Self-defence Life Cycle and Dimensions of Self-defence


There are major benefits to looking at the broader implications of self-defence. A focus only on the physical art is unrealistic. It might be that you can adequately preserve your safety without ever resorting to physical defence. In order to help students understand this, I have developed two complementary ideas. The first is that there is a life cycle for self-defence, consisting of four phases, The second is that the physical and technical martial arts skills are only one dimension of multiple dimensions that are relevant to self-defence. Below I give an overview of these ideas.

Four Phase Life Cycle

The four Phase Life Cycle has the following stages:


  • Prepare
  • Monitor
  • Confront
  • Recover


Each of these will be discussed in turn. While reading this discussion, keep in mind that the stages do not really follow one another in lock step fashion at different moments in time. The situation is much more fluid than that.




Self-defence starts with preparation. This preparation is done within the context of the various dimensions of self-defence. Through preparation, you learn the relevant skills and have some understanding of the various aspects of self-defence, most of them going beyond fighting. For instance, there is always a legal context, and if you have a regard for the law, you need take it into account.




We must live our lives, but from a self-defence perspective, we need to monitor the world and be alert to threats, and also to opportunities. By having prepared properly, we will have a repertoire of response to use when some trigger alerts us to a threat. We will not be caught as flat-footed as we would otherwise be. We can respond more appropriately.




When we are confronted with a threat, we have to deal with it. We may be able to defuse a potentially dangerous situation, or we may have to engage in a physical response. We may be ambushed, and put into a very dangerous situation with almost no warning. In any case, we hope that our training will allow us to survive, and that injuries are minimal. We also need to address the immediate aftermath, in a number of different dimensions. We first need to insure physical safety and necessary medical care. We may well have to deal with legal issues in the immediate aftermath.




After the immediate confrontation is over, there will still be an aftermath. There may be serious medical issues, legal issues, psychological issues, and so on. Some of these problems may persist for the rest of our lives. Our attacker and other participants, including bystanders, may also have to deal with the aftermath. There will be time now to reassess our response and preparedness, and improve our approach.

Dimensions of Self-defence

There are many aspects to self-defence beyond the physical. A partial list follows below. Each of these should be important to you. There are many books written on each of these topics, and you should do your own research. I will not attempt to write a full book on these, but I will try to bring out why I think that they are relevant and important, and give a general idea of what each means. Here is a list of various dimensions:


  • Situational
  • Personal involvement
  • Ethical/moral
  • Legal
  • Assault
  • Pragmatic – what works
  • Environmental weapons
  • Escape and avoidance
  • Environmental factors
  • Social and community
  • Psychological – emotional, cognitive, perceptual
  • Physical – fitness, skill, technique
  • Medical
  • Strategy and tactics
  • Risk – threats, opportunities, odds, avoidance, mitigation
  • Costs and benefits


Explanation of the Dimensions

I will discuss each of the listed dimension briefly below. For each of these, remember that they have different aspects depending on the phase of the life cycle under discussion. In fact, a thorough discussion of the dimensions and their implications at each phase of the life cycle could take a whole book. I will defer such a detailed treatment until some other time. Many other authors have written about these things, and a little research will reveal good reference materials on this. You will quickly find that there is no unanimity of opinion on these topics, so of course, you will have to come to your own conclusions.




Numerous situations are possible with respect to self-defence, and the most significant ones need to be thought about and preparations made. There could be robbery, there could be assault, there might be a gang attack, you could be defending someone else, there might be an animal attack and there are certainly other possibilities. All of these should be considered in terms of the life cycle and the various dimensions briefly sketched out below.


Involvement of Parties


At each phase of the life cycle, different parties will be involved. During preparation, you will be dealing with teachers, coaches, mentors, experts of various types. While monitoring, you will be dealing with the world. During a confrontation, you will have attackers, friends, bystanders, allies, enemies, law enforcement, first responders, and other persons. You might also be dealing with animals. For the recovery phase, you might be dealing with lawyers, officers, judges, juries, expert witnesses, doctors, nurses, insurance agencies. You should think about this and make your own list.




Assuming that you don’t come from the psychopathic school of self-defence, you will acknowledge that there should be an ethical and moral dimension to self defence. You need to reflect this in your preparation, and carry it through to the end of the life cycle.




There are laws governing self-defence. You should have a working knowledge of what you are allowed to do legally during a confrontation. After a confrontation, you may be involved with the police, prosecutors, lawyers, and possibly expert witnesses.




