Woman elbowing attacker in face on street

Self-defence, or, more appropriately, self protection, is a large and contentious subject. Some experts contend that special self defence classes or courses should not be taught, as it’s unlikely that an average person would learn physical techniques well enough over a single or just a few sessions, to be able to use them in a real situation. They have a point, but in my view it’s still better to know something, rather than nothing. 

This post provides twelve key aspects of self protection to think about, but without focussing on specific physical techniques. We’ll cover that in a later article, but the fighting aspects of self defence are usually the least important.

What do we mean by self defence?

Given that most people in society don’t devote their lives to realistic martial arts training, it’s important to have a basic knowledge of how to keep yourself and your loved-ones safe.

Self-defence is sometimes viewed as a subject for women only. Should “ladies self defence” even exist? There are no special techniques that I’d teach to a female that I wouldn’t teach to a male, the principles are the same. But, given that not all women are happy training with men, these courses do have their place. 

I’m sure most of us have been in situations at some point where we felt uncomfortable or worried for our personal safety, even if we haven’t fallen victim to a physical assault. Luckily Britain is a relatively safe country, but violent crime has been rising rapidly since 2013/4, until Covid lockdowns caused the numbers to flatten, at least temporarily. According to Statista, nearly 1.8 million violent crimes were recorded by UK police in the year 2020/1, triple that of 2012/13 when violent crime started to rise again after gradually falling over the previous few years.

Prevention is always better than cure, so if you find yourself in a physical altercation, things have already gone quite wrong. Read on to learn about the twelve tips that, when implemented,  will help to keep you safe.

1. Be aware and stay alert


Be aware of what’s going on around you, and who is near you. Make brief eye contact with people walking towards you. Don’t walk around with your eyes buried in your phone and your head down, as this destroys your situational awareness.

Don’t walk around in a questionable area, or in the dark, with earpods in or headphones on, so that you cannot hear someone approaching you or the sound of a car engine or emergency siren. Listening to music or your favourite podcast may be a fun way to leverage your time as you’re walking about, but you’ve just removed one whole sense that we rely on to detect approaching threats. Instead, ideally do without, or at least listen with just one ear and keep the volume low, giving you the ability to hear what’s happening around you. However, even this will significantly decrease your situational awareness.

It’s also a good idea to put your phone away out of sight until you’re in a safe place to use it, rather than wandering around in public with it in your hand, tempting potential thieves. Try not to have a hood up unless the weather really requires it. It will impinge on your peripheral vision, whether that’s from someone approaching you from the side, or a car you hadn’t spotted as you cross the road.

2. Keep Fit


We all know that keeping fit is good for us, and it plays an important role in self protection. Middle aged or older people face a greater threat to their wellbeing from poor fitness and diet leading to medical complications, than they do from being randomly attacked in the street. Logically, it makes more sense to worry about the greatest risk factors for YOU. If you’re at greater risk of heart disease due to your age or weight, do something about it, rather than worrying about being assaulted, which may never happen.

If you’re younger, go out clubbing every weekend and walk home on your own, you’ll be at greater risk of violence than the middle aged person who doesn’t go out drinking, so prepare accordingly. Keeping in good shape will improve your chances of being able to escape from a situation by running away (assuming you’re sober enough). 

Good cardiovascular fitness will also improve your odds should things get physical, as you’ll last longer without gassing out if you have to lay hands on someone whilst your adrenaline is inevitably spiking, and your heart rate is racing. Keeping fit and trim may also reduce your chances of being selected as a target in the first place.

3. Listen to your gut


If something just feels ‘wrong’ about a situation, remove yourself from it immediately. Our instincts are often our best guide, and should not be ignored. If you feel that someone walking behind you is actively following you, immediately try to get somewhere more public, and duck into a shock or ask a passerby for help and tell them what’s going on. Once when I was younger I was in a busy pub full of boozed-up people, with a packed dance floor, and only one exit. I got a bad feeling that something was about to kick off, so I left and sat in the pub across the road. Sure enough, two minutes later a big fight broke out in front of the doors.

