Smart Self Defence vs Dumb Self Defence

There is a big difference between smart self defence and dumb self defence.

The sad fact is most in the self defence industry teach dumb self defence and really don’t encourage a lot of thinking from their students.

You turn up, go through the physical training and go home.

Dumb Self Defence

The dumb self defence approach is teaching people what to do when there is an attacker right in front of you; Nothing before that time.

This approach includes basically all martial arts and most self defence (even “reality based self defence”) systems.

This sort of practise is clearly needed. These are the sorts of skills you need when everything else has failed. As a last resort, you need to know what to do when there is an attacker standing in front of you. We cannot wish this possibility away.

The real problem comes when this approach (an attacker is right in front of you) is your only approach to self defence. This makes it dumb self defence.

No Prevention

It is dumb because it develops no understanding of why, how, where or when violent crime occurs. It develops no capability in avoiding violent encounters.

Essentially this approach sees people walking around with their head in the sand with no idea of what is going on around them. They are no better off in this regard to the person next to them who has zero self defence training.

Exposure to Risk

This continues to expose a person to the risk of being caught up in violence with all of the potential fallout that entails:

  • Legal consequences including criminal record and prison sentence.
  • Physical injury (including permanent disability) or death.
  • Loss of employment.
  • Lifetime of regret.

This makes the person a blunt instrument. This is the dumb approach to self defence.

Smart Self Defence

The smart approach is about using the brain, not just fists. It is about having a sound appreciation of violent crime and understanding why, how, where and when it typically occurs.

It is about applying risk management principles. It is about attempting to avoid violence rather than just learn how to physically fight yourself out of a violent encounter when it occurs in front of you out of nowhere.[1]

Prevention as Risk Management

The smart approach to self defence is about preventing an aggressor being in a position to attack you in the first place.

By avoiding violence you are limiting your exposure to the potential consequences of getting caught up in a physical encounter.

This is smart.

The Problems

The problems with this approach are many.

  • It is very boring.
  • It does not make a young man feel more like a “warrior”.
  • There is nothing cool or sexy about this approach.
  • This approach does not result in awesome stories to tell friends (unlike a good fight story).
  • It is unlikely to draw in enough students to make a viable business venture (see above points for reasons).[2]

Self Defence Discussion

Almost all self defence discussion involves topics such as:

  • The best way to counter attacking technique ‘x’.
  • What is the best methodology for using technique ‘y’.
  • Is grappling better than standing?
  • Are traditional martial arts suitable for defending against a knife attack?
  • Do combat sports have too many rules to be relevant for real time self defence where there are no rules?
  • Is open or closed hand striking better when not wearing any gloves?
  • How should you manouevre when there are two or more attackers?
  • How should you block a knife thrust?

All of these questions (the above is just a smaaaaall sample) relate to the dumb approach to self defence. This is where all the action is.

This is where real men can demonstrate their toughness and ‘warrior’ skills. This area is where the rubber hits the road.

There is real attraction among men (especially young men) to this subject matter.

Sole Ability or a Plan B?

And there is nothing wrong with this subject material. After all, even if one pursues the smart approach to self defence it doesn’t guarantee one will always be able to avoid violence; despite one’s best efforts.

So as a Plan B it makes sense to develop skills in being able to physically resolve a violent encounter.

The problem is when this dumb approach is Plan A and there is no Plan B.


Smart Self Defence is about building layers of protection around ourselves. Various elements of smart self defence form multiple outer layers of defence around us.

The furthest out we can make those outer layers the better. Just a few examples follow to illustrate this point:

  • Choosing to live in a city (or town) with low levels of violent crime.
  • Choosing to live in a low crime neighborhood of that safe city (or town).
  • Researching where crime hot spots are (via online crime mapping)
  • Avoiding those high crime hotspots at high risk times
  • Understanding the two main types of human violence.
  • Understanding where and how various forms of violent crime occurs - then avoiding those situations.
  • Knowing not to walk home from an entertainment area at night.

Avoiding Risk

How does one avoid high risk situations?

  • Don’t stay out drinking at a pub past 10 or 12pm.
  • Don’t walk home by yourself or in very small numbers.
  • When you leave, don’t walk home from the pub by walking through quiet back streets - get a taxi or arrange a lift instead.
  • At family get-togethers don’t get drunk and argue with the violent relative.
  • Don’t get into running encounters with work colleagues.
  • Don’t get engaged in road rage.

The above are just a few simple examples. It kind of looks like strategic self defence.

The above list also makes for boring reading.

Boring but Effective

The above measures are very unexciting. But these sorts of measures work. Leaving a pub early will dramatically lower the risk of being involved in an assault situation (inside a venue) as well as amugging situation (walking home drunk along a back street).

The dumb self defence adherent will stay out, get caught up in a fight and possibly “win”. They will think they are good at self defence. But legal action could follow…

However they may not have “won”. They may end up stabbed in the arm and permanently lose all sense of touch on the majority of their hand and half their arm. They may lose the ability to continue their employment.

Worse harm could eventuate..

The dumb approach leaves people vulnerable and exposed to risk.

Maximising those Layers

The smart approach protects people and minimizes risk. The gold plated solution sees people pursuing smart self defence also pursuing physical resolution training.

This approach just adds more layers to the defences. Smart self defence aims to defeat an attacker without fighting.

Self Defence or Fight Skills?

It makes you wonder.

Do the people taking the dumb approach to self defence actually want to develop self defence skills or do they actually want to learn how to fight?

This is an important question.

They may talk about self defence but their actions often speak louder than their words. How do they view themselves and their own identity? Does practicing physical combat skills make them feel like a fighter? Dangerous? Like a warrior? Protector?

Some arguments I have heard from those practicing dumb self defence[3] are as follows:

  • I shouldn’t have to leave a pub by midnight.
  • I have a right to walk down whatever street I want whenever I want.
  • I’m not scared of anyone.
  • I’ve got honour. I am not going to change my life because I may get in a fight.
  • I’ve been practicing martial arts for 14 years - I can handle myself (with that twinkle in the eye that shows how confident they are).
  • I’m more worried about hurting an attacker than being being beaten up.[4]
  • I’ve been teaching self defence for 18 years, I am not scared of encountering an attacker.

Actually practicing smart self defence may not be something these people care for.

You have probably heard most of the above positions and plenty of others too. Many of the reasons given for poo pooing the idea of smart self defence are tied to honour, fighting ability, rights and poor understanding.

The poor understanding aspect is a tough one. Unless people appreciate the nuances of human violence and how knowledge can be applied to avoid it they are unlikely to listen or absorb such information; Especially if it is counter to their world view (which it probably would be).

It is a bit of a chicken or the egg type of situation.


So what approach do you take? How do you balance the smart and blunt approach?

Image via Extra Medium

  1. Many victims of crime, from both Alpha Male and Predatory encounters, claim the incident developed very quickly or completely by surprise. This is because they were not aware of what was going on around them or did not appreciate they were in an area with a high risk of violent crime.  ↩

  2. On the flip side, there are lots of people that want to learn ‘how to fight’. We can see this from the popularity of the full range of combat sports, martial arts schools and self defence schools (that teach just dumb self defence). Not too many people seek out the smart approach.  ↩

  3. Don’t worry, I don’t tell people when I talk to them they are practicing dumb self defence. That wouldn’t facilitate non-emotive discussion.  ↩

  4. Another good reason to practise smart self defence but often used as a reason to not worry about it.  ↩