Martial Arts Is Not Self-Defence: Real World Violence Prevention..

Matt Beecroft,
Guest Contributor.. 

Violence is bigger than all of us. Just as we will never understand people fully, we can never understand a subject as convoluted and complex as violence.

Unless you’ve been exposed to a lot of violence, your training will be subjective. Most people’s idea of violence is one based off their own interpretation of what they learn in the dojo, see in the ring, or watch in a movie. In rare cases it comes from personal experience working as a police officer or prison guard. But how many of us deal with violent offenders daily?

Violence Is About Conflict..

Many people teaching martial arts have little to no experience with real world, brutal violence yet proclaim to teach self-defence. And very few critically look at what they are teaching or have been taught. Many of us have been caught up in dogma, a way of looking at violence due to our work – the martial art or ring sport in which we participate. Because we lack real world experience we tell ourselves a story about how we think it is rather than how it actually is in reality. We assume way too much.

“We often use assumption, reason, tradition, and recreation as a way of training for real world violence.”

Many practitioners are not able to separate reality from the stuff they see in the movies. And this is a problem if we are teaching others the same. We often use assumption, reason, tradition, and recreation as a way of training for real world violence.

Violence is ultimately about conflict. Conflict comes in many forms:

  • A group of guys brawling in pub.
  • Two muay Thai fighters duelling it out in the ring.
  • A psychiatrist trying to administer a sedative to an aggressive emotionally disturbed person.
  • A police officer trying to handcuff an ice addict.
  • A crowd controller escorting a drunk off the premises.
  • Someone being held up at an ATM under knifepoint.
  • Armed bandits invading a home.
  • A sexual predator following a young female home from the bus stop.
  • Kids bullying on the playground and a violent drunken spouse abusing his partner.

These are all different situations and all require different psychological, tactical, and physical skills. Yet they are all lumped into the subject of violence and self-defence. The only real experts are in fact the criminals who perpetrate violence onto others regularly and without conscience – the predators.

Do You Teach Self Defence?

The million dollar question is how do we train for something that is so hard to define?

Martial artists try to do it all. Self-discovery and enlightenment, physical fitness, street fighting, ring fighting, and self-defence. We try to be all things to all people. We even throw in military and combat training for good measure to macho it up. Whilst all these aspects can all be connected in some way, they are not interchangeable. 

Training in a martial art is not necessarily training for self-defence. Training for a ring sport or mat sport is not training for self-defence either. And training for combat is also not self-defence unless you walk around with an automatic weapon in tactical gear on the street day to day.

“Because we lack real world experience we tell ourselves a story about how we think it is rather than how it actually is in reality. We assume way too much.”

Whilst all of these domains most certainly have practical applications that can be useful in self-defence training, they are not, in essence, self-defence training. Yet when someone rings up a martial arts school and asks, “Do you teach self-defence?” the answer is always yes. And that irks me. The dollar has become more important than integrity and our moral and social responsibilities.

If you look at the roots of most traditional martial arts and how they still train, it has little to do with dealing with modern day violence and assaults. If we take an amazing traditional art like ninjitsu and look at its origins and its reason for practice – assassination by stealth – then I think we can safely say many people are going to question its modern day self defence applications.


I love the traditional arts. They are amazing and how I got started. I don’t think one style or system is better than another. But I think the problem lies in practitioners being delusional about what it is they are training for. While carrying a ninjato, climbing trees, and disappearing into puffs of smoke might humourously be considered useful strategies to avoid conflict, they probably don’t have practical application for modern day self-defence in 2015.

“Stress inoculation must happen in training, otherwise we risk sending people into the wilderness with false confidence.”

My experience in learning technique in many systems is often like this: Attacker assaults defender. Defender does technique X. The technique is successful. Finish. And it woefully attempts to replicate real world violence. When you think about effective self-defence training, does waiting for ideal circumstances to perform technique X seem like a great strategy?

