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Effective Self-Defense Techniques

Tim Larkin teaches self-defense techniques to many people.

Many people seek to learn self-defense techniques only after they’ve encountered a violent situation. But as the saying goes, the best way to win a fight is to never get into a fight in the first place. Self-defense starts before you ever encounter a violent situation.


See When Violence is the Answer with Tim Larkin for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Tim Larkin is the founder and creator of Target Focus Training. In the last twenty years, he has trained law enforcement, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, and US Border Patrol, as well as corporate clients from around the world. He is the author of When Violence Is the Answer and is a public speaker in over 40 countries. He is an expert in close combat and teaching people self-defense techniques.

The Injury That Changed Tim’s Life

Tim’s father was a Navy officer, and his dream was always to be a Navy SEAL. He was selected and went to officer school, where – since he grew up around SEALs – he breezed through training. At the time, the SEAL team seeing the most action was SEAL Team 4, which did narcotics (think the TV show Narcos), and Tim won a spot on that team.

He only had two weeks of training and a couple dives left to go. One of those dives was tying explosives to concrete obstacles – an easy task. But Tim was congested that day, and while he was doing this dive, an underwater wave hit him right in the ear. It burst his eardrum and emptied out his semicircular canal. Tim suddenly lost all sense of balance.

He managed to get back to the boat by dragging himself up his rope. Even though he knew he was going straight up, his ruined sense of balance made it feel like he was moving at a 45-degree angle. A corpsman on the boat got out his tools and looked in his ear. Tim had been able to overcome all the other injuries he had suffered, but from the look on the corpsman’s face, Tim knew that he was done. Two weeks before starting his dream job, an injury to the human body turned his world upside down.

Instead, Tim went into intelligence, and helped develop a program teaching hand-to-hand combat to intelligence personnel. After 9/11, he started teaching self-defense techniques to civilians. At first, eh started training security teams for overseas work, but eventually started training the potential targets themselves. At one point, he trained the CEO of Mobil, who said, “you have to train my family.”

A Self-Defense Mindset

In Tim’s seminars, he goes through the human body and teaches people how to break it. He gets very explicit on how to cause damage and how to keep sensory systems from working. Understanding what they’ll have to do to another human being in a dangerous situation makes people want to avoid dangerous situations.

Violence is a tool. It can be used by good guys and bad guys alike. The goal is not to use the information, the goal is to create a life where the threat of violence doesn’t happen. For Tim, physical training is useful because it drives home what will happen if you don’t also do the behavioral changes that reduce this risk.

You don’t have to have years and years of experience to minimize the chance of violence coming in your life.

Tim Larkin

Only 30% of the people Tim works with are proactive and ask for training before something happens. Seventy percent of the people Tim works with have experienced violence already. Being proactive about reducing unnecessary risk is the best self-defense technique.

The Self-Defense Risk In Your Pocket

One of the biggest risks to personal safety isn’t one most people think of. It’s your smartphone.

Smartphones are great. Tim is no Luddite, and he appreciates all the amazing things phones can do. But they can also put us at risk. Many of us willingly use our phones in public, and staring at your phone removes an entire sensory system – your vision – from focusing on what’s around you. Lots of us also wear earbuds, which removes our hearing as well. This makes it much harder to spot potential threats.

Having earbuds in and staring at your phone is the #1 thing predators look for in both men and women, especially in urban environments.

When he teaches self-defense techniques, Tim likes to show a video of a Seattle bus robbery. In it, a man with a gun walks down a bus aisle, robbing people at gunpoint. Nobody is saying anything. He gets to a guy who is staring at his phone. This guy looks up and sees the gun pointed at him. He uses his free hand to redirect the robber’s gun and steps in front of the robber. Then he takes the time to put his phone in his pocket.

When Tim shows this video to audiences, most of them don’t see the problem at first. It makes sense that he didn’t want the robber to crack his screen. Or maybe he was working on autopilot – we all put our phones away before we need to do something else with our hands. But the robber wasn’t threatening the guy’s phone. He had a gun – he was threatening his life. And the phone would have made a good bludgeoning weapon to try to stop the gunman. We’re so attached t our phones that this person prioritized protecting his phone over protecting himself from a gun.

Your phone is so embedded in you that you’re going to protect your phone instead of protecting yourself.

Tim Larkin

Technology is great, but we have to be aware of how powerful it is. Tim never wears both earbuds when he’s in public – he always leaves one ear open to be aware of his surroundings. He also forces himself to look up and scan regularly when he’s engrossed in his screen. Criminals want to exploit you having your eyes and ears tied up in your phone. Awareness is the first step.

