College Student Self-Defense by Stephen Lage Sensei, 5th Degree Black Belt, Isshinryu Karate

I normally give Self-Defense Seminars in the Summer months, as the demand for them is greater with parents preparing to send their kids off to college. They want peace of mind, sending you off with some skills on protecting yourself as you leave the nest and spread your wings. With over 38 years of martial arts training, I can confidently say that the techniques that I teach are not only simple but extremely effective. But I will be the first to tell you that a two-hour seminar of how to escape from different attacks doesn’t mean that you will be able to do so if the need arises. It is truly effective only when the techniques are practiced regularly, so they become second nature. 

Without attending one of my seminars, I want to provide you with what I believe is the best form of Self-Defense you can have. You see, over the course of my training, learning how to physically defend myself has taught me how to mentally defend myself. I have learned to observe and proactively react to behaviors that lead to violence (from the bad guy as well as my own behaviors), and how to avoid putting myself in bad situations. 

Life on a college campus is designed to offer a safe environment for its students — and for the most part, it is. Security officers at nearly every college are focused on providing safe transportation and student protection 24/7. But that doesn’t mean that as you embark on this new chapter in your life, you are immune to danger when walking alone, heading back to your dorm late at night, or even at social gatherings, where everyone is more at ease. Going off to college puts you in a unique environment. The mixture of predictable patterns, close quarters, and questionable decision making as you learn, grow and mature is a potentially dangerous place to be if you aren’t properly prepared. There are perpetrators who take advantage of this feeling of safety and security to commit acts of violence. Keep in mind, ANY act of violence is bad, but being a victim of a theft is different than a sexual assault. Being prepared, however, involves the same mindset.


Awareness is one of the most vital components of Self-Defense. The most common line I use in my Self-Defense Seminars is “be aware of your surroundings.” However, it is much more than just looking for the bad guy. And it doesn’t mean that we need to be in a state of hyper-vigilance as we go about our daily lives either. It is unnecessary and is quite unhealthy. If you imagine the serial rapist around every corner, you might overlook lesser, but still real threats to your safety. What I am referring to is being aware of everything that is going on around you at all times. The technical term is actually “situational awareness.” Depending on who you talk to, they are broken down into many levels. I will simplify and present three:

• Relaxed Awareness

• Heightened Awareness

• Action

Relaxed Awareness

This first level is healthy in that you should notice all of the good, beautiful things all around you every day. This level also facilitates learning, healing, and growth. Who doesn’t need that? 

The great thing about relaxed awareness is, you will also enhance your ability to see when something is out of the ordinary, triggering your awareness level to be escalated. In the martial arts, we use an example of a guy wearing a long coat in warm weather. Something is definitely out of place, right? This is an exaggeration, obviously, but it is used to illustrate a point. Think about this, if your room is usually neat and organized, you tend to notice when something is misplaced rather quickly. If it is cluttered, with clothes, papers, books, etc. just dropped wherever it is harder to determine if something is missing. 

Take some time to actually notice the campus; the tree-lined pathways, the amount of lighting on said pathways, the staff at building entrances, information/bulletin boards, the dorms, cafeteria, etc. Get familiar with who is where doing what as you go through your daily schedule. When you notice the everyday things; the out-of-the-ordinary stand out that much more. The little things will be less likely to go unnoticed, and that is key for personal safety.

Heightened Awareness

This level is where we are not yet taking action, we are simply looking at things a little more closely.

Suppose you enter your dorm, and the usual concierge is not there, and the person sitting at the desk does not have an appropriate ID visible. Here, you would go into a heightened state of awareness.

It is now up to you to determine the next step. You may ask, from a safe distance, to see the ID of the concierge on duty to verify that they are who they appear to be, and then you can return to the relaxed awareness level. Or, you may get out your cell phone and call your roommate “just to chat” as a means to have a point of constant contact until you can make it to your room safely. Or, you may proceed to your room while paying close attention to see if you are being followed. If your suspicions are confirmed, and you notice some activity that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, it may be time to go to the next level.


This level is going to mean different things to different people, as well as being determined by the specifics of the situation. 

Action can mean defending yourself against an attack, but it can also mean running or hiding. It can mean notifying Law Enforcement. The situation will dictate what is appropriate and even possible at that time.

Self Awareness 

For any awareness to do any good at all, you have to constantly be aware of your state of mind, what you are doing that is influencing the behavior of those around you, and what words are coming out of your mouth. If you have to get in the last word or need to make a clever (or rude) comment, you are not helping your cause of remaining safe. More than any physical technique we could ever learn, being aware of ourselves and our influence on the situation is essential to our personal safety.

