I’m sure you’ve thought about it - could you defend yourself, or the people you care about, if you had to? Chances are without some sort of instruction you won't feel too confident answering “Yes!” to that question and to be honest, that’s a good thing. It’s not good to be unable to defend yourself but it’s significantly worse to be deluded about the situation should it ever happen.
So, what’s the right plan from here? If you recognize that you’re unable to confidently say you could handle yourself in a reasonable self defense situation - what should you do?
Here’s the deal, and some people wont like these answers but I’m not writing this for them - I’m writing this for you because I know that whether or not you like how it sounds you’ll appreciate the truth and that only when you’re armed with the truth can you improve your situation.
Here’s the truth: the first thing you need to do is get in shape.
When someone asks me about self defence classes or self defence tools or “weapons” and they’re not in shape to go run a single, uninterrupted mile I always tell them that’s the first step. You are your most efficient and effective self defense resource and you can have all the training in the world but if you’re not in a position to apply it 100% then you can’t expect it to work. And that’s not all, not only will being out of shape stop you from applying anything you learn in a real situation it will also make you a pretty easy target. I’m not sure if you’ve ever fought anyone who’s tired but trust me - it’s easy. If you get significantly more winded than your opponent (or assailant) you’re toast.
The next reason you need to be in shape is that it carries over to a real life combat situation WAY faster than any sort of combat training.
What do I mean?
If you want to learn to defend yourself against a particular attack you’re going to have to drill that attack and your response thousands and thousands of times before you can start to rely on it in a full speed, full force, high stress situation. Despite what the McDojo down the street wants you to think when you sign up for a weekend self defense course you’re not equipped to defend yourself against anything you’ve only practiced for an hour or two.
Strength and fitness on the other hand will be there for you no matter what. If you’re 25% stronger and have 50% better cardio than you did before this won't disappear under stress or require any thought to use. Often you’ll find that while stress might dull a skill you’ve learned (especially at first) it will magnify any physical abilities you have - for an easy example imagine how much faster you could run from a bear than you do on the treadmill currently!
Let’s assume you’ve decided to take your self defense seriously and have gotten into great shape and are now wondering where you should go from here. You’ve got two distinct options:
Martial arts and training where you are engaging in combat with training partners
Martials arts and training where you are simulating combat with training partners
If you haven’t found yourself in a boxing gym or a martial arts school in a while you can get an easy example of what I'm talking about by googling "boxing sparing gloves" and "karate sparring gloves".
Why the difference?
Because in boxing your training partners are going to, quite literally, punch you in the face. In the beginning they won't be doing this at 100% but you’ll be moving towards situations where you’re getting hit hard enough to get “buzzed” pretty quickly.
The karate gloves on the other hard are just padded enough to give you some protection should you happen to be accidently grazed with a strike as the goal isn’t to make contact with your training partners but to get close enough just to make the point.
I know some people hear things like this and think, “Isn’t Karate the better idea? I don’t want brain damage from getting hit in the head.” or “The karate guys have more control, they’re so good they could hit you if they wanted to but they’re so precise they can pull their shots back at the last second.” Now, these may or may not be true. If you decided to box full time for the next 30 years I can’t promise you that the blows to the head wont take a toll on you and to the second point it is impressive control that gets displayed with Karate sparring.
All that said the first time someone hits you, or puts their hands on you in a way that tells you they REALLY mean it you do NOT want to be surprised by this. You can get your 10th degree, double, extra black belt, you can understand all the ins and outs of combat and self defense, you can train with all the control in the world for as long as you want but here’s the reality:
It really sucks the first time you get punched in the face.
It really sucks the first time you’re choked hard enough that your vision starts to fade.
It really sucks the first time someone pins you on the ground and you realize you’re stuck there.
All of these situations are terrible but they’re significantly more terrible if they’re happening with someone you don’t know, on the street, who is really trying to hurt you - or worse!
I’m sure you can tell where my advice is heading… if you really care about defending yourself you’ll find a martial art or a sport where you’re not just simulating combat but you’re legitimately engaging in it. This doesn’t always have to mean that you’re getting punched in the head (I understand some people have a strange aversion to that) but what it does mean is that you’re working to defend yourself in an active situation where you’re pushed close to your full ability, at full speed with the intention of controlling another human being.
Some great examples of this are:
And I’m sure there are some I missed but here’s an easy test to make sure you’re on the right track: is the possibility both likely that you, or your training partners, will occasionally give each other black eyes AND that the entire group will be largely apathetic to such things.
If that’s the case you’re probably on the right track. The goal is never to seriously hurt a training partner but you should be going hard enough that little bumps and bruises happen and that everyone involved knows that just a slight turn of the intensity knob would lead to serious injury. This will be uncomfortable at first but it’s significantly better to be uncomfortable in the gym then to be seriously hurt in the street.