One of the easiest self-defense techniques is to only put in one earbud and look up from your phone periodically.

Identifying Potential Predators

When Tim’s son was about fourteen, he took him to the Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas. At one point on the tour, they were about to go into an area that had seventy-five prisoners and one guard. Tim’s son was obviously nervous, hunched over with his hands in his pockets.

The officer taking them on the tour told him to take his hands out of his pockets and stand up straight. “When these prisoners see you,” he said, “They want to know if you’re somebody you need to kill, someone they don’t have to worry about, or someone they need to fear. You want to be that last one.”

When prisoners are processed out of the detention center, the door leads straight out onto Fremont Street. They immediately blend into the crowds. Tim asked his son to pick out a former prisoner from all the people milling around. His son couldn’t do it. That was the point Tim wanted to make by taking him – they could be anywhere. You never know who you’re dealing with.

We often can’t pick out the predators. The truly nasty ones are not always obvious to look at them. When Tim is in public, he conducts himself as if every stranger is six seconds away from a shooting spree and he doesn’t want to trigger it. He’s nice, polite, and considerate.

The best way to interact isn’t to figure out who’s who, it’s saying, how do I interact with people I don’t know?

Tim Larkin

An old friend once told Tim that every time he goes to a new city, he asks a police officer what gym the ex-felons went to, and worked out there. He did it because everybody knew the rules and was polite. In prison, everything is backed up by the credible threat of violence, so politeness was the rule.

Many violent people are triggered by feeling disrespectful. We as a society get away with a lot of rudeness. In business, it may be a good thing to be direct and blunt, but if you try to use that manner with a stranger, you may run into problems. Being polite isn’t something you’ll find in a list of self-defense techniques, but it can go a long way towards avoiding violence.

Trust Your Gut

If you’re in tune with your body, you can feel when things are going bad. Your body can pick up things that your brain may not. If you are attuned to the cues, you can find out what your body has noticed and isn’t communicating in the normal way. One example is a queasy feeling in your stomach.

Once you recognize the gut feeling, act on it. Don’t be afraid to risk embarrassment. If an unfamiliar guy gets on the elevator with you and you’re having a bad feeling, get out. Most people experience one or two times something feels “off” before something goes horribly wrong, and they often ignore it because they don’t want to be socially awkward.

Violence is a Tool

Every human body has some areas that you can’t protect no matter how big, fast, or strong you are. Eyes, throat, and groin are ones we commonly think of, but there are about seventy-one areas in the body where you can cause trauma for big results.

If things go horribly wrong, trauma to the body can make big, fast, and strong much less important. The goal is to take the brain out of the equation. If you touch a hot surface, your hand pulls away before your brain recognizes that it’s hot. If you have to use violence, your goal is to make it that to matter what their brain wants to do, their body forces them to respond to the trauma.

Training in self-defense techniques is not training for combat sports or competition. Tim loves MMA, but the competitions have rules preventing direct injury. In a self-defense situation, you want to injure. Injury bypasses bigger, faster, and stronger. The guy threatening you may be bigger than you, but he has vulnerable eyes and a vulnerable throat just like you do.

Knowing good self-defense techniques can take bigger, faster, and stronger out of the equation.

Tim’s Favorite Study Resource

We freeze in situations because we’ve never told our brain what to do. Tim’s greatest recommendation to study for overall self-protection is Robert Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature. It’s like a Rosetta Stone for understanding interactions with people. Robert Greene has written a lot of books about human interactions, but Tim considers The Laws of Human Nature his masterpiece. It takes the content of his previous books and puts it in an enjoyable, story-driven format.

Physical training is a last resort – a “break in case of violence” kind of thing. You can minimize the chances of ever needing to use it by studying humans. You’ll change some things about how you act, but you’ll also recognize when someone is manipulating you.

You’ll learn to see when the only way out is violence. Violence when it’s the only way to protect yourself is self-defense, but violence when it’s unnecessary will probably result in criminal charges. Tim’s metric is to imagine you have access to a gun in the situation. Only use violence when the threat is so credible that if you had that gun, you would empty the magazine into the threat. If you have the option to disengage, disengage.

Anything that you have a choice to disengage from, you disengage. The only time you use the tool of violence is when you’re absolutely devoid of choice.

Tim Larkin

You can find Tim Larkin on YouTube, where he interviews subject matter experts and discusses trauma to the human body. You can also experience some training at timlarkin.com, where you can get a free master class delivered to your email.

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