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The American Institute of Kenpo provides its students instruction in the martial arts for use in self-defense. We encourage all our students to give time and effort to defining when a situation is truly a self-defense situation, then to evaluate the best solution for defending themselves.

~ Andrew Pilch

I have had many conversations regarding what exactly self-defense is and when taking action is considered self-defense instead of assault. 

I oftentimes ask new students how they define self-defense, and the grand majority of people really struggle defining what self-defense is. This leaves me with concerns that they will either act too soon and become the aggressor, or they will wait too long to act and get injured far worse as a result.

Before I go any further I feel like I should point out, that regardless of what is going on, any action you take could be considered assault. I was once in a situation where I was being shoved violently, and after the first time I was shoved it was clear that they were gong to repeat the aggressive action. I redirected the push. The person shoving me tripped over their own feet and fell to the ground. They promptly called the police on me. The officer that showed up informed me that by taking the defensive action of blocking the push I had laid hands on the other person and because of that BOTH of us could be taken into custody for assault. Due to the circumstances the officer did not choose to take either of us in, but I feel it is important to let people know that if they defend themselves they could end up having to deal with the law, and it may not be a simple black and white situation where things resolve in their favor. With that in mind I suggest that if you are going to engage anyone physically you have a very clear cut understanding of when you are willing to deal with such situations, and when it is not worth you time, energy, and potential freedom. 

When deciding to engage in self-defense or to employ a first responders to defend you has to be weighed with a clear understanding that in certain situations you do not have the opportunity to involve the police or other first responders. In such time sensitive situations, where there is not enought time or you do not have the ability to to get outside assistance, you then become the first responder that has to protect your life. 

I remember having a discussion about this very subject with Lee Sprague. It was apparent to me that he had given this subject a serious amount of thought and consideration. I would like to share some of the information and guidance I got from him here. 

First, we discussed the importance of actually having to defend yourself, and the reality of out comes. You may not win, but regardless, if you are going to physically fight you have to be fully present physically, mentally, and emotionally. you must be willing to be as violent as possible with the objective of surviving the situation. Another important solution to consider is that you can dominate in a non violent way so you can safely leave the situation. Deescalation is always a better choice than violance if you have the option.

Things are not as simple as a win or loss. Your actions and decisions will shape your future. Win or lose the actions you take could either seriously injure you or your attacker. Those injuries could intentionally or unintentionally lead to death. whether it was warranted or not, even if you inadvertently or justly take someones life with intent, the legal complications could be a nightmare. Thus, potential violent engagements should be avoided if possible.

Our conversation went on to define when it was reasonable to start defending yourself as well as how you can and should defend yourself. Over the years I have condensed that conversation into what I teach as the 3 Considerations of Self-Defense. I hope this will help people determine for themselves if they need to take defensive actions or not. As violence is oftentimes not a good solution I always point out and discuss the 3 Methods of Self-Defense an individual can employ to defend themselves as well.

It would be my hope that if individuals used these guidelines to make reasonable and healthy decisions that they would be able to employ self-defense in such a way that they do not compromise their values and freedom.

3 Considerations of Self-Defense

It is my belief that all 3 considerations must be suitably met for a physical response to be appropriate.


The first factor to be aware of in determining if a situation is a self-defense situation is who creates proximity. Whoever takes the action of closing the distance to be able to physically be in a range, where there is a threat physically to either party, is the aggressor. For a situation to be self-defense you cannot create proximity.


The second factor to be aware of is that the aggressor must have the ability to acutely cause harm to you. A three year old can throw a tantrum and attempt to strike an adult, but the three year old does not have the ability to acutely injure the adult, so the adult can not knock the three year old out and have it be reasonably considered self-defense.


The third factor is intent. A person could be walking towards you (creating proximity) and be big enough to hurt you (having capability), but if they are smiling and waving to you, then you cannot knock them out and have it be considered self-defense. We can determine violent intent many ways. If a person is angrily screaming at you and telling you that they intend to physically harm you, then intent is clearly determined. If someone is angry and comes at you with fists raised they are showing intent and you will need to defend yourself.

3 Methods of Self-Defense

Physically fighting should be the last resort in any situation. Awareness and discernment are the greatest tools in self-defense. I hope that with awareness people will avoid the situations where physical responses are necessary.


A good way to defend yourself is to deescalate the situation. For example, if you bump into someone simply apologize. The proper use of manners are a strong violence avoidance tool.


Another good way to avoid violence it to make sure you are not in the vicinity where the danger is. Be aware of what is happening around you and make good choices when deciding where you are going. If a situation looks dangerous avoid putting yourself in the middle of it. If you can leave a dangerous situation, then you should leave.


If you cannot deescalate the situation (change their intent), or remove yourself from the situation (get away from the proximity of the threat), then your only option is to build you own skills and ability to survive a violent confrontation. Martial arts help you develop skills and understanding of how to better survive by increasing your capability.


This is not intended as, nor should it be taken as, legal advice. Any situations referencing personal experience does not guarantee a similar or replaceable experience. Thoughts and beliefs expressed here are not designed to be instructional nor a recipe for action to be taken. This section is only intended to give you ideas and philosophy to think on and evaluate in regards to your own process for dealing with difficult situations.

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