Self-Defense Training: Expectation vs Reality

Let’s talk about self defense and your expectations around it. The first time I attended self-defense classes, I had no idea what to expect or even which martial arts programs were the best to help me out of any self-defense incident. 

I thought every self-defense situation would be like a Hollywood action scene where I could fight off 50 attackers at a time! Hey, I was young…

But, over the years, and especially after learning Krav Maga, I began to understand that self defense isn’t dramatic fight sequences or the use of deadly force causing great bodily harm. 

It’s about staying safe, being prepared and using reasonable force so that at the end of the day you go home safe.

So what’s real and what isn’t?  

Understanding the difference is crucial if you want to survive a violent crime situation. 


Because knowing what truly works (and what doesn’t) could be what ensures the best possible outcome for you instead of the worst-case scenario.

Understanding Self-Defense Expectations

So, what do most people think of when they hear the term “self-defense.” 

It’s easy to imagine ourselves as the hero of our own story. The one who skillfully dodges every punch and expertly counters with a series of well-placed strikes. Unfortunately, as cool as that would be – it’s just not reality. 

You don’t need to be a black belt in six different martial arts and a world champion fighter to survive physical assaults and avoid serious bodily injury. The best thing for self-defense is mindset, not just fight ability. 

A few years ago I came across an interesting video from Tim Larkin, author of ‘When Violence Is The Answer’, which clearly puts things into perspective. 

In the video he mentions that when most people think about self-defense, they see themselves as the ‘good guy’ – the victim who needs to fend off the attacker. It’s a reasonable belief and natural reaction to align ourselves with the one who’s being threatened.

But here’s the twist – what if we saw ourselves as the one in control, the one who’s not just reacting but dictating the pace of the encounter? Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it? But it’s a crucial shift in thinking. 

As a general rule it has less to do with being aggressive or violent and more to do about changing our basic assumptions regarding violence and our role in it.

Training in self-defense isn’t just learning a set of moves; it’s about rewiring how we see ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation. It’s about moving from wondering “What do I do if I’m attacked?” to “How can I control the situation if it happens?” 

It’s a significant shift – from being a victim to being in control.

Remember, violence in real life doesn’t come with a script. It’s messy, unpredictable, and doesn’t care about your notions of right and wrong or which combat system you follow. 

That’s why, in self-defense, training our minds to think differently is just as important as training our bodies.

Debunking Common Self Defense Myths

There’s a lot of crap out there about self-defense, just spend 2 mins scrolling through McDojoLife’s feed and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s some of the stuff that I’ve heard recently. 

1. “Just scream if you’re attacked.” Now, screaming can work in certain situations, like a crowded place where it could draw attention and help. But in the heat of the moment, when you’ve got just mere seconds to react do you want to be focusing on protecting yourself, or screaming to save the day.

2. “You need formal training to defend yourself.” While training is awesome (I mean, I’m all for it), it’s not the only way. When push comes to shove, being aggressive and causing an injury – through technique or improvisation – is what will make an attacker back off. It’s more about effect, not method.

3. “Always run from an attacker.” Whenever something is phrased as an absolute be careful. Let’s say someone’s coming at you with a knife or a bat. If you can run to safety before they catch you, then it’s the right thing to do. If they are within striking distance, then you want to close the gap and try to control the weapon. Sometimes, if it’s a robbery, tossing your wallet or phone might be enough to end it.

4. “Don’t grapple with a knife-wielding attacker.” Here’s the thing – it’s not always black and white. If you can close the gap and control their striking space, you might throw them off. It’s about understanding the situation and adapting, not just following a set rule.

5. “Back away from your attacker.” While backing up seems logical, remember, your attacker can move forward faster than you can retreat. Sometimes, taking the offensive – grappling or striking – is your better bet.

6. “Just focus on blocking.” This is right up there with ‘Just shoot’em in the leg’, blocking is important, but don’t make it your only plan. Make your attacker worry about your moves by having a strong and aggressive offense. 

7. “Aim to cause pain.” Causing pain might not be enough. The amount of force you use should be enough to inflict an injury that stops them in their tracks. Pain can be subjective and sometimes it’s not a deterrent, just ask any Law Enforcement Officers.

8. “Avoid eye contact.” Making eye contact might deter a predator-type attacker but could provoke someone who’s more confrontational. It’s really situational. 

9. “Use your keys as a weapon.” The old key-between-the-knuckles trick – not as effective as you think. Injuries, not just pain, remember? Sometimes, your fists or an open palm strike to the face are better options, and quicker to employ as well.

10. “Keep your hands out of your pockets.” Sure, if you’re in a sketchy area, keep those hands free. But don’t be paranoid everywhere you go. It’s about being aware of your surroundings, not living in constant fear. I talk about this in another post on the Cooper Color Code.

