As a martial arts coach and educator, I teach self-defense seminars from time to time. While I enjoy the opportunity, I also prefer calling it a “personal safety” seminar instead of a “self-defense” seminar. I can hear detractors screaming, “semantics!” However, there is a reason for the terminology.

As I understand it, self-defense implies a “behind-the-curve” mentality, whereas personal safety has a “planning ahead” connotation. I would much rather be proactive than reactive. Therefore, I advocate for planning ahead, and premeditating a plan of action if violence should arrive.

Over the years, I’ve developed a system of personal safety that I believe is useful yet not overly optimistic about what a one-off seminar can provide. I’m not trying to sell snake oil is what I’m getting at. I don’t particularly appreciate seeing martial arts instructors, law enforcement officers, and other folks who “teach” self-defense attempt to tell a woman she should kick the shin, knee the groin, and gouge the eyes. That kind of crap only worked for Miss Congeniality.

Instead, I take a more practical, applicable approach that begins with the psychology of violence and ends with demonstrations of how the leverage aspects of grappling disciplines can help level the playing field for women and smaller individuals. Yes, I am assuming that the attackers will likely be males. No, I’m not a bigot, but the evidence suggests I am correct in my assumption.

Starting with the psychology of violence means discussing both the mind of an attacker and the mindset we need when we meet such a person. It involves acknowledging our typical “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to violent encounters. It also includes a discussion of my system, one I’ve put together in a tidy acronym: C.A.T.S.

There is a useful analogy here as well. Cats can, without warning, go from “Scratch my neck” to “That’s enough; now I’ll tear your face off.” Yes, hyperbole, but the reality is that cats are fickle, unpredictable creatures. I think they offer a nice way to see what a person needs to do when attacked. Here’s a breakdown of my system and why cats are a great mascot for my system, even though I’m not too fond of cats.


I like to use economic terms when I discuss violence and choice. In economics, there are two kinds of people: producers and consumers. If I step into your room and start producing violence, you must either consume my violence or produce your own. That’s what I mean by “being a victim is a choice.” If I bar the door so you can’t run away, you have to make a choice. Have you thought about your options and what you might choose?


Being aware of your surroundings means paying attention, being observant, and keeping your wits about you, even in new settings. Too often, I see people walking around with their earbuds in their ears and their faces stuck in a phone, completely unaware of the world around them. In my opinion, that is being completely ridiculous. Never mind what technology is doing to our psyche, the danger here is not being aware or prepared to meet an attacker.

I also encourage people to take wide turns around a corner of a building and walk with several feet between them and a bush row when possible. This gives you better distance to be able to see an attacker coming. I’ve written before about needing space in a violent situation. Being aware of your surroundings allows you to do that.

Lastly, I encourage people to park under or near a light if it will be dark when they leave. I want to be able to see under and around my vehicle to make sure no one is there trying to get me. Along with parking under a light, I suggest the buddy system when possible, and heading straight for your car when you leave. Don’t dally. Get in and lock the doors. I’ve heard about too many instances where someone left a note for a victim to distract them long enough to attack. Don’t be naïve. Be aware. 


Knowing your tools is about being familiar with whatever weapons you think you have at your disposal in a violent situation. If you carry pepper spray, can you get to it and use it when you are being attacked? Do you know its spray radius and distance? Is it a gel or a spray? I encourage people to buy extra pepper spray so they try it before carrying it and relying on it to protect themselves.

If you plan to carry a firearm, I’d suggest several classes with a good instructor. Also, make sure you can deploy the weapon without harming yourself and others you do not intend to. Know the ‘rules of the range.’ Protect yourself and those around you by training. I can’t remember who said it, but here’s a beautiful quote: “I’d rather have training and no weapon than a weapon and no training.” Know your tools.  


It doesn’t matter how big the tool is or if it’s the perfect one for the job if you can’t use it. If you carry a firearm but can’t pull the trigger, it might as well be a paperweight. Flipping your switch means changing your mentality from prey to predator. This flips the script for your attacker. It’s like you are saying to the attacker, “Not me; Not today.”

Predators are looking for easy targets. A first line of defense is making yourself appear “hard,” not in the “Get Hard” sense, but realistically by projecting confidence and fortitude. If that doesn’t deter the attacker, you must make a choice and flip the switch.

This brings us back to the back-scratching, back-stabbing little bastards called cats. They can flip their switch, let the claws come out, and produce painful cuts. You can too if you have a mind to do so.

Leverage Applications

After discussing the C.A.T.S. system, I ask folks what they fear in a violent attack. Often, the ladies will say pain or the size/strength of the attacker. I then point out that many of the mothers in my audience have already endured immense pain in childbirth and came through it, often more than once. Pain shouldn’t be a deterrent from doing what you have to do in a fight.

To the size and strength of the violent actor, I then demonstrate how a smaller person can use Jiu-Jitsu and Judo techniques to defend, redirect, and often harm their attacker. We start with wrist-grab defenses and move to hair-grab defenses. Then I demonstrate two variations on what to do when someone grabs them from the back in a rear choke hold.

The last section of techniques is generally the technical standup (I call it a tactical standup, and show how it can be tactical); and framing on the bottom to try not to go flat to your back. Several kinds of people naturally go to their back, but the main two we are concerned with are losers and dead people.

The point of the techniques I show is not to cover all the scenarios, nor is it my expectation that the class will remember everything. My goal is to get people thinking about their safety, and show them that, through Jiu-Jitsu and Judo, they can level the playing field against an attacker. Many of the students ask about places to train in their hometowns, what other resources are available, and when the next seminar might be.

I encourage you to train somewhere in something. Don’t expect a one-off seminar to save you. Think about your safety. Meditate on violence every once in a while so you are better prepared for when it finds you. Choose. Pay attention. Spend time with your tools. And lastly, flip the switch when the time comes.


Being a victim is your CHOICE

Be AWARE of your surroundings

Know your TOOLS

Flip your SWITCH

Photos provided by Audrey Luke Morgan.

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  1. Practical and applicable content. There is so much in this article that I would love to get my ‘claws’ into. As to seek first to understand, a principle that seems to serve me well in just about all situations, I am curious as a cat as to what you mean by ‘a bush row’ while walking around a corner. CATS is a really catchy name by the way. Which reminds me of a time during my youth while playing around with a friend’s cat who clearly didn’t want to play. She pounced on my chest as fast as lightening, touched both my eye lashes with her paws before revealing her claws for a fraction of a second and then leapt away. For a creature not 6 months in age and neither fully grown it demonstrated adroitness and keen intelligence. Even a 12 year old girl can bring down a muscle bound man if she strikes with precision.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ve described why cats is a perfect metaphor for my idea of personal safety. To the “bush row” question, a “hedgerow” or row of bushes is what I mean. I don’t hear too many Americans using “hedge” or “hedgerow” anymore though. But, bushes are a common term.

      Liked by 1 person

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