If you see a group of dodgy looking people ahead that you’re going to have to walk close by or through, and you get a bad feeling, cross to the other side of the street before you reach them, or suddenly change direction. Adding an extra few minutes to your journey by taking a different route is well worth it to ensure your safety. 

If you feel a threat from the lone guy in the lift or the car park, walk away, or wait until others arrive and you’re not alone. 

As Obi-wan once said, “trust your feelings”. Your insight serves you well!

4. Your life is worth more than your possessions


If you’re mugged or someone tries to rob you, hand over your phone, purse, handbag or whatever items the mugger is demanding. They can be replaced. You can’t. Compliance is almost always the best policy in a mugging situation, unless you’re certain that you will be attacked anyway. Even if you’re an experienced martial artist, it just isn’t worth the risk. Protect yourself by getting appropriate insurance policies, not by fighting over a purse, wallet or phone. This holds even truer if you’re outnumbered, or a weapon is in play.

If you’re being mugged and you can’t see a weapon, just assume there is one. Most knife-wielding criminals won’t let you know they have one until it’s already sticking in your gut. If a knife is produced and being waved in your face, assume he has a backup you can’t see. Despite what some instructors/martial arts teach, defending against a knife is virtually impossible and should not be attempted unless you’re already fighting to save your life, or that of a loved one.

5. Be (and look) confident


People look for victims. Don’t look like a victim. Don’t be an easy target. Stand up straight and walk tall, hold your head high and look around you. Don’t shuffle about with your shoulders hunched and your hands in your pocket. Swing your arms confidently, scan your environment for threats to show that you’re aware. This doesn’t mean to say that you should always walk around in public expecting to be attacked – that way, paranoia lies. Just walk tall, be aware of your surroundings and don’t walk into preventable situations. 

6. Run

Try to wear sensible shoes that you can run in if necessary. Of course, not everyone is capable of running away, perhaps due to age, body shape or injury. But if you’re able to run, don’t let your footwear be your Achilles’ heel. If you must wear high heels, kick them off and run barefoot if you need to, but be aware this will cost you time you may not have.

Woman running in park

7. Call for help

If attacked, shout as loudly as you can, scream for help. Scream ‘fire’.

This serves a dual purpose. First, it may attract a passer-by to come to your aid. Second, it makes you a more annoying and riskier target for the attacker, such that by making enough of a racket, they may think twice and leave. Most opportunistic attackers select victims they think will comply without a fuss. 

If you have the time and space to phone for the police, do so, but they will take some time to respond. 

Try to attract as much attention as possible.

8. Carry a rape alarm


Keep it somewhere easily accessible. If it’s buried at the bottom of a handback or a backpack, it won’t be much use. If you start to feel uneasy about a situation, get it into your hand just in case. But, don’t assume you’re now ‘rape proof’ and can take risks you otherwise wouldn’t take, e.g. just taking that quick short cut home down the alley.

9. Have your keys ready


When in a deserted or dark car park and returning to your vehicle, don’t walk up to your car THEN hunt around for your keys. Have them ready in your hand before you get to your car. This reduces the time you’re standing at your car with poor situational awareness as you rummage in a bag or pocket. It also gives you a useful weapon that could be used if you are accosted at your car. If so, keys gripped firmly in the fist and punched towards an attacker’s vital areas such as their face, neck, throat or groin can cause a lot of pain and damage. If you have a keyring with several keys, you could potentially swing it across their eyes like a flail, buying you a second or two to escape or follow up with something else.

Think about what else you carry with you that could be used as a makeshift weapon in an emergency. Some items can be thrown in an attacker’s face to make them flinch, gaining time to escape. A mobile phone can potentially be rammed edge-first into a throat, nose or groin. Metal-bodied pens, nail files etc could all be used as an improvised weapon, in extremis. Gents, a solid metal ball-point pen can be easily concealed in a shirt or inside jacket pocket, from where it is easy to draw, and makes a decent alternative to a kubotan for striking vulnerable areas. Carrying concealed weapons, i.e. an implement designed to be a weapon such as a tactical pen or kubotan, is illegal in the UK. But having something on you which has another primary purpose but could potentially be used as a weapon, such as a standard metal pen or nail file, should not be illegal unless you were carrying it with an intent to harm.

