What is self defense? (And why most self defense schools are grossly negligent).

This seems like a simple question doesn’t it? But when we think about it for a while we realise that people have very diverging opinions on what ‘self defense’ means. People have even further differences of opinion on how we go about learning self defense skills against some vague potential ‘attack’ that may occur some time in the uncertain future.

Most self defense schools have no idea regarding what they are trying to prepare their students for - this mysterious ‘attack’. This is a very serious issue that I will soon detail below.

And what about the martial arts? Aren’t they a tried and tested pathway to learning self defense skills? I will explore that idea below as well.

Spoiler alert, there is not much good news to share..

I may seem to be speaking in riddles at the moment but the above points will become very clear as we move through this exploration of what self defense is.

Warning! I do get emotional and ‘ranty’ at times when I think of just how grossly negligent and clueless the majority of the self defense industry is..


What are the most ‘authoritative’ definitions of self defense? Surely this would be a good place to begin as we start to explore what self defense is. No need to reinvent the wheel right?

the act of defending one’s person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant.


the act of defending yourself, your property, etc.

skills that make you capable of protecting yourself during an attack.

Self-defense is the right to use reasonable force to protect oneself or members of the family from bodily harm, or to a lesser extent, one’s property, from the attack of an aggressor, if the defender has reason to believe he/she/they is/are in danger.

I have significant issues with all of these so called ‘authoritative’ definitions of self defense. And these significant issues I have are part of the whole reason even exists.

The number one big, fat, thorny, ugly reason these above definitions of self defense are so fundamentally wrong is because they are all painting the picture that self defense starts when you are attacked by a person. From that point on you use ‘self defense’.

This is completely narrow minded, ill-informed, grossly negligent garbage that creates victims. Even if a person ‘successfully’ defends themselves against some form of attack, they are still at the mercy of the legal system relating to the use of force.

I, and many others (I know I am not alone here), would argue that the point that a person is being attacked is when their (actual and useful) self defense skills have failed them. From then they are in Plan B. They have already demonstrated poor self defense skills, they have demonstrated they do not understand violence and they have given the initiative to the attacker.

Plan B should not be the focus in self defense learning. Plan A should be the focus. A solid Plan A will further mitigate the already rare risk that a person will become involved in a violent crime incident.

In my mind, and many others, self defense starts well before an attacker is anywhere near you.

Actual self defense skills are (or should be) as far ‘pre’ of conflict as possible. This understanding drove me to put together the free Human Combative Behaviour Manifesto some years ago now. That manifesto is all about the pre-attack knowledge stage of conflict. It’s about understanding the nature of human to human violence and explores the two primary types of violence - the alpha male and predator.

Real self defense skills aim to instill an understanding of what human to human violence looks like, how it happens, where it happens, in what circumstances and by who.

By understanding violence and how attacks happen we can adjust our activities to risk manage the likelyhood of becoming chosen as a target of violence away (or at the very least lower that risk). This is how we can beat the enemy without fighting (see Musashi below). We remove ourselves from the time and place an aggressor attacks. I spend a whole chapter talking about risk management principles for self defense in the book Self Defense Smarts.

This more intelligent approach to ‘self defense’ is offensive[1] as opposed to defensive[2]. Defensive is what those opening definitions are all about. Offensive and knowledge based self defense is taking the lead by applying knowledge, adapting our activities/lifestyle and treating risk. This is taking the initiative from an attacker who never had a chance to even start anything with you because you never presented yourself as a potential victim/target in the first place. This is what (in my humble opinion) Miyamoto Musashi was talking about back in the 1600’s when he said the following:

To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.

And yet scores of people and groups in the self defense industry are trying to prepare people to win 100 out of 100 battles and not to subdue enemies without fighting. Crazy stuff. It’s no wonder the self defense industry is such a mixed up - messed up beast.

So what we have done is firstly identify that most of the ‘authoritative’ and common definitions of self defense are poor/sub-optimal at best and objectively incorrect or incomplete at worst.


