Muay Thai for Self Defense
Like most Thai boys growing up in Thailand over 50 years ago, I had to learn to defend myself in everyday life. Sometimes we got into a fight for no valid reason simply because of our ego.
When I was young, only those kids who were intended to become professional Muay Thai fighters got the training in Muay Thai camps. The others, like me, learned the basic Muay Thai techniques from their friends and families, or sometimes from watching the Muay Thai matches on the television. We trained with minimum equipment (gloves and a punching/kicking sand bag) under a tree in an abandoned field.
I have always been passionate about martial arts. In addition to Muay Thai, I have practiced Boxing, Judo, Aikido, Kung Fu and Karate. These different martial arts are complementary in the context of self defense. However, so far I have used Muay Thai techniques for self defense quite effectively.
The purpose of this article is to share my experience with the readers and to suggest some simple but effective techniques for self defense. Note that, in order to be able to apply these techniques effectively, it is important to practice regularly, ideally with a qualified instructor.
Photo 1 The author as a high school student in 1970's (far right)
Basic Principles of Self Defense
Most martial art lessons usually start with offensive techniques (punch, kick, strike, etc.). The objective is to learn to recognize the types of attack or danger in order to later learn the appropriate techniques or strategies to defend oneself.
In everyday life, we must also learn to recognize the dangers in order to avoid getting into a dangerous situation and when necessary to protect or defend ourselves. There are some basic principles to follow.
Be aware of the surrounding environment
There are different dangers in different environments. A crowded street in a touristic area is conducive to pickpocketing while robbery and physical aggression are more likely to happen in an isolated place or where people are drunk.
Knowing the surrounding environment will help you prepare for the potential dangers. Unfortunately, sometimes we travel to other unfamiliar places and are not aware of the potential dangers. A good example is the tourists who visit a city such as Paris and are victims of pickpocketing because they are not aware of the potential danger and/or are not able to distinguish the pickpockets among the population. Local parisian population will recognize them immediately.
Furthermore, when somebody happens to be in danger, he should immediately glance the surrounding environment to find ways to escape or to get help.
To avoid a danger, the best thing to do is to avoid exposure to the danger.
For example, you should not wear expensive jewelry when traveling to the places where robbery is known to be a common danger.
When possible, it is usually better to be seen as part of the local population since foreigners are often the targets of the aggressors.
Ideally, you should learn from the local population what to do and not to do in order to avoid the local dangers.
A good habit to have is not to sit too close to the entrance from where the danger could come, and rather to face than to turn your back to the entrance.
React quickly and with determination
Despite all the precautions, it is unfortunately impossible to predict and avoid all the dangers.
When facing an aggression, it is important to react quickly and with determination. Either you decide to escape or to fight, you must do it quickly.
It is always better to escape when possible. However, when you decide to fight, your objective must be to end the fight as soon as possible, meaning that either your aggressor decides to leave or he is no longer in a position to harm you. To achieve this objective, you must react with determination to weaken him physically and mentally.
Defense against physical agression
A physical aggression is one of the most harmful dangers. In general, a physical aggression happens when the aggressor feels that he is in a stronger position than the victim. Different scenarios are possible:
- the aggressor has a weapon,
- the aggressor is a man and the victim is a woman,
- the aggressor is physically bigger than the victim,
- the aggressor is with his friends (a group of aggressors).
In the case that the aggressor has a weapon. You should try your best to escape or avoid the fight even if you have to give up your valuable objects. This situation will not be addressed in this article.
For the other scenarios, Muay Thai techniques could be used to effectively defend yourself. In all cases, you should
- keep a good distance from your aggressor in order to apply the appropriate Muay Thai techniques,
- look around to see if your aggressor has other friends with him, and
- avoid the fight on the ground as you could become an easy target if there are several aggressors.
Note that the one-to-many fight and the many-to-many fight are quite common situations. When I was young in Bangkok, there was rivalry between some high schools. As we wore high school uniforms with the names of our high schools on them, it was easy to identify students from rival high schools. So when two groups of students from two rival high schools happened to meet, a group fight could immediately start. However, when only two students from two rival high schools met each other, they usually just continued their ways without any fight. So in most cases, we had to defend ourselves in the one-to-many and many-to-many situations. Sometimes a one-to-one fight became a many-to-many fight. This happens too often in all team sports with physical contacts (football, basketball, etc.).
In this article, a single aggressor (one-to-one) is assumed in order to simplify the explanation. The one-to-many and many-to-many situations will be addressed later.
