How do you teach young people about violence prevention?

posted in: Children, Self defence, Violence | 3

Could you clearly define the difference between martial arts and self-defence?

Here’s a good explanation from Matt Stait, a self-defence instructor and teacher with the charity Stand Against Violence:

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

Martial arts and self defence are not the same thing. This is important.

Self defence is like learning how to cross the road safely – you learn how to avoid getting run over. Martial arts mainly teaches physical action – it’s like learning how to deal with getting hit by a car.

Self defence is more about avoidance. Not getting involved in the first place.

When you get into a car, you put your seatbelt on – that’s self defence.

When you take something out the oven you wear an oven glove – that’s self defence.

So self defence doesn’t have to be all about punching an attacker on the nose. It’s a lot about prevention – about keeping yourself safe from violent scenarios. People can die from a single blow. We need to be aware that if things get physical, we probably don’t decide how it ends.

Of course this can be critiqued like any statement; and to be fair most martial arts instructors do advise that avoidance is better than fighting.

But many dojos don’t explicitly teach these skills.

Ian Abernathy has written an excellent article on this topic:

Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan Karate) wrote, ‘The secret principle of martial arts is not vanquishing the attacker, but resolving to avoid an encounter before its occurrence. To become an object of an attack is an indication that there was an opening in one’s guard, and the important thing is to be on guard at all times.’

Funakoshi goes on to discuss the importance of avoiding dangerous neighbourhoods and situations. Funakoshi also states that running away and shouting for help are the best forms of self-defence. Here we can see one of modern karate’s founders emphasising awareness, avoidance and escape over physical technique.

[…] In much of modern training, the only mention of ‘awareness’ is in relation to things like not dropping your guard after scoring a point, not taking your eyes off your opponent etc.

However, awareness (zanshin) is a much broader concept. Zanshin refers to a constant state of readiness, awareness and alertness. If we are constantly in a state of zanshin, we will be aware when a dangerous situation begins to develop.

[…] In summary, the physical techniques of karate are of no value without training in awareness and a healthy attitude to personal safety.

So it was very interesting to spend a whole day recently watching a group of young people (mostly with no martial arts experience) being taught about self-protection with regard to violence – by the charity Stand Against Violence. . .

What is Stand Against Violence (SAV)?

SAV was set up in memory of murdered teenager Lloyd Fouracre. The SAV website explains:

Lloyd was in the Air Cadets, and hoped to join the RAF.

On 25 September 2005, on the eve of his 18th birthday, Lloyd Fouracre was walking home with a group of friends when they were viciously attacked by five young men who had all been drinking heavily.

Although Lloyd’s group did their best to run away Lloyd was caught by a deadly blow from a wooden plank. Already unconscious Lloyd was beaten repeatedly with the sign, kicked in the face, stamped on and punched in an attack lasting only minutes.

Lloyd died, later that night, at the local hospital from multiple brain injuries.

The impact on Lloyd’s friends and family was huge. In a bid to create something positive Lloyd’s brother, Adam Fouracre, launched Stand Against Violence in his brother’s memory.

The aim was simple: prevent further incidences of this nature and prevent other families having to experience the pain Lloyd’s family has been through.

The charity’s main objectives are:

  • Promote good citizenship among young people
  • Equip young people with the skills they need to handle and avoid potentially violent situations
  • Deliver anti-violence workshops, practical self defence and vital first aid lessons in school and youth organisations
  • Develop new and innovative educational resources combating the causes of violence in our communities

Over the last year SAV has reached over 6,500 young people across 65 youth organisations/educational establishments predominently in the South of England and Wales. An external evaluation by the Centre for Public Health has showed an impressive 85% positive attitude change for the young people who attend, resulting in over 99% of young people leaving the workshop being against violence.

SAV takes a public health approach to violence prevention.

Public health is about prevention, and improving lifestyles – helping people to stay healthy and protecting them from threats to their health. It’s often focused on the population as a whole, or specific groups.

It’s different to medical care, which is often more focused on diagnosing and treating individuals after they have been injured or fallen ill.

Public health issues include: nutrition, exercise, obesity, smoking cessation, teenage pregnancy – and violence.

A public health approach to violence prevention seeks to:

  • Reduce the chance of people being involved in violence
  • Lower the chances of those involved in violence being involved again
  • Ensure that those affected by violence get the support they need.

So you could say that public health is a form of self-defence for the community.

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

We hear about many forms of violence in the community, including gang crime, knife crime, gun crime and more. Stand Against Violence focuses more broadly on violence prevention attempting to change attitudes that underpin violent acts.

It is SAV’s view that each form of violence is underpinned by violent attitudes and to see a true end to violence in the community it is these attitudes than must be changed.

Adam explains that: It is not purely and simply about the knife, the people we socialise with or our gender, it is the individual attitudes that must change and this is what the charity works to achieve.

SAV takes an evidence-based approach to violence prevention, basing its work around the vast bodies of research available and conducting its own independent evaluations.

