One of the main reasons many of us decide to become fit and healthy is to feel strong and confident. But how would you cope if you were really put under pressure, say from a verbal or physical attack? The recent disclosures in the press about the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and the prominence of the #MeToo movement have revealed how commonplace assaults against women are, and I also know this well from several years of instructing self-defence classes.
While empowering women to protect themselves often feels like the best job in the world, I also hear appalling stories of violence and abuse that makes me glad I have yoga in my life to help me keep a balanced perspective. Have I been attacked myself? Unfortunately, yes, but I learned a lot from my experience and from my subsequent training in martial arts and combat instruction.
Whether you have suffered an assault or would like to know how to prevent one, here is a summary of the best advice I can give you on self-protection in everyday life.
Think about how you look to a potential attacker
I don’t mean what you’re wearing. That is entirely up to you and unfortunately we know from interviews with convicted criminals that you could be wearing baggy tracksuit bottoms and a stained t-shirt and it wouldn’t make a difference if they have targeted you. They make their decisions based on factors such as your alertness, confidence and how likely you are to fight back. Ultimately, no predator wants to get caught, so the more likely you are to see them coming and look like you might give them a hard time, the less likely you are to be approached. Therefore:
- Walk tall. Keep your gaze up and your chest open.
- Walk with a purpose, even if you don’t know where you are going.
- If you get lost, don’t consult Google Maps in the middle of the street. Be discreet or you may be noticed for the wrong reasons.
- If someone asks you for directions, don’t let them get into your personal space as this can be a ruse to get close enough for a mugging. Take a step back and ask them to hand over the piece of paper or map with their destination on it.
- Look around you in a relaxed way, including an occasional glance over your shoulder. This will alert anyone watching you to the fact that you are aware of your surroundings and are less likely to be taken by surprise.
- Don’t wear earphones or walk along looking down at your phone. This effectively makes you a deaf and blind target to an attacker as well as offering something worth stealing. Yes, I know everyone does it, but being switched off mentally in a public place is detrimental to your personal safety, especially when we also need to be alert to potential terrorist attacks these days, such as cars being driven at speed behind us. You won’t be aware of danger if you are listening to loud music and texting.
- Think about your sobriety. There’s no need to stop drinking alcohol but be aware of how much you can have before you start to make daft decisions like walking home alone at 3 am or agreeing to go home with a stranger.
What can you use to defend yourself?
If you are not trained in physical self-defence techniques then think about what you have to hand. In the eyes of the law, you are allowed to defend yourself with ‘reasonable force’, which is just enough to disable an assailant and escape. Please note, however, that you cannot carry an object with intent to use it, such as splitting a bunch of keys between your fingers or having a mini can of hairspray in your hand. That is intent and you could get into trouble yourself if you defend yourself in this way. Having a key to hand because you are on your way to your car or are near home is fine. A knuckle duster fashioned from the whole bunch is not!
A few more tips:
- Always go for the eyes. This creates pain and distress very quickly. Use your fingers, a key, a pen, or whatever comes to hand. Be aware of what you have in your bag and how accessible it is. Note that it is not legal to carry pepper spray or mace in the UK, no matter what is available for sale online.
- Carrying a water bottle? The knobbly drinking end can be used to target the eyes, cheekbones and throat of an attacker.
- A rolled up golfing umbrella or a walking stick can be used to keep someone at a distance or hit their shins.
- Use your voice. Shout and swear and you will help deter an assailant. Sadly, people often ignore cries for help, but you’ll get a lot of attention if you are yelling the F-word at the top of your voice!
- Fundamentally, if you look like you will fight back and actually do fight back if someone grabs you, they are much more likely to let you go. Remember that they really don’t want to get caught.
De-escalate an aggressive situation
Needing to get physical is always a last resort when it comes to self-defence. It’s far better to avoid trouble by staying alert or by talking down someone who has become angry and abusive. Even with my training, as a small female I would always want to avoid taking on someone who really wanted to hurt me. Try the following:
- Come into a stance with your less dominant hand and leg in front of you. Use what we call ‘talking hands’ or the ‘shield’ with the palms of your hands facing away from you to placate your aggressor while keeping them at arm’s length. You are keeping them at bay but are also in the correct position from which to strike, if necessary.
- Keep your tone calm and use empathy. Apologise, even if the situation wasn’t your fault, if it makes them go away. There is no room for ego in violent encounters and insisting on being right could easily escalate the situation into violence.
Some self-defence basics
If you can’t defuse the conflict, you may have to use a physical technique to make your escape. By law, you are allowed to hit your assailant first, if you genuinely believe that they are about to assault you; this is a ‘pre-emptive strike.’ However, if you are going to do this, you must go for it with 100% commitment or risk annoying your attacker and risk being seriously hurt. Remember that poking the eyes is effective if you can reach them.
Here are also three self-defence fundamentals: the palm heel strike, the power slap and a groin strike:
The palm heel strike
Striking with your dominant hand, which should be coming from behind if you are in the correct stance, aim the heel of your hand up and into the attacker’s chin. Really snap the strike out. You are aiming to rock their head back suddenly so that their brain hits the back of the skull to knock them out. If you miss, don’t panic. A full force strike to the mouth, nose or between the eyes is still very painful and will be unexpected. If they flinch and recoil, run away as fast as possible and get help, but be prepared to follow up if one strike isn’t enough.
The power slap
With your dominant hand, bring your fingers together and make a hollowed out shape with your palm. With full force, slap your assailant around the side of the face and head, trying to encompass the ear and cheekbone for maximum effect. If it’s effective the first time, great – run! Or keep repeating until the attacker is down and you can escape.
The groin strike
This is very effective on its own, for obvious reasons, but it can also be used to bring a taller attacker down so that you can also use the palm heel strike or power slap. Make a hammer fist with your dominant hand; this means with your palm facing the outside of your thigh with fingers curled in and your thumb on top. Bend your knees, drop your weight and then put all your weight into swinging a punch between the assailant’s legs as you come up. If necessary, finish with one of the above strikes to the head and make your escape.
Remember that getting physical with an attacker is absolutely a last resort. Always attempt to avoid conflict where possible by being alert to your surroundings and making it difficult for someone to take you by surprise, or be prepared to defuse a conflict and walk away.
(Thank you to my fabulous model, my boxing coach, Nathan Champ and to Powersports Gym, Bristol.)
Dr Tracy Johnson is an instructor in unarmed combat under O’Hagan Total Combat Systems, as well as a personal trainer, yoga teacher, speaker, TV presenter and author. She was featured throughout 2017 in the TV series Be Fit Bristol Fit and specialises in building her clients’ confidence in all areas of life.
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