Since 2014, Warrior Sisters has been offering free training in verbal and physical self-defense skills to women and youth. In contrast to many self-defense classes that teach physical skills only, WS participants get to practice naming their rights, verbally setting boundaries, building confidence, and more. Moms and mentors often bring younger women and girls with them to class. Just as often, adult women tell us how much they wish this kind of training had been available to them during middle and high school.
"My daughter and I attend class together,” wrote one Warrior Sisters participant after attending our free, women’s self-defense class. “I want her to be able to defend herself as she’s preparing to go out alone. This class is not only empowering, but also very comfortable to attend. We’ve learned not only defense skills, but how to connect to your inner, powerful self.”
The impact this training has on women of all ages is visible over the weeks spent in Warrior Sisters classes. Those of us who lead these classes are privileged to be able to watch our participants’ progress. We asked ourselves: what if quality, comprehensive training in verbal and physical self-defense was available to all students in middle and high school? What kind of impact would that access have? This Spring of 2018 has been one opportunity to catch a glimpse of the answer.
From January through May, Warrior Sisters partnered with Academy of Arts and Academics high school in Springfield, Oregon. This pilot program offered the opportunity to develop and teach an entire semester’s worth of self-defense curriculum for A3 students. The self-defense class was offered as an elective through the Academy of Arts and Academics and gave students the opportunity to earn physical education and health credit through learning empowerment-based self-defense. As a high school teacher who has spent years advocating for self-defense class offerings in school, I was thrilled to finally be able to instruct this course.
While the skills to escape a physical attack are typically what we think of when we think of self-defense, verbal skills are indispensable, and they often end up being what we use most. As youth coming of age, learning how to articulate your needs, set boundaries and navigate the minefield of interpersonal relationships can be key to feeling confident and secure in everyday life. Over the course of the semester, we practiced the simple act of saying no, assertiveness and confidence building, using “I-statements” to articulate needs and feelings, identifying ploys and manipulation tactics, and knowing when to reach out for help. We also learned how to be active bystanders when we witness injustices and how to use our voices to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation. Students often rehearsed these skills using roleplay, which allowed them to not just theorize about what could be said in difficult situations, but to actually gain practice in setting boundaries. Effective self-defense training develops muscle memory, and it’s no exception for verbal skills. The more you practice, the more you can use these skills automatically, without overthinking, panicking or second-guessing yourself.
And just like with anything worth learning, practice does pay off. As anonymous student wrote: "I realized that a friendship I had was beginning to become unhealthy. I still cared for the person so I decided to talk to them and set some healthy boundaries. I did this by using a 3-part boundary and after they adjusted, they respected those boundaries since."
For the physical part of the course, we started with the basics—a strong and stable defensive stance, situational awareness using our senses, and using your body to project confidence. From there, we practiced basic defensive strikes and principles, along with specific tactics to escape a variety of physical attacks, from getting knocked down to having an attacker grab your wrist. Through all of our practice, we worked on developing the muscle memory to “turn on the switch” from neutral to ready. Students were required to be in their bodies every day, to sweat together, and to attend to minute movements while practice teamwork in physically demanding situations. Most importantly, they learned that regardless of their size or muscle mass, with some strategy and know-how, they have the tools to keep themselves safe against anyone. The principles of physical self-defense are simple: use your hard parts against the attackers soft parts, use strategy and physics over muscle, and know that no matter what, you always have an option.
After months of self-defense training, Juliana shared, “Knowing that I've had this training has made me feel better when I'm on my own and/or in a crowded space. I do feel capable of physically defending myself if I really needed to. At the beginning of class I couldn't say that."
The impact of this intensive course was evident in the improvements that we saw during our time practicing in class, and also from stories told by students who worked to implement these principles in their lives outside of class. One of the most memorable stories came from a freshman student. She shared with the class some struggles she’d been having with communication at home. From the sounds of it, she and her parents were fighting a lot; she felt unheard by her family and her needs were not being acknowledged by her parents.
A few weeks into the semester, this student approached after class and said that she wanted to tell me something. She had been struggling with weeks of miscommunications with her parents who often resorted to yelling and escalation in the midst of argument. Rather than take the bait as she typically did, this time she decided to try out the de-escalation tactics that we’d been practicing in class. She listened, used body language that showed attentiveness, acknowledged where her parents were coming from, and responded with an “I statement” and an articulation of what she needed. According to her, this resulted in the first time that she was able to have a real conversation with her parents in months. They stopped yelling, they listened to her needs and they made a plan for moving forward together. When she came up to me after class, it was obvious that she had been sitting on this piece of good news all day and when she told me the story, she cried (and so did I). Stories like this remind us just how life-changing this work can be and give us the motivation to keep working until this training is available to all women and girls.
Another story. A student was walking alone downtown at night. She was minding her own business when her gut suddenly told her something wasn’t right. She looked up to see a man biking directly toward her, staring at her, as if he wanted to run her over, or at least target her, hurt her, and knock her down. Without thinking, she assumed ready stance and projected an earth-shattering ‘NO,’ shocking this man and causing him to swerve out of her path. He of course hurled some unsavory words in her direction, but he stopped his approach. She went home knowing that she had claimed her space and her power, a feeling that so many young women are socializing into believing they will never have. Again, these are the stories that show us the importance of what we do.
Sadie reflected, "This class has helped me almost more than I can put into words. The verbal self-defense skills I learned in this class helped me navigate so many issues in my personal life with my friends and it saved at least two friendships. I finally feel safer when I'm walking down the street. Before now, I always felt afraid but every day I left class feeling strong, knowing I can defend myself. This class never failed to make me feel safer in my own skin, and it was always the highlight of my coming to school."
The students that I worked with took self-defense incredibly seriously, and not just because they are truly outstanding youth. Despite the fact that punching, kicking and yelling is fun, there was never a time where my students did not acknowledge the weight and responsibility that accompanies these skills. During class, there was laughing and sweat and smiles, but underlying all of this lightness was the shared knowledge that together we were building the foundations of something sacred and vital. This unnamed something that we were building all semester was a community of strength and mutual respect, and we all felt it.
Of course, the semester wasn’t all peachy. Some days the students would come in and would be tired, hesitant to engage, unwilling to work, and unmotivated. Some days our practice would drag up old feelings, would whisper around complicated emotions and leave us trudging through mire that we didn’t feel equipped to slough off. Some days we would struggle to communicate, some days we weren’t fast on our feet or powerful. This is the nature of teaching self-defense, because it’s real and it reaches us through experiences that we have all felt.
By the end of the semester, the same students who walked into the class with slumped shoulders and shy voices emerged with confidence, assertiveness and seriously impressive skills. At the end of the semester, these students could snap into ready stance, identify common ploys and red flags, navigate peer pressure, set strong boundaries through persistence, escape from a variety of grabs, and strike harder than anyone could ever guess they were capable of. As one student said, “this class has made me feel stronger than I ever knew I could be.”
How would our community change if free, empowerment-based verbal and physical defense training was available to all girls? How would our community change if discussions about consent and respect for boundaries were available to all boys? Judging by the experiences of the last few months, it would make a huge positive impact - and the research backs this up. Our most recent national conversations about rape culture make it clearer than ever before: we need action, not just talk. To change the culture, we need free, accessible, empowerment-based self-defense education available in every community.
It will take all of us working together to make this a reality. Click here to learn more about bringing Warrior Sisters programs to a middle or high school near you. Lets make this training accessible for all youth in our community. You can also click here to donate to Warrior Sisters, and help keep self-defense training free for those who need it.