The 3 Preconditions Required for Effective Self-Defence Techniques

Some Martial Arts record physical self-defence techniques in forms (kata, poomsae, taolu) which can then be extracted and drilled against a training partner. Other Martial Arts go straight to the partner drills.  Regardless of the process, this blogpost will be provide a useful framework for you to place you physical self-defence techniques within. The purpose of a physical self-defence technique is to ensure the defender can adequately protect themselves when confronted by an enemy/enemies. This usually means using physical force to harm the enemy, which in turn aids escape. There are going to be occasions where escape is not an immediate option and restraining techniques will be required, but for civilian self-protection this is not a common occurrence. Before I move forward to discuss the three preconditions, I want to discuss what it means for something to be effective? For the purposes of this article, I will use the following definition: -

Effective: successful in producing a desired or intended result.

Therefore, effective Self-Defence Techniques, for the purposes of this article, will mean: - a physical fighting technique that successfully harms the enemy enough to ensure the defender can escape. Let's move on to discuss the three preconditions... 

  1. Practical

The first and probably most obvious condition a technique needs to be effective. The technique performed needs to have a realistic prospect of working given the circumstances. The key word in the above sentence is "circumstances". Let's start to look at some examples to explain what a practical self-defence technique is. 

An armbar from the ground is a highly practical technique for BJJ or Judo. But when it comes to the circumstances of self-defence its value is significantly reduced. When confronted by non-consensual violence, purposely putting the enemy in a ground armbar is a bad tactic and should never be the aim. Firstly, breaking the enemy's arm does not necessarily mean the enemy will give up and go home. Secondly, being on the ground immediately makes you highly vulnerable to third party attackers. This may be the enemy's friends or unconnected persons joining in the fight for various reasons. The circumstances of the environment can assist in determining the practicality of a technique but there are other circumstances to be taken into consideration. 

The defender and the enemy's characteristics will also define the practicality of a technique. If the enemy severely outweighs you then certain throwing techniques will be inadequate given the circumstance. Whilst, there is nothing wrong with a throwing technique in a self-defence situation, sometimes the technique will not be practical due to the characteristics of the persons involved. 

A grab to the testicles is not going to do much good against a female enemy. A hair grab against a bald person will also be redundant. These two examples exemplify how certain techniques, which can be practical against some enemies, will not work against certain enemies. That is not to say they cannot be adapted, they can, and that is one of the core aspects of having a practical technique. As the circumstances of the environment and the persons involved will always vary, a highly practical self-defence technique will be one that can easily be adapted to cover as many different variables as possible.

I am not saying that any of the techniques above are not practical. From the armbar to the hairgrab, all can be practical but it depends on the circumstances of the situation. In order to ensure the techniques you are practicing are practical we need to establish the parameters the technique is being practiced within.  

In summary, establish the circumstances in which a technique is practical and drill the technique within those circumstances.

But being practical is not enough. In order to truly be effective we need to ensure the defender remains safe from harm and that does not exclusive to the harm which comes from the enemy.


  1. Legal

There is always at least two enemies when it comes down to physical self-defence. Firstly, the enemy in front of your at the time of the attack. Secondly, after the event, you may need to deal with the legal consequences of your actions.

Protecting yourself from physical harm only to end up in prison for a number of years may be a worse decision in the long run. Occasionally you can take a beating and recover with little or no long term consequences, but the effects of being convicted can last a life time. Please note that I am not advocating being afraid of the law or that the law is against people defending themselves. I am just illustrating the point that being on the wrong side of the law is not somewhere we should aim to be. 

Stomping on the head of the enemy once they are on the ground is practical. It is going to work, and it will do so with high effectiveness. The enemy won't be getting up to continue to attack you any time soon. It may even be a technique that is historically recorded in your arts forms. But it is not an effective technique if the legal jurisdiction you are in would determine the technique as illegal.

For a more extreme example, shooting someone with a handgun is highly practical but is almost always illegal if the enemy is empty handed. 

The concept of self-defence weapons is a grey area across the martial art world. In the UK they are illegal. Carrying and using so called "self-defence weapons" (such as the Kubotan) can get you into legal trouble.


I recommend that everyone researches the laws of your particular jurisdiction to ensure the techniques which you are practicing can be legally justified. For those from the UK who are interested in understanding the Law, you can obtain a copy of my book entitled: - UK Self-Defence Law from here.


But being practical and legal is not enough. There is a one more precondition that needs to be addressed.




  1. Ethical

The questions of what is a practical technique and what is a legal technique, both have objective answers. Within the confines or a set of circumstances and legal system, the question of whether something is both practical and legal can be determined and it will remain the same as long as the circumstances remain the same.

What will change is whether or not the the defender thinks what they are doing is ethical.  When it comes to self-defence, ethics is a subjective concept. What I think is right to do in a situation may be different to what my instructors think, my students think or my training partners think.  Take the following as an example: -

You (being an adult over the age of 18) are being attacked by a 13 year old girl with an edged weapon. You have tried to restrain her but she has cut you numerous times and has managed to create some space before relaunching her attack. You have no means of escape and you have a choice, do you now try to restrain her again or do you decide to use percussive impact?

There is little doubt that punching the girl has a higher chance of being practical than the restraining her and for arguments sake lets say that legally speaking it would be justified, but would you be willing to go ahead and punch the girl?

We can change the variables here and this time you have a edged weapon as well. Would you be willing to use it if the situation dictated that striking was unavailable.  What if she had a firearm instead of an edged weapon? What if you both had firearms?  Luckily for most of us, these hypothetical questions do not enter our existence and the further the extremity of the example, the rarer the chance of it occurring. 

But not all ethical questions are thought experiments. The use of pre-emptive strikes are a very real world example that comes up in common non-consensual violent situations. 

Personally, I think that pre-emptive strikes can be ethical depending upon the circumstances. Under certain circumstances, pre-emptive strikes are also both practical and legal. Therefore, I train pre-emptive strikes as a part of my self-defence training. However, I know people who do not think that pre-emptive strikes are ever ethical, therefore I know they will not use these techniques should an enemy become intent on causing them harm. Whilst there is nothing wrong with pre-emptive strikes from a practical or legal perspective, the techniques are not effective because the defender will not use them in a real situation. 

If you don't think it is right or just to bite someone or to gouge their eyes, or if you are a male and believe you should never hit a woman then it doesn't matter how practical or legal the techniques are! They are not effective because they will not help you to successfully achieve the outcome of staying safe from serious harm.

Before ending, a word of caution. We do not live in an ideal world and the world of non-consensual violence is unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous. Sometimes we may have to compromise our own morals to remain safe, sometimes we may need to go beyond the law to remain physically safe, sometimes we may need to risk our health in order to remain "moral". All these scenarios come with consequences (physical, psychological, legal, social etc..).

The only way to reduce the chances of being injured, ending up on the wrong side of the law or dealing with emotional trauma is to practice self-defence techniques within the framework of what is objectively practical in the given circumstance, legal within your jurisdiction and ethical for you personally. 

Until next time...

Leigh Simms



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