Self Defense in Martial Arts Classes

by Thomas R Brown, Grand Master of MAIB

As I watch students prepare for the next phase of their life, going to college, I am excited for them as well as concerned. As a teacher at a school for dyslexics (The Kildonan School), we prepare the students for college by giving them the necessary skills for them to be able to read, write and perform academically at a high level. As a human being, I fear that in this political climate, students in general always have to be their own protectors. We’ve had more gun violence at schools and it only seems to be getting worse, not better. Students need to be able to advocate for themselves when attending college, this is part of their transitioning to adulthood. But what helps them advocate/protect themselves from violence at schools/colleges.

As a Martial Artist, I know the value of a good martial arts education. Although all martial arts styles have their strengths and weaknesses, it is important that the program you or your children study under has some key aspects for the students. The martial arts program should provide these key aspects for self-defense at a minimum:



Defense starts with knowing yourself and your surroundings. Being aware of potential areas that an attacker may grab or strike you from, is key to self-defense. Therefore you need to know how to listen to that inner voice that warns you of potential trouble. For example, if you know that you shouldn’t go down a particular path, even though you can get to your destination quicker, take the safer route.

But what happens if you do get attacked in an area that is perceived to be safe? Training in the martial arts will help you. This training needs to focus on defenses against both grabs and strikes. It also needs to allow you to continuously practice those techniques and then build on those techniques. This continual practice leads to an increase in awareness, it also sharpens the senses, and leads to a higher level of mental acuity. The martial arts teacher monitors the student progress and makes the situations that they confront more difficult as that student progresses. This is done in a safe environment to first build the technique, then the speed and thirdly to reduce the time to react. As the time to react decreases, the student’s awareness increases.

Confidence (in self and abilities)


Knowing what to do isn’t enough, you also have to have confidence in yourself to act at the correct moment to successfully defend yourself. At The Kildonan School Graduation this year, Alan Alda (Yes the guy from MASH) gave the commencement speech, where he talked about making mistakes and knowing your limitations. His speech was inspirational and made a point that it’s okay to make a mistake, just don’t beat yourself up about it. He had the students play a numbers game that they were bound to make mistakes in, and every time a student made a mistake, they would have to raise their arms in celebration and say ta-da. Learn from that mistake, try not to make it again, but understand that mistakes are going to happen and as long as they are not life threatening, you’ll get over it.  

Studying martial arts you are bound to make many mistakes, some because the technique is difficult, others because you simply forgot what to do. In class, these mistakes should also be looked at as learning opportunities. There are times in my dojang that a student will make a mistake, especially when I’m watching, and they look at me because they know they made a mistake, and I just smile at them letting them know that it’s okay and try again. There have also been some big changes in the poomsae (kata or form), that I ask the student where did that come from, and we laugh about it then talk about the viability of what they did, making it a learning experience not just a corrective action. This not only encourages the student to continue to work on the correct moves of the form, but also gives them the confidence to know that it is also fine to be spontaneous and creative. Knowing your capabilities and limitations is not only crucial in a stressful situation, it also helps you in everyday decision making. It can give you a sense of calm in a scary moment, to deal with the situation.

Muscle Memory

How do we get there is the question though. We must practice repetitively to build muscle memory, so that we can put into action what we know during that  situation that requires you to defend yourself. In school, two words that causes most students immediate stress are “Pop Quiz”. Some students excel in those situations where others, based on their past experience, may not do well at all. Does this mean that the student doesn’t know the subject, or is it that they just don’t deal with the stress well. Sometimes it’s both, sometimes it’s just fear of failing and sometimes it’s just the stress of the situation. One solution to this is to give Pop Quizzes without saying it’s a quiz, another is to teach the student to deal with the stress, or another is not to associate a grade with the quiz but to use it to gauge where the student needs further reinforcement of the subject.

In a situation that calls for you to defend yourself, there are three reactions that we all have in response to the fear factor. Most places only discuss the fight or flight aspects of responding to the situation, but the worst of the three is the freeze aspect of response. We can fight back or resist the attack. Under this aspect, if you don’t know what to do you could get hurt based on your reactions to the situation, or you may get lucky and hurt the attacker and get away.

Running away may help, if you are a fast runner and you have the opportunity to escape. If your attacker is faster than you and is intent on hurting you, this will only make the situation worse.


The worst reaction is the freeze reaction. You are basically submitting to the attacker without even knowing that you are submitting. This freeze reaction can happen when you have been taught what to do but you haven’t practiced enough. Sometimes we overthink the situation, or even try to remember which defense goes with the specific attack. This momentary pause can mean the difference between a successful defense or one that makes the situation worse. There are plenty of stories where people say that they took a self defense class, felt good leaving the class, got attacked at a later date and forgot everything they learned during that situation. They feel discouraged that what they learned wasn’t correct or good. That’s not necessarily the case, especially if the person never practiced the techniques after the class was over. There was no muscle memory obtained for that attack, so the person wasn’t able to successfully defend themselves. One of the NFL commercials that I really love and instill in my students is where they say: “Amateurs practice till they get it right, Professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong.” I emphasize, we need to practice “till we can’t get it wrong” to make it autonomous and therefore be able to use it in a self-defense situation. This builds the muscle memory to the point of immediate reaction to whatever the situation is. In those  movies where the hero seems to always know what to do and how to react, what they don’t show is the years of repetitive training that it took to get to that level. The movie only eludes to that fact that the hero had special training, i.e. special forces, training with the monks, etc. 

Self defense workshops are a great way to introduce the student to the world of martial arts, but we should never think that a single self defense workshop is all we need to defend ourselves. The numerous ways in which you could be attacked could never be covered in one workshop. The workshops are only there to wet the appetite and give you some basic strategies if you are attacked. If you are put in a situation that you need to defend yourself, the stress of the situation alone can cause great levels of fear and anxiety. It will be hard to think clearly under this circumstance, and it will be equally important that you are able to react without thinking. Having the training to react under safe conditions, helps you overcome the fear factor, but it is equally important that you experience some stress during your training so that your body learns to deal with the stress in a real life situation.

The martial arts are an amazing resource for you and your family to accomplish the ability to defend yourself and eventually others. Your training will greatly increase your awareness of your self and surroundings, confidence in your abilities and knowledge of your limitations, and muscle memory to instinctively react to difficult situations. All of these aspects of the training will also enhance the experience of students going to college. The need to consistently train in martial arts, will help you gain all of these beneficial skills as well as others, on your journey to finding your voice and becoming an independent person.


Rebecca Childs