The 12 Criteria for Self Defense (is that self defense any good?)

The 12 Criteria of Self Defense

The 12 Criteria of Self Defense

I get a lot of people asking my opinion about other self defense programs and to be honest – there’s SO MUCH stuff out there both good and bad and I’m only one guy so it’s impossible to review and watch every new thing that pops up.

You should also determine the difference between a SYSTEM and a CONCEPT.

A system is a methodical approach to based on core principles where the TECHNIQUES COME SECOND.

A concept is a technique based on a principle – the TECHNIQUE COMES FIRST.

A system can have several concepts – however, a concept does not make up a system.

Most of what you see new today are concepts presented as systems and concepts DO NOT a system make.

I also have a confession to make…because I know what works and I’ve already spent years doing the research, there’s absolutely NO NEED for me to look any further. Because of the SDTS, I’ve checked that box and moved on.

The truth is, for over 200,000 years homo sapiens have existed on this planet and even before then, man has been trying to figure out how best to kill his fellow man. Ever since Cain killed Abel, technology may change, but MAN ON MAN VIOLENCE has remained the same.

All the research has all been done by many men and women from many countries and governments and at the end of the day there’s only what works and what doesn’t work.

It doesn’t matter where your self defense “comes from” – whether it’s endorsed by the MUSSAD or SEAL TEAM SIX – once you cut through the marketing and the hype, there are really only three things you care about:

  1. Will this Self Defense work for you. 
  2. Will this Self Defense work when you’re attacked.
  3. How fast will it take you to learn.

Forget trying to be the “best” there’s literally no such thing. You’re never going to be the TOUGHEST person on the planet – but the good news is you don’t have to be.

An assault is not a title fight. It’s one person trying to impose their will over another  based on a simple RISK-BENEFIT analysis. 

In most cases when you resist, there will come a point when your attacker feels it’s just not worth it and break contact.

Because of that, you can protect yourself with a high degree of efficiency and success that will enable you to survive. Literally millions of people do it every year with little or no training at all. So the idea that you need to spend years learning this is preposterous. 

After all, self defense is an instinct of every living creature on the planet, so it shouldn’t be that complicated.

To help you determine whether or not a self defense is any good, we’ve created 12 simple criteria to help you.

