Protect Training Systems is New Zealand’s foremost self-defense training provider. The co-founders, Phil and Athena Thompson, have years of experience in their field, martial arts training, and lived experiences of extreme violence.
Last weekend I was fortunate enough to go along to a three-hour training session with Phil, which was free of charge to me as it was booked through my employer. Of the training workshops I’ve done for this job, it was probably the least relevant (I work with young children) but it was also the one I enjoyed the most and the only one that didn’t make me slightly resent giving up my Saturday morning. I talked to Phil briefly afterwards, to tell him how much I enjoyed it and ask if it was okay to blog about it, and he said ‘yeah, sure!’ So I’m going to recap here some of the things I learnt. I would still recommend booking a session at some point if you can afford it – I’m told the programs can be pretty pricey if your boss isn’t a highly practiced south-Auckland based bargainer – but with violence and sexual assaults as frequent as they are, this training is worth your money and time.
Identifying and distinguishing two kinds of attackers
Phil taught us that virtually all people who commit an act of violence can be sorted into one of two categories: ego-based attackers, and criminal attackers. An ego-based attacker is an ordinary person who doesn’t go out looking to hurt people, but can be provoked into violence through a perceived assault on their ego. These are the men you see erupting into violence when a drink is spilt on them at the bar, the women you see tearing each other apart because one of them has made an advance on the other’s partner. This is the less threatening kind of attacker, and the kind you have the best chance at talking out of committing an assault.
Criminal attackers are people who do go out looking for people to hurt, in order to fill a psychological or sexual need. The pacifying strategies you may be able to employ effectively with the ego-based attacker will not work at all with someone who actively searches for people to hurt, rape or kill.
These people are the reason you need to be actively cautious when you are out alone in a public area, especially at night. These are what Phil calls ‘orange light situations’, meaning that you should be aware of your vulnerability, but not so pumped up with adrenaline that you might just attack someone who actually means you no harm at all. Fortunately, there are some easily spotted quirks in a stranger’s behavior that can let you know they’re a threat to you.
The first of these is the ‘hard stare’. This is when a person some distance away notices you, and looks at you with pro-longed eye contact. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it might, and it is not paranoia to assume the worst and avoid such a person. The second teller is called the look-about, and is much less ambiguous. This is when a person looks around to check no one is watching them. It’s a dead give away. If you see someone doing that, you don’t need to wait for any further sign that they mean you harm.
Sometimes a person intending to attack you knows how to be a little craftier than this, and may present himself/herself in a way that’s meant to calm your anxieties. The key thing to remember here is that it’s not impolite to tell someone if their behavior is bothering you, or to ask them to keep their space, and if they don’t respect that, you have the right to treat them as an immediate threat to your safety.
If you find yourself abruptly faced with an angry, insulted opponent, your best hope is to give him/her an opportunity to leave without hurting you but with their ego still intact. In these kinds of attacks, the violence committed is a way of saving face – the attacker wants to prove to whomever might be watching that they’re not weak or afraid of whoever has provoked them. They’re probably running high with adrenaline and may not really want to fight you. They may be as scared as you are of being hurt, and you might be just as angry with them as they are with you.
The best thing to do in this kind of situation is apologize to them and state clearly that you don’t want any trouble. If you can do that, and not react aggressively to anything they might say to you, you have a pretty good chance of getting out of the situation without any violence occurring. In this way the attacker has proven that he/she is unafraid to fight, and has probably publically belittled you to such an extent that you pose no further threat to their ego.
However, it is still reasonable to expect that you may have to physically defend yourself. It’s a good idea to have your hands up and ready to protect your face, but if at all possible it’s best to do this in a way that isn’t obvious to your attacker. I.e., don’t have your fists raised by your chest. Ideally you should try to turn it into a natural-looking gesture (e.g. having your open palms by your chest in a surrendering stance).
Being a Hard Target
The reason apologizing and allowing yourself to be made to look weak won’t work on a criminal attacker is that their drives are different, and the reactions they will have to your show of weakness will be completely different as well. The ego-based attacker may be content at making you look weak, without attacking you to prove it further, but the criminal attacker choses victims based on how weak he perceives them to be in the first place, and the weaker you seem, the more of an easy target you become.
