress doesn’t continue beyond the moment when the teaching goals have been achieved, and so that the physically dangerous bit is as short as possible. It must also have clear limitations: who is and is not involved? Where can they go? Are there any actions or levels of contact that are prohibited? Is there adequate safety equipment for the level of force that will be used? It also needs a safety cut-out for when any of those limitations are breached, and this cut-out (usually a safe word or phrase) must be available to all participants. If these boundaries are clearly laid out and rigorously enforced, they create a bubble in which very scary things can happen in relative safely.

Entering this bubble must always be voluntary, and it must be very clear when that transition has happened. Students need to know when the scenario begins, when it’s over, and how to escape it if they no longer feel safe on the inside. You can spring surprises on people inside the bubble, but entering it (or going into “scenario mode”) can never be a surprise. There should also be a clear transition back into the regular world. Debriefings are essential to helping students understand what happened to them, what they did, and why they did it, and they help bring them back out of the mental space of the scenario. I also generally provide more general aftercare that includes a lesson on the physical and psychological aftermath of adrenaline, and a quiet space in which students can process some of that aftermath without time constraints or social pressure to deal with it a specific way.

Another essential ingredient of a good simulation is that the “bad guy” always loses, so long as the student is doing the right things. A good scenario opponent will provide just enough resistance to force the student to execute their techniques correctly, and to give them a clear understanding of how challenging it is to do so against an active, angry, noisy, scary human. What they won’t do is crush them. There are all kinds of way to cheat in a scenario: I’ve already discussed how size and weight and social pressure can be leveraged to force a student into a “fair fight” they cannot win, and opponents can also ignore techniques that would be lethal or crippling if delivered at full force, but which need to be scaled back or delivered to a padded target for safety reasons. The tradeoff to keeping everyone alive is that you’ve got to lie a little, and respond to correct but simulated crippling/lethal strikes as if they were effective, rather than exploiting the fact that your opponent can’t actually kill you and sitting on them until they give up.

If you put someone in a high-stress training sim and then cheat its rules to crush them into the ground, you will only teach them to lose, and to fail in the face of actual violence. There’s nothing realistic about it, and it can get people killed. In a nutshell, the reason simulations work is because, if they trigger the correct stress responses, our body processes them as if they were real. We remember what happened in the sim the same way we’d remember an actual experience, and we will draw on that experience if we face the same situation again in the future. This means that we’re going to behave in similar ways as we did in the sim, and make similar choices. If the sim taught us to lose? To give up? That’s what we’re going to do. If the sim taught us that success will come if we fight hard enough and make good choices? We’re that much more likely to fight till the end and survive.

Sims are a lie. Realistic training isn’t actually real; it just feels real enough that we can achieve our training goals. That’s what makes it safe to do, and what makes it work. It takes practice and skill to design scenarios that reliably get the result we want, and hit that balance between safety, realism, challenge, and clarity of outcome. If you can do that, though? You’ve got the most powerful self-defense training tool in existence. Most importantly, it’s a tool that can be made accessible to any student, regardless of their gender, experience level, or history of trauma. I’ve seen women not just survive extremely high-stress scenarios, but out-think and out-fight much bigger and tougher opponents without much of a problem. They didn’t suddenly turn into monsters that could bench-press a truck, or sociopaths with no regard for others’ safety, or superhumans with the reflexes of a cat. All they needed was an understanding of how to succeed, the right tools for their body and context, and the trust and safety of a well-managed training space. Delivering that quality of training isn’t anywhere near impossible, and the benefits are very, very real.