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Boundary Setting

Winning a fighting contest is such a different result than returning home healthy and happy each day. And yet many martial artists confuse this reality, talking on one hand about self-defense, but then on the other hand being drawn into a contest when someone makes a challenge.

Our training works on a “continuum” model — physical engagement is a last resort. We practice boundary setting as a middle ground, between “safely not being where aggression dwells” and all-out physical combat skills.

Boundary setting scenarios serve several purposes:

  • As an effective dissuading technique
  • To get students used to the adrenaline
  • Experience internal preparation for going physical if it becomes necessary
  • Practice verbal and tone-of-voice skills
  • Hone body language skills (stance, posture, lowering center of gravity)
  • Practice distance controlling and physical positioning skills

The building blocks honed in boundary setting are also strategically employed later in the higher level combative scenarios. Most front-attack scenarios — except for ambushes — typically start out with some “interview” or confrontational engagement. This allows students to continue to use variations of speaking and positioning skills in an attempt to repel or get past the attacker.

Boundary setting and deescalation strategies — a combination of limit setting and the ability to establish an immediate, possibly empathic, rapport to switch off his aggression — is not “one size fits all.” There are significant nuances and variables to consider. Nor is being verbally assertive always wise. Being verbally aggressive might be effective for a woman against an intruder testing her boundaries. But it may be more effective for a man to take a “Hey, sorry dude — my bad” approach and employ specific body language intended to lower the opponent’s aggressive arousal.

We vary the intrusions and attacks according to what typically precedes assaults against men vs. women. For a woman, the attacker might be a seductive type who worms his way closer, calling for a few increasingly escalated stages of boundary setting on her part. For a male student the assailant is likely to be overtly challenging, complete with all the ritual posturing and intimidation gestures. We stress the importance of using one’s higher intelligence and not buying into some primordial contest. Self defense should be compelled by survival, not ego.

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