Assuming the confrontation is not one of your choosing, you are the victim of an assault. It could also be an ambush, an even more dangerous situation. In any case, the motivation of your assailant could include revenge, mistaken identity, money, sadism, bullying, intimidation, sexual assault and perhaps other things. The assailant may be intoxicated with legal or illegal drugs including alcohol, may be mentally ill, or may just be an extremely vicious person. They may be a psychopath or a sociopath. You may be confronting a person with a weapon, or a gang attack.


In your preparation, you need to look at various scenarios, and decide how to best ready yourself to meet them, or how to best avoid them. This takes you into risk management, which will be discussed below.




It is essential that you take a pragmatic approach to self-defence. Look at possibilities realistically. You may be ambushed. You may not know that you are under attack until you have be injured. You probably will not see the weapon. You have a right to survive, and you must do what works. You may have to make momentous judgements with no time for deliberation, and with very ambiguous information. You may have a weapon, but no time to deploy it. You need always to look for what is most likely to work.


Environmental Weapons


If you have a chance, it is better to have a weapon. However, if you have forewarning you may be able to find an improvised weapon. You can use this subject to legal and ethical constraints, but be pragmatic. Any number of common objects can be thrown, used as striking objects, or used to keep assailants at a distance. Coins in you pocket may be thrown to distract. A heavy belt with buckle can be used as a flail. A tree branch on the ground can be used as a club. You need to investigate such options in your preparations.


Escape and Avoidance


It is not always a option to avoid trouble. Doing so comes with a cost – you will be circumscribing your life. It is not always possible to escape. You may not be fast enough, and you may be blocked in. You may have others with you to defend. Regardless, if possible, avoid risky situations.Try to escape from a developing situation, either by leaving or by placating a potential assailant. Do not let false pride get in your way.




Confrontations happen within a physical setting of course. But, the physical setting may have an immense effect on the outcome. The terrain can be rough or smooth, muddy, icy, flat, elevated, irregular. The site may be a building, a room, a hallway, out of doors, an alley, a field. There may be obstacles. There may be no easy escape routes. The sun may be in your eyes. The weather may be snowy or rainy, hot or cold. It may be night or day.
The site may be in the city, in a good neighbourhood, in a bad neighbourhood. It may be remote. It may be forest or Savannah. There are many factors, and each will have an effect. Your preparation needs to address these sorts of concerns.


Social and Community


We are social creatures. The nature of the society we are embedded in may have a dramatic influence on the confrontation. Afterwards, social factors will come in to play regarding your reputation, your job prospects, your standing in the community. There may be many outcomes.




Psychological factors encompass emotional, cognitive and perceptual considerations. The effect of fear, the effect of stress, motivation, perceptual distortions, incorrect assessment of the situation and numerous other psychological factors will come in to play. Your planning must take these issues into account. Also, the same factors can affect your adversary. You need to understand these things.




There are at least three aspects to the physical confrontation to address in your preparation. These are fitness, skill, and technique. Fitness will definitely affect both your performance, and your ability to train hard. Skill is a result of proper and sufficient training, and will be a major factor in success. The actual techniques used are important, but perhaps not as important as the first two.




You need to start addressing the medical implications of assault in your preparation. After a confrontation, proper preparation may save lives. Improper actions might result in you or a bystander bleeding to death from a wound that should not be fatal, for instance.


Strategy and Tactics


Understanding the strategy in combat, and how to apply particular techniques can be studied. There is a sound reason to investigate this area. There are writings available on this.




An overall framework of risk management can help integrate this knowledge. Risk management consists of the identification of threats and opportunities, and triggers that will allow you early warning. These risks can be assessed in terms of potential impact, and the odds of the risk occurring. Your can prepare strategies to help avoid risks and embrace opportunities. If the risk is realized, you need to have planned how to mitigate the impact if a realized threat, or enhance the impact if a realized opportunity. All of this takes time, money and effort to put into place. Manage things according to the odds and potential consequence. So, don’t worry about the small stuff. See Appendix E – Adaptive Risk Management for more information.




Costs and Benefits


Anything you do to manage risk, such as take self-defence lessons has a cost. It must also return benefits. It is for you to decide what the costs are, and if the benefits are worth it to you. Sometimes, a lost or foregone opportunity is a cost that may be more than you are willing to pay.