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A Guide for Women Who Want to Learn Self Defense: Where To Start

If you’re a woman who wants to take steps to become more prepared to defend yourself, this blog is for you!

Women’s self defense is a practice with the objective to give women skills to protect themselves. There are many practices and habits which can help you accomplish this. I’m going to share what I believe to be the three most important elements and effective uses of your time in this pursuit.

situational awareness for women
Art made by one of our 11 year old students Abbey!

1. Awareness

Situational awareness is the practice of being aware of your surroundings and the people around you. It’s as simple as it is powerful because you can’t defend what you can’t see, yet how many people do you see walking down the street completely glued to their phones?

In our self defense classes we show videos of attacks caught on camera, and although we didn’t select them for this purpose, the number of victims who were distracted when the attack happened is very high. It’s not that it’s their fault. But it’s a factor to criminals and that’s useful to know if we want to avoid them.

So instead, be present. Your senses are super effective when you let them do their primary job: keeping you alive. There’s no understating the importance of having extra response time; how much more important the possibility of deterring dangerous people from you to begin with. Here are two important concepts that fall under awareness:

- Target Hardening

The practice of making yourself a hard target. It’s walking confidently because that’s proven to lower your chances of being selected by a criminal who seeks weakness. It’s locking your doors and windows. It’s sticking with friends. It’s being aware of your surroundings thus making it harder for a predator to surprise or trap you.

- Threat Recognition

The practice of recognizing danger. Many criminals rely on lures which get you to lower your guard as they approach you. Ted Bundy used the “can you help me put something into my car” lure. Jeff Dahmer used the “come back to my place for a drink lure”. And child predators rely more on lures than brute force. A convincing lure can be far more valuable to a predator because it lowers their risk by getting you to do the work for them. Threat recognition starts with awareness, but includes learning the strategies predators use, the danger signals they often reveal, and trusting your instinct when it tells you to fear.

Don’t allow anyone to surprise you, and don’t allow anyone to trick you.

That's the rule I preach. Effort towards these two outcomes is more fruitful than physical skill because it’s what has the power to turn attackers away from you. Priceless yet completely free.

"Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting" - Sun Tzu

2. Combat Training

The next skill to develop is combat skills, so if attacked you’re as capable to physically defend yourself as possible. As far as I can see, the best martial arts to devote your precious time and energy to are one or more of the mixed martial arts.

Mixed Martial Arts can include any martial art as long as it works. What decades of stress testing different martial arts at the highest level of combat sport (the UFC) has shown us is that what works is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Kickboxing/Muay Thai, and Wrestling.

These are the three essential combat sports in which a professional fighter must be proficient to succeed. Each element specializes in one area of a fight: Jiu Jitsu specializes on the ground fighting, Kickboxing specializes in standing and striking, and wrestling specializes in takedowns.

So what's the best one?

The one you need in the moment. Since you don’t know what attack you’ll be faced with, your aim is to be as well rounded as possible.

Brazilian jiu jitsu is the absolute best for ground fighting, but you’re not once going to learn how to defend a punch. Kickboxing and Muay Thai are the best for learning how to defend strikes and control the distance, but you’re not once going to learn how to defend being pinned to the ground. And that’s ok. The reason combat sports are so effective is because they’re specialized.

My Advice

Find an MMA gym that offers both striking and jiu jitsu classes. And even better if they have self defense focused classes based on any of those combat sports.

Our approach at Girls Who Fight is to take the elements of each combat sport that work the best against street attacks, specifically the ones women face most, and completely focus our training on those. If it’s an intricate move that largely applies to sport but has little practical application to street situations, we don’t include it. We do include street attacks that aren’t addressed in any combat sport because they’re against the rules, for example hair grabs.

I recommend searching for a self defense focused, Mixed Martial Arts based training program. Extra points if it's a women's self defense training program. They're harder to come by than sport based programs, but the most important thing is that you start training at a place you feel comfortable and like the instructors.

MMA Based Self-Defense Focused Gyms I know of:

  • Dallas Fort Worth TX & Toronto: Girls Who Fight

  • Austin TX: Sheepdog Response

  • Port Isabel TX: SheJitsu

  • North Miami Beach: Valente Brothers

  • Tarrant CA: Gracie Jiu Jitsu Tarrant

  • Columbus Ohio: Chelsea Kyann (Instructor)

3. Firearms training

As a Canadian immigrant to the USA, I’m new to firearms being a viable option so I won’t elaborate as much as the last topic. Firearms training is a great option for self defense as long as:

  1. You’re trained in how to properly use it

  2. You carry most of the time

Even if you don’t carry all the time, it’s well worth knowing how to handle firearms safely and how to use one in worst case scenarios. I do believe that you should still have combat skills in case you’re attacked when you’re unarmed. The beauty of combat skill is that no one can take it away from you, it’s literally in you.

I had my first lesson from a great law enforcement firearms instructor in Dallas named Todd Barbian. I recommend finding an instructor who can help you get started safely and confidently.

Note: There is a fighting system trained in the military called “Combatives” which includes MMA based hand to hand combat skills, weapons retention, awareness, and more. You can find a list of their certified black belts here.

Final notes

Self defense is about empowering yourself with skills and tools that you can use to protect your own life. I believe that awareness, combat skills, and firearms skills are the three most useful devotions of your time to accomplish this goal.

I know it's a lot at first and that can be intimidating. My advise is to get out of your head and simply start training in one of the above. And don't let someone bully you into thinking that if you're not a black belt or if you don't train five days a week than you won't have a chance defending yourself. RUBBISH. Any amount of practice is better than none.

Remember that survival is the objective of self defense, not the ability to win a fight against a man.

Heck, Kelly Herron successfully defended herself against a drugged up attacker in a public restroom three weeks after taking one self defense class. She didn’t credit the moves, but the survival mindset she took away from the training that helped her fight relentlessly. She fought back tooth and nail while screaming "NOT TODAY MOTHERF***ER". And if she can survive, so can you.

I hope this post has helped you find some direction and motivation to start developing self defense skills. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask!


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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight.

Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives. Learn about our programs >


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