Starting Self-Defense Training

AMSTERDAM, 29.03.2021 – Lots of martial arts schools offer “self-defense training”. Few of them actually deliver anything resembling something useful. A spot-on observation on starting self-defense training was recently published on Facebook by our fellow Kalah instructor Pascal Bourrassé, head of Kalah France and Kalah France Tactical Division. Read his article before you make your first (or next) step in martial arts/self-defense training.

Original Facebook post (in French) by Kalah France, translated by Kalah Amsterdam instructor Jair Stenhuijs: source

Here is our response to the endless discussions with various “experts” on the web on self-defense training. The next time I engage in a discussion where the ego stands in the way of reason, I’ll just post the link to this article.

Let’s say you want to start training self-defense and you don’t know anything about it. As if you wanted to learn to play the piano. What are you going to do? You open the internet because Google is your friend. You can find several self-defense schools in your town, the majority of which are Krav Maga schools (as these are the most widespread). If all you are looking for in self-defense is to sweat a little, make new friends, feel (tacti)cool during training, and brag to your friends: Stop reading now and take your pick.

This article is for those who really want to learn something useful. In this case, before choosing a school, ask yourself several questions one by one. This article will help you answer them.

QUESTION 1: What is the main reason why you want to train self-defense and not something else (e.g. kickboxing or MMA)?


  1. I want to learn how to deal with violence in real life: go to the next question
  2. Any other reason: stop reading this article and just choose a school you like (there is no shame, as long as you are aware of the risks involved in this decision)

QUESTION 2: What is self-defense?

By definition, it is “a way of defending (yourself) against bodily harm inflicted by other people”. The term “self” means that you will have to do it yourself, although in the defense process you may also have to defend your loved ones (if you are that type of person).

In conclusion, self-defense is clearly a defense against real attacks. It is neither a “traditional” martial art (Taekwon-Do, karate, kung fu, etc.) where preservation of the art is essential nor a sport (MMA, boxing, etc.) where bettering the competition is the main goal. This leads us to the next question.

QUESTION 3: What does real aggression look like?

Open Google (it’s your friend) and do a video search on “violent attack CCTV”. You can combine this with terms like knife, gun, rape, rifle, shooting, stabbing, kicking, death, victim, bar fight – or other words related to this kind of situation. Then open Google again and do an image search on “injury after violent attack”. Now you have enough material for several evenings of viewing. Best of all, you’ll never run out of new things.

Remember what these images look like. You will need this knowledge later.


  1. Violence is no fun (at least for the victims). Death is frequent. You don’t want to experience something like this; it’s brutal. It will probably take a HUGE effort (mentally, physically, and emotionally) to survive such situations. And even if you survive, you will have psychological damage for the rest of your life.
  2. You cannot predict what the abuser will do or with what. So you have to practice for the worst situations. This leads us to the next question.

QUESTION 4: Knowing the reality, do I still want to train self-defense?

  1. NO, you are going to do something else with your life, and pray that you never find yourself in such situations. You can stop reading here.
  2. YES, Praying is not the right strategy. So go to question 5

QUESTION 5: What should self-defense training look like?

Now that you know what reality looks like, you should understand that a good self-defense system will increase your chances of survival (of course everyone claims that – don’t worry, keep reading).

The reality is that a good system will only marginally increase your chance of survival.

No sane person can guarantee 100% success. You automatically filter out certain “experts” if the promise of a self-defense system is that it will significantly increase your chances of survival. It must unconditionally fulfill a long list of criteria, but most of all: it must be as close to reality as possible.

This leads us to several conclusions about effective self-defense training:

  1. It will hurt. A lot, often. If not, look elsewhere
  2. It will be very demanding emotionally, mentally, and physically. If not, look elsewhere.
  3. We have to be able to defend ourselves under extreme stress. If you smile after the session, look elsewhere.
  4. We will have to go beyond limits that we didn’t even know we had before we started. If you don’t push those limits, look elsewhere and work harder.
  5. The defense must be effective (under stress) in at least 60% of the cases (or else what are we doing here?). If not, look elsewhere.
  6. Getting hurt and being yelled at is not a pleasant thing. Training should not be designed to boost morale. If people are polite to you during class, look elsewhere.
  7. There is no place for ego during sessions. If your instructor doesn’t allow you to challenge their ideas, look elsewhere VERY quickly.
  8. The instructor should not be your friend during the session. If so, well you know what to do.
  9. We don’t have the luxury of having decades to learn. You don’t need to know how to defend yourself when you’re over 70. You need it now, in a year, in two at the most. If you can’t figure out basic defense (say on strikes) in 5 minutes and execute it well under stress after 2 hours of intense training, look elsewhere.
  10. Perfection does not exist on the streets. If you hear something like “our system is the best,” look elsewhere and spread the word.
  11. If a system’s program does not cover successful defense against multiple armed aggressors, you are not training for reality. Time to disappear…

Why should training be like this? Because the reality is like that. You can’t defend yourself (or someone else) if you don’t respect reality. Training should mimic reality as closely as possible, safely. Read on to understand this point.