In many real life situations, unless we are assaulted by surprise there is both a pre-confrontation and pre-fight stage. So why aren’t we learning in training how to deal with the situation earlier to avoid the physical assault to begin with? It is foolish to believe that the chance of you being attacked under ideal circumstances will ever happen. Attacks don’t occur in well-lit spacious areas with soft matting and minimal contact.

Real World Self-Defence Training..

Useful training needs to address how to recover from the fear, pain, and surprise of an assault as quickly as possible to survive. Stress inoculation must happen in training, otherwise we risk sending people into the wilderness with false confidence. 

You may be injured and in pain before you are even aware of the conflict and what is going on around you in a real life situation. You will need to break free of the shock and surprise to beat your own fear and change instantly into the mindset of a predator from that of a victim. This needs to happen in just a few seconds in order to survive. This is no easy feat. But it needs to be trained if we are to successfully prepare people for “the wild”.

“Non-reality based training sets you up to become a victim rather than learning to take the upper hand with initiative.”

Real self-defence training then also needs to address how to avoid violence and how to not be assaulted in the first place, either through bad luck or stupidity. Training needs to be preventative and we need to spend more time learning prevention techniques. We should be looking to flee or avoid, de-escalate or negotiate; posture, stun and run; or comply depending on the context. If it has to become physical, then we must train to do so on our terms as much as possible.  

martial arts, self defence, self-defence, fighting, violence

Stop Being a Victim..

Waiting for a person to bring violence to you before you execute your technique isn’t a great strategy. We need to outwit, not just outfight. Non-reality based training sets you up to become a victim rather than learning to take the upper hand with initiative. There needs to be a change in mindset from one of reluctant victim to wary predator in order to shift the odds of surviving violence in your favour.

The Way Is In The Training..


Self-defence: What’s acceptable under Canadian law?

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The assault charges laid recently against a Toronto restaurant owner who fought a man who he accused of being a thief, along with a number of high-profile self-defence cases in the U.S., have led to questions around property rights and self-defence laws in Canada.

Criminal lawyer Howard Cohen adds that there is a “huge misconception” in Canada regarding the use of self-defence, and many people think they don’t have any rights.

The laws around self-defence are a grey area — the criminal code states a property owner can only make a citizens arrest if the alleged wrongdoer is caught in the act. But many people don’t take in to account, “the flexibility and reasonableness of our juries,” a factor that has affected many cases where people have acted to defend themselves or their property, Cohen says.

Stephen Harper introduced legislation last year to try and clarify the self-defence rights of Canadians. It was dubbed the ‘Lucky Moose’ bill, after a case in Toronto where Lucky Moose grocery store owner David Chen and two employees apprehended a thief after he returned to the store.

The three men were charged with kidnapping, carrying a dangerous weapon — a boxcutter— assault, and forcible confinement in the case. The accused thief, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to robbing the store and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Prosecutors later dropped the kidnapping and weapons charges against Chen and his two employees, but went ahead with the other charges in which the three men were eventually found not guilty.

The Conservative bill died when Parliament was dissolved for last May’s federal election and now, renamed as bill C-26, is currently in second reading in the House of Commons.

CBC News spoke to Cohen and criminal lawyer Stacy Nichols about different legal scenarios that outline what an individual’s rights are under current Canadian law. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

CBC News: You hear a noise and go downstairs in the middle of the night and find a burglar, and you can’t tell if he’s armed. Legally, what are your options?

“Your dwelling house seems to be the property you’re allowed to protect the most,” Nichols says.

Under Section 40 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the defence of dwellings, Nichols says, “everyone who is in possession of a dwelling house is justified in using as much force as necessary, to prevent any person from forcibly breaking into or entering the dwelling house without lawful authority.”

Cohen echoes Nichols’ sentiments, adding that when it comes to defending themselves, Canadians have the most rights inside their own homes.

“This area is less grey than others. The rule of reasonable force still applies, but most judges will give you the benefit of the doubt,” Cohen says. “… You can use any force you deem necessary to remove the burglar from the house and eliminate the threat to yourself.”

