Monday, February 10, 2014

The Progression

Recently contacted by an acquaintance about how to attract and retain women to a self-defense studio. His assertion was that the women who left wanted it to be fun, but self-defense was a grim subject, inherently un-fun.

Maybe. But humans are mammals, and all mammals learn best through play. And the math of self-defense training is bad. Spending 1000 hours with multiple minor injuries in a self-defense class  to save a night in a hospital is bad math, as is spending $1200 a year on the off chance you can save the $100 in your wallet from a mugger. Training out of fear is always stupid. That might be a blog post later. If you are going to train, train because you love the training.

Setting that aside. For deep self-defense training, there is a progression. First, you must make an emotionally safe place to practice physically dangerous things. And then you must make a physically safe place to do emotionally dangerous things.

When a student comes to you for true self-defense, there may be a history of victimization or abuse. There may be an expectation that the person is easy to victimize because they are physically weak or socially awkward. I'm not talking about the martial athlete dabbling in self-defense or "reality based" training. I'm talking about the people who fit victim profiles. The people who actually need this stuff. The population for whom these skills are not a hobby, but a matter of survival.

In the first stage you must make an emotionally safe place to practice physically dangerous skills. What does that mean? That the student will never be ridiculed or belittled or, most importantly, exploited. You will tell them to get better instead of haranguing them for their failures. They will be bruised and sweaty and bleed, but they will never be embarrassed. Losing is learning, it is not humiliation. (Unless the winner and the teacher are dicks.) And exploiting-- your students are not in your dating pool. No exceptions.

You stay at this stage until the students are formidable. What does formidable mean? It means that they can hurt you. On the level of physical skills, you should be able to win (you are the instructor, after all) but not easily, not without risking serious injury. More importantly, formidability is an emotional understanding. When your students know that they, absolutely, have the physical skills to destroy another human.

This is a qualitative change. In a very real sense the student you have brought to this stage is not the same person who started studying with you.

If the student is ready, and agrees, the next phase is to create a physically safe place to do emotionally dangerous things. You will push buttons. You will re-create personal incidents of victimization. You will summon adrenaline and fear and shame and angst. And you will make it as safe as possible for you, because this is no longer a victim, but a person of formidable skill. And they will learn how many of their inhibitions are imaginary, and how to function under adrenaline, and how to fight someone who knows how to control their emotional state.


  1. questions abound.

    what are the implications for choosing/accepting students? are combat athletes or the like to be treated or trained differently?

    to what degree does the instructor have the responsibility to protect themselves from students whom they've well trained to be legitimate threats? are any techniques, re-frames, ideas off the table for the instructor's protection?

    thought provoking stuff, rory

  2. Anonymous7:52 PM

    For me, like for many women who get involved in martial arts, a self defense workshop was the "gateway drug." I continued training because I soon realized there was much more to "self defense" than I could learn in a few classes. Then I continued training because I enjoyed the process of training. However, I left my first dojo when things ceased to be emotionally safe.

  3. Anon- That's a big part of it. The stepping into emotionally dangerous territory requires judgment and must be consensual. If done too soon, the student will and should leave, as you did. If done with a bad (*or even ignorant but not malicious heart) the student should leave.

    Malc-- If it's self-defense, every individual needs to be trained differently. This is guided personal growth, not transmitting data. If it's martial arts, you are teaching a system as you were taught. That's a different paradigm. If it's competitive sport, you kind of split the difference. Poor teachers give the same material to everyone and the best adapt. The best coaches tailor the instruction to the individual but still have to teach within the rules so can't get really creative.

  4. Very well put as usual. Could I add- attitude of other students is also important. I am often the only woman on a course and have always been taken seriously and had great support. ( seven onto one drill in Coventry was particularly fun- those that weren't thumping me at the time were shouting encouragement to me!) I know this isn't always so though. Perhaps your aquaintance might consider the whole culture of his school? Looking forward to downloading Con Com!

  5. Pure gold. Thanks, Rory!