Assessing Your Risks

If you can honestly assess your own risks and adopt responsible behavioral patterns, you can minimize threats and make your college experience an enjoyable one. Understanding your environment, disposition, and your own strengths and weaknesses will help determine how predators may interact with you, and how you may respond if you find yourself in a troubling situation.

Assess Your Environment

Environment doesn’t just mean the hypothetical dark alley that is talked about in a Self-Defense class. Answer the following questions. Think carefully about each one and try to imagine how your answer may affect your own personal safety:

• Do you live on or off-campus?

• Is your dorm co-ed?

• How many roommates do you have and how often are they home?

• How open (meaning careless) are your roommates to visitors?

• How far must you walk or drive to class? 

• What kind of areas do you travel through?

• How is the neighborhood surrounding your campus?

• Where do you go for fun?

• Are recreational activities/clubs/arenas on-campus or off-campus? How would you get there?

• Do you follow the same pattern/routine as you navigate each day/week?

• Do you know anyone who also follows that routine that you can buddy up with? 

• How often are you alone in public spaces (libraries, coffee shops, rec centers, etc.)?

Assess Your Disposition

Would you rather inconvenience yourself than to seem rude to somebody else? We have all been taught to be polite, kind, and caring. These are even considered desirable “feminine qualities.” The problem is, seasoned attackers will use these tendencies to get in and out before you have a chance to switch out of your socially conditioned behavior. If some stranger asks you to help them, or follow them, do not get yourself in a bad situation because you couldn’t say no. As stereotypical as this sounds, think of a typical man’s ego. Would they want to admit that they need help, especially from a young woman? Men shouldn’t normally ask a woman for help unless they have alternative motives. If you do not know who they are, do not help them. “Can you help me move furniture into my van?” Big mistake. “I need help with my dog in my apartment.” Seriously?

I have heard many times in my Self-Defense Seminars how people say they would “unlock their inner beast” when put in a dangerous situation and easily make their attacker pay for their choice in prey. There is some truth to this sentiment. When faced with danger, the human body undergoes extreme adrenalization, which increases strength and stamina. However, most people have very little experience with being in that type of situation, making them extremely ineffective when they suddenly find themselves there, as attacks can happen by complete surprise – not just the stereotypical “attacker jumping out of the bushes,” but the more realistic “I didn’t realize I was in trouble until it was too late.”

Adrenaline can be useful but can produce completely different results when induced by fear or panic. Fear aids in alertness. It allows us to assess options (run, fight, yell, etc). Panic, on the other hand, may give you tunnel vision, essentially putting blinders on. It can also disable your ability to process options. Unfortunately, untrained individuals may think they have that “beast mode” available to them when they are actually setting themselves up for panic-induced failure.

Assess Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Being completely honest regarding the way we assess ourselves reveals something about our preparedness and self-confidence levels.

First, conduct a checklist of your assets and liabilities. Are you taller than average? Are you as light as a feather? Long or short hair? Long or short nails? Are you physically fit? Do you have the ability to run at full speed for an extended period of time? Do you have any particular or nagging injuries? What type of clothing do you most often wear? Are you quiet and shy? Are you uncomfortable speaking up in public?  Everyone’s checklist will be different. Some will be longer than others. The important thing is to be as thorough as possible.  

After you are done with your checklist, double-check yourself. Did you mentally avoid some of your weaknesses? Or, did your list consist of mostly positive traits? 

Understanding Predators

Outside of mass attacks or psychotic rampages, we can pretty well determine the kinds of violence we are most at risk for. Being completely honest in your Strengths and Weaknesses assessment may reveal certain traits that can trigger different kinds of predators. With this knowledge, you can now have a better understanding of who might be targeting you.

Some predators are not necessarily trying to prove anything with their crime. Instead, they are looking for “stuff.” That means your money, phone, clothing, watch… even your body. They can be Resource Predators, which are your typical muggers and thieves. They can be Survival Predators, which are those that believe their life depends on getting something from you (like a drug addict coming down off of a high, needing some quick cash for the next fix). They can be Process Predators, such as rapists and serial killers that are after your body or just the thrill of injuring you. Then there are Social Predators: those seeking status or influence by conducting violence (i.e., gang initiations).

In most cases, predators will often use one of two approaches to get what they want. First, they will utilize a conversation starter such as “do you have the time?” and continue with small talk to get your mental guard down. Then they will attack, sometimes providing you with instructions for how to escape the situation (“Give me your purse and I’ll let you go”). 

The other approach is by using shock and speed to avoid any discussion at all. They may attack you from behind or just come seemingly out of nowhere. Taken by complete surprise, the damage occurs faster than you can respond to, making your adrenalized state irrelevant.

