This story was originally published in the Baltimore Sun online Brand Publishing "From House to Home" section, and on columbiaassociation.com.
When it comes to self-defense, your best moves are not maneuvers you’ve only read about or seen in movies — experts encourage you to take classes to learn those. In the meantime, here are some basics that you can use today.
Put away the cellphone
When it comes to self-defense for the everyday person, the old adage “The best defense is a good offense” applies. Being aware of one’s surroundings at all times is the No. 1 way to avoid becoming a victim, martial arts and self-defense teachers say. This applies to everyone from small children to seniors.
The most important thing anyone can do to be safe might come as a surprise: Put away the cellphone, says K.A. Frank, owner of ATA Martial Arts Forest Hill and ATA Martial Arts Edgewood, Maryland. Frank is a third-degree black belt and martial arts instructor who specializes in rape prevention and anti-bullying.
“A bad guy’s best friend is a cellphone,” she says. “Everyone is walking down the street texting or checking voice mail while walking to their car in the parking lot at night. The minute you are not paying attention to your surroundings you become the easiest target in the world.”
Act confident, be aware
Another way to avoid becoming a victim is not to look or act like one. For example, experts recommend looking people in the eye, and also avoiding strangers who try to follow you or get too close. Don’t walk to and from work in high heels. Avoid walking alone at night and stay away from parked cars and vans. Be aware of people and vehicles that are not part of your neighborhood’s daily routine.
“If you meet somebody online, meet them in a public place for the first time,” Frank recommends. “Make sure somebody knows where you are going. Trust your gut. If you have a bad feeling, it’s probably there for a reason. Don’t ignore it.”
Know what to yell
Some self-defense moves could be counter-intuitive. For instance, most people’s instinct is to shout “Help!” when in trouble, but “Stranger!” or “Fire!” can be more effective, experts say. Why you may wonder? Experts theorize that we often hear "help" said in situations that are not life threatening. However, when we hear “fire” we know there is an emergency. Likewise, “Stranger!” is a more powerful alarm as well.
“Yelling ‘Stranger!’ is extra important for children because it alerts bystanders to the fact that the situation is not a typical parent-child tantrum,” says Janet Goliger, a physical education teacher for 37 years in California, and a second-degree black belt. She is also an author of a school curriculum on self-defense for children used internationally called C.L.A.S.S. (Children Learning Awareness, Safety & Self-Defense), and the book “I Need to Be Safe: I’m Worth It!“
If you are alone in an elevator and someone gets in, immediately make eye contact or ask if they know the time. You are more likely to remember their face that way, and they are less likely to want to do something to you,” Frank says.
Preparation for children, seniors, disabled
Children can learn to keep themselves safe in many ways. Goliger starts teaching children around 8 years old, who are in second and third grade, about awareness and preparedness. They practice various scenarios a child might encounter.
If approached, children can flail their arms wildly to make it harder for someone to grab them. Or they can stomp on a person’s upper foot with their whole body weight, and then back away two steps and run. Goliger also teaches children where to go for help, such as a library, supermarket or police station. She instructs young ones to tell an adult if a stranger is following them and how and when to call police. She also teaches kids how to look at a person to mentally note their height, weight, gender, hair, skin tone and other identifying characteristics.
What about seniors? It turns out there are plenty of things a senior or a person with a disability can do to discourage an attacker.
A cane to the groin can be pretty effective, Goliger says. But don’t just swing wildly. “If someone tries to whack the attacker with it, they (the attacker) will simply pull it away.”
“Even a person with a walker can grab a groin and twist, swat someone in the ear, or jab fingers in their eye — even go for the throat with a key,” Goliger adds. “If they are in a wheelchair, and a person comes close to them to harm them, they can bite, or move so the footrests whack the attacker in the ankles.”
Take a self-defense course
If a physical response is required, you will want to be prepared with some basic moves that are best learned from and practiced with a qualified instructor. In fact, experts warn against reading lists of quick moves because they say people tend to become overconfident and think they are ready to fend off an attacker when they are not.
Martial arts and self-defense are much more than sets of tricks or moves anyone can pick up and do from reading or watching.
Know when not to fight
There are definitely times not to fight, and there are things not worth fighting for, Frank says. She recommends women keep a dummy wallet with expired credit cards and a $5 bill in their purse along with their real wallet. If mugged, “Throw it as far as you can and run the other way,” she says. “It’s replaceable; you’re not.”