All the right moves under my belt: Learning Self Defense

By on March 18, 2012

Photo: Elburn Herald reporter Lynn Meredith practices an elbow strike with the help of instructor Bernice Marsala on Saturday at the Maple Park Community Center. The Kishwaukee Family YMCA’s Black Belt Karate Staff and the Maple Park Library hosted a female self defense course, led by instructor Tom Scott. Scott is a retired Sycamore Police Lieutenant and currently teaches martial arts and self defense classes through the Kishwaukee YMCA. Photo by John DiDonna

by Lynn Meredith
MAPLE PARK—On Saturday morning in the Maple Park Community Center gym, I stood in a circle with 35 other women as retired police officer and self-defense prevention specialist Tom Scott called out, “Who has the right to hurt you?” In unison and with gusto we called back, “No one!”

We learned that lesson and many more courtesy of Maple Park Police Department’s Sgt. Buzz Hodges and Officer Andy Rissman, who invited area women to attend the free class.

Scott was assisted by three experts in martial arts—women with various backgrounds and degrees of experience. One of the women, Leslie Rigg, teaches First Year Success, a self-defense program for all first-year students at NIU.

“It’s a program near and dear to my heart. We take care of these students for their parents while they are here. We want to make sure that young women and young men are confidant as they move around campus—as we know, sometimes at one in the morning,” Rigg said.

As I looked around the women in the class practicing their self-defense stance (feet wide, one ahead of the other, hands up), I noticed several teenaged and young adult women who either came on their own or with their mothers. Scott appropriately named his program “Daughters Safe,” making clear that every woman is the daughter of someone. His program emphasizes that a key component of self-defense for any aged woman is prevention.

“We want you to be the victor, not the victim,” he said. “The best protection you have is the knowledge that you have and what you do with it.”

Instructor Bernice Marsala delivers a palm thrust to "Bob the Dummy" as Tom Scott explains her technique. Photo by John DiDonna


After loosening up and starting to breathe more deeply, we learned the eight directions of movement and the eight weapons of protection. The eight directions are compass points around the body. The eight weapons are the hands, the feet, the elbows and the knees. We teamed up with a partner and started practicing something called “Push-pull.” The basic idea is that if a bad guy lunges at you and grabs you, you don’t pull back and resist his force. Instead, you go with his force. If he grabs and pulls back, you push toward him. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is an akido move that uses the enemy’s force against him. The reversal of energy knocks the attacker off his base.

“You use their force and turn their energy on them. You are going with the motion of the target,” Scott said.

Next, Scott began circling the group and coming close up to individual women—something he called “wolfing.” Some women immediately pulled back, on their guard, but others stood still, letting him come up close. Scott explained that how close you let someone into your space is up to you, but when it seems too close, it may be a trigger that the person could be an attacker. You can prevent an attack by paying attention to someone who starts to invade your personal space.

By this time, the energy of the group was flowing, and we starting using our weapons of protection. The assistants came around holding up small mats and stood behind them while we punched the mats with the palm of our hands, jabbed with our elbows and strategically placed some upper cuts with our knees. I was beginning to think that defending myself seemed pretty fun.

Scott must have sensed the group getting a little too blood-thirsty because he took the opportunity to point out how the law defines self-defense.

“The exception to violence is when someone is hurting you. You have to fight to escape, to protect yourself, not to stay in the fight,” he said. “So if someone comes up to you and asks for the time, you don’t start jabbing him. The law says you can use force that is ‘reasonable and necessary.’”

With that caution in mind, we moved on to a discussion of “verbal judo.” What do you do, one woman asked, if someone approaches you with vulgar language? Do you ignore him? Do you yell back?

Scott and Rigg explained that the same idea of push-pull that turns the attacker’s energy on him when he grabs you turns a verbal attacker’s energy back on him when he says inappropriate things.

“Verbal pushing is like physical pushing. You go with their energy, rather than push back,” Rigg said. “Remember, it’s only words.”

We then learned how not to be singled out for an attack. The reality is that predators go for the easy target.

“They are not going to pick on someone who is going to fight back. They are looking for an easy kill, an easy target. They will go after someone they see as weak, maybe the elderly or someone who is distracted,” Scott said. “Keep your hands free and pay attention to your environment. If you’re attacked, make as much noise as possible. It may come across as impolite, but it’s OK to be impolite.”

It’s so good to be empowered.

If you are confronted

1. Note all avenues of escape and
possible “weapons” available to
you. Run away yelling if you can.

2. Act confidant, angry and
aggressive. Yell, swear and show
him loudly that you’re not going
to take it.

3. Never believe an attacker. They will
lie to gain control.

4. Never get into his car or let him
take you to an isolated place.