One specific predator that is often overlooked (maybe because they are hard to spot until AFTER they have attacked), is what I like to call the Acquaintance Predator (see TRUSTED THREAT below). This is the one who earns your trust, then takes advantage of that trust. It may be completely planned from the onset of your meeting, or it can just happen because they spot an opportunity. I have heard multiple stories of the young female at a party eventually winding up alone with a “friend” with whom she felt comfortable with, only to be sexually assaulted.

That being understood, let’s look at the most common predatory risks for men and women in a college atmosphere.

Predator Considerations for Women

If you perform a Google search for the term “College Assaults,” you will find numerous results. With all of the stories that may come up in the results, chances are you will see two primary scenarios:

1. A female student being followed and then sexually assaulted, or assaulted by the aforementioned “friend” in a dorm room.

2. A male student being assaulted after an altercation at a bar or between two groups of men.

The college setting puts young men and women in close proximity to one another with their first experiences of being free, able to do what they want without parental supervision. This age group of men (late teens – early twenties) have high testosterone levels with limited social IQ. They are also often in group male settings which leads to enabling and peer pressure to push their boundaries. Women of that age also find themselves in similar social situations with high amounts of peer pressure and a desire to fit in. Furthermore, they often express their newfound freedom via suggestive clothing choices and partying habits. These are generalizations, but common enough to work with.

The naturally smaller frames of women make them much better prospects for mugging and theft. And being absorbed in phone calls or texting reduces awareness levels (smartphone distraction is not a problem for only women, it is applicable to both genders). Look around once in a while, keep one headphone out of the ear. Your ability to constantly monitor your environment for potential threats will allow time to react should one present itself.

Individuals looking to commit resource crimes will generally assess women based on the following factors:

• Awareness of their surroundings (ease of surprise)

• Physicality (lack of perceived strength or self-confidence)

• Clothing (high heels, spaghetti strap purse, dangling scarves, etc.)

• Likelihood of social conditioning (timid, not wanting to make a fuss)

The Threat of Routine

Even though women can be attacked anywhere if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a university atmosphere adds the danger of routine. A predator who is either a student on campus or a local resident can easily memorize when and where women are walking alone (or inebriated), as they have the ability of hanging around campus unnoticed to monitor the class routines of specifically interesting targets. They may even approach women, striking up friendly conversations to gain information. The two most common questions asked in college situations are “what’s your major?” and “what hall do you live in?” These are standard and seemingly innocent questions, but if the individual asking has dangerous intent, it’s more than enough information to plan an attack.

This routine threat is most dangerous in terms of sexual assault. The predator can plan the location and time with minimal struggle and witnesses. 

If you have a routine around campus, remember the following action steps to reduce your vulnerability:

• Travel with a group, especially during night time

• Keep a close eye on campus news and avoid common crime areas

• Avoid traveling home from parties alone

• Switch up your travel routes to and from class from time to time

• Don’t be afraid to lie about your major, living location, etc. Better yet, make up a couple of majors and dorm/apartment complexes right now that you can use whenever you want. 

The Trusted Threat

Sadly, a large percentage of sexual violence against women occurs by men they already know. It’s a matter of trust and proximity. Often, these sexual predators are extremely patient. Through organized or impromptu social gatherings, friendships can develop quickly in college without any of the individuals truly knowing each other, leading to a false sense of trust. These gatherings occur all the time, which can lead to smaller, then eventually solo encounters. 

The difficult thing about this threat is that we all know it’s unhealthy to be suspicious of everything and everybody all the time. Getting to know new people is normal, healthy, and even exciting. The key to managing these trusted threats is monitoring their behavior patterns. Pay particular attention to people who discount or ignore your boundaries, people who try to guilt or shame you into doing things you don't want to do, and particularly people who try to put you into positions of vulnerability.


Intuition is a powerful tool and many women have a highly developed “gut feeling.” I can’t stress enough that when you sense abnormal changes in demeanor, body language, humor, pressure/persuasion, do not be afraid to speak up, reinforce your specific boundaries, or just get out of there. Go ahead and lie about having to get somewhere else. Or say you have to go to the bathroom; whatever you need if you’re feeling awkward or feeling pressure. Again, it is best to come up with an excuse or two right now so they are easily ready when you may need one. You don’t want to forget them when you get nervous.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In social situations, we all know it is best to go with a buddy, roommate, your “person,” etc. I highly suggest coming up with a pact that includes a “no questions asked” codeword to leave a situation if any of you feel the least bit uncomfortable. Say you are at a party with a friend, and you are having a great time talking to this cute guy. If your friend comes up to you and says the codeword, you know they are serious, and not just bored. You can then politely excuse yourself. Leave the party with your “person.” Do not dismiss them because you are having a good time. Wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you?

