How to Choose a Qualified Self-Defense Instructor

What is the Difference Between a Martial Artist and a Self-Defense Instructor?

by Conrad Woodall

This page is for anyone interested in some sound and rational advice for finding a qualified instructor to teach you “realistic and useful self-defense.” Over the years I have taught many students whose bad experiences convinced them to seek training specifically tailored for self protection. Many people become disillusioned and frustrated with local martial arts schools that tell them they will teach them how to protect themselves. Once they observe a class or sign up for lessons they quickly become disheartened by the lack of realistic street survival tactics. How do they know it is not realistic? Because these people have experienced violence first hand.


In order to find a good self-defense school all you have to do is look closely at the credentials of the head instructor or school owner. Once you read the information below the decision will be simple. Logic and rationality will always win over false advertising gimmicks. The problem is that most people do not have the knowledge to make a good choice when it comes to self-defense training because they don’t know anything about it. If they did they wouldn’t need the training.


The first thing you will need to know is what the basic definition of self-defense is. Self-defense is usually defined as:


Use of reasonable force (as compared with the attacker’s force) in protection of one’s person, family, property, or anyone else against attempted or threatened attack. Legal doctrine of self defense justifies a preemptive action taken in the reasonable belief of immediate danger, without making any retreat, and may (specially in case of provocation) condone killing of the perpetrator of a murderous attack.


This leads us to the second definition we will examine. The word “Expert” is generally defined as:


Somebody with a great deal of knowledge about, or skill, training, or experience in, a particular field or activity…


After reading the above definitions many people are still left with questions. In order to teach someone self-defense you must have a deep understanding of the concepts held within the definition of “self-defense;” concepts such as “attempted or threatened attacks,” “reasonable force,” protection strategies for oneself, their family or property, and what constitutes “immediate danger” or “murderous attack.” All are in need of clarification in order to make decisions on how to protect yourself, your family, or your property. This combination of knowledge and experience is what defines an expert in self-defense.




A self-defense instructor should have all of the following credentials:


  • A working knowledge of criminal and civil law as it pertains to your rights to self-defense. Police officers and attorneys have the best working knowledge of criminal and civil law regarding your rights to self protection. A black belt means nothing when it comes to the actual knowledge and application of law within the context of a combat situation. Ask a potential instructor what credentials they have regarding criminal law. Simply having a black belt is NOT a sufficient credential for teaching you about your rights to protect yourself. I have two black belts and I can tell you that I learned NOTHING about criminal laws, my rights to self-defense or anything else that would help me to make a good decision in a combat situation while earning those belts. I only realized this enormous oversight in my training once I became a police officer.


  • A formal education in Sociology, Psychology, Criminology, or other related field. Since avoidance should be the first rule of any class on self-defense, educating your students on the psychology of criminal behavior is an instrumental part in helping someone avoid stalkers, rapists, pedophiles, dating and domestic violence, potentially violent mentally ill subjects, people under the influence of drugs, gang violence, work place violence, people who road rage, and a host of other potentially dangerous situations. Being a black belt or a champion competitor gives you zero knowledge in these areas.


  • Real life street experience. Look for instructors who are police officers or correctional officers because they are the only people who spend a great deal of time working with and defending themselves from our criminal populations. Additionally, police officers actually get to talk with and interview victims and suspects. This gives them an intimate understanding of violence. Just because a martial art was used in warfare 500 years ago does not mean it is useful in today’s modern society. So ask the instructor what, if any, real life street experience they have dealing with making decisions under stress in a violent situation. Being in a few fights back in high school is hardly what I would consider “experience dealing with street violence.”


  • If you are a teen or adult female look for an instructor who has experience working directly with victim service agencies. Ask the instructor flat out how many rape victims they have spoken to? Ask them what education or qualifications do they have to teach you about sexual predators, stalkers, intimate violence, date rape drugs, college campus safety, parking lot safety, work place violence and sexual harassment, threat assessment, restraining orders, and so on. Ask them what education they have on understanding the way perpetrators think, the way they select victims, and the ways they attack. Every county has organizations that offer services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. For obvious reasons these organizations are VERY selective about who they work with. Most of these organizations will refer you to someone that they feel teaches realistic self-defense for combat sexual assaults. They will not just refer you to your closest martial arts school because they are perfectly aware that realistic self-defense is NOT a martial art.


  • For children, look for a program that emphasizes education on bullies and predators who use manipulation and deception to gain your child’s trust. Why? Because these are the types of threats our children face. According to FBI statistics, by age 18 one out of every six boys and one out of every four girls will be molested. Additionally, 70% of all children have been bullied by the time they graduate high school. Ask the instructor what education or credentials they have to teach your child on the psychology of bullying and the tricks used by predators to “groom” children for molestation. Once again, a black belt is NOT sufficient.

Here are the types of Credentials that Martial Artist/Competitors use to sell themselves as Self-Defense Experts:


  • They will talk about their high degree of black belt.


  • They will have several black belts in many different martial arts giving off the impression that this somehow makes them more “well rounded” in self-defense when it really means they are a well rounded “martial artist.”


  • They will claim street experience without any real evidence by claiming they had many fights growing up, worked as a bouncer, etc.


  • They will list or show you medals, trophies, belts or other awards from winning local, regional, national, international, or even world competitions. All of which are wonderful and impressive accomplishments but they say nothing about the person’s ability or expertise to educate you on self-defense. They only represent the person’s ability to perform successfully in competition. As a matter of fact, you can read my article on Alex Gong (click here) that demonstrates a tragic example of how competition records and world championships can get you killed when you don’t understand street violence.


  • They will point to the successes of their “martial arts” school(s), their large clientele, their lineage to old masters, their successful competition teams and many other factors that ultimately have nothing to do with having an in depth understanding of street violence. Again, this is not to take anything away for their obvious success. However, just because you run a successful martial arts school does not make you a self-defense expert. It only makes you a successful martial artist.


  • This page was created as an exercise in deductive reasoning. The idea is very simple. Provide all the information necessary for someone to thoroughly understand what type of credentials and experience they should be looking for in a self-defense instructor. If you understand what you are looking for then you will also know what you are not looking for and thereby avoid the advertising gimmicks used by many local martial arts schools to claim self-defense expertise. Why did we provide you with this information and why won’t you find this information anywhere else? Because Woodall’s Self-Defense is the only school in our area whose owner/instructor has the education, experience, and qualifications to be called an expert in self-defense.

Once you have all the facts it is a simple decision. If you want martial arts or competition training there are many excellent schools to choose from in our area whose instructors are highly qualified and very skilled. However, if you are looking specifically for an expert in Self-Defense and personal protection strategies for you or your family, then ask the right questions and keep looking until you find it. Because those individuals are rare.

Credentials speak for themselves.