The Self-Ownership of Personal Safety

Recently I had an opportunity to contribute to a self-defense for travelling executives workshop. This was a half day experience focused on educating professionals on personal safety tips as they travel to less than safe parts of the world for work. The event was organised by their company, who clearly saw the value in educating their staff on how to keep safe. Of the thirty or so participants, few had any experience with real world interpersonal violence, nor any martial arts based training. To be fair this was quite understandable considering that these participants lived in one of the safest countries in the world.

Now of course this isn’t the first time I have taught an audience like this. But, for the most part, when I am teaching self-preservation skills these days, it’s to people who have actively sought me out to do so. In most cases this tends to take place in a martial arts academy or similar. Having a few hours to teach these travelling executives, it was clear from the onset that this wasn’t going to be a typical class in ‘martial arts techniques’. Which got me thinking!

Learning Martial Arts Isn’t Always an Advantage

So many people come to a martial arts school to learn first and foremost to defend themselves. Most of these schools spent almost all of their time helping students develop physical skill sets. I don’t want to take anything away from this. Having had my fair share of interpersonal conflict in my life, I am well acquainted with having to go ‘hands on’ to protect myself.

But if I had to be brutally honest with myself, even growing up in government housing, working the door for several years, and living in one of the most violent cities in the world Johannesburg – I have avoided far more potential personal safety threats than I can ever count. Crucially without ever having to go hands on with anyone.

This wont make me popular, but as a martial arts instructor myself, I often feel that training physical fighting skills can be somewhat of a disadvantage at times. As noted, most ‘martial arts/self-defense’ schools spend almost all of their time learning to physically fight back. The problem with this is, that when you believe any potential threat to your safety requires a physical response, you switch off to other potential solutions.

Clearly you cannot teach a group of corporate suites to be Kung-Fu fighting like Bruce Lee in a morning, but should you even be trying to?

It’s far more reasonable, and practical, to equip people with a deeper understanding of personal awareness, how criminals profile potential victims, verbal Jiu-Jitsu, and key physical responses to avoid and escape.

Now the question is, is this only valid in the workshop outlined above, or does this really apply to everyone?

I think it applies to everyone!

The Art of Non-Engagement

Look, its cool (and fun) learning all the Jason Bourne moves. But at the end of the day, fighting anyone, even when one can, should always be the last resort. My friend Tony Blauer said something to me recently on an interview that stood out. I was talking about having routes to get home safely as a kid to avoid the neighbourhood gangs. He replied, “You were already counter surveillancing without even knowing the term”. And that’s exactly right.

Now imagine I decided not to do that, and instead every day I made it a point to walk right into the thick of things. Besides getting beaten up every day for doing so, how long would that strategy realistically last? I knew already then, I wasn’t going to be the next gang leader. I hated fighting. I hated conflict. So learning to intelligently avoid putting myself purposively in a bad situation didn’t just make sense, it was smart. Had I not, who knows, I may not have been writing this today.

My point is, most ‘self-defense instructors’ need to get off this whole notion that interpersonal violence needs to be met with returning fists. Self preservation should be first and foremost about preserving the self. This means, that when confronted with a potential threat, you look at ALL possible self-preservation options, and YES, this may include: The Art of Non-Engagement. There’s a fine line between confidence and stupidity. And it’s stupid to train only to beat every possible threat to ones safety from another human being with a physical technique. Talking someone down may not be as glamorous, not as cool for your ego, but if you get to go home safe and hug your kids, and see another sunrise, surely that’s what matters most?

At the end of the day, not everyone is going to be Rambo, nor do they want to be or should be. Size and strength make a difference, but what really makes a difference is starting to be street smart, and you can begin to teach this in a short amount of time. Trusting your gut, knowing what the common crime trends are when going somewhere new, being aware of your surroundings (yes staying off your phone) etc, are going to save a ton more lives than one more night rehearsing kicking someone in the family jewels.

Is there a place for this?

Of course there is. But here’s the thing, in most instances when it comes to personal threats from other humans, brain always beats brawn.


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  1. Great post, coach. I identified so much with your post. Growing up as an Asian kid in Australia in the 80s wasn’t easy, especially if you were really the only ethnically different person in your town. Without knowing it, I was already developing a sense for what you termed as ‘counter surveillance’ and threat avoidance at that stage for pure need of survival. Which is why I have always maintained that self preservation is a thinking person’s game.