Can you teach self-defense if you haven’t ‘been there?” – Marc MacYoung


I am often asked that question. Can someone who hasn’t spent years fighting teach you anything about self-defense? 

Well aside from the first glaring error that fighting is not self-defense, the answer is “It depends.” It depends on something very specific. Below is my answer to someone who asked this very question.**********The answer lies in the information, not necessarily the teacher.

What is important is that the information is accurate, legit, complete, applicable and all kinds of other words that go under the general heading of ‘good.’

If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter how much experience the teacher has or doesn’t. It’s still bad information. If it is good, it’s less important that the instructor has experienced it first hand.

I had a friend, who was shipped to Afghanistan. One of the problems with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is — if they don’t kill you — they can flip the vehicle. The armor on the Humvees has gotten a lot better, but flipping and rolling is still an issue. The Army, as part of pre-deployment training, has you get inside the cab of a Humvee that is attached to a giant ‘flipping machine.’ You are then rotated over and have to practice getting out of a ‘rolled vehicle.’ After you get that basic skill down, they start training you in different scenarios (half flips, one of your guys is wounded, this door is jammed, etc., etc.). These different scenarios, acquaint you with realistic possibilities and challenges you will face if it happens to you. In short, they teach you how to think and function under these circumstances.

Do you think the guys teaching that course have been blown up and flipped in a Humvee? Do they have to have been?


What is important is that this situation happens. It is a known problem. Here are the conditions. Here is the most effective training in response to that. If it happens to you, this is what you do. We’ve got proven, stable and reliable data people who do this have a much better chance of survival. In short, what matters is the information, not whether you’ve been blown up before.

To be clear, this information and training is based on data collected from people who have been there. It also has been vetted by those same people. Not just one guy, but a lot of experienced people.

The information is not a “well, I think this is what happens” by someone who has never been there or doesn’t understand the subject. As a friend of mine once put it, “Do you know the actual problem or are you just guessing?”

Unfortunately, entirely too many people who ‘haven’t been there’ are guessing what it’s like — based on their training. (How do I apply what I know to what I don’t know about violence?) As such, they often come up with fantasy solutions to fantasy problems. (Or as Peyton Quinn sums it up: “They come up with ingenious solutions to nonexistent problems.”) This technique works reliably in the street … right? Well no, but by gawd, the next time you get attacked by a midget riding a Shetland pony, you’ll be ready with that flying side kick.

But that’s not going to stop a lot of folks from teaching that tournament-winning-move and claiming it is not only self-defense, but a battlefield tested technique from their traditional martial art.

Or they take limited personal experience and extrapolate it to cover every kind of violence. I’ve seen entirely too much training by ‘studs,’ who are teaching you to win your next high school fight. Incidentally, this stuff *will* work to win a fight. Unfortunately, it will get your ass killed in other kinds of violence where the goals and rules are different than that of a ‘fight.’

I say ‘unfortunately’ because not using the definition of self-defense found in the dojo/gym, but using instead a more legal one, actual self-defense is more likely to involve you facing those other kinds of violence. Self-defense is not about fighting, so training someone to fight and calling it ‘self-defense’ is going the wrong way. Training to fight doesn’t prepare you to handle the kind of stuff you’ll be facing in the other kinds of violence.

Oh yeah, it’ll also get your ass arrested, prosecuted and convicted because ‘fighting’ is illegal. And — if you’re being taught a weapons system — you might as well buy a dildo and practice sucking it and sitting on it because you’re going to end up in the prison showers. That’s both with what they’re teaching you and what they’re not (like Use of Lethal Force laws and consequences).

This is why I say there are only two problems with most training. One is when it doesn’t work. The other is when it does.

It helps to think of the subject of ‘self-defense’ as a multicircle Venn diagram. (Those diagrams with overlapping circles. Each circle is a different issue, topic or factor by itself — but where they overlap with something else, they mutate into something that is neither one nor the other.) Self-defense is in the middle of all those circles. There are lots of overlapping factors. Things that can spell the difference between you being safe, alive and free or, going to the hospital or prison.

When you ask can someone who hasn’t been there, be good at teaching ‘self-defense,’ the real answer is a question. Is the person teaching these multiple factors? 

If yes, then yes. If no, then no.

Oh and BTW, it doesn’t matter if the person *has* been there. If he or she is not teaching these factors, then she or he sucks at teaching you ‘self-defense.’ He may be doing a smash-up job teaching you how to fight or get convicted for murder, but that ain’t self-defense.

