We Sharpen Saws: An essay on the truth of self defense classes

In the mid 90s, I had a martial arts club that was doing well enough that I was able to move out of the rec center where we were holding classes and into a storefront space. Like anyone starting out, I had little money, and more ideas than I could ever hope to bring to reality. I didn’t know where to start with everything. Once I leased the space, I decided I needed business cards. I don’t know why I thought business cards were such a priority, but at the time it seemed more important than other forms of advertising. So, I went to a local print shop and ordered my first set of business cards.

Waiting for them to arrive was difficult, as I was more than a little excited about my new school. When they were printed, I went to pick them up, and my excitement faded fast. Right there on my brand new business cards:


Smedley Martial Arts

Hung Gar Kung Fu

Group Classes – Private Instruction

“We Sharpen Saws”


 Yes. Right there…”We Sharpen Saws”.

They offered to print a new set when I pointed out the error. But they also made an offer that the eternally cash strapped me could not turn down, I could take the cards with the error for half price.

So that was how I ended up handing out cards all over Austin offering martial arts instruction and joking about how I don’t really sharpen saws. The business cards were brought up to me in conversation by a student from that time when we ended up in a conversation about false advertising. He joked about how if I handed those out now, someone would file a lawsuit against me for false advertising.

How many martial arts instructors actually take the time to study and see if what they are claiming to offer is truly what they provide?

One easy example is the claim of “Self Defense Classes”.

In the traditional martial arts there are many different views as to what is the best method of self-defense. One will find entire schools and systems dedicated to one small aspect of fighting and laying claim to that system or school’s supremacy in the world of self-defense.

But one must ask which school or method is correct? Obviously, they cannot all be correct, as they are all claiming superiority.

In order to come close to answering this question, we must first determine what self-defense really is.

Speaking in specificity, self-defense is a very narrowly defined legal term. Throughout the world, there are different interpretations of the term, but what is clear is this; most of what is taught as “self-defense” in the United States is in legal terms, assault. What most people are looking for in a “self-defense” class is training in self-protection.

Throughout the USA, there are seminars and classes taught every day on the subject of self-defense. In the vast majority of these classes, the students are taught a specific response to a specific attack. Those who choose the path of the traditional martial arts will have a longer road, but the same outline when it comes to their method of self-defense; attack A requires response B.

Violence comes in so many different varieties and levels of intensity that there is no way that any rational person should ever be duped into believing that this attack/response scenario is even remotely workable in the real world.

Let us take a moment to examine what we should know when it comes to self-defense.

The most glossed over, least taught, and grossly unexamined aspect of self-defense is also the most important: Awareness.

Through practice in simply being aware of your surroundings and your environment, you will be able to avoid most “self-defense” situations in the first place.

But, if this is the most important aspect of self-defense training, why is it not taught?

The answer is simple, there is little to no market for it.

When a martial arts school offers self-defense classes as a sideline business, they need to make money off of it or they will not continue to teach it. When people sign up for a self-defense class, they have the attack/response training in mind before they sign up. If they do not get what they think they wanted, then word will spread that “Southside Dojo’s Self Defense training is worthless! He just tells you to keep your eyes open for any trouble…”

Just as important, and every bit as ignored, is training in avoidance. For those few situations where you didn’t see the trouble coming, simple strategies in the field of avoidance and de-escalation will carry you through. If you have any clue that they are available.

But as was the case with awareness, there isn’t a big market for avoidance and de-escalation strategies. Marc MacYoung is one of the best teachers in the world in this field, but he has not yet gotten rich through teaching it.

The duality of martial arts “philosophy” and “self-defense” training is largely unexamined. We martial artists hold firmly that we are not looking for a fight; we are peaceful warriors, and so on. Yet we are taught and we teach that if someone grabs your wrist, you need to twist and lock the attacker’s wrist, destroy the knee joint with a kick, snake the arm around their neck and with a sharp snap, break their neck, thus ending their life of wrist grabbing crime. 

This is more than confusing, it is dangerous. In the real world, if someone attacks you, even if they have a weapon, there is a fine line between self-defense and assault. Much of what is taught as self-defense by self-professed experts will be classified as assault by the police in nearly every area of the U.S. Yet this excessive use of force is what is taught and drilled repeatedly in martial arts schools across the country every single day.

Even worse than this is the fact that most of these “experts” have little to no experience in real world violence. Their exposure is limited to what they see on TV and in the movies. One fact that you should never lose sight of is this – movies and TV shows are not even close to accurate depictions of real violence. Soldiers, Police, Corrections officers, and criminals can tell you about real violence. Mr. Black Belt over at any-town Dojo does not have the real world experience, unless he worked in one of the previously listed professions, to teach you anything about violence. In my admittedly limited experience, I can only tell you that real violence is fast, ugly, very scary, and very messy. Nothing you do in the Dojo will prepare you for what is out there.

So, what good are self-defense courses and classes?

They are good for a confidence boost. I hold the opinion that anything that gets people off of their butt and moving around cannot be all bad. However, when you sell people something under the term of self-defense, and it is really something that could place them directly in jail should they ever follow your teachings; I have serious issues with that.

Critical thinking has a very crucial role in the martial arts and self-defense. It is a very common occurrence in martial arts schools around the world that the students check their intellectual freedom at the door. The instructor’s word is law, and this law must be followed. The teachings must be accepted, even when they have no basis in fact.

This becomes especially dangerous when we tread into the field of study of self-defense. Most people, when asked, will claim that they are not, in fact, giving up their intellectual freedom, they are following the teachings of an expert.

This brings us right back to where we left off. How do you define an expert in self-defense? Is it going to be someone who has survived thousands of drunken bar fights? Someone who has to fight through muggers, rapists and ninjas on their way home from work every day? How does one become an expert in self-defense? Do you really become an expert in self-defense through training in a dojo?

Typically, the answer is a resounding “NO” you do not become an expert in self-defense training in your typical dojo.

To truly gain real world self-defense skills and self-protection skills, you will need to train against more than a wrist grab. At the very least, you need to study the following:

  • Awareness
  • Avoidance
  • Pre fight indicators (pre-fight rituals)
  • De-escalation
  • Adrenalin effects
  • And last, actual physical skills

Please note that it is only the last skill in which you will receive any training during the typical self-defense seminar.   

Bottom line: Before you place your trust in the hands of an instructor, be armed with the power to critically examine what you are taught. Critical thinkers do not take someone’s word for it on any subject. We are interested in fact, and want to know the truth. The truth may not be what we like, or wanted to hear, but it is always better to be armed with the facts.

For more information on this topic, go to my links page and check some of the websites listed.

One Comment

  1. This is a fantastic article that shoul be read not only by prospective students, but by teachers of the various forms of martial arts. It is important to put aside the ego and search for truth, especially when one dares to lead others along the path.


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