Recognizing the Limitations of Physical Self Defense


Why do many self-defense training scenarios start with a gun already at your head? Or an assailant threatening you with a knife to your throat? What happened in the moments prior to that situation and how often is that time frame covered in any depth in much of what passes for self- defense training? If you Google self-defense classes you will likely get info on a bunch of local martial arts schools and maybe a course or two offered through a Y or community center. While many of these courses will mention the need for awareness, assertiveness and in some cases de-escalation most will quickly shift the focus to physical techniques – some better than others depending on the program and the instructor.

First off let me say that I am not against training in physical self-defense techniques. I think they are useful and I love combat sports and martial arts and have done them in one form or another for most of my life up to this day. I also don’t mean to imply that there are not good self-defense teachers out there who also teach awareness, de-escalation and other non-physical proactive measures as big part of their curriculum, because there are. Our focus here is on the more common training programs that cut right to the physical with little regard for the components that lead up to a violent incident occurring.

Now – with that out of the way – let’s look at some of the real limitations of focusing exclusively or mainly on physical self-defense:

  • Many self-defense courses are taught using techniques and elements from traditional martial arts. While some traditional arts have aspects or tools that may be useful in a real confrontation for the most part many of the techniques are not applicable for a real world violent confrontation.
  • Many are taught based solely on combat sports. While this is perhaps a better fit than the traditional arts in most respects, if not properly modified there can be real shortcomings such as not considering multiple opponents, weapons, etc. We previously discussed the pros and cons of both approaches here:
  • Regardless of the physical techniques used many self-defense systems require a great deal of training to become proficient. There are some practical combative systems that can be learned relatively quickly but frankly they are not widely available to most people. Given the level of interest and competing commitments many if not most people will not devote the time to become proficient.
  • To train realistically requires training with intensity. This means against a resisting opponent with some level of contact that approximates a real situation. There must be enough intensity to get your adrenaline flowing as it would in a real violent encounter. A large segment of the population is not willing to train at this level.
  • Despite what many people think – size and strength are a factor. Unless you are at a very high level you will be at a disadvantage against a larger, stronger opponent. Especially if that opponent has training and experience with violence – which most assailants will have.
  • As you age your ability to be physically effective resisting a determined attacker is decreased.
  • Your assailants will choose the time and place where they attack you in most cases. They will choose a situation where the odds are in their favor and you are in a disadvantaged position.
  • Your attacker has likely committed similar violent assaults, has a game plan and knows what to expect. For you it may be the first time.
  • In many if not most cases there will be multiple assailants, weapons or both.
  • Carrying firearms or other weapons may be of no help or even counterproductive unless you train to use them under duress and have bridging techniques that allow you to get space and draw and deploy your weapon if suddenly attacked. We discussed this in our piece on the 21 foot rule:

The fact is criminal assaults don’t happen in a vacuum. There are always indicators prior to the attack and with the possible exception of some ambush-style assaults where the perpetrators are well concealed and lying in wait for a victim, you can usually detect these indicators. The key factor is you need to be watching for them and you need to be trained or have trained yourself to recognize them.

Personal security and self-defense needs to start before an incident ever begins and way before any physical techniques are needed. You need to:

Training to physically respond to a violent attack has its place but also its limitations. Training for personal protection should focus heavily on detecting and avoiding potential threats. These are things everyone can do – especially with a little training and practice – regardless of age, physical condition and so forth. It’s also completely scalable based on the person’s perceived threat level and degree of interest. Many aspects of this approach were covered in previous articles which are linked here for those who want more information and a greater understanding.


7 Responses to Recognizing the Limitations of Physical Self Defense

  1. peytonquinn says:

    Because most people that teach self-defense have never been in fight in their lives Hence their paradigm for same is Martial Arts. Martial arts is concentrated on physical ‘techniques”

    (1) So the already having the gun to your head or the knife at your throat is seen as being a “technique” for “this situation’. It is of course ludicrous.

    (2) Having never been in any sort of combat they feel “tricks and “techniue” knowledge is decisive. But the most decisive element in any type of combat is how you are trained to handle and use the adrenal dump.But adrenaline makes people lose all fine motor skills, they have tunnel vision ,auditory exclusion and Tachi Pscye. Only some MA people will be able to use any of their techniques under adrenal stress and that is one thing that you can caount on in real combat.

    By the way, If you have a gun to your head then he has not shot you for some reason so compliance might be your best survival option..

  2. Excellent article brother, I agree wholeheartedly. Unless you train realistically the pre-contact, contact, and post-contact phases of violence, you are behind and your survival rate won’t be very high.

  3. I agree, most schools use blanketed statements about awareness, observation and de-esclation then dive right into the techniques. Also, many just skip over or ignore the effects of the survival stress response on motor skills and the body’s senses. This sets the student up for failure. I break an attack down into three phases, pre-attack, attack and post-attack. I mainly teach in pre and post-attack. Despite how important these concepts are, not many self defense instructors go into enough detail when discussing them.

    Peyton, I also agree with you, in that, most instructors do not have enough experience with real world violence to be teaching self defense. Training in a martial art is not the same as dealing with violent individuals or groups. Furthermore, believing that it is can cost lives.

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to your future posts.

  4. peytonquinn says:

    @5 yarrs ago or so Glock of Atlanta sent me a Glock before they were sold in this country. THey wnated to sue my comments to sell it I guess. Basically I said to them

    1-RELIABLE IN THE EXTREME:: Iput 12000 rounds through it deliberately and it no feed or eject or fire problem of any kind.

    2-A Natural Pointer: I shot very well with it with the very first rounds.Ergonomics make it good natural pointing pistol. Even though it looks like a Box.

    3-Stiker Fired System is TOO DANGERIOUS TO SELL ; Especially in the US where this design has not been used except in the cheapest Zinc all pistols like the Jennings and Raven, or Bryco. Negligent discharges will become plentiful as will lawsuits..This gun is suitable;e only for SWAT Entry teams or people of than type professional level.and not ordinary police or civilians.

    WELL the rest is history there have been more dtahs from negligent discharge of Glocks than any other pistol in the history of firearms. I have trained some cops who used the worflds”yeah he’s got “Glock leg”. This referring to cops who shot themselves in the leg, often in the locker room, and have permanent limps.

    YES there are things I like about GLOCKS for sure but they are too dangerous with their striker fire design for the average cop or civilian.. Why do you think GLOCK was forced to avoid bankruptcy over the STATE of NEW YORK lawsuit decades ago that reukted in the GLOCK NYS trigger? Or the DAO Glocks?

    The gun was designed by two experienced machinist at Beretta in Italy.They wanted to sell it too Beretta as they new it could be made less expensively and be quality and reliable auto. Beretta declined to take it becaue of it’s striker fired design which they saw as too much of legal liability’

    The machinists sold it to GLOCK to replace the Steyrs GB. The company bidding had to come from Austria. GLOCK is first a marketing company, ans not primarilya firearm manufacturer. But they are a very effective marketing company.

    I prefer the double action auto with external hammer..It’s fas safer for me and everyone else.except …the bad guys.

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