Martial arts versus self-defence

Many martial arts instructors consider self-defence and martial arts to be the same entity. This may be a consequence of not really understanding the difference between the two. It may also be that the martial arts instructor conducts self-defence classes as a tool to recruit students into the school.

Before we can offer a self-defence course to the community we, as martial arts instructors, must have a clear understanding of the differences between self-defence and martial arts.

I define martial arts as a journey with no ending. It is a lifelong effort to seek knowledge of true understanding of one’s self, the people who influence the martial artist and a heightened sense of being through training. One can ask “How can somebody reach a heightened sense of being through training?” People learn in many different ways – some through education or life experiences, others through achievement or goal-setting. I challenge all black belts to think back to the first time that they set foot into a dojo. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Has your life changed?
  • Are you more confident?
  • If somebody wrongs you, do you now say something and stand up for yourself where once you would say nothing?
  • Have you noticed that when you walk into a place where you feel uncomfortable, do you now adapt to the situation and overcome that feeling?
  • Do you thirst for knowledge?
  • Have you improved your lifestyle through training?
  • Are you now able to control your emotions?
  • Do you believe you are a better person?

This is martial arts.

At the other end of the scale, self-defence is about preserving or protecting one’s life and the life of others by using proactive and reactive skills in an effort to reduce the chances of victimisation.

A self-defence course can be structured in many different ways but it is usually no longer than 10 hours. During this 10-hour period, the instructor should cover such things as:

  • verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • the causes of crime
  • why some people are more likely to be victimised
  • community expectations (gender conditioning)
  • personal safety strategies (strategic thinking)
  • some form of self-defence techniques.

If you speak to any first-time self-defence participant, you will find that most have never thrown a punch, some have been victimised and feel disempowered, and some have unresolved issues. When they complete the class they expect that they will be able to adequately deal with any problem they encounter because they have “learnt self-defence”. Bear in mind, humans will only remember 22% of what they are taught during a lesson.

If you have visited or attended a self-defence course, you will know that most martial arts instructors do not even touch on many of the above-mentioned skills. Self-defence is not about teaching a participant a number of martial arts techniques. Most people attend a self-defence course not to learn martial arts but to be better equipped or empowered to deal with a situation if it arises, whether it be by deception, negotiation or by physical intervention.

Hopefully by now I will have you thinking: “As a martial arts instructor I may have been trying to teach in only 10 hours what I have learnt over many years“. This is, of course, impossible. So what do we do?

Self-defence considerations

Australian statistical data indicate that young male and female adults between the ages of 15 and 25 are the most victimised target group for assaults and robberies. The only difference is that females are mainly assaulted in the home (domestic violence) and males in the street (nightclubs). As you can imagine, it came as a bit of a surprise to me even though I regularly deal with this type of crime.

I also had to consider:

  • If I teach a technique will the participant use the technique in the way it was intended?
  • Will I be held accountable if it is misused?
  • If I were to approach schools to teach self-defence, will the Principals think that I will be teaching the students to fight, thereby giving them the ammunition to maim or injure another student?

I am sure we are not so naive to believe that if we stand in front of a class and say “this is only to be used in self-defence” that they will not later try it on their friends. It may have helped us fulfil our legal responsibilities but not our moral responsibilities. All these thoughts ran through my head when I considered conducting a self-defence class.

Personal safety strategies

Some who have read my booklet will say “Some of these techniques are not from our style“. When you know our style of martial arts, you will understand why. The techniques are practical but not easily remembered unless there is continual training. Furthermore, if we were to teach some of the techniques from the classic syllabus, we would have to teach each participant how to breakfall, which is, of course, impractical.

The criteria we settled on for the Personal Safety Strategies course were to teach only breakouts or breakaways, and if a technique was not easy to teach or remember it was not used. There were a number of techniques available from our syllabus, but a lot of research was done to adapt a technique to conform to our objectives. There were also other considerations. The techniques must be suitable for both male and female participants. There were strict conditions, imposed by the Queensland Police Service and by Education Queensland, on teaching this course, with one being that the course must consist of both theory and practical base content.