So experience isn’t as important as the quality of the information. (I’ll add a caveat to this in a bit — where it really does matter having been there — but for the moment let’s just stick with the quality of the information being provided.)

One of the *best* introductory books about ‘what is missing’ from most training is “Facing Violence” by Rory Miller.

Having said that, I will also tell you: It is *not* the final word on the subject. I tell you that so you don’t read it and think, “Okay now I know that, so now I can teach it.” It’s an important introduction to what you don’t know you don’t know. You’ll have multiple boatloads of subject matter you’ll need to research after reading it. But now you have seven specific topics you know you need to research in order to provide quality training.  (And I hate to tell you this kiddies, but if it wasn’t included in your training then you weren’t taught ‘self-defense.’)

For example, do you teach your students how to make a statement to the police after an incident? Do you teach your students how to articulate their use of force decisions? Do you teach them how to recognize and assess developing danger? Do you teach them conflict de-escalation and how to assess options? Do you teach them how their own behavior is going to either add to their claim of self-defense or convict them when they admit to a crime by claiming ‘self-defense?’

Oh while we’re at it, you should know that threat assessment and articulation aren’t just legal issues. They’re critical personal safety strategy that can safely extract you from a potentially dangerous situation or — if things get ugly — are critical components of overcoming the freeze response. Again, this information isn’t just ‘legal,’ it’s a critical step in being able to act.

It’s also critical for choosing the appropriate level of force. You don’t want to try to ‘fight’ a guy with a gun or knife. That’s an entirely different level of force, one that will get you killed if you try to fight (No matter how ‘hard’ you do it.) Nor do you want to go all MMA and ground and pound an obnoxious drunk because that will put you into jail — if not prison — if he dies or is turned into a vegetable because you jackhammered his head on the concrete.

Of course where I grew up, the cops were the least of your problems. If you hurt someone like that, his family and friends would come gunning for and kill or cripple you for what you did to one of their own. (Have you ever heard a ‘self-defense instructor’ talk about the problems of vendetta? Or did they just dismiss it because by knowing this deadly system you’ll be able to handle that too? Let me tell you children, someone stepping out of the shadows with a shotgun isn’t something that should be poo-pooed by studly combatives instructors. Vendettas are just as real as legal consequences.)

One of the things I am very big on teaching my students is first how to judge the necessary degree of force (and if you even have to go there at all) and then how to apply it. I tell them you don’t want to unleash your killer, commando, ‘no rules in a street fight’ combative system on Drunken Uncle Albert at a family reunion. But neither do you want to try to use what works on Albert against a guy coming at you with a weapon in a dark and lonely place.

You don’t get that kind of training in places where you are taught to blitz any and every problem. Nor do you get it in places where people just throw courtesy punches that stop six inches from your nose. And if you’re not getting it, it means your instructor doesn’t know the subject matter — whether she or he has been there or not.

I did tell you that there is a place where experience does matter. Well actually there’s 1.5 places. That’s because there are two places that are each worth .75. Let’s start with the first one.

That is experience teaches you what is important when the fecal matter is encountering the oscillating blades. That is to say there’s lots of information that is important to know in a training setting and in relation to the subject. However, that becomes of secondary importance in the heat of the moment. But here is a follow up however to the first one: Although these things become secondary, that doesn’t mean they don’t strongly influence the primary issues.

Easy way to explain this A,B,C,D,E. In the classroom they are all discussed. If they are given equal value by the instructor, the student can walk away thinking A,b,c,d,e is the order of priority. A person who has been there, does that knows that in a situation, a,b,c and d all influence E, but E is the priority — at that moment. Hopefully said instructor will know how to explain this while still including A,B,C and D in the training.

The reason I say this is a .75 issue, is that well constructed program, vetted by numerous sources (who have been there) will emphasize these points. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if the person hasn’t been there, if he or she knows what needs to be emphasized. So again, you have something where experience matters, but it can be worked around — IF the person who hasn’t been there is willing to listen to those who have about what is important. This instead of deciding on his/her own about what should be emphasized. (This incidentally is my bitch regarding so much academic work on this subject.)

Another place where experience does tend to matter is when it comes to ‘off the curriculum’ questions.

These are the kinds of questions that every teacher is going to run into. I’m not talking about ‘what if monkeys’ (the guys who ask what do you do when you’re walking through a dark alley and you’re attacked by 27 ninja with uzis). I’m talking about legitimate questions about stuff that is not on the syllabus, but is related to the topic.

The reason this gets a .75 as well is this: On one hand a person with experience can reach back into their own history and answer the question with what he or she did, experienced and felt. (Often these questions have to do with overcoming internal issues.) Furthermore, an experienced person can often take in the information in the question, assess it and come up with a functioning answer. So for on-the-spot responses, experience can be a powerful tool.

On the other hand, one person’s experience does not the whole subject make. What’s more, just because the instructor could do it, doesn’t mean the student can. There are a lot of variables that went into the experienced person’s success in those particular circumstances — and this includes mental and physical capabilities. So just because it worked for him, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone. More over, different people who have been there came up with different answers. Answers that also worked. Keep this last in mind because it’s important.

It’s important because there can also be a downside to experience. That is, when you’ve had someone try and kill you, you can get extremely conservative about ‘what works.’ Some people take it past that and get into ‘MY WAY IS THE ONLY WAY!” This is especially true if they develop the curriculum and didn’t have it vetted by others who have also been there. So yes, the instructor can fall back on his experience, but his experience isn’t the only way to handle the problem.

The reason ‘off the syllabus’ questions and experience is a .75 issue is both someone who has been there and someone who hasn’t need to use the same strategy for dealing with them. That is referencing the views of other people who have been there.

The thing to consider is that often these kinds of questions are generally predictable. As an instructor you will be asked these kinds of questions. That means you can prepare for them. For example, someone who hasn’t been there can still answer these kinds of questions with “About that, Marc MacYoung says (this). Rory Miller says (this). Peyton Quinn says (this).” A person who has been there can also use the same tactic. “I say (this). Marc MacYoung says (this). Rory Miller says (this).” In both cases, this allows the student to consider different points of view and assessment of what he/she is asking about.

Why is this important?

Let me put it to you in these terms: I’ve spent nearly five decades fighting, engaging in violence, dealing with its repercussions, training, preparing, studying, researching, writing, teaching and lecturing about violence. I am a court-recognized expert witness. I have taught police and military in nine different countries and have over 22 titles published about violence, crime avoidance, personal safety and professional use of force. I tell you this to put something into perspective.

Every morning I get up and am nearly overwhelmed by what I don’t know about the subject of violence.

So you ask can someone who has ‘not been there teach?’ Well, the bottom line is nobody has been everywhere. Everyone has holes in his or her experience and can only rely on both getting and providing quality information regarding the subject.

For example: I recently had a discussion about what to do with an ambush attack from point blank range; an attack meant to kill you. That’s a situation I have been in multiple times. The guy I was talking to, however, had a specific circumstance I’d never dealt with before. That was what to do when the guy grabs your carbine with one hand, jerks the barrel off line and swings a machete at you with the other hand.

Now this is the kind of problem a civilian isn’t likely to have. It is a problem likely to pop up with SWAT officers and people in his line of work. The point is, the response we were discussing had been vetted in actual situations where one of the participants was going to die. The response works to keep the person with the carbine alive. How do we know this? Because the guy with the carbine wasn’t decapitated, and the other guy was dead.

In contrast, I see a lot of people who charge a lot of money for these super cool techniques they come up with. They claim these moves will work, and people get all giggly and excited by practicing them in high-priced seminars. When I look at them, I see techniques that at the very best will result in double kills. At worst, they’ll fail miserably because of the actual physics of such circumstances. Not imagined, but actual physics.

The person who came up with these groovy, cool, studly responses had never been in those circumstances or checked the feasibility of those moves with someone who had.

I consider this vetting process critical because as a ‘teacher,’ you are putting your students’ lives on the line with the quality of the information you provide. Not just their lives, but large chunks of it if they go to prison for what you didn’t teach them about violence and self-defense.

Like the IED/Humvee training, it doesn’t matter that much if you’ve been there or not. What matters is the quality of the information you provide (and whether it’s been checked and vetted by people who know that topic). As an instructor, whether you’re experienced or not, don’t ever give into the temptation to think you know it all. Keep on researching and trying to learn.

As a student, don’t believe anyone who gives critical topics about violence a ‘hand wave.’ (“Oh we teach that, too” before they drop the subject and then get on with the cool macho shit and ass kicking.) Be an informed consumer because you’re staking your life on the quality of the information you’re paying for.

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