Apart from health and wellbeing, having practical self defence skills is what drives most martial artists. Follows are 5 “rules” to be mindful of in your training.

First, let’s be real about our definition of a typical martial artist. A tiny percentage are professional, full-time combat athletes. Focussed on a particular code of fighting to earn a living, they are very capable fighters. They are not the target audience here.

Before looking at the 5 rules, it is important to recognise that self defence has its own unique context. Training in mixed-style tournaments, especially where there is contact, is important. But it is not self defence. As described in this video, there is a difference between demonstrations, sparring, tournaments and real self defence situations:

Five rules of self defence:

  1. Focus on prevention
  2. Land the first blow
  3. There are no rules
  4. Keep it simple
  5. Never go to ground

Rule 1: Focus on prevention

The self defence mindset should be on at all times, helping you to avoid senseless fighting. 

Good martial artists have an awareness of their surroundings and make choices that reduce risks. They value their health and know that even when confident in their skills, getting into an avoidable brawl is not a smart move. They know that escaping injury-free is unlikely, even when emerging successful. The physical aspects of self defence are your last resort. The mental side is the key.

Training ideas:

  • Practise situational awareness. Know your surroundings at all times to avoid dark corners, blind spots and desolate locations.
  • Learn to visualise a safety bubble. Your personal safety zone is important and alarm bells should ring if people get too close.
  • Develop techniques to negate potential confrontation. Use distraction, delegation and diffusion.
  • Learn to detect threats early. Foreseeing risks before they become problems gives you more time.
  • Build your inner and outer confidence. This can sometimes be enough to bluff your way through.

Rule 2: Land the first blow

If the fight is unavoidable, gaining an early advantage increases your odds significantly.

Even a glancing blow to a sensitive area can momentarily stun the aggressor, allowing you to flow into techniques to end the encounter. For example, striking the nose or eyes will immediately reduce their vision, creating an early advantage.

Training ideas:

  • Practice your stepping techniques. Moving in quickly (but safely) is crucial.
  • Develop your hand speed. Bulk repetition of key techniques is required.
  • Develop your accuracy. Build your technical skills and coordination.

Rule 3: There are no rules

Don’t expect the familiar. Expect raw aggression with no boundaries.

There are no weight divisions or single-opponent scenarios. There is no flat, defined ring space or referee to step in and stop a groin stomp or eye gouge.

Training ideas:

  • Learn techniques that avoid head-on strength contests with bigger opponents.
  • Develop footwork to help with multiple opponents.
  • Make sparring a regular part of your training.
  • Get experience in a variety of tournaments where the rules and fighting styles are diverse.

Rule 4: Keep it simple

With milliseconds to react when the chaos begins, simple and effective techniques need to flow out automatically.

Self defence scenarios do not involve two martial artists executing “advanced” techniques according to their style’s handbook. The attacker may or may not have any formal training, but will likely be stronger than you, and be fast and aggressive. Expect wild swinging punches followed by grabbing.

Training ideas:

  • Sharpen your simplest, most fundamental techniques. They need to be automatic.
  • Learn to bridge the opponent’s guard. Don’t just go in swinging, hoping to be the first to land a blow.
  • Don’t rely on 3- or 5-step sequences. There’s no time to think.
  • Don’t assume you’ll land the first blow and it will be over. It won’t be that easy.
  • High kicks should be avoided. They sacrifice the balance and mobility you will need.

Rule 5: Never go to ground

Holding onto one person, whether standing or on the ground, is a huge risk especially if there are bystanders.

Expect the aggressor to have friends on the sidelines waiting to step in and help. Taking one person to the ground will be their cue to start stomping. You must defend against being taken down.

Training ideas:

  • Build a strong stance. You’ll need it to stay balanced and upright.
  • Practice your footwork and mobility. You’ll need these to deal with multiple opponents.
  • Check that you can bring it all together in your partner work, coping with grabbing whilst still being able to free your hands for striking.


Consider the basics of your style. This is where the simplest and most effective tools usually exist. Can they deal with the problem areas above? Have you mastered them to the point of pure reflex?

See also

Article: Written by R Zandbergs
Video: Filmed and edited by R Zandbergs
Main photo: Barry Pang demonstrating attacks on vital areas (2023)

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