Keeping a good distance
Unless you are attacked by surprise, you should keep a good distance from your aggressor and stand up in a guard position (one leg in front of the other) to face the aggressor (no need to raise your hands in the beginning). This position will let you move more easily (e.g. backward when you see an attack).
Photo 2 Normal position
Photo 3 Guard position
Photo 4 Guard position with hands up
What is a good distance?
If your aggressor can hit you with one of his hands or punch you without having to make a move toward you, this indicates that you have let your aggressor getting too close to you and it will be more difficult for you to anticipate his attack and protect yourself. So a good safety distance is a distance that is longer than his arms. At this distance, you can better anticipate his attacks (punch or kick).
Photo 5 Dangerous distance
Photo 6 Safer distance
How to keep your aggressor at a good distance?
If the aggressor tries to get too close to you, then you can use the following approaches:
- You can move backward to keep the distance but always stay in the guard position.
- You can put your two hands in front of you with your arms extended to let him know that you do not want him to get too close and to use your hands and arms to protect you in the case of attacks.
- You can use your front leg to kick and push him back (push kick of front leg or « Teep» in Muay Thai) if you feel that he really wants to attack you, after which you should try to escape immediately.
Video 1 Keeping the distance
When to react?
Quite often, when somebody gets into a conflict situation with another person. He or she is not certain whether there is a real danger of a physical aggression or it is just verbal. So he or she does not know how and when to react.
The first thing to do is to stay calm and do not engage in verbal aggression. Often, the physical aggression happens after the verbal aggression from both parties.
You should try to get out of the conflict by means of discussion and negotiation. Quite often, the reason of the conflict is a miscommunication or misunderstanding. If possible, it is better to leave especially if you see that the discussion or negotiation cannot resolve the conflict.
In general according to the laws relative to physical aggressions in most countries, the person who hits or attempts to hit first is considered « the aggressor ». The other person has the right to defend himself or herself and hit back proportionally.
However, if there is a clear physical advantage of your aggressor (a man against a woman or a bigger man against a smaller man), it is dangerous to wait for his first attack. I would recommend that you react to neutralize your aggressor as soon as you can when you feel in danger.
How to neutralize your aggressor
As mentioned above, the laws allow us to defend ourselves proportionally to the aggression. However, we cannot define in advance what the proportional defense is for a specific aggression.
I would therefore recommend to neutralize your aggressor as quickly as possible without causing a severe injury. Note that your defense is most effective when it is a surprise to your aggressor.
What I mean by « neutralize » here is to put your aggressor in a position where he cannot harm you for a period of time at least sufficient for your escape.
There are at least three positions in which your aggressor cannot harm you:
- he is in an intense pain,
- he cannot see,
- he cannot stand up, walk or move.
The objective of this article is to suggest simple Muay Thai techniques to put your aggressor in the above positions.
When he is in an intense pain, his mind will focus on his pain which will give you the opportunity to escape.
So how to put your aggressor in an intense pain without injuring him severely? There are at least four targets that you can hit:
- the groin (testicles),
- the shins.
- the toes, and
- the solar plexus.
Attacking the groin
Depending on the distance and situation, there are many ways to attack the groin (testicles) of your aggressor.
From a leg distance facing the aggressor, you can kick his groin using the upward front kick (« Tae Trong ») with your front leg or back leg depending on the distance.
If you happen to find yourself in a knee distance facing the aggressor (e.g. you were surprised by his aggression and let him get too close to you), you can attack him with the knee (« Khao ») that is nearest to his groin.
If the aggressor is in front of you or behind you at a very close distance (e.g. an attack from behind), you can use your hand to grab his groin and apply a maximum pressure until you can escape. Although this is not a Muay Thai technique, it is very useful to know and to practice.
Video 2 Kicking the groin
Video 3 Kneeing the groin
Hitting the shins
Another sensitive part of the human body is the shin especially when it is hit by a solid object. In the context of self defense, the solid object could be the shoes that you wear.
When facing the aggressor in an appropriate distance, it is sometimes easier to kick (« Tae Trong » or « Teep ») at his shins with your shoes than to kick or knee to his groin (e.g. too close for the kick and too far for the knee).
Note however that this technique needs practice to be effective since the target is rather small. Furthermore, you may need to immediately follow up with another technique or other techniques before being able to escape if your attempt only surprised your aggressor but did not hurt him enough.
Video 4 Hitting the shin
Stomping the toes
If you happen to be very close to your aggressor (e.g. your aggressor grabs you from behind), a very effective technique to inflict him an intense pain is by stomping his toes with your heel. You must do it very quickly and follow up with an escape or other techniques immediately, as the pain will not last for very long.
