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April 7, 2014

Learning how to (actually) defend myself

By Jessica Reynolds
The Daily Star

---- — As weird as it may sound, I have always had my own back. Growing up, I had bizarrely powerful convictions about standing up for myself – almost to a fault. 

If I felt I had been wronged by my older sister, I would shoot out a vengeful comeback that was far more insulting. In second grade, a boy named David threw a small tree branch at me on the playground after I beat him to a swing and I proceeded to calmly retort, “That didn’t hurt,” even though my hand was bleeding. Of course, I soon learned that this isn’t the most healthy of ways to stand up for oneself and, fortunately, I’ve grown out of that bad habit. But a recent incident reinforced something within myself that I have known, and worried about, for a long time: I don’t know how to stand up for myself physically.

It happened about a month ago. I had just turned my car off in the driveway of my Center City apartment and was opening my door when I heard a strange noise. It was a hiccup, I decided, but didn’t give it another thought. I got out of my car and started walking toward my apartment building in the dark, but froze halfway there when I discovered the source of the hiccups: a large, masculine shadow was standing still at the end of the driveway and, after seeing me freeze, started running toward me.

At 110 pounds and five-foot-three, I am hardly a force to be reckoned with. Whenever my roommates and I would watch scary movies in college, I would always reflect on what I would do in a similar situation. If I were ever to be accosted by a would-be kidnapper or psychopath, I would think, I would most likely just freeze in utter fear and soundlessly die of a heart attack on the spot. I really believed it, too.

But that night, something from deep within me actually made me call out to this guy.

“WHO ARE YOU? STOP!” I blurted out in one monotone, angrily shouted sentence.

The man stopped in his tracks about eight feet in front of me. I didn’t know whether to scream, run back to my car or try to run the rest of the way to my house. He was quiet, then hiccuped a couple of times before speaking.

“Do you … do you have a buck?”

“No I don’t,” I half-yelled.

The man was obviously intoxicated and, after standing in silence for what seemed like an eternity, he turned around and stumbled down the street.

Not entirely grasping what had just happened, I hurried inside, locked all the doors and called the Oneonta police, who kindly and professionally reassured me and said they would be patrolling the area for the wanderer. I tried to relax, poured myself a glass of water and watched “West Side Story” in its entirety, for some reason. It took my mind off of things and transported me to a place where “rumbles” only happen in the context of a fiercely choreographed dance number, complete with high kicks and finger snaps.

I immediately thought of the worst possible scenarios that could have played out. Who knows what could have happened? I was extremely lucky that the stranger stopped in his tracks and didn’t come any closer because, other than my words, I had no real way to defend myself.

I decided to find someone who could help me learn some basic, useful self-defense moves. Sam Pollak, editor of The Daily Star, has a son, Joe Pollak, who just so happens to be a black belt in karate. He trained for more than 10 years at the Oneonta Karate Dojo, is now a CrossFit trainer at Cooperstown CrossFit and knows a thing or two about defending himself.

Over the course of two hours, Joe taught me more self-defense moves than I probably would have learned in five different paid classes. I couldn’t possibly describe to you every defense move he showed me and had me practice, but I can tell you about some tips that stuck out as things I would be sharing with family and friends to help them feel more confident in their abilities.

“If you were a madman and you saw me walking by myself, how would you attack me?” I asked him. We went over various different ways to get out of a would-be attacker’s grasp, including a wrist-grab (the most common), grab around the neck, or grab around the waist. Two things you (and I) need to remember about this, he said: forcefully stomp on their toes with your heel and force your center of gravity outwards so it’s harder to keep hold of you.

But first things first, Joe said: Distraction: so you can run. A quick cupped hand to an ear can be very painful and is a great way to distract a would-be attacker. A pointed finger jabbed to an eyeball or in the small, round area between a person’s collarbