by Myrna Boyer
Personal safety begins with a self-assured mental attitude. This is true for anyone who is to practice defense effectively, but it is particularly important for the woman who seeks to exercise active prevention and dynamic personal safety.
The practice of staying safe is not a static one. It is, in fact, a practice. A woman should not only be aware of her environment and in a state of “relaxed preparedness,” but her body language should speak this awareness and preparedness clearly. There is, in effect, a mindfulness—a vigilance—inherent in being safe.
Effective personal defense practices are 90% attitude and 10% technique. Of the countless defense programs that exist around the United States, the vast majority are exceptional. However, there are those that place an inordinate amount of emphasis on technique training. Although it is my opinion that any training is better than no training at all, personal defense training that teaches only technique will always be sorely lacking. For any program to be effective, it must perforce address the mind. Hard-earned experience will teach you, rather abruptly in fact, that the usefulness of any training regimen is absolutely proportional to the effect it has on the mental disposition of the student being trained.
Technique training works only to the degree that the person who is to carry it out is prepared enough to execute it and confident enough that it will work in a crisis situation. You can arm an individual all you want, but the fact remains that a person who hits the panic button in the face of a dangerous encounter is a person who will not be able to access a single tool in the arsenal unless the mind is clear of encumbrances and able to respond reasonably in the face of the storm.
In the matter of personal defense, the cold, hard reality is that most women will categorically underestimate the level of commitment to physical violence that an attacker is prepared to enlist. Whether she, herself, is armed with ten or ten-thousand techniques will not matter one iota if she is not mentally prepared to defend herself and cause injury, sometimes even serious injury, to her assailant. This level of commitment to surviving an attack demands an entirely new quality of thinking for a woman. In order to realize an effective counter assault, her belief system must consent to it.
Therefore, instruction in the art of personal defense must hit at the core of a woman’s attitude. It is incumbent upon an instructor to successfully dispel the victim—or potential victim—mentality that she may bring to the training forum. She must understand, and unequivocally so, that this attitude and accompanying body language sends the message that she is an acceptable target, and this could one day mean her demise.
It goes without saying that teaching prevention is of great importance. Preventive measures are fruitful precisely because the woman is instructed on the advantages of a heightened state of mental awareness. Physical techniques are simple to teach and easy to learn, but are no more than the tools that execute the intent of the mind. It is the mental component which is toughest to tackle, and yet it stands as the single most significant factor in determining the outcome of a dangerous confrontation.
A student in the art of personal defense must become aware of the many faces of an attack in the offing. This is vitally important. Often a woman will unknowingly allow a potentially dangerous situation to escalate simply because she fails to spot the threat. Moreover, an untold number will wait for confirmation that an attack is imminent, and quite often by then it is, sadly, too late—the attack is in full bloom. The consequences could potentially be dire.
It is not, however, a stretch to say that given the right attitude—an appropriate mental disposition—a woman should be more than capable of instilling fear upon her assailant. She must be capable of taking the initiative to avoid an escalation if at all possible, and she must be capable of attacking the assailant’s intention —mentally and/or physically. To attack the intention is to affirm her personal intuition.
If someone she just met gives her the creeps, no matter how cordial he is, she should listen to her inner voice. If someone is being overtly hostile, she should take action immediately, whether that action be evasive or physical. There should be no confirmation needed, i.e., the attacker should not land the first assault before she has taken counter measures. She should not be struck, punched, grabbed, choked or thrown before she confirms that an attack is in progress. Well trained, the woman can and should recognize even the slightest signs of aggression—a twitch, a jerk or even a blink—that in the context of a confrontation could indicate that an attack is in the making.
This mental awareness is even more crucial when an imminent attack is not overt: the gentleman offering to take her to get help or drive her home because her car broke down; the stranger who offers to walk her to her car whose very presence is making her uncomfortable. Women who are apt to ignore their inner danger cues are vulnerable to insidious assaults that begin in a very subtle manner. It is easier to defend from an overt attack than from an attack that follows on the heels of “kindness.” A seemingly placid encounter is never what it appears if danger signals are going off.
Well trained, a woman should know how to throw her attacker off the mark, should know how to deny herself as a target, should be capable of expediently breaking her attacker’s concentration, and should, in this manner, be able to freeze her assailant’s mind no differently than this assailant would paralyze her with fear given the right advantage to do so. These abilities are all infused in her mind and in that little known ability called intuition. They are the first line of defense, and therein the mind is deployed as a weapon.
There is no denying that techniques are important for follow-through when and if this becomes necessary, but the mind strikes first. Weapons, whether they be weapons of the body such as hands, fists, elbows, knees or the like, or other implements such as sticks, knives, etc., strike in direct succession, but the mind must strike first.
Once faced with a dangerous predicament, a woman must be able to gain access to effective counter assault skills. Focus, for instance, is central to a favorable outcome, and she should learn to keep it broad and panoramic. This is not the time to rely on tunnel vision as it subtracts from what she strategically needs to make use of in order to mount an effective counter assault. It is inadvisable, for example, to center attention solely on an assailant’s weapon when met with an armed aggressor. To do so is a deadly mistake.
