Like a lot of women, I have always wanted to do a self-defence class, but without any knowledge of what that involved I had serious doubts I could develop enough skills to defend myself in a confrontation.
With my doubts in tow, I walked up the stairs and into the Canberra Martial Arts Centre in Woden to take a one-day course in women’s self defence.
Martial arts trainer Tom was commanding from the get-go.
He greeted me and told me to grab a wooden board and texta and write on the board something I wanted to defeat.
I was not prepared for existential questions.
I looked around the room and saw a bunch of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, not the group of ultra-fit challenge junkies I had predicted, but regular women all paused in a moment of self-doubt.
As awkward as it felt, everyone wrote something on their boards. We then placed them against a wall and gathered around to compare and make sure we had done it right.
By an overwhelming majority, women were there because they were afraid.
With an authority and confidence that would become familiar and welcome by the end of the day, Tom said each of us would break our boards, and he would mentally prepare us to do so.
“The language I use today is very important,” Tom told us. “And the language you use is important.”
“The way you speak to yourself, the way you hear your internal monologue is really important.”
Tom told us in his 15 years of teaching women’s self defence courses he had seen some major figurative and emotional breakthroughs.
“I had a lady burst into tears suddenly just by doing the stuff we’ll do today,” he said.
“This is a totally safe space.”
Tom told us to introduce ourselves to the group.
“I don’t give a shit what you do for a living, we’re not at a public service training.
“I want your names, why you’re here and what you want from today.”
The first woman to speak was there because her mum wanted her to be.
The next said a recent break-in at her rural property had motivated her.
Another woman wanted to be less afraid during her evening walks.
And a young woman from Perth said she had grown up fearing the Claremont serial killer and now that she was interstate, on her own, wanted to feel safe.
“There is always a reason people end up at this course,” Tom told us and shared why he taught it.
Tom grew up on the Gold Coast and lost his dad when he was just 13.
He said the loss made him angry.
Only after long chats with his school Reverend led him to Taekwondo did Tom begin to heal.
He continued his martial arts training into adulthood but said despite this, he had still been injured in multiple assaults.
Tom recounted one assault while out on the town in Canberra with his wife.
“That night, I broke a couple of my own personal rules, including rule number one, don’t be there.
“When you go out, make sure you know where you’re going, who you’re going with and how you’re getting home.”
Usually, I don’t take kindly to someone telling me what I can or can’t do, but I was there to learn how to be safe and Tom was telling me.
“So, me and my wife were at a pub drinking when she bumped into someone she knew.
“We ended up at a friend of a friend’s house somewhere in Kingston or Manuka.
“I didn’t know where it was or who these people were, and we’d had way too much to drink. In the wee hours of the morning, one of the guys was getting a little too chatty with my wife so I said to her, in French, ‘Let’s go’.
“The guy arced up and said ‘what’s that supposed to mean?’
“Then I broke rule number two; don’t speak back to drunk people.”
Tom said a confrontation broke out in the apartment and he and his wife left.
They were waiting at the lift to exit the building, but someone had followed them.
“The guy put out his hand and said no hard feelings,” Tom said.
“Stupidly, I grabbed his hand and he pulled me in and cracked me in the face with his forehead.
“It broke my cheekbone.”
Then Tom reminded us of something we already knew.
“A majority of assaults happen by people you know,’ he said. “The hardest part about that is, you never expect it.”
Tom told the group we were going to overcome mental barriers and learn to give ourselves permission not to ask the stupid questions in the middle of an attack – but first we had to overcome our nerves.
Tom taught us that the Korean word for “energy forward” was KiAp (or KiUp) and said it needed to be shouted from the diaphragm to spark shock in our attacker and put us in control.
Meekly to begin with, we repeatedly shouted KiAp, until with Tom’s encouragement we got loud enough to move onto our next exercise.
In pairs, we stepped out an attack and defence move but instead of loud KiAp’s as instructed, giggling made up the room noise, so Tom shut it down.
“Everybody does this,” Tom said. “And it’s totally cool, but I’m going to stop you for a reason.”
“Why is everybody smiling?
“Seriously, why is everybody fine?
Tom’s question received blank stares, so he answered it for himself.
“Because it’s less threatening,” he said.
In context, it was a truth bomb.
“I’m not insulting you guys or saying it’s a bad thing to do,” Tom continued.
“You have been trained over the years to do that, which is great. It’s awesome. But right now, no one cares.”
And finally, we get it: good girl mode is incompatible with survival mode.
Tom talks us through an attack.
“I’m an attacker and I have decided that I’m going to steal Cass’s handbag,” he said.
“I write a script for myself and that script says, I’m going to attack her and she’s going to behave like this, she’s going to freak out and I’m going to get whatever I want.
“Your job is to break that script and do what’s not expected of you.
“Don’t ask yourself why they are attacking; it doesn’t matter.
“At this point, you need to disrupt their plans and make sure that they understand that you are now in control.”
Throughout the day we learned defensive moves while being held against a wall, when someone is advancing towards us, and the much less comfortable when someone is lying on top of us.
Tom’s balance of empathy and straight talking showed an understanding that as women we often feel under attack and sometimes helpless.
His humor was welcome, because when isn’t it, and his uncompromising strength and realistic situations reminded us we were there to learn how to stay alive.
That was the big question before I took that class: would I really walk away from a one-day course feeling confident enough to defend myself?
Answer: I don’t know. I feel more prepared to fight and I think even if I forgot the actual moves, I won’t lose the survival mentality.
At the end of the class, each member of the group broke their board.
Trigger warning: there are confrontational moments throughout the day.