Currently SAV works with those aged 10-25 years old. However the charity has now broadened out its work to include safety training directed at staff working in the convenience store sector as well as those working in petrol stations, off-license and licensed premises, betting and gambling establishments.

Identifying what works . . . 

As martial arts practitioners, “Does that really work?” and “What works best?” are among our favourite mantras. Public health thinks in the same way – everything is evidence-based and rigorously tested, to find out “what works” best.

When it comes to programmes for preventing youth violence, evidence shows that schools and colleges are an ideal setting. The Department of Health recommends that schools bring in reputable external professional organisations for this work.

This is where SAV comes in. Last week SAV very kindly allowed me to observe a full day of their workshops, as delivered to a Year Nine class (aged 13/14) . . .

How much can you teach in one day?

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

Violence is incredibly complex. Rory Miller writes:

Violence is a bigger subject than any person will ever understand completely or deeply […] It is as complicated as hell. If you ever really wanted to get a handle on just one piece – interpersonal violence – you would need to understand physics, anatomy and physiology, athletics, criminal law, group dynamics, criminal dynamics, evolutionary psychology, biology and evolutionary biology, endocrinology, strategy and even moral philosophy.

– Meditations on Violence, pp xvii and 2

In practice, all that SAV can do on a day like this is to give what my Sensei would call hints to the young people, for them to take away and mull over. The idea is to sow seeds in their minds, and kick-start attitude change. A genuine self-defence mindset and set of behaviours is of course a long-term project.

The programme . . .

One school day (four 70-minute lessons) seemed like an incredibly short opportunity for these experts to get their messages across to the young people. Deciding which few key messages to convey from all their depth of knowledge, must be critical . . .

Lesson 1 – Basic Life Support

The first session of the day was Basic Life Support. It was good, straightforward material, just as you’d expect, covering resuscitation, CPR, the recovery position, use of a defibrillator and a few other brief topics. Alison (the teacher) had clearly decided on her key messages, which were the importance of keeping yourself safe too, and getting help as soon as possible, from other people nearby, and from medical services.

I’m not going to cover this session in any detail, although it was great – as it was basically very much what you’d expect from a high quality brief introduction to Life Support for young people.

Lesson 2 – Lloyd’s Story

The second session was far more distinctive – indeed this workshop is at the heart of SAV’s mission.

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

The kids watched a hard-hitting 10-minute video re-enacting Lloyd’s murder – and exploring the aftermath through friend and family interviews as well as home video footage and news reports.

The film ends with a general message about violence and how it is up to us to reduce it.

After the video, Megan Crossley (the teacher) led a discussion and empathy exercise. The young people were visibly moved by the workshop, and even Megan was impressed by how deeply they entered into the emotional worlds of Lloyd’s grieving friends and family, the killers themselves, and the killers’ families.

Keeping yourself safe

Megan put a heavy focus on the self-defence implications of this story. Heart-breakingly, she shared several ways that Lloyd and his friends had unwittingly put themselves at risk that night – which could easily have been prevented.

She also handed out an excellent list of practical “Safety tips” at the end of her session.

Meeting a Murderer

In 2015, Adam visited one of his brother’s killers (Jay Wall) in prison. He has written about this encounter on the SAV blog – here are a few thought-provoking quotes from it:

This person murdered my brother by brutally beating his lifeless and defenceless body

[…] He described how he went over and kicked and stamped on Lloyd’s head where he lay. He said he leant down and punched him in the head and saw his glazed eyes staring vacantly. He can remember Lloyd’s face clearly.

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

[…] He was so incredibly remorseful, calm and dare I say it pleasant […] He knew he could never undo what he has done. When we discussed his future he said that it was unsure and that as much as he would like to settle down and have a family he doesn’t feel he deserves it.

[…] He said that he ruined a good employment opportunity at the time he went to prison and was very dark about his future career opportunities saying he doesn’t deserve to have a good future or prospects.

[…] The man I saw in front of me was, if I didn’t know better a decent and thoughtful person and I was extremely conflicted at the thought that this person did such a horrific thing to my brother and family. 

[…] I have asked Jay to consider helping us in our prevention work as he has shown interest in helping prevent others who may be like he was from making the same mistakes. We have left the meeting with an open dialogue and will see what the future holds.

Because Adam now knows Jay’s side of the story, Megan was able to share some of it with the young people. She also talked about the bullying one of the perpetrators’ mums suffered in the local community from appalled local people. The pupils appeared stunned to realise just how much suffering these few minutes of violence had spawned for so many people – and for how many years afterwards.

Lesson 3 – Drug awareness

Substance abuse is another huge and complex topic, and again, 70 minutes is so little time to introduce it to the young people. However, the teacher Steve Clare packed an unbelievable amount in.

Spice. By Lance Cpl. Damany S. Coleman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One real eye-opener was that he asked the young people some questions – which revealed some major blind spots in their drug and alcohol awareness. For example he asked what percentage of men and women aged 18-24 were regular drinkers. Many of the kids guessed as high as 80% for each group, but the true statistics were 17% for young women and 20% for young men.