The 12 Criteria of Self Defense

  1. Will it work in fight or flight when your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated. When you honestly believe that your life is TRULY in danger, your SNS kicks in and prepares you for battle. Among the many things that happen, you will lose control of your fine motor skills and cognitive thought – AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. It’s hardwired into your DNA to put you into battle mode.This means if you have to PAUSE and THINK about what self defense move you’re going to do – it won’t work and anything more complicated than swinging a bat, kicking a ball, running or crawling will won’t work either.Self defense must be extremely simple for it to work for real.
  2. Systems that are based on combat sports should be avoided. Judo, wrestling, MMA, BJJ, boxing or any other sport that has been modified for the street should be avoided because these require a certain level of expertise in the base art before you can use the modifications. That means, if you were to use MMA for the street, you would first need to know some degree of MMA, which requires TIME, ATHLETICISM and a certain level of fitness. In addition, combat sports are based on a specific style or rules that will confine you to that particular style, even in self defense situations.
  3. It must work in any environment.
    Most systems are practiced in gyms on mats or clear floors. Unfortunately the world isn’t like that. Right now, you probably can’t move ten feet in any direction without hitting a wall, a piece of furniture or a change in elevation. There’s ice, sand, mud, rock, concrete, broken glass and anything you can imagine that will tear you up. Would you really want to choose to grapple on broken glass or wrestle in an icy parking lot? Of course not – but chances are that’s where you’re going to have to defend yourself so you better prepare in a manner that considers this reality.
  4. You will be ALONE against an attacker who is BIGGER, STRONGER, ARMED and has FRIENDS.
    Any situation has the potential to have all of these elements…even if you don’t see them at first. Avoid systems of self defense that teach you different defenses for these situations. Martial arts tend to have different defenses for armed and unarmed attackers. They also prepare you differently for multiple attackers and you’re typically paired with someone who is about your size, strength, sex and ability. None of this is applicable for self defense. You will always face someone bigger and stronger. Most times you will be attacked in low-light conditions, so that punch could actually be a stab but you just wouldn’t see it. Plus if your attacker is smart, he’s going to have his buddies lying in wait to come out after the attack starts. Every attack must be treated as an armed, larger multiple attacker situation.
  5. Self defense is UNIVERSAL.
    There shouldn’t be a different self defense for women and the elderly. If it works for them, it will work for a 25 year old weightlifter. The difference is that the twenty something is going to have a lot more room for error than you. A big part of your self defense education is to discover what works for you and develop it. You might not to be able to do EVERYTHING, but you should be able to do SOMETHING. You should also be able to adapt your self defense to your current physical state. That’s why you need a method that you can “take with you” and use for your entire life. You must constantly modify your self defense to meet your ever changing physical abilities.
  6. It should include PRACTICAL, every day weapons.
    Weapons are EXTREMELY important because empty hand skills are the lowest rung on the self defense ladder. Weapons level the playing field and enable you to be more efficient and effective. Any system that doesn’t teach you a wide variety of impact, edged and projectile weapons really isn’t a “self defense system” at all. Also, the weapons must be something you carry every day. Unless you’re a Shepard, there’s really no need to learn a bo staff…instead maybe you should know how to use a cane, walking stick, utility knife or hammer. Finally, be wary of “military” systems that don’t teach you weapons as part of the core curriculum…that just doesn’t make any sense.
  7. You need to ACTUALLY HIT, STAB AND BLUDGEON with 100% force. 
    The only way to develop real power is to do it full power. Pulling your punches on your training partner DOESN’T DO IT. Hitting air doesn’t do it and neither does stabbing the air. If you want to lift heavy weights you spend the majority of your time LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS.  In self defense you need to GO AS HARD AS YOU CAN with an extreme sense of urgency. The only way to do that is to practice your techniques against a target with FULL POWER. Remember, what you do in practice you’ll do in the street and if you’re pulling your techniques and stopping at the tap – that’s what you’re going to do when you’re fighting under SNS activation.
  8. You need to have an “all in” approach.
    I think everyone would agree that you need to train for standing, extreme close range, grappling and the ground. Systems that don’t address this and focus primarily on one position – STANDING or the GROUND are not good self defense systems. Always look to stay on your feet and be mobile – but prepare for the likelihood of getting into a clinch and going to the ground.
  9. The system must include AWARENESS and AVOIDANCE as a continuous part of your training.
    Since many martial arts are centered around SPARRING you’re taught to engage the enemy with a ONE ON ONE mindset and DEFEAT your opponent.  Even in self defense practice, martial artists train to the “finishing technique” where your attacker is on the ground and you’re standing over them. This habit sets an unrealistic expectation for you to DEFEAT ALL COMERS and when you’re actually attacked that’s what you’re going try to do (and expect). You will seek to engage and defeat the enemy when in reality it’s much, much easier to AVOID and ESCAPE. In fact, most people are better served just focusing on how to escape.
  10. Self Defense in not “clean and tidy”.
    Martial arts have made us believe that with enough training it only takes a “flick of the wrist” to dispatch a determined and dangerous attacker….and you even can do this without getting hurt! But those of us who have seen real violence know this isn’t true. The reality is when you have to fight for your life, it’s VISCERAL, SLOPPY and RAW. Nothing will go perfect and it will definitely not be CLEAN so you need to prepare for this and train in a manner that concentrates on your position, distance, momentum and balance.
    If you’re being taught to assume a “hands up” fighting stance in the street – RUN don’t walk, away from that system. The last thing you want to do is let your attacker know that you’re trained. Because if he knows you can protect yourself, he will take another approach, maybe now he uses a weapon or he says he doesn’t want to fight – goes to apologize and then stabs you. You never know what you’re dealing with and the less they know about you, the better.
  12. Avoid specific self defense counters.
    Many, many systems teach specific defense counters to specific attacks. They have you learn one individual defense counter for an arm grab and a different one for a collar choke, then another one for a wrist grab or another for a pin. Every situation can be broken down to position and distance: Where you are in relation to your attacker and how far away your attacker is from you. Once you understand how to identify the common denominator, every situation becomes EXTREMELY SIMPLE to defend.

There are  universal truths to self defense and the number one is that it takes MORE WILL THAN SKILL. Real self defense should maximize your SNS activation and enable you to fight to your full potential.

MORE on the SNS…

We talked a little bit about the SNS and what happens to you when the FIT HITS THE SHAN – below is a little more detail on the subject.

Chart courtesy of David Grossman’s book ON COMBAT.

This is what happens when your SNS activates.

The chart below briefly describes what happens to you physically and mentally  when you’re attacked and your SNS kicks in. This is when you TRULY BELIEVE your life is in danger. It is  impossible to replicate this in training…though some have come very close.

The effects of SNS activation are directly related to your heart rate, but note: this is HORMONE induced heart rate increase, NOT PHYSICAL EXERCISE heart rate increase. 

If you went running and got your heart rate up to 180 beats per minute you would be tired for sure, and you would feel some of these effects, but not all of them and not in the same way.

Hormone induced heart rate comes on FAST and effects every facet of your being.

There are five conditions.

Condition White is all clear, resting state.

Condition Yellow is FEAR, you start to become hyper aware and the SNS is activated.

Condition Red is where you start to get into trouble. Your complex motor skills deteriorate as well as cognitive thought.

Condition Gray you’re off the grid.  You experience tunnel vision and auditory exclusion (can’t hear anything). You can only RUN or CRAWL.