As an experiment, we are going to explore this common perception of what self defense is for a moment. Let’s assume that self defense is limited to just defending oneself from an attacker once they have started to attack you. Let’s tease out how this looks and how it should look. Let’s also pay attention to how the self defense industry is fairing here.

Ok, this would logically mean the act of self defense practise aims to prepare us to defend ourselves from a real attack - were such a thing ever to happen to us in the future. Makes sense right?

Ok, this would surely mean that the act of studying violent crime would form a foundational basis for every self defense school right? Are we seeing criminologists used as subject matter experts to self defense schools? Is the study of violent crime not the foundation of self defense?

Maybe I have jumped ahead here too quickly[3]. Let me back up a little. In the opening definitions they all basically said that self defense is the act of defending oneself from an attack.

It begs the obvious question, what is this so-called ‘attack’? This may seem too simple and obvious a question but let’s go down that road. Is an attack a punch? What about a kick? What about a tackle or take down? What about a knife attack? What about multiple attackers?

These are all attacks right? Of course they are! But what does all this mean? What is the most important attack? What about the most likely? And who commits these attacks? Where do these attacks happen? What is the purpose of them? Do all the answers to these questions change depending on where one lives??

When we look into that initially simple term ‘attack’ we can see there are soooo many questions we could, and SHOULD, be asking. But sadly, in the self defense industry, most are not asking them. Most don’t even know these sorts of questions exist. I think many of them don’t want to know. They are happy to remain plugged into the Matrix…

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of the self defense industry is completely lacking in any study into what the hell this ‘attack’ part means for self defense.

Knowing what this ‘attack’ part means should be Step 1 in putting together an effective self defense curriculum. Surely. Who disagrees with this? If your knowledge is thin on this initial step, understanding the problem, it is very unlikely any effective self defense skills will come from any follow on conclusions or assumptions from this weak base.

So what is this ‘attack’ we are all learning to defend against? What is it actually?

Let me spell it out. Here it is.

The ‘attack’ is VIOLENT CRIME.

Fights (assault), rapes, muggings and ‘break and enters’ (home invasions/property crime resulting in violence) are all examples of violent crimes.


Let me offer an amended and updated definition of self defense for consideration to readers and the wider self defense industry.

Self defense is using knowledge and skills to avoid violent crime. If avoidance has failed then countering an attack, or threat of attack, may be necessary.

And yet most self defense schools have no knowledge of violent crime. Not even generally. Not even rough percentages. Not even national averages.


Furthermore, self defense is taught at a location. That part is obvious but you can get quite specific, relevant and useful knowledge of violent crime in actual locations. These local violent crime statistics may be quite different to national findings. This would be highly valuable information for people interested in learning to avoid and counter violent crime. This sort of study, a really basic example, should surely find its way into all or most self defense schools and yet it doesn’t.

Are self defense schools conducting their own research into violent crime in their own areas? Why not??

The study of violent crime should form the foundation of self defense systems but it rarely does. Studies into violent crime and the findings of criminologists should be just as popular as the ‘World’s Best Street Fighter’ books but they are not. So just what is being taught in self defense schools if it is not how to defend oneself against violent crime?

Simple really. And really sad and pathetic.

They just make shit up.

Think about this for a while. They are making this shit up. Doesn’t this make you angry?

I am sure there are people going to bed at night thanking whoever/whatever that they got through another day without being called out; Without being sued for gross negligence or fraud…

Don’t get me wrong. Not every self defense school is like this. Some have put in A LOT of work studying violent crime and violent criminals. I often reference and mention many of them in Low Tech Combat articles. I am not going to list them all here now. But good ones are out there. Sadly, they are in the tiniest little minority.

What can we do about this? I don’t know. I am sure there are petitions that could be generated and circulated. I am sure there are campaigns that could be had. But the problem is so very dispursed. Almost every neighbourhood has a small self defense school teaching crap to innocent ill-informed students who want to learn real life saving knowledge and skills. It’s just that the majority of training providers are of a poor standard who are making things up as they go along.