Steve invited the kids to suggest why their awareness was so skewed. They agreed that it was probably the media, feeding them with images of hard-drinking young people, which had given them this image that “everyone” drinks.

Like the other sessions, Steve framed the whole lesson in terms of self-care and self-defence. He presented a wealth of facts about drugs, with a focus on the New Psychoactive Substances (the so-called Legal Highs such as Spice, which are a known problem in the town this school belongs to). He also made the kids laugh with suitably weird or scary stories from his past as a licensee.

But above all he gave out the message: illegal drugs aren’t safe or sensible.

Despite his cool and street-wise persona, Steve made it clear he’s never had any interest in taking banned substances – I’m too scared of the unknown.

Powerfully, Steve asked the class to list all the information we typically get on standard medication – ingredients, strength, how to take it, the manufacturer, possible side-effects and so on. He then led them to the realisation that a packet of some random substance comes with NONE of this information. So, he chillingly asked, how can you have any clue what you are taking . . . ?

Over lunch, Steve explained that his approach is rigorously evidence-based, as quite a bit is known now about what does and doesn’t work in teaching young people about substance abuse. His bible is the Mentor-Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service (ADEPIS) online library of resources and Quality Standards for Effective Alcohol and Drug Education

Steve finished his session with some guidance on how to make your experience of drugs as safe as possible, if you were absolutely determined to go down that dangerous path. I wondered if this might undermine his abstinence message; but the class teacher was watching, and said afterwards that she really appreciated this pragmatic bit of additional self-protection.

Lesson 4 – Physical self-defence

It’s hard to dispute the value of teaching young people about drugs and first aid. But teaching physical self defence can be an absolute minefield. While some people believe it’s good to teach kids how to defend themselves, others believe it isn’t even possible, let alone desirable – especially against an adult.

And there are so many ways to do it badly.

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

So how did the instructor (Matt Stait) approach this complex task? Like the other teachers, he focused mainly on self-protection and common sense. His key message was that self defence is primarily about avoidance – not about beating your attacker up.

On the physical side, Matt avoided teaching any complex techniques, focusing instead on some simple and fun balance-breaking exercises and breakaways. 

Matt has a solid background in traditional martial arts (TMA), but he then moved into self protection where he found the Israeli systems of Krav Maga and Kapap. He still has a lot of respect for the TMAs, and the physical and mental conditioning they can offer practitioners.

However, over lunch, he shared his strong views on the impracticality of many traditional martial arts for self defence, and didn’t hide his anger and frustration with clubs who falsely market their offer as “self defence” to young people, thus risking instilling a false sense of security.

But he also said that we were only having this open conversation as fellow martial arts practitioners – and that he tends to keep his passion on this topic to himself while teaching.

I was reassured by this conversation, having similar views with regard to a lot of “self defence” marketed at women. If Matt hadn’t held these conflicted views, and had simply taught the kids a load of implausible techniques to supposedly overpower and destroy their attacker of any size after one lesson, it would have been disappointing after the high quality of the rest of the day.

The importance of critical thinking in self defence

In the lesson itself, he asked if any of the kids did martial arts, and it turned out that a few of them did. Of course Matt couldn’t rubbish this in any way. But he did spend some time showing the whole group how to critique any given martial arts technique.

Firstly, he demonstrated practising a simple wrist lock, with his partner instructed to lightly tap his face if she could. He explained that if your partner can get that tap in before you apply the lock, your technique has holes that need work or a rethink – as that little tap could one day be a real-life vicious attack.

Matt also talked a little about how technique can fall apart in the face of stress. In fact, he asked one young martial artist in the group to apply a chosen defence to a light attack, which the boy did competently. Matt then attacked him a second time with a lot more intent (although still safely). Unsurprisingly the boy crumbled and backed away.

Matt explained to the kids that this is a real issue for martial arts / physical self defence – but in a respectful way that left the young man concerned in good spirits, and apparently not having lost face in any way.

This superb focus on critical thinking ran on very naturally from the same focus seen in all three of the other presentations

The future

Image courtesy of Stand Against Violence

SAV has some clear aims for its future growth:

  • We are determined to make a change and to stand against violence.
  • We propose to develop and expand across the country.
  • We intend to continue to participate in specialist violence prevention research.
  • We want to develop primary school materials so we can cover all key stages.
  • We aspire to become a key organisation in multisector working to reduce violence.
  • We plan to work with other organisations to achieve our aims and improve community safety.
  • We want to secure corporate sponsorship, increase donors and secure grants to make our work available to schools and young people free of charge. (By the way, you can donate to SAV here)

From what I saw, the passion, expertise and professionalism of this small charity is awesome, and making a genuine difference. I wish them all the very best as they grow their ambition, reach and impact in the coming years . . .


3 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Thanks for this write-up! We desperately need this program in America. I’m really impressed with Stand Against Violence’s approach. You manage to find some very interesting lectures and programs to attend, and I love it that you share with us. Thanks again, Kai!

  2. Kai

    Thanks Joelle, I was blown away by the experience of watching a day of the charity’s work – you could literally see how deeply the kids were being affected by all this new learning as the day went on . . .

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