The most basic tool you can use to make yourself a hard target is your awareness. This means that when you’re walking home alone in the evening, you should leave your earphones out and try to be mindful of your surroundings. This immediately makes you harder to attack than someone who is demonstrably distracted and not aware of his/her vulnerability.
If a stranger approaches you and you’re not sure whether or not they mean you harm, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about making them aware of that. An attacker may well come toward you asking for help with a broken-down car or some similar situation, and the best thing you can do in this case is ask the person to keep their space and talk to you where they are, without coming any closer. A decent person will always respect that; an attacker never will. If the person keeps coming closer to you after you’ve asked them not to, you have two options:
1. Run as fast as you can to a safe location (somewhere public, where there are lots of people, like a shop). Except in the case of some psychopaths, attackers do want at all costs to avoid being caught.
2. If one is not possible, hold your ground and fucking scream at them. Shout ‘BACK OFF! BACK OFF!’ with hands raised and there’s a chance that they might be so startled by your sudden display of strength that they actually decide you’re not worth it. Remember, unlike the ego-based attacker, they don’t want to prove your weakness – they already believe that you are weak, and your best chance is to do everything you can to convince them otherwise.
How and when to fight for your life
This is where actual physical skills come in. In either an ego-based or a criminal-based attack, if you believe your life is in danger you have the right under New Zealand law to use reasonable means to defend yourself. In an ego-based attack it’s highly likely that there will be other people around, and the minute this becomes something more than a verbal argument, those people become witnesses, so you should give them plenty of obvious evidence that you don’t want to fight and don’t mean harm to anyone. This is another reason it’s important to tell the ego-based attacker that you don’t want any trouble. If it doesn’t convince them not to attack you, it becomes your defense when violence does play out and you have to prove in court that you were acting out of self-defense.
Contrary to popular belief, you can still be acting out of self-defense even if you hit the other person first. If you have reasonable cause to believe that a person intends to hurt you (e.g. they are invading your space after you have told them not to come closer to you/they are touching you or holding you against your consent/they have threatened you verbally), it is your prerogative to treat them as a threat to your body and your life. This is a red-light situation, meaning you should be fully prepared to attack.
At this point it no longer matters whether the person is attacking you because of their bruised ego or because of deepset psychological issues. Your physical means of defense remain the same for all kinds of attackers, unlike the preemptive strategies. The best body parts to attack are the throat and eyes, because injury to these not only hurts like hell but can actually impede a person the way that a kick to the stomach or even the groin probably won’t. Some of the drugs that can cause violent behavior, like meth, also impair a person’s ability to feel pain, so groin injuries won’t stop them, but blindness or a collapsed windpipe will. You should punch with your fist turned sideways, straight in the face and throat. You can also make very effective weapons out of keys, pens, cellphones and any other sharp or hard object.
It may be hard to imagine yourself doing any of this even if your life were in danger. Phil says the way to deal with this is by remembering that any assault on you will also effect the people who love you, so when you’re fighting for yourself, you’re also fighting for your family.
What to say to the police
If you injure or hurt someone, you can expect that you will have to defend yourself against the law. There’s a high chance that you’ll still be very high on adrenaline by the time this takes place, and that can lead you to say stupid things. According to Phil, the best thing you can tell the police is that you were scared for your life and you don’t know what happened. Don’t try to explain or defend your every action. When you’re arrested, the police will tell you that you have the right to remain silent, but they might say it very quickly and then continue questioning you immediately afterwards. Your best course of action is to say ‘officer, I’d like to use my right to silence’, and wait until you’ve calmed down and gotten a lawyer before you say anything else.
This is frightening stuff, but Phil managed to carry us through it without anyone becoming upset. He demonstrated all of the attacker-identifiers and defense strategies with role-plays that seemed to make sense to every one in the room. Protect Training Systems runs courses for the public, for schools and organizations and corporate workspaces. They have courses run for and by women, including Safe for Life, the only women’s self-defense course endorsed by Rape Prevention Education (a wonderful non-profit organization I’ve been working with recently). You can read more about their courses here: http://www.protectselfdefence.co.nz/index.htm. I would heartily recommend them to anyone who feels unsafe on a regular basis. It’s a sad reality that programs like Phil and Athena’s are so necessary, but I’m very grateful that they do exist and give me the means to empower myself against sexual violence while still fighting for a world without it.