Everyone has inside him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank
Since reading Anne Frank’s diary, I’ve always remembered this quote. I think it can apply to many things – you don’t know what your potential is until you try something. We can go a significant part of our lives not knowing, or not having the self-belief, in our full potential – women in particular experience this more than men (although let’s hope this is in the process of changing.) What does this have to do with a self-defence course for women?
There’s a lot of strange things you hear about women’s self-defence (and even stranger things out there about women’s bodies and what women should do with their bodies). The first piece of self-defence advice I received was around the age of 13 from a female teacher in my brief time at an all-girls high school. The lesson centred on assault and then escalated to rape. She told us, ‘If a man is ever trying to rape you, don’t struggle. They enjoy it more if you struggle. If you just lay there. they won’t enjoy it.’ My distinct memory was of horror and bewilderment– what sort of thing was that to teach a young girl? We weren’t told anything practical about how to defend ourselves after that; we were told to go outside and practice screaming. Screaming might put off an attacker, she thought. My friends and I raced around the playing fields screaming, oddly liberated at the sensation of screaming at the top of our lungs, our voices bouncing off the trees. But once our shouts and laughter echoed away, I was struck with a sense of futility– was this all there was to learn? Scream? Be totally passive? That was my first and only lesson of any sort of self-defence as a young girl – I went through my entire school life being told that single, bizarre piece of information.
As my friends and I grew older, we weren’t sure what to believe, we weren’t sure what was true. Was kicking a man in the groin useful? We heard that if you missed, you would anger the man and he might attack you more viciously because you tried to defend yourself. A news story told us about a man who was convicted and imprisoned because his DNA was found under a woman’s fingernails, demonstrating the effort she had made to try to get rid of him. A friend said she would adopt a similar approach, ‘If I am ever attacked, I’m going to scratch his face to get his DNA.’ It was a confusing time. Nobody knew what to do with their bodies – nobody knew their body could made stronger, nobody knew what to do with something they already possessed. As Anne Frank says, we didn’t know what our potential was. It wasn’t until I started karate that I realised how lacking in information I had been. Karate means ‘empty hand/without weapon’ in Japanese and was created as a means of self-defence (karate was heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts and first called ‘chinese hand’ but this was later changed). Karate is comprised of strikes, punches, kicks, locks, chokes, throws, grappling. There are amazing things that you can do with your body – you can move in a certain way and use your entire body weight to push someone back. It’s awe inspiring the first time you really get the movement and you can forcefully push back a heavier person.
I was fortunate to learn at Karate Shinboku Kai, where chief instructor Sensei David McCormack took a very practical approach– the idea was to desensitize you, you get familiar with feeling tired, you learn to tolerate discomfort, you block punches until your arms are sore. That way, if you ever found yourself in a similar situation in the street, you wouldn’t freeze up and panic. Sensei David told us, ‘Train hard now so that if someone tries to attack you in the street tomorrow, you’ll think, I’ve been punched harder than that in training. Train hard now so that if you have to deal with something worrying in your life, you’ll think, this isn’t as hard as my last karate lesson.’ The idea of just ‘laying there’ as my high school teacher suggested was unthinkable in the karate class – we were taught to fight hard and fight clever. We were taught about conflict avoidance, fight logistics, patterns of attacks, the typical way street attacks takes place, we were recommended books to read, we were told about research (most attacks in the street are right handed punches because most people are right handed). Training was grounded in reality. I was horrified if friends went to questionable clubs, leaving believing in all sorts of nonsense – a friend took up kickboxing and was taught to recite before defending herself, ‘Please do not attack me. I am trained, I must warn you before you attack me that I am trained.’
My experience training in martial arts confirmed everything that was going on in the back of my mind as a teenager – that this wasn’t good enough what girls and young women were being taught.
I think the important thing in self-defence is realism. This is the root of ‘Common Sense Defence‘ and why I created the programme. As a woman, you are at more of a risk of being assaulted than a man, so self-defence is an important thing to dedicate time to learning. Hopefully you will never have to use what you’ve learnt. But you will know women in your life who have been attacked, even if they never tell you. They may have not known what to do to stop it from happening.
We are capable of amazing things and we are not defined by whatever might have happened to us in the past, we are defined by what we we are doing now. I think self-defence is both fun and useful. It’s also interesting, and teaches you about your body. Which in turn might make you more aware of your life-style, your well-being. It can start a whole dialogue and change massive parts of your life. I stepped into the dojo (training hall) as a lazy, overweight student and had no idea I would become a karate and self-defence instructor years down the line – my path led me here. Your path and your untapped potential is waiting for you. Who knows where it might take you!
Kim Coates, Common Sense Defence