So there you have it – a quick rundown of some common self-defense myths. Remember, it’s about being smart, adaptable, and understanding that every situation is unique. No one-size-fits-all here.

Misconceptions About Self-Defense Training

Now that we’ve busted some common myths, let’s get into some self-defense training misconceptions. These are the things you might hear in a gym or read online.

1. “Self-defense is all about learning sequences.” You know, like those choreographed moves in movies. Only training this way is a great way to build false confidence in your abilities. In reality, no attacker is going to wait for you to remember step 3 of your fancy technique. Real fights are unpredictable. It’s more about adapting on the fly than following a script.

2. “I’ll just call for help on my phone.” If only it were that simple. In a potential self defense situation, every second counts. Fumbling for your phone is time you’re not defending yourself. Even if you manage a call, how long will it take for a police officer to arrive? Plus, chances are, the attack is already happening. Keep your focus on the immediate threat.

3. “Carrying a weapon makes me safe.” Having a weapon might give you a sense of security, but there are risks. If you’re not trained, the weapon could end up being used against you. Then there’s self-defense laws which vary from place to place – do you have the legal right to carry it in the first place?

4. “Aim for sensitive areas like eyes or groin.” While targeting sensitive areas seems like a surefire way to stop an attack, it’s not that straightforward. Pain tolerance varies wildly, and there’s no guaranteed ‘fight finisher.’ It’s about using the momentum and opportunity, not just aiming for these spots.

5. “Size doesn’t matter in self-defense.” I wish this were true, but size and strength do play roles. A larger opponent can overpower certain techniques. A reasonable person will train with this in mind and learn strategies that work for them. I talk about this in another blog post called: Does Size Matter?

6. “MMA skills are perfect for self-defense.” MMA is great, but remember, it’s a sport with rules. A street confrontation, especially with weapons involved, is a whole different ball game. The techniques and strategies can differ significantly.

7. “Most fights end up on the ground.” This is an overstatement. While being prepared for ground fighting is important, not all physical assaults end up there. Your aim should be to stay on your feet and avoid being vulnerable on the ground. Sorry BJJ fam.

8. “Military training is ideal for self-defense.” Military combat training is designed for military operations, not your average street encounter. The context and rules of engagement are different as is the use of force. It’s about using appropriate self-defense techniques, not military tactics.

9. “I don’t need self-defense; I live in a safe area.” This is a common false sense of security. Danger doesn’t have a preferred zip code. Being prepared is about taking responsibility for your safety, no matter where you live.

10. “Using ‘dirty’ techniques like pulling hair is weak.” In a life-threatening situation, there’s no such thing as a ‘cheap move.’ It’s about survival. Use whatever you have at your disposal. Remember, there are no rules in a real fight – only survival.

Real self-defense is about being practical, adaptable, and understanding the reality of confrontations – not just what we see in movies or read in books.

Bridging the Gap Between Expectation and Reality

First thing, the key is realistic training. 

This isn’t about rehearsing choreographed moves or preparing for movie-like scenarios. It’s about training for the unexpected – because, let’s face it, that’s how real life works. You want to be ready for anything, from any angle, at any time.

But how do you get there? It’s about practice, yes, but it’s also about mindset. 

Training your brain to think differently about violence, about your role in a confrontation, and about how to respond effectively. 

It’s moving from a reactive to a proactive stance – not waiting for things to happen, but being prepared to take control when they do.

And remember, self-defense is personal. What works for one person might not be the best fit for another. 

The goal is to find what works for you, train in it, and adapt it to real-world situations. It’s about being smart, being aware, and most importantly, being honest with yourself about where you stand and what you need to work on.

In the end, bridging this gap is about empowering yourself – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, too. It’s about understanding that self-defense is more than just fighting; it’s about having the confidence and the skills to protect yourself or a family member.

So, keep it real and train smart. Because when it comes to self-defense, the only expectations we should have are the ones we set for ourselves, based on reality, not fiction.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this?

Firstly, self-defense is about a lot more than just throwing punches or mastering techniques. 

It’s about understanding and adapting to the unpredictable nature of real-life confrontations. 

Second, its about mindset. Changing how we view ourselves in potentially dangerous situations. It’s not about seeing yourself as the victim, but rather as someone who can take control and respond effectively.

Lastly, as you go about your day, keep these insights in mind. Whether you’re a seasoned martial artist or just starting to think about your personal safety, being prepared – both mentally and physically – is key. 

Stay safe, stay smart, and most of all, stay prepared. Because in the world of self-defense, the only thing we can expect is the unexpected.

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