“You could use a significant amount of force. If you knocked them out and rendered them unconscious, you will probably not be charged with assault,” Cohen adds. “But if he was retreating and you hit him in the head with a bat and he was [critically injured], you might have a problem.”

Nichols says the words “as much force as is necessary” are one of the things taken into account by judges.

“It might depend on where the person was, and what they were doing. A judge would look at what degree of force was used and where you struck the person,” Cohen says.

“There’s a ton of case law out there where people have been charged in these types of situations,” Nichols adds, referring to situations where an intruder has entered and a dwelling occupant has used lethal force.

“Generally they’re treated very, very leniently, or the charges are dropped altogether,” she says.

Cohen says the judge’s decision revolves around the specifics of the individual situation.

“Every scenario in criminal law tends to be very unique, so that’s a judge’s job is to sift through the facts and make a determination based on them, and all kinds of factors play into it,” Cohen says.

CBC News: You own a store and someone has come in late at night to rob it. Is it legal to use force to stop them?

“What is allowed is what’s called a citizens arrest,” Nichols says.

“Generally the term ‘as much force as reasonably necessary,’ is again applied to this situation.”

Cohen adds that as in the self-defence scenario, the judge’s decision about the amount of force that was necessary in a given situation goes on a case-by-case basis.

“If you had a reasonable belief this person will hurt you, then you can justify killing them,” he says, but adds you would have to be in a situation where “if you don’t do something you’re going to be hurt or killed.”

Cohen says the courts look closely at a situation to see whether the person claiming self-defence has gone overboard.

“The crown attorney still has to show the force was unreasonable,” he says.

“The criminal code gives Canadians a little more self-defence posture than most people believe is the case, because some people look at some of these situations [like David Chen] that have factors outside of self-defence,” Cohen says.

CBC News: Someone has just stolen something that belongs to you and is running down the street. Can you chase and tackle them to get your stuff back?

“You’re allowed to try and get your belongings back,” Nichols says, but under Section 38 of the criminal code, “you can’t strike or cause bodily harm to the person that’s stealing your stuff.”

Cohen concurs with Nichols, saying, “if you see someone committing an indictable offence you can make a citizens arrest using reasonable force.”

“You can pursue that person, but you’re liable much like a police officer doing an arrest,” he said.

CBC News: Someone is simply trespassing. Do we have rights to physically remove someone from our property?

Cohen says like security guards, if you’re going to arrest someone you have to hold the alleged perpetrator for police.

“You would have to use reasonable force to detain, but I would think [in terms of trespassing] you would be judged much more closely on what that force was,” he said.

CBC News: If we ever fear our family is in danger in public, do we have the right to defend them, even if the threat is a perceived one?

Nichols says this is the greyest area of the law, but, “unless the person was actually taking some sort of action, or was using some kind of assaultive force, you wouldn’t be justified in doing too much.”

Cohen says if a person reasonably believes a potential threat is imminent, and a judge agrees with the reasoning, then they would likely not be penalized for their actions.

“It’s more difficult for Canadians to understand because it seems more people are involved in this type of situation in the United States,” he said.

The so-called perceived threat and the level of response is part of the practical reality that surrounds the law in these situations, Cohen says.

“There’s no necessity to retreat, as depending on the circumstances, it [defending yourself] could have been the right thing to do.”

It comes down to whether the amount of force used could be considered reasonable, given the situation. Cohen says, for example, “if you were getting out of your car and some young kid came up to you and started bugging you for money, and you didn’t give it to him and he became aggressive, the law wouldn’t support you if you beat them senseless.”

CBC News: Under what circumstances in Canada is the use of lethal force allowed?

Again, Nichols says the decision is in the judge’s hands, and is made on a case-by-case basis.

“It all comes back to what is reasonable in the circumstance,” she says. “A judge would have to find you had no other choice.”

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Be Safe..