Fair question. Many people follow this path. It is a very common and well trodden path.

The martial arts offer many benefits to students. Students learn the value of sticking to something. As they stick to going to classes over time, sometimes many years, they get better at that martial art. They set goals, they reach goals, they surpass goals. Even when they don’t feel like going, they go and they feel better for it afterwards. They see the benefits to persistance and commitment. This is solid stuff.

The martial arts can also teach respect. As a beginner, you start off at the bottom. Everyone from all walks of life, every rung of the social ladder, all start at the same place - white belt (or equivalent). A beginner may be taught by someone younger than they are. Classes generally involve some form of ritualised respect to more senior ranks. This can be a positive thing especially for people who have had issues with authority, misbehaving kids and ego-filled personalities.

Most martial arts teach aspects of the culture from the country they originate from. This exposes people to new customs, worldviews, maybe a little military history and maybe even different religous practises. All of this can be eye opening and educational. Rare is it that someone feels learning about different cultures is a bad thing.

For the unfit, martial arts can get a person in shape. The warm ups, the physical activity, the stretching, the cardio etc can all get a person in much better health than they were otherwise at. This is good for people.

Many martial arts have wonderful histories with really interesting, fascinating and amazing founders. Some martial arts are also beautiful to watch. For some, the basicness, the pureness, of them can be really appealing.

However, almost never do martial arts schools teach people how to defend against a realistic attacker. Almost always, a martial arts style teaches people how to defend against other people of the same style attacking in the manner of that style. In Kung-Fu, you will learn how to defend against someone doing Kung-Fu at you and so on for other styles.

What is sometimes referred to as the ‘self defense’ aspects of various martial arts involves someone doing one attack then stopping. This could be a grab, a push, a hold or a punch etc. The defender will then do some form of (generally elaborate) ‘self defense move’ to counter the ‘attack’. And we get back to that term again - attack.

Much like most self defense schools, martial arts systems and schools have almost no knowledge of violent crime - the ‘attack’. From this perspective, generally speaking, the martial arts are no better than ‘self defense’ schools when it comes to teaching effective and useful self defense to students.


Most self defense and martial arts schools simply teach a range of techiques (punch, kick, hold, block, lock, throw etc). They make up how to mix them together forming a style or system depending on cultural background, personal preference, appearance, marketing value or combination. This will naturally evolve over time depending on the whims of the ‘heads’ of these systems.

But aren’t martial arts and fighting skills readily transferred to real self defense situations? Wouldn’t a powerful Karate style kick still damage an attacker if used in self defense? Wouldn’t a right hand punch still knock out an attacker?

This is a very common argument theme used to justify that martial arts can be useful or used in self defense. However, we have seen that martial arts do not take seriously how attackers are attacking victims in real life violent crime. What studies are being drawn on? How are their curriculums being changed/modernised to harness the modern understanding of violent crime unique for the areas being taught?

When a martial artist uses techniques to defend themselves against a real attacker, they do so in spite of the limitations and flaws of their training. Humans are not wired up brand new every time they are born. We have evolved over a long time to deal with threats from other species as well as our own. For many people, it is their wiring, their upbringing and their natural instinct and skills that see them overcome attackers.

Sometimes people do this with NO training whatsoever. This is not a solid argument for doing no training. Likewise when a Karate-ka defends themselves against an attacker it is not evidence that Karate teaches self defense best practise. Some people who practise Tai Chi would be formidable opponents for attackers. But that is a reflection of their own individual make up and background and do not reflect the less than ideal system (for self defense) they enthusiastically practise. Look at the system as a whole - not individual small samples.

Not all attackers (violent criminals) are the same. Some are meak, weak, scared and desperate who are quick to flee. At the other end of the spectrum there are drug-fuelled multiple attackers with mental health issues who have been in and out of institutions their whole life. Potential attackers are not all the same.

So when a martial artist ‘defends’ themselves against an ‘attacker’ which one was the attacker? What end of that spectrum?