10. Understand the psychology of confrontation

Firstly, try to avoid being grabbed. Be aware of your personal space and try not to let anyone enter it. If threatened, put your hands up in front of you, palms open and facing the aggressor, in a non-threatening posture. This tactic is often known as ‘the fence’ as it creates a physical and psychological barrier between you and them. Having your hands already up, and one foot slightly in front of the other, also puts you in a strong stance from which to launch attacks, without looking like you’re ‘up for a fight’.

If someone tries to enter your space or ‘pass your fence’ take a step backwards to re-establish distance. Someone who threatens you and invades your space is committing assault, and depending on the situation, if you’re in fear for your safety, a pre-emptive strike may be justified.

In a self defence situation that goes physical, one of three things will happen: you’ll fight back, flee, or freeze. Freezing is usually the worst outcome here, but it can be overcome with rigorous training, e.g. by regular sparring in a martial arts or boxing class. 

Many people freeze up when faced with sexual violence, becoming compliant in the hope of avoiding further harm. The common answer here is to try your best to fight back and escape, as you’re unlikely to come to worse harm than you would by complying. However, there are many examples of rape victims coming off even worse after trying to fight back but failing to escape. So there is no one size fits all answer here, and despite what you may think, you really have to idea how you would react in this situation unless it has happened to you. 

If fighting back isn’t working, compliance may be the best option. But if you’re complying and feel that you may be killed, then you should try everything you possibly can to fight back, if able. This includes biting, scratching, gouging, punching, kicking, screaming, or grabbing anything within reach, such as a rock, that could be used as an improvised weapon.

11. Use common sense


We shouldn’t have to change our behaviour just to stay safe, but the sad fact is, pragmatism is more important than lofty principles. If you don’t need to walk or run through the quiet park on your own late in the evening or the early morning, or walk down that narrow alleyway or through the bad part of town, then don’t do it. This applies to men just as much as to women, and if you follow your common sense, your odds of staying safe just went up.

Likewise, try not to become so inebriated that you cannot look after yourself. If you’re out late at night, stay in a group and try to avoid walking home alone. If you’re in a group or someone you know offers to take/walk you home, make sure they are people you trust.

12. Learn a martial art


If the worst comes to the worst and you need to physically protect your personal space or fend off an attack, you need to know what a physical confrontation feels like, or you’re likely to freeze when the inevitable adrenalin dump and fear hits you.

Learn what it feels like to hit something/someone and the mechanics of delivering a powerful blow with all your power and weight behind it. Women are often overmatched on a purely physical or strength basis by males, a male aggressor may be bigger, heavier, taller, stronger, or all of those factors. The same can be true of a smaller man having to deal with someone larger. 

You need to know:

  • How to deliver fast, accurate strikes to vulnerable areas such as the chin, throat, groin or nose, and then escape.
  • How to protect yourself if pushed to the floor. Grappling-based martial arts such as ju-jitsu will teach you this.
  • How to quickly and safely stand up if you’re down, and create space with your attacker.
  • What it feels like to take a hit, so that you can carry on fighting rather than capitulate.

Rigorous training in martial arts, particularly sparring with a partner or ground fighting, will impart valuable skills of timing, balance, distance, accuracy and power, but more importantly will help you manage the adrenaline and fear should the worst happen and you have to defend yourself or a loved one in the street or at home. For learned physical techniques to become effective, they need to be practised relentlessly and with as much realism as possible, either against a partner, focus pads or a heavy bag.

If you live in or near Maidenhead, Berkshire or High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, why not check out our adult ju-jitsu programme, which is heavily focussed on self-defence.

*None of the advice in this article constitutes legal advice, and the rules in your jurisdiction may allow for broader or narrower scope of action to defend yourself. Always check your local laws.