Condition Black is “lights out”. People who enter this state literally black out.

You’re goal is to “FIGHT” in condition YELLOW to RED which you can see is only 115-140 BPM.

You see from the chart that you have the following under Condition YELLOW-RED




This is your body’s battle mode so you need to train in methods that take advantage of it. This means sticking to “complex motor skills”. 

What are Complex Motor Skills? 

There are 3 types of motor skills: Gross, Complex and Fine.

Gross Motor Skills – Running and Crawling

Complex Motor Skills – Swinging a bat, kicking a ball

Fine Motor Skills – are the coordination of small muscles, in movements—usually involving the synchronization of wrists, hands and fingers with the eyes. You will find that most “self defenses” in martial arts involve these types of skills.

What is increased reaction time? 

The positive impact stimulatory neurotransmitters have on reaction time. The increased arousal naturally boosted by adrenaline. You can also improve your reaction time by training yourself to react to things that move faster like swinging targets. This allows you to fight HARDER and FASTER.

What is faster cognitive reaction time?

This is your ability to MAKE A DECISION AND REACT. However the MORE choices you have, the SLOWER you react (Hick’s Law). This is also why having multiple defenses to multiple scenarios DOESN’T WORK. The more choices you have, the slower your reaction time.

So given what you know about the SNS – you can already start to put together your own criteria…

Simple movements, no more complicated than swinging a bat – what looks pretty won’t work. 

Limited choices to a multitude of situations.

Focus on COMMON DENOMINATOR self defense – If it works for the SMALLEST and WEAKEST it will work for the BIGGEST and STRONGEST.

I would like to claim 100% credit for these insights but I’m not that smart and I’m only one person. All of this research has been done, applied and vetted for over 100 years by people who’s vocation was violence. They weren’t trying to perfect an art or promote a system like I am, they just wanted to survive.

I guess it upsets a lot of people that I say self defense isn’t that complicated. Well like I said before, anything that is an instinct to every living creature on the planet, shouldn’t be complicated.

Train Honestly,


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Published by Damian (Instructor)

Founder, The Self Defense Company

Join the Conversation


    1. So I’m going to guess you’re asking about ANY self defense training since the article is about how to evaluate a self defense system.

      And to answer your question, training and education can take place anywhere.

      1. Hey Wayne, thanks for your email.

        “Thank you for a practical summary of a unplanned defense scenario. My question is how would this course be taught. Would it take place on internet or at a location with instructor.”

        I’ll explain how I learned this, practiced it and used it.

        I used to travel to see my instructor about once every two weeks or so. We’d meet for an hour or two, I’d take notes and go home and trian in my gym.

        Mostly by myself, on my own schedule, beating the hell out of dummies, bricks and the things I made in my basement.

        If I had a question I would email or call him.

        I’d also read books (many of which are on the platform). So when I wasn’t training, I was still reading and learning.

        This lasted for about a year until his health declined.

        This is how the SDTS was born – now instead of meeting with your instructor, you log in and watch the video – post your questions like this and even video if you want and we’ll take a look at it.

        We will even certify you.

        MAKE NO MISTAKE we train and certify instructors – and you can train with them, but training with an instructor is only temporary.

        Eventually life will get in the way and you’ll have to stop – but your need for self defense IS CONSTANT as is your physical ability.

        First of all, it shouldn’t take you years to learn this. It’s not that complicated.

        Second, in order for you to keep training and keep learning you need to be able to come back every once in a while and refresh.

        I will tell you this, once you go through the modules, you don’t need to do it ALL OF THE TIME.

        Check that box and move on.

        Martial arts is a business designed to keep you training longer and more often, it’s just the nature of the beast.

        With this, if you’re training consistently for a year, you’re good. Even if you have a few minutes here or there…sure you might not be able to develop physical skill, but there is a lot of tactical training to learn as well.

        In order for a self defense program to live and grow with you it must be:

        Easy to do.
        Go wherever you go.
        Be there right when you want it.

        What we do is revolutionary, I hate to use the term but when everyone is telling us YOU CAN’T and we have thousands of people WHO CAN. Well, something is happening.

  1. In any situation when you are fighting for YOUR LIFE the BEST defense is a QUICK and POWERFUL OFFENSE period… Your not going to have the luxury of TIME to RESPOND cognitively to the situation or even think about a response. REACTION is a non-thought out response. ANY martial arts training that DOES NOT recognize this, is a waste of time and money in my estimation. So what if you attacker has a weapon, ATTACK THE MAN!! (while deflecting the weapon).

  2. Awesome!

    25 years in the fire service
    second degree black belt in Chinese martial arts
    first degree black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu
    ex professional boxer, MMA fighter and coach
    private protection officer (PPO) licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety

  3. So, leaping into the air, screaming really LOUD and kicking the gun out of your assailant’s hand is off the table, then?

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