The very fact that we are debating how effective a martial art can be at defending at attack shows how much martial arts training simply misses the mark. Notice we are not arguing about what knowledge martial arts schools teach their students about violent crime and how best to avoid it and the merits of said instruction? We are not arguing that because the martial arts industry (as a whole) doesn’t offer anything to argue about!

The martial arts industry does not teach about actual real (general or local) violent crime at all. Their whole approach is to defend an attack when an attacker attacks you (and even their methodology in this is not ideal). As we have already explored, this approach to self defense is short sighted, flawed and sub-optimal. This is fitting in with the old definition of self defense; The reactive defensive dumb approach.


Here is a fatal flaw in the vast majority of both self defense and martial arts schools when it comes to teaching people to defend against an ‘attack’.

The law and the legal use of force.

There is mostly a complete absense of any study or teachings regarding the law and the legal use of force relevant to the location self defense is being taught.

Think about this. Instructors and organisations around the world are teaching people what they claim are self defense and yet are not teaching students about the legal use of force. In fact, it is common practise for many martial arts to teach and encourage ‘finishing moves’ which clearly is setting their students up for a lot of pain in courts.

How is the legal use of force NOT a fundamental component to learning how to apply force against an attacker???

How is this even happening? This is a whole other topic we could get right into but I will leave it there for now. I hope this point is taken.


That was just a little exercise in looking at what self defense and martial arts schools were doing in the purely ‘defending against an attack that is happening’ space. As mentioned above, that approach to self defense is seriously flawed. And we have since seen that even in that old seriously fundamentally flawed approach to self defense, there are significant issues at the violence/conflict stage of self defense.

They have little to offer in the ‘avoiding violent crime’ space at all. Some people have basically abandoned the use of the term ‘self defense’ and any association with the self defense industry because things are so bad. People have coined new terms and continue to try to use new terms in an attempt to highlight better practises.

Some pioneers have popularised the terms ‘self protection’ and ‘reality based self defense’ in efforts to start a new direction because the self defense industry was so broken. There are other terms being used now as well and others continue to be coined and used, often for marketing purposes.

But this is all very confusing for beginners. Whilst I admire the intent and goals for using new phrases and moving in better directions that are more effective in encouraging good self defense practise, I don’t think we should abandon ‘self defense’. I think we should stick with the term self defense and fix it. Hence this article.

So there are big problems in the self defense world. These can be summed up as being four key problems. Here they are:

  1. The widely sprouted definitions and thinking of self defense has people thinking that self defense is defending against an attack. As we have seen, this is seriously flawed and is reactive in nature that takes no responsibility in understanding, avoiding and recognising signs of violence.

  2. Almost no self defense or martial arts schools have any deep knowledge of what an ‘attack’ looks like. Almost no system deeply explores violent crime data or the field of criminology to develop a base of understanding for the problem they are trying (apparently) to deal with.

  3. Most self defense and martial arts schools are woefully ill-designed and structured to prepare people to defend against a real violent attack.

  4. The complete absense of instruction and guidance on the legal use of force.

In closing, here again is my suggested new definition of what self defense should be.

Self defense is using knowledge and skills to avoid violent crime. If avoidance has failed then countering an attack, or threat of attack, may be necessary.

So those are my thoughts on what self defense is, what self defense should be and what self defense is not. It was an emotional journey.


Please, feel free to disagree as I love free speech. Leave your comments below for the world to see. You can use your real name or just leave a comment as anonymous if you so choose.

Header Image by Grempz via creative commons. Minor cropping was used.

  1. When using offensive in this context I am referring to the more military meaning such as to act aggressively, to conduct an attack. I am aiming to instil that we are trying to take the initiative in self defense rather than wait for an attacker to come to us.

  2. When using defensive in this context I am referring to the more obvious defensive posture. The real problem with this is that defensive is reactive rather than proactive.

  3. I did that on purpose to make my point. A little bit like a dick I realise that.