09 June 2008

Fighting fit

It might just save your life one day. And if that isn’t enough incentive to sign up for a self defence class, then consider this: it’s a great workout.

Take an average group of South African women from the suburbs: pleasant, eager to please, and hesitant to harm so much as a gnat.

Put them in a self defence workshop with legendary karate sensei Sanette (‘Smitti’) Smith at the helm, and after a couple of hours they’ve transformed into a wild-eyed, yelling, energized and decidedly ungenteel horde, capable of inflicting not minor harm on anyone foolish enough to mess with them.

How the workshop works
The workshop I attended was “Level 1”, in which women learn to defend themselves against a single, unarmed attacker (the most common type of attack).

Sanette starts off with a talk on rape, and she doesn’t pull any punches reminding the class about the country’s appalling rape statistics and the brutal nature of sexual violence.

We’d heard it all before, of course. But what was different this time was that when the talk ended we got up with those stats ringing in our ears – and did something about it in an immediate, direct manner.

Sanette’s pep talk also stresses the all-important need to effect a mind shift, from a state of fear and powerlessness, to one of calm, confident readiness. Without this, you won’t be able to deliver the basic self defence moves effectively.

It’s not about launching yourself into attack mode as if you were invincible; there are potentially violent situations in which talking your way out might be a more effective approach. “But once you’ve have decided to act, you need to do so with commitment and without hestitation,” says Sanette.

As we worked on our attitude, Sanette introduced us to other basic “tools of defence”:

The Fighting Stance – balanced, alert, confident, head and fists up, looking the assailant straight in the eye. There is a kind of positive feedback loop between mind and body that happens: simply adopting the stance makes you feel more empowered, while adopting a positive, confident attitude translates into stronger, faster reaction by the body.

The Target Areas (the attacker’s, not yours). Most of us knew the groin was one of these, but there are more soft targets on the male body than one might expect. The top four to remember are nose, groin, throat and back of the neck. But then there’s also eyes, ears, fingers, shin, instep… and the list goes on.

Punching and Kicking, and learning at which distance to most effectively deliver blows to the target.

Shifting and Blocking to avoid being the target yourself, and to get out of the situation and away to safety.

As the class progresses, the “tools” are put to work, with your newly acquired moves being used increasingly in a sequence. This is key: one perfectly executed punch to the nose may be enough to disarm your attacker, but that’s unlikely. More likely, you will need to keep going, keep trying to hit those targets, over and over, for as long as you can until you reach the final goal: disabling the attacker so that you can get to safety.

Sanette tells the story of one woman who kept doggedly hitting her attacker’s ear with a cupped hand – it took eight attempts, but on the eighth she burst his eardrum, and escaped.

Initially, the class was hesitant and slightly appalled at the prospect of enacting such horrors as gouging out their partners’ eyeballs – as nicely brought up human beings should be. But once into the task, we found increasingly that we had to rein in our inner banshee.

I clocked my colleague Ilse Pauw, Health24’s Mind Editor, for whom I harbour no particular ill-will, one on the nose (there appears to be no lasting damage). Another member of the horde grabbed me from behind (as instructed) in a ferocious bear hug that left me with a painful ribcage, forcing me to sit out the last few minutes of the class.

So yes, this is rather rougher stuff than most of us are used to. But these few little bumps and bruises serve to quickly hit home a few potentially life-saving lessons:

  • This is just a whisper of the violence you would have to endure during a real attack: having gone through a simulated attack will help reduce the shock of a real one.
  • You are a lot more powerful than you realized.
  • The fitter and more confident you are, the better.
  • There are times when it’s OK not to act nice.

Survival of the fit
Practising the basic moves improves strength and agility, and if you do them repeatedly, they’ll help with stamina and endurance.

These are all good things under any circumstances, but in the event of an attack they might just give you that fractional edge that allows you to get away.

The importance of being “fighting fit” is also a motivation to stick with any exercise regime, be it pilates or water aerobics, that improves strength, agility and cardiovascular fitness.

“There’s no question that being fit helps when you’re being attacked – of course it does,” says Sanette. “Being fit improves stamina and strength and makes you more confident: it holds everything together. This is even more important with two attackers.

“But that’s not to say that you can’t benefit from a self-defence class even if you aren’t in good shape. Just knowing self defence techniques and knowing your target areas – any woman, no matter how fit, can cache in on this.”

Of course, the more classes, and the more practice, the better. Doing one class is definitely better than none at all, but Sanette would ideally like to see women attending regularly every month. Failing that, make it once every three months, preferably practising the moves at home in between.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, June 2008

For more information on the workshops, contact
Margaret Neethling: Tel 021 461-0036 Email
Sanette Smith: Tel 082 4153960 Email

Sanette's workshops are Cape Town-based. For information on similar workshops in other parts of the country, please ask Health24's Self Defence Expert.

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