This is an application of the « Teep » technique in Muay Thai.
Video 5 Stomping the toes
Hitting the solar plexus
Hitting the solar plexus will not really cause a pain but will suffocate the aggressor for a moment which will let you escape or follow up with other techniques to neutralize him.
Muay Thai techniques such as punching « Chok Mad », push kicking « Teep » and Kneeing « Khao » can be used to hit the solar plexus from different distances when you are facing the aggressor. You need regular practice to be able to apply these techniques precisely on the solar plexus.
If your aggressor is either beside you or behind you while your arms are free (e.g. you are being choked from behind), you can use the elbow « Sok » technique to hit his solar plexus.
Video 6 Hitting the solar plexus
Temporary vision loss
Clearly, if your aggressor cannot see you, he will not be able to harm you unless you are still held by him. A temporary loss of vision will normally make the aggressor panic and give you the opportunity to escape or use other techniques to neutralize him.
Throwing something (e.g. sand) into his eyes or picking his eyes with your fingers could put him in a temporary vision loss situation. But they may not be easily achieved.
Another possibility is to hit his nose which will not only give him an intense pain but also cause his eyes to water (filled with tears) so he cannot see for awhile.
You can either hit his nose with a normal punch but it is better to use your palm with an open hand because
- you can hurt your knuckles with a punch,
- an open hand has more surface to touch the target, and
- your fingers may also touch his eyes with your open hand.
So I would recommend hitting his nose with an open hand by aiming your palm at the target situated between his mouth and his nose. Your palm will actually hit the cartilage in the lower part of his nose and will give the best results (i.e. intense pain and watered eyes).
Video 7 Hitting the nose with an open hand (in slow motion)
At a very close distance, it is also possible to use elbow techniques (« Sok ») to hit his nose and other targets on his face. A good elbow technique on his jaw (even by a smaller person) can knock the aggressor down unconscious for some time.
At a safe distance, if your aggressor cannot move, stand up or walk, he will not be able to harm you without a weapon. The question is how to temporarily immobilize him until you can escape or get help.
Several martial arts (e.g. Judo, Ju-Jitsu) propose immobilization techniques performed by the person who defends himself. But the defender has to be in physical contact with the aggressor continuously.
In this article, we are interested in the immobilization techniques that will allow the defender to leave (escape or to get help) and potentially to face the other aggressors if there are multiple aggressors.
The aggressor cannot move if
- he is unconscious,
- he suffocates (cannot breath normally), or
- he cannot stand up on both legs or cannot use one of his legs.
Many Muay Thai techniques can be used to make the aggressor unconscious. An example is by hitting him with an elbow technique (« Sok ») on his jaw as mentioned earlier. However, this objective should be considered only when it is really necessary as the consequences may be beyond your intention. We shall not focus on this objective in this article.
Making the aggressor suffocate is a softer objective but will immobilize the aggressor for a shorter period of time. As described above, hitting the solar plexus of your aggressor will make him suffocate and therefore unable to move for a period of time whose duration depends on the power of your hit. Note that a sufficiently powerful hit may cause a short period of unconsciousness (this is however less dangerous than the other techniques). The most powerful Muay Thai technique to hit the solar plexus is the kneeing « Khao ». When you manage to hit your aggressor with your knee, do not hesitate to repeat the technique until the aggressor drops on the ground. This will ensure that he will be immobilized for a sufficient period of time.
Another option to immobilize your aggressor is to ensure that he cannot stand up on both legs or at least cannot use one of his legs. To achieve this objective, you need to hurt at least one of his legs. There are several Muay Thai techniques that can be used to badly hurt somebody’s legs. But the most well known technique is the low (leg) kick « Tae Tad Kha ». However, a single kick is rarely sufficient to immobilize your aggressor. It will be necessary to repeat the technique on the same leg of your aggressor until he drops and stays on the ground. Another technique is to use the push kick « Teep » to a knee of your aggressor with your heel. The objective is to cause an instant hyperextension of his knee/leg. This will make him feel an intense pain and immobilize him for quite long time depending on the level of the hyperextension of his knee. It is also possible to combine this technique with the low (leg) kick « Tae Tad Kha » to increase the effectiveness.
Video 8 Push kicking to the knee followed by a low (leg) kick
This article is by no means a comprehensive self defense lesson. It is only an introduction to some basic principles and techniques for self defense based on my own experience. The reader is encouraged to learn more from qualified instructors. A very important aspect of an effective self defense is your strong mind. A person with strong mind is usually very calm and can reassure or intimidate people around him by his only presence. Regular training of martial arts such as Muay Thai will help you develop your strong mind.