Training shouldn’t take us to the hospital either. Safety rules must be established. These safety rules on the other hand CANNOT interfere with the main criterion of closeness to reality out of compassion. If your instructor never tells you to attack realistically for your safety, go elsewhere.

QUESTION 6: So what’s the best self-defense system?

Everyone calls themselves an expert! Now you know what reality looks like and what the training should look like. With this knowledge, you can begin to judge the systems available to you. As a layman, you will hardly be able to recognize the quality of YouTube’s techniques. But I will give you general rules, to simplify your decision-making.

  1. Watch videos from the schools of your choice: If the techniques seem very elegant and fluid, and the victim is not sweating, look elsewhere. Consider all aspects of question 5. If their training does not look much like the real thing, look elsewhere.
  2. Take trial classes at the schools of your choice: Challenge your instructor relentlessly on his ideas and techniques that he will teach you. For example, the instructor teaches you a defense against a knife attack. Ask him if you can stab him (with a practice knife obviously) to assess if his movement is working. If he says NO, go. If he’s okay, stab him the same way you saw on live assault videos without telling him first. Don’t cut him any slack. If you are unsure of the result, repeat the process at least 10 times and count how many times he has been successful in his attempts at defense.

If he’s open-minded and survived the majority of your attacks, you might have found a good system. Congratulations! You have just won the lottery! But remember – never stop asking questions and always try to physically PROVE if something isn’t working. There’s no other way.


The challenge I just described to you is what many instructors at home and abroad (and world-famous systems) will never accept. Because deep down they know they’re teaching bullshit. They rarely question themselves. They prefer to say openly that you are not performing the attack properly (see Jim Carrey’s sketch as a self-defense teacher, it’s quite close to reality on the subject.

For most of them, teaching self-defense is more about profit, prestige, and/or vanity. How many students will return to class for another round of bruises, scratches, kicks, punches, slaps twice a week? How many of them will have the mentality and determination to suffer in training to reap the benefits? Frankly not a lot. But it is a real pleasure to know these people, to work with them – and in most cases, to consider them as friends.

That’s why self-defense can’t be about money – those few people who stay in reality-based classes may be able to just make one local self-defense training school viable. This is why you can easily see 30 to 40 people, sometimes more at Krav Maga lessons. Happy to hit the pads with a smile; and the instructors give them a friendly pat on the shoulder. “If you make it difficult for them, they will leave and their money with them.” They are the ones who would choose the second answer to our first question.

I don’t blame them. Self-defense is (or at least should be) really hard work. I blame the systems that sell themselves as “the world’s most realistic self-defense” and when you watch their classes you see completely unrealistic techniques, ego, and a bad boxing class instead of self-defense. All I want from them is to tell the truth: “The World’s Most Realistic Homeopathic Self-Defense”.

A self-defense instructor who teaches bullshit (whatever the reason) is a criminal and should be jailed for selling dreams to his students. An illusion that can easily get you killed when you try to put it to practice. This is your real life. If you are reading this as a self-defense instructor and feel offended, maybe you are part of the problem?

That’s why self-defense isn’t a sport. Losing a boxing match won’t leave your guts hanging out on the sidewalk!

REMEMBER! The only way to prove if self-defense works is to TEST it. Several times, under stress, at full speed. The success rate in self-defense is not a matter of opinion (as is the case with most instructors), it is a matter of statistics!

QUESTION 7: Ok, so what are the benefits? What am I getting out of all this work?

  1. You will learn to think clearly under stress (and not just for physical attacks), how to work on adrenaline.
  2. You will certainly get to know each other a lot better than before.
  3. You will learn how to increase your chances of survival, and if the system offers these options and you have that mindset, how to help someone else survive.
  4. Maybe you’ll expand into other combat skills – close protection, knife fighting, combat shooting with a handgun/long gun, and you will be interested.
  5. Maybe your wife/husband, boyfriend, mother, or daughter will one day benefit from your skills and knowledge (but pray that never happens).
  6. You’ll never watch violence with fancy eyes again (it ruins most action movies, I can tell you that).
  7. You will become harder, stronger, faster, smarter, more resistant to pain, and most of all more humble. Ego kills more than cigarettes and alcohol.
  8. You will learn how to leverage the situation, how not to fight, how to take the initiative, how to assess a situation correctly.
  9. And maybe it will make you a better person.

Now you have all the elements to go to practice while respecting your goals. 

Take care.


Taekwon-Do School Amsterdam offers Kalah group classes, workshops and Personal Training. Contact us for more information: More information about Kalah.