What About Men?

Men are not immune to mugging or attacks. Most men think of muggings as one-on-one showdowns beginning with a confrontation, an announcement of what is about to happen, and then the “fight” is on. In reality, when a mugger wants to attack (especially a man), they want as little fight as possible. That means the attack is coming as a complete surprise, an ambush. No muss, no fuss. You get suckerpunched. Your stuff is theirs and they are gone.

Alternatively, criminals who hang out in a group will overwhelm their prey by ganging up on them. Not only do they get what they were after, they also reinforce their dominance and maintain control of their territory.

The Social Archetype For Men

Women tend to solve social problems via mental and emotional means more than violence, whereas men tend toward the opposite. For them, violence is usually the solution. However, avoiding violence is more feasible than most men think. If given instructions on how not to get beaten, take those instructions. For example, if someone tells you to shut your mouth or you’ll be eating a fist, try shutting your mouth. Doesn’t sound very cool, but it usually works. Another option is an apology, followed by leaving the scene. Again, not a sexy solution. But it is a solution.

Your Self Defense Arsenal

We have established what kinds of predators may be on the lookout for you. And you have an idea of what kind of person you are. Here are some suggestions to lower your chances of getting into a dangerous situation and how to improve your odds of survival if you do.

1: Change Your Habits

I hope you’ve come up with a few ways in which you are vulnerable. Perhaps you park in poorly lit parking lots. Maybe you’ve walked home alone at night a few times. Maybe you leave your dorm room door open allowing anyone to walk right in. Whatever it is, you must have the willpower to make improvements. Also, communicate your plans. Let people know where you are going, with whom and when you’ll be back. A simple text to a roommate, friend or family member, or even a note in your dorm room can be the catalyst to summon help if trouble presents itself. Those who make communication a habit are more likely to reap the benefits of police intervention when something goes awry. Beware of Social Media: It is so important to realize that when you show your location on, say Snapchat, or any other social media platform, that basically anyone knows your exact location. This may not seem like a big deal, but many people are looking for people online for bad reasons. If someone can see exactly where you are or know that you are alone, you are putting yourself in a bad situation.

Don’t be afraid to post pictures and show that you are having fun, but wait until AFTER the event to share what a great time you had.

It is a good idea, however, to share your location with your closest friends so that in any instance of an emergency, they would have immediate access to where you are. Change your sharing settings to private, or specific people. It could end up saving you or your friends’ lives. Social media can be a bad concept when it comes to bad people locating you, but at the same time, it can be helpful for friends and family to know where you are in case of an emergency.

2: Personal Presence

Personal presence is a calm, yet seriousness about you that indicates you’re not looking for trouble but are willing and able to handle it if the situation arises. It is not an act. Confident posture can deter a threat. Multiple studies have shown the way you walk has an effect on how likely you are to get mugged. By keeping your head up and aware of your surroundings, you can take away that element of surprise. If confronted, looking directly at the potential attacker, calmly and assertively say a simple command such as “Back off!” It is often enough to make them realize you are a harder target than they want to deal with.

Active, continuous mindset preparation helps you develop presence. Begin by thinking, then believing that, if attacked, you will fight back until you are dead. If you can genuinely adopt that mindset, your personal presence will come eventually.

3: Smart Decisions

No one deserves to be mugged or sexually assaulted. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that the choices you make don’t affect the outcome. If you walk around in high heels, a short skirt, half drunk and alone… well, you know. It’s bad. If all you are focusing on is your smartphone while walking to and from class… well, you know. It’s bad. Digging through your purse to find your car keys AFTER arriving at your vehicle… well, you know. It’s bad.

Keep cell phone usage to a minimum. Dress intelligently for your circumstances and if you need to be at risk in terms of clothing or activity, utilize a group.

4: Training

This is obvious. Martial arts training can provide you with physical assets to defend yourself. More importantly, they will also enhance your personal presence. 

Choosing a particular martial art to study is not of particular concern. It’s the quality of the instructor more than the art that will help you develop a potent skillset. At the very least, enroll in any type of Self-Defense course on or near campus. You could even get a group of your friends to do it with you. The important thing to remember here is to make your training continual, so you don’t forget it.

5A: Self-Defense Weapons (literal and improvised)

Self-Defense needn’t be empty-handed all the time. Any woman would be remiss if she didn’t travel with a convenient tool such as pepper spray, Kubotan, etc. The key is learning how to use them in a pinch.