We have all heard the expression “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure“. We can equate this expression to self-defence. The Personal Safety Strategies course is about giving participants relevant information, which will enable a person to formulate a strategy to help reduce the chance of victimisation or to reduce fear in the community.

This proactive approach works on the theory that if we can avoid the situation by employing preventative strategies, by using negotiation skills or by adjusting our communication skills to project a more positive, confident attitude, the offender may not target or victimise the potential victim. Here’s one example: research done on this theory involved ten prisoners who were convicted of violent crimes. A video was made in a shopping centre in which shoppers were shopping and carrying out their daily activities, totally unaware that their natural movements were being recorded. Later, each of the prisoners were individually shown this video and asked to comment or identify possible victims. Amazingly each of the prisoners chose the same person. The questions must be asked:

  • What was that person doing that was so different to everybody else?
  • What subconscious messages are being projected to the offenders?

Do we, as self-defence instructors, teach the potential victim how to project a message of confidence and surety, or do we just teach them that when you are being attacked these are some of the options available to you. Remember, under stress the chance of pulling off the perfect technique is reduced remarkably. Teaching multiple techniques is only a small part of self-defence.

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Perceptions of crime

Why does crime occur? Our statistics tell us that 82% of prisoners in gaol are between the ages of 17 and 25.

When I lecture to older community groups, I receive a lot of different theories on why crime is on the increase. “Today’s children are disrespectful“, “parents have a lot to answer for“, “that didn’t happen in my day“. On the surface each of the responses can be considered a valid point, but does the problem lie a bit deeper?

As we all know, crime is not a new thing. We have had mass murders, theft, pillaging, sexual assault, fraud and paedophilia since the beginning of time. It’s funny, as we get older our perception changes.

Consider this. I recently spoke to a group of seniors whose average age would have been 60 years young. All the comments regarding crime were quickly brought forward and the same theories raised their heads. I addressed each theory with a trip back in time. Concern was raised regarding the “hoon” problems these days and the fast cars, drag racing and other associated problems. I asked the group, “Who has heard of a ‘Bodgee’ ‘Widgee’ or ‘Slacker’?” Not surprisingly, all nodded with a snicker, along with the other names that they used to call these “hoons”. I asked them how many remembered their parents complaining about these car owners and all nodded in agreement. Stories of what they did when they were younger surfaced. It was determined that these hoons were not doing anything these seniors hadn’t done when they were younger. It dawned on them that they had been tricked. They realised they were complaining about the same things their parents had complained about. This type of problem is not new.

I then made a point: we don’t like children riding skateboards, we don’t like them riding bikes, they’re too noisy in the parks, we can’t let them loose in the bush to build cubbyhouses because they cut down the trees, we don’t like them playing computer games or watching television. What is left for these children? The seniors’ attitude to the problems changed.

But this does not excuse the fact that we have more reported thefts, sexual assaults, paedophilia and so on. I say “reported” because it wasn’t long ago that most crime was unreported. It was swept under the carpet and ignored.


Paedophilia is a difficult subject to address because it stirs the emotions within every parent. We teach the dangers of talking to or taking presents from strangers (Stranger Danger) and rightly so. However, when we look at our statistics on crimes against children, we find that in more than 80% of all offences, the offender knows the child. We also have to protect our children against close family friends, doctors, fathers, defacto parents, uncles, grandparents, priests and so on. If a child is offended against, are we to say that this will not affect the child in some way? This child was assaulted by a person in a position of trust! They were tricked into performing sexual acts or behaviours. There was no violence, there may have been threats, intimidation or inducements.

The question is, martial artists – do we teach the children all self-defence techniques and not address the theory? Can we imagine a child using a self-defence technique against the local priest, doctor or teacher, to give some examples? I think not.

