Life gives you plenty of opportunities to train and learn new skills.

Your education from an early stage should provide chances to grow and develop. Hobbies and sports can provide new skills from an early age that may last a lifetime. During your job, you’ll first acquire proficiency, which, if you’re lucky or persistent, can develop into a career of enhanced capabilities and improvement.

Self defence is different to all of these. In general pursuits of learning and testing those skills – again, education, hobbies, sports and work all provide this – there are certain parameters, or ground rules that apply, which prepare you and set you up for success.

The curriculum at school gives you a limit for what your exams will be. You know what to study for. Sports will have rules which at least put in place the expectations of what will happen and you can prepare accordingly. If something goes wrong, there’s a referee to put it back on track. Employment operates within laws, regulations and job descriptions. You know what to do and challenges can be overcome within these set boundaries.

Self defence is not the same as these pursuits. You can train and train, but the rules, boundaries and problems are impossible to predict, with endless possibilities ahead.

Will you face a single criminal or multiple attackers? Are they bigger or smaller than you? With weapons, without weapons? What type? Is it a threat or an actual attack? In what physical or geographic setting, with what barriers or opportunities around you? Are you alone or with third parties? Are you in a familiar place or in an alien environment? Are you subject to local law or the legal parameters of a foreign jurisdiction? Is it light or completely dark where you can’t really see much? Are you awake and alert or just tiredly woken up from a noise in your house? The list goes on and on.

Not easy, right?

Now take all these situations, with any combination of them, and add that you have no preparation time, you have no time to seek additional information and you have no opportunity to consult with others.

Add that any people with you are not on your wavelength or thinking and you have no chance to bring them up to scratch or build a plan in a time-out meeting. You have no further resources to help you but the knowledge you have in that moment.

Getting even more difficult, isn’t it?

This isn’t all. Now supplement that you’re scared, with fear rising your heart rate to 170+ with fine and mixed motor skills in serious jeopardy, with tunnel vision and the shock mentally engaging your amygdala in a freeze, flight or fight response that your neocortex is struggling to think and find solutions in.

Maybe you’re already wounded and in severe pain. Or having had too much to drink.

This isn’t, frankly, your favourite time of the day, is it?

Welcome to the reality of self defence. It’s not all that straight forward, is it?

Self defence is grounded in being sub-optimal, physically, cognitively and environmentally. Criminals don’t pick time, place or victims who are ready, alert and prepared. They seek you out at the least favourite position for you. Low risk for them, high risk for you equal greater chance of success. If they can get ahead of you, confusing your brain, hitting the first blow, using a weapon, they’re halfway there, and you’ll struggle to recover.

You’ll maybe be using your skills for the first time. The other guys is a long-term practitioner in his ‘art’. He has no inhibitions. You must obey the law.

This isn’t combat sports. No rules. No referee. No weight class. Most importantly, nothing can be predicted.

Now, you may appreciate the challenge in teaching, training and applying self defence skills in real life. This isn’t a set-up boxing match in a ring. This isn’t a wrestling theatre spectacular. This isn’t an Olympic martial art competition.

They all have rules, regulations, frames of reference and controls. Don’t get me wrong, they demand immense skill, fitness and finessing talent – but the context is ultimately a predictable one.

The ordinary instructor and practitioner of self defence face a different problem. How do you teach and prepare for uncertainty, unpredictability and sub-optimal situations?

Ultimately you can’t prepare for an endless array of possibilities, places, positions and people. That would be beyond the time, energy and creativity available to both you and your instructor.

You have to train under an umbrella or principles. These principles should guide and frame action during the ensuing uncertainty, unpredictability and unfairness of violence.

The primary principle is that you need to mentally prepare to meet these circumstances. Your environment is alien. You feel tired. Your pulse is sky high. You’re outnumbered. There’s a dangerous weapon in play. You know you risk life and limbs. There will be pain. Your goal is personal safety, not a trophy. You are willing to do what’s needed to stay alive and protected. Staying in the moment with focus is all that matters, analysis is for the next day.

What’s the point here? Recognise what violence means. It will, if you’re not used to it, seek to overwhelm your mind. The freeze response is there to keep you safe from the prehistoric sabre tooth tiger whose eyes tracks motion. Once you’re detected, it’s still trying to keep you safe, but it’s now the wrong response. It wont help you. Now, its flight or fight. Choose the first if you can, the other should always be Plan B.

Prepare mentally for this. See situations through your mind’s eye. What’s your first reaction? How you feel? How do you act? Just like an athlete prepares by getting into the zone by visualisation, so must you. the more you play this game, the better your mind becomes. Remember, don’t always react with your self defence skills here. Visualisation also involves you becoming Usain Bolt. Only faster.

Now, seek to apply stress, shock and elevated heart rates in your training. Things change. Reactions suffer. Techniques falter. Thinking slows. Get used to it. This training is your friend.

You must also as a principle in your training always expect multiple weapons and concealed weapons. Make things different and unpredictable. Do you train in drills with unknown attackers becoming available to you? Can they deploy weapons although the drill is about something totally different? Do you regularly train against unknown attacks, adapting your brain to this context all the time? What about the conditions you train in? Always light? Switch it off. Always on mats? Go outside on grass, asphalt, sand and stones. Always in open room? Find something different, an office, a house, a stairway or a vehicle. Always outside in sun? Seek out some rain, water and snow. Always in training clothes? Get your normal attire on.

The point is, the more flexible and natural you are with your environment, the better for you. You must become as familiar with the real world as possible. Self defence is about just that. When did some last attack you in the dojo?

Another principle is to introduce resistance in the training. Criminals fight back. They don’t stand and admiringly watch you perform your gracious technique in peace. Once a technique is learned, introduce fight back by the ‘attacker’, but keep this at a safe speed and power. To begin with, this is to build expectations of response and visual pictures that you can act upon, improvise and overcome. Things become fluid and dynamic, that’s what’s going to happen. It should not surprise you in a real life. Make everything unpredictable.

You also need to give the partitioner a principal understanding of the realities affecting self defence. These are not pure techniques and tactics. Have you taught the legal implications of what you teaching your student? What about the prioritisation of avoidance, escape and deescalation? Do they train and make this instinctive? What about overcoming freezing of the mind? How about the post-fight implications? The criminal or his associated group seeking revenge. The legal costs. The impact on family and employment. Affect on your own psyche. Medical or financial ramifications. Violence has a cost – and its not only measured in physical impact.

These topics are all a part of self defence. The material to study it is available. As a practitioner or a teacher, you should at least have a basic appreciation of these. After all, what you’re teaching or training is a road to all of it.

Finally, the principle of excellence behind any life pursuit will apply. If you want to become good or great at it, you need to put the hours in. Self defence doesn’t have a final destination. There’s no level where you’re ‘good enough’. There are no ranks or belts that guarantee success on the streets. No trophy will keep you safe. You need to work hard and train. This is a lifelong occupation, or at least as long as you’re physically and psychologically able. Of course, the benefits are considerable, at any age, through skill, fitness and confidence. They are however based on an investment – with an upfront cost and regular subscription.

Self defence is different. Its very nature is rooted in uncertainty, unpredictability and unfairness. You must teach, train and think of it in that very context to succeed.

– Orjan Pettersen