Dorm rooms are a must-have location for some sort of Self-Defense weapon. What’s allowable will depend greatly on the university’s specific rules. A suggestion is a solid hardwood stick. It attracts zero attention from RAs, roommates, and even friends. 

It can be placed conveniently near your bed or doorway. Imagine if you were escaping from an aggressor. Which direction would you try to escape, or where might someone try to take advantage of you? Place it near there.

NOTE: It is best to use a quick thrusting motion to the attacker’s face or chest followed by repeated swinging motions until you are in a position to escape. Do not start with a swing as most people’s flinch reflex will block it or catch it. The straight thrust causes a flinch reflex that is much tougher to catch.

Anything can be used as a weapon. A hardcover book. A pen. Umbrella. Even a toilet brush!

5B: Your Weapons

When in the adrenalized state, most fine motor skills are diminished. Therefore, making a fist and swinging with anywhere from the bottom fist to the forearm is a good weapon. Elbow strikes are great; they are one of the hardest weapons you have. A palm heel strike is also very good. A knee strike is awesome to the groin or thigh. Beyond that, slap, scrape, bite, claw, or kick away. A HARD pinch to either under the arm between the elbow and armpit or in the upper inner thigh is a quick pain inducer. Try pinching yourself in those places as hard as you can stand it; it really hurts. One of the best weapons you have, however, is your voice. Try not to use aggressive phrases such as repeating, “You son a bitch, you son of a bitch, you son of a bitch!” as you fend off an attacker. If the case goes to court, the attacker can claim it was you who attacked him! I suggest “No!” “Stop!” or “I don’t want to fight!” repeatedly as you strike. Why? Because, as later court witnesses will testify, “She kept saying No/Stop.” Or “She said she didn’t want to fight!” More importantly, yelling such phrases draws attention to yourself, which is exactly NOT what the attacker wants to have happen. Getting someone to notice what is happening – ANYONE – could save you. Make as much of a ruckus as you can.

6. Vital Targets

Here are some vital striking points of the human body that don’t take an enormous amount of force to achieve results:


If your attacker can’t see, he can’t find you. Get your hands near or on his face and rake your fingers over and into (yes, into) his eyes. Or better yet, put your hands on either side of his head and jam your thumbs into his eyes. This causes immediate pain and possible permanent blindness. Potential Problem: It’s hard to reach an attacker’s eyes unless you’re really close.


If your attacker can’t breathe, he can’t hurt you. A hard shot to the Adam's Apple, best with the outside edge of your hand (knife hand), between the base of the pinky finger and the wrist, but it could be a bottomfist, punch, forearm, palm heel strike, etc. causes a choke reflex leaving the attacker gasping for air. Potential Problem: The throat is a small target, especially if the attacker’s chin is tucked. 


If your attacker can’t stand, he can’t chase you. Kick hard anywhere near the knees. It is actually a very weak joint, especially if the kick is from an angle. Kick with either the outside of the foot or bottom of the foot/heel to reduce injuring your toes. (When kicking, I always teach to curl the toes back and strike with the ball of the foot, but even I have made the mistake and forgot, resulting in a broken toe). 


Strike with the palm heel, driving straight into the face. This may cause serious pain, watering of the eyes, and/or bloody nose, etc.


The most vulnerable part of the ribs are on the direct sides, preferably as high as the nipple. Strike with a bottom fist for the most effective result.


My favorite go-to target. Most effective when at close range, a knee to the groin, a bottom fist strike, or a grab and squeeze with all your might is an instant mood changer. However, it is a temporary pain that can be overcome. Be careful; being at such a close range, if you strike the groin, a retaliation slap or punch will probably be headed your way pretty fast.

Top of Foot (Instep)

There are 26 bones of the foot, mostly which are relatively small. Add that there is not much meat on the top of the foot to protect them, if you stomp pretty hard, or dig one of your high heels down on the top of the foot, some of those bones may break, making it harder for your attacker to chase you.

Base of the Neck

Strike with a bottom fist anywhere from the spine to the sides of the neck. It is hard to achieve power, as most often, attackers will be taller than you and you don’t have the leverage. But if it is the only target available, go for it.


Defending yourself is more than just learning how to escape a chokehold or bear hug. Your mindset and awareness are crucial. A Self-Defense Class in addition to the mental preparation as mentioned here is highly recommended. See what’s available on campus, or in the surrounding area. If you have any questions, or if I can be of any assistance, don’t hesitate to contact me ( Have fun at school. Study hard! Learn! Grow! Do great things! Most of all, BE SAFE!

Stephen Lage Sensei
5th Degree Black Belt
Isshinryu Karate

Thursday, August 13, 2020 - 10:04am