What does it mean to learn "self defense"? Is it the ability to properly execute a series of techniques for each of an infinite number of situations? Is it becoming a part of a martial lineage? Is it learning how to fight 1 on 1 in a cage? Is it learning one specific style that works against all others? How would you truly "pressure test" your skills? Is it a personal journey, or one that has been mastered?
Having had the unfortunate personal experience of having to put this side of my training to the test, it's a topic my students ask me about frequently.
I claim little to no real original thought in my martial arts journey when it comes to self defense, only what has been passed on to me by my teachers. In each discipline: Judo, Muay Thai, Silat, Savate, Eskrima, American Combat Karate, and of course Aikido, I have been blessed with gifted and wise teachers. Unfortunately this is not always the case for so many thousands of those seeking efficacy in survival in dangerous situations.
Mind. The Mind is Key to Survival.
More than anything, the most effective way to survive and be effective in real life application, is to recognize your current mental state regarding surprise and foreseen altercations, and then learning to trigger the most advantageous response.
How to deal with expected attack? Settle. Like good meditation, don't try to clear your mind, that's impossible - it's designed to think and calculate. Instead, learn to guide it, so that it works for you instead of relying on natural evolutionary behavior (i.e., surviving against predatory animals in the wild).
How to deal with surprise attack? The start is the same, but with more rapid onset. This takes more time to train because the rush to the mind is so powerful (i.e., adrenaline surge). Either you will be struck or grappled/grabbed. Hope for grabbed, but plan for either or both.
Reading shoulders and hips, establishing/maintaining proper distance, and executing timing correctly is the priority regardless of your discipline (any fighter/instructor worth their salt will tell you the same).
Body. Avoiding "Auto-Pilot" Training.
The biggest mistake made by so many who train and teach, is the tendency to end up in "auto-pilot" martial arts training mode. This means you're going through the motions of an established interaction. Generally this happens because you'll repeat drills for 10 or 15 minutes, which means simply, you'll get bored. I would squarely place this responsibility on the teacher. To recognize and help students adjust when they begin training on "auto-pilot" so that they are always practicing with "honesty in training" in mind.
It is one thing to practice with an athletic, sport, or microcosm in mind (i.e., addressing one small portion of an interaction, to the exclusion of the complete technique) - it is another entirely to just "go through the motions". From a self defense perspective, you would do well to learn the difference by recognizing how your body is moving and reacting.
Spirit. There is Only Evil in Altercation.
It is a valuable lesson to speak with anyone who trains in the martial arts who has truly been in self defense situations before. The true lesson is: win or lose - it's a terrible feeling. Truly, if you must be in that situation, and if you can choose - you want to "win". But you'll find that in "winning", especially if you cause permanent damage to your attacker, any satisfaction you might have thought to feel at "finally getting to use your training" is quickly replaced by: "my god, I've permanently altered someone else's life".
This does not mean you should fear self defense situations, but it is a chief reason why quality instructors will focus on the avoidance of fighting at all costs.
Our gained ability to interact on a physical level with others to our benefit should also impart the ability to resolve conflict on a non-physical level. This way, physical conflict remains relegated to the mat, where the chance of injury is minimized, and the community supports the growth and journey of each other.
See you on the mat,