It is not that the weapon should be disregarded. Nonetheless, a defender should not regard it to the exclusion of everything else. Giving attention to the environment may direct your escape if this attention is used in a tactical manner. But if the mind attaches to any one given thing over all others, freedom of movement and execution of technique is compromised. The body is as frozen as the mind is fixated, and the results can be disastrous. A defender would essentially be flirting with ultimate defeat, which in a real-life situation like this could mean death.
Mental agility, commitment and determination give rise to spontaneous responses that can easily tip the scales toward survival. It is easier to adapt and change as the circumstance compels. Movement is free and not compromised, and techniques can be employed proficiently and competently.
Some personal defense programs rely heavily on the development of techniques which are based on gross motor skills—skills which principally involve the large or major muscle groups of the body. A straight punch, for instance, is a gross motor skill. This training is based chiefly on the results of research involving human physiological and psychological stress responses to an event of such extreme consequence that survival is at stake. They offer techniques and strategies that are in keeping with these responses and, in most cases, do a relatively good job of addressing the concerns associated with personal defense issues, especially when these techniques abide by principles which are universal in their conception and execution.
Nonetheless, consider for a moment what it is that triggers the symptoms associated with these physiological and psychological stress responses—the mind. There is no uniformity on the threshold level of stress responses in humans. Perception and perspective is a very personal thing. What one woman may consider an immensely dangerous predicament may be just another day at the office, so-to-speak, for another. Consequently, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the dilemma of human emotion and response to the perception of an event or circumstance where a woman’s life is in peril.
What a woman can do, however, is understand and address human nature. She can underscore what sets off an increase in heart rate and breathing rate and, thus, a decrease in the performance of motor skills. After all, these are fear- or even terror-related responses to imminent danger, and they begin in the mind.
When a woman has been viciously and brutally attacked, the foremost attack is a mental one. This woman has been overwhelmed by her attacker. Yet, mull over what would happen if the tables are turned. Consider the, perhaps, unlikely event that an assailant, having an off day, elects as prey a woman who knows how to displace him mentally, who knows how to attack his vulnerabilities, break his concentration and capture his mind-set. This assailant now runs the risk of being crushed by the very same weapon he forcefully counts on to overpower his intended victim.
Learning to use the mind as a weapon empowers a woman in a way that connects her to one of her greatest assets—her intuition. It goes without saying that a woman (or any individual, for that matter) is abundantly capable of perceiving a potentially dangerous situation even when and if it appears innocuous or harmless. Gavin de Becker, a leading expert on violence, assembles a powerful argument in favor of a woman’s intuitive ability to know when she is in danger in his best selling book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. It would be worth your while to acquire a copy.
Nonetheless, when fighting skills must be employed, there are three requirements for consistently reliable techniques. They are required to be:
Parallel to natural movement.
Easy to perform, and
Aligned with instinctive responses.
Techniques that achieve all three convey natural and instinctive movements into unshakable defensive tactics. This makes them easy to learn and simple to execute, even in the face of grave danger. In essence, these techniques take the best of what has been learned through years of research and study into the psychological and physiological effects of stress-related-to-survival issues, and then go one step further and are made universally applicable. The need to memorize one technique for a grab and a different one for a choke hold is dispensed with, and thankfully so. Complexities simply serve to muddy the training waters. Simplicity is key. A woman should be able to use her inborn responses to assail her assailant.
Look at this way: at the height of a brutal assault a woman does not have time to discern which technique she should apply to which attack. This is also not the time to attempt to recall techniques that have not been fully mastered. It is just not plausible to expect to have a bagful of techniques if you are attacked one way and another bagful if you are attacked another way. This is completely unrealistic.
Learning defense is not equal to the practice of learning martial arts. This is not to say that I do not advocate martial arts training for women. On the contrary, I firmly believe that women should consider extensive martial arts training. Furthermore, I believe resolutely that women competently trained in martial arts would themselves be more capable of defending their persons both physically and mentally. Short of extensive training, however, the fact remains that learning effective counter assault tactics is a good idea for anyone—women included. But the point is that you do not have to be an avid martial artist to learn personal defense. Given good instruction and realistic practice, it can be learned in a matter of weeks.
Nevertheless, bear in mind that how quickly techniques are learned, how effectively they can be executed, and how solidly reliable they are in a crisis scenario, is dependent upon a few—not an arsenal of—training methods which are firmly founded on the natural principles.
Amid the flurry of technique training, though, a woman should always remember that mind-set matters. She should remember that mental preparedness is at least as important as physical readiness. She should remember, too, that to rely strictly on technique is to throw open the door to the probability of a surprise attack or a subterfuge which could have serious or even fatal consequences. And, lastly, she should remember that a hostile environment may not always look hostile, but no matter how it looks, one thing it will rarely do is allow for second chances. She must do her best to make her actions count, and she should depend on everything at her disposal—her strengths, her intuition, her fears, her training, and her mind.
Myrna Y. Boyer would like to acknowledge Salvador Moralez, Jr. for the training and assistance he provided in making this article possible.