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Scenario Based Training: Because Its a Big Beautiful World Out There, Explore it on Your Terms

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

street self-defense
Mural in Pacoima, CA | Photo by Brian Donnelly

You’re at a party talking to a friend. You’ve had a few drinks so you’re feeling pretty chill curled up on the sofa catching up. A guy comes over. He’s drunk. He sits down on the floor in front of you and starts talking over you and your friend. You ignore him hoping he’ll take the hint. He doesn’t. He puts his hand on your leg now becoming more insistent. Your friend gets wide-eyed but keeps talking like its not happening. His hand slides up your leg becoming more demanding that you give him attention.

What do you do?

Back to school is a busy and exciting time of year. New classes, new friends and new opportunities no matter what grade or year level. As a self-defense instructor it’s a busy time as a number of my clients are young women heading off to college – most of them for the first time.

As young women they are entering new worlds – ideally to challenge themselves and grow and live extraordinary lives. But in this new world they are suddenly forced to navigate and make decisions on their own in a way they’ve never had to before.

The flip side of this exciting new time in life is that it makes them more vulnerable to low level creepers, opportunists and down-right dangerous predators. One thing that has them so vulnerable is a mindset shift that has to yet happen. Central to this is the belief of good people that everyone else thinks and acts like they do. This bias, the False Consensus Effect, can be so strong that it will often override our own judgement even when our instincts are sounding alarm bells and running up red flags.

Generally a self-defense instructor’s job is to teach people how to kick, punch and yell at people. It’s a very fun job 😊 But physical skills aren’t enough without training the brain to recognize threats early. This training requires an “un-finishing” or re-wilding of young women who society has spent a lifetime inadvertently grooming for victimhood. A lifetime of this grooming isn’t undone by simply learning to kick and punch.

The following is an outline of some private “college prep” classes I’ve been teaching over the last few weeks. The ideas below aren’t unique to college students and can be applied by a range of folks in a variety of settings. For the scenarios, think about your own life and where you might be targeted and find a partner you can trust to practice.

Hour One – Physical Skills, the Basics

  • Identifying targets

  • Striking practice

  • Force multipliers (body rotation, speed, gravity, breath, balance)

  • Combos and one-step drill

Hour Two – Scenario practice

In my opinion this is more important than physical skills. Students can crush it with physical skills but become deer-in-the-headlights when faced with real life scenarios.

Planned Lesson:

Scenario training: indoors/enclosed spaces:

What kind of characters, potential threats and scenarios do you anticipate at the following?:

  • Party scenarios (kitchen, living room, bedroom, bars/clubs)

  • Other indoor spaces (library, restaurants, public transportation)

Scenario training: outdoors and public spaces

What kind of characters, potential threats and scenarios do you anticipate at the following?:

  • Streets and street corners

  • Transit stops

  • Walking to class, etc

With this as a starting point the student(s) create the scenarios they want to practice.

One recent class what we practiced looked something like this:

Actual Lesson:

Indoors and enclosed spaces:

• At a party and drunk guy gets hands-y (sitting and standing)

• Public transit: positioning for protection of person and property

• Identifying escape routes, common objects as weapons

• Articulation of use of force


Outdoors and open spaces:

• Path being blocked by panhandler

• Path being blocked by creeper dude

• Pie-ing corners and ID-ing potential hot spots

• Skills worked: never giving up back, use of voice (modulating for different scenarios), keeping eyes up

This a particular class was a private class with an 18 year old woman and her Mom. For the party scenarios, the Mom played a hands-y drunk guy. This made it fun and silly and less threatening for the student as she improvised her way through various scenarios.

A note of caution about the “hands-y” drills: Most self-defense class scenarios are pretty sterilized compared to actual groping many have to deal with. This is a very good thing otherwise things can get creepy really fast. But the downside is reality isn’t addressed so we default to the “big bang” events telling ourselves that knowing how to punch will solve all of our problems. If you want to think about this type of training keep this in mind:

  1. The instructor should NEVER play the bad guy in these roles. There is no way as a self-defense instructor I would get “hands-y” with a student.

  2. The partners should be people who know and trust each other.

  3. The instructor should not be setting up the scenarios, but only asking what scenarios they would like to practice.

  4. The partners should be the ones to create the scenarios. The instructor should keep an eye out that no one feels violated or pressured and that mutual consent is given.

  5. For male self-defense instructors: this is dangerous territory for you to tread. If I were a male instructor I wouldn’t introduce these drills to women at all.

While these drills aren’t a good fit for every class or every person, if the dynamics are right and there is trust between the consenting drill partners, there is a lot of good preparation that can happen with a realistic butt grab or a breast graze many of us can recognize from real life.

So given the sensitivity here, why bother?

What is so telling in these drills is the gap between traditional self-defense classes and reality. In real life I’ve had students who have spent years in Krav Maga and BJJ (both currently marketed as the ultimate in self-defense training) tell me stories of groping and sexual assault that their training didn’t prepare them for.

And in the classroom I’ve seen students who rocked the kicking and punching, but suddenly a “drunk guy” (drill partner/trusted friend) hanging on them leaves them at a loss for what to do. Keep in mind this is even after they created, planned and gave consent for each drill with a partner they know and trust… they were still at a loss for what to do.

But the good news is that they are experiencing the discomfort in a controlled, safe environment and have multiple opportunities to practice handling that scenario. After a few run throughs, they’ve had the chance to play with a number of options which may include:

  • Walking away

  • Low level use of force (finger splits etc to inflict pain and create a path to escape)

  • Enlisting help

  • Gathering witnesses

  • Use of force

  • Articulation of use of force

Its also important that these drills plan for potential fall out after an event:

'Cause we all know the drill ladies, we push a drunk guy away and the next day we’re a bitch and the thrash talking starts to fly. Scenario training should also include how to get out ahead of that and counter any potential consequences.

As rewarding as it is to see self-defense students blossom when they learn to kick and punch effectively, its even more rewarding to set students up to handle situations where they aren’t “fighting back” but rather, controlling the dynamic.

Now, I've talked mostly here about the creeper scenarios since those need to be set up carefully. But notice in the Actual Lesson outline we spent time on some pretty mundane stuff like how to handle your bags on public transit.

Why go over this day-to-day stuff? It sounds so basic and its not the flashy, sexy, "I am Wonder Woman" part of self-defense. We do it because people will TELL you they secure their backpacks. But when I ask students to demonstrate what they do, they regularly lay them unsecured next to them or at their feet. This actually takes a run-through for most people regardless of how savvy they think they are. Seriously, it can be as simple as handing them three or four bags and have them figure out their best position on the train and how to manage and secure their stuff. It's not rocket science and it doesn't take long. With just a bit of practice though, before you know it they look like a globe-trotting pro.

So for those playing along at home, find a trusted friend and come up with some drills of your own. Do this outside of a sterilized gym environment and in real environments where you will be moving about. Practice is key here - most students have no problem telling me what they're going to do, but then freeze up in the drill. Create that plan and muscle memory ahead of time.

This is the stuff that needs to be taught to young women. Us old women, we’ve had to learn as we went… but we can do better about passing on this wisdom so they can go out there and crush it.

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