Sexual assaults

Why do sexual assaults occur? There are many different theories concerning sexual assault. I have heard a lot of explanations, such as: “she deserved it wearing that sort of clothing“, “what was she doing out that late at night“, “she was drunk“. I can assure you, if it was your daughter who was subject to this sort of criminal behaviour you would not accept this sort of explanation. Sexual assault is all about control and disempowerment and not about sexual gratification. Keep the word “control” in your mind, as I will discuss this term later.

I am asked many times “What should we do if we are attacked?“. This is a very hard question as there are many different scenarios that may present themselves. Each scenario may have a different strategy to help the victim. But I must point out – the person being attacked must do something or take some sort of action.

Action versus inaction

When I ask groups to define the difference between an action and an inaction, I get a variety of answers. When you first look at these two words, it appears quite simple. An action is something you do and an inaction is something you don’t want to do. This is the most common answer to this question.

When we put this into self-defence terms we can consider an action as a conscious action which a person takes to remain in “control” of a situation, while an inaction is a conscious thought process a person wants to take but loses “control” due to fear or another uncontrollable circumstance.

Let’s take a closer look at this definition. It is documented that if a person who has been assaulted makes a conscious effort to fight back, using verbal communication, physical defence or some other means, but is overcome and is sexually assaulted, the chances of that person dealing mentally with the attack and getting on with life is greatly increased. This is due to the victim feeling that everything possible was done to stop or fight off the attack, even if the victim made a conscious decision to do nothing and surrender to the attack. They view themselves and are viewed by others as a “survivor of a criminal attack”. Whereas, a person who wants to fight back but cannot, due to fear or not knowing how to fight back, will always ponder and feel the guilt of not doing something. They will nearly always consider themselves a “victim” and not a “survivor”.

It was common for police to talk on this subject. Part of their lecture would include telling their audience not to fight back as it may make the offender angry and you may get hurt. This advice was given to the community because there was no understanding of the motives behind sexual assault attacks. This advice could not be further from the truth.

In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that if you submit to an attack you will not get hurt. Remember, this is not about sexual gratification but “control” and disempowerment. It must be your conscious decision to fight, fight hard, scream, bite, kick, do what ever it takes to make you safe. The most common questions raised while interviewing a complainant of sexual assault are asked over and over again:

  • Why didn’t I do something?
  • Why didn’t I fight back?

These sorts of questions only compound the emotional stress of the complainant. It will be a long time, if ever, before the victim will have closure to this atrocity. This will only heighten the possibility of future mental instability or possible suicide attempts.

If we are conducting a self-defence course we must, as self-defence instructors, stress the importance of doing something!!! If you don’t fight back, do whatever it takes to make yourself safe. If the person being attacked makes a conscious decision to submit, it must be their decision. This will still leave the victim in control of the situation.

True self-defence

This article only scratches the surface of the discussion of self-defence. I hope it has triggered the thought processes and helped you, as an instructor, to consider what is really involved in conducting a self-defence class.

The next time you conduct a self-defence class don’t just teach martial arts or techniques. Consider other factors like: who is my audience, what am I going to teach them, and how am I going to empower them and project the message: “Do something, whatever it takes, to make yourself safe”.

Ask the following questions.

  • Will what I am teaching be really useful in dealing with a situation or will it fall by the wayside?
  • Is it tactically sound?
  • Will this information stop a sexual assault when an offender is a close friend or a person in a position of trust and the victim is a young boy or girl?

If you can answer these questions with a positive response, you are on the road to teaching true self-defence.

Renshi Tomasich is the Chief Instructor of the Nambour branch of the Peter Morton Academy of Judo Jujitsu Karate and has been a member of the Academy since 1980. He is a Police Officer with the Queensland Police Service and, in 2000, he wrote and published a self-defence booklet, Physical Safety Options, which is used by the Queensland Police Service to deliver self-defence lectures to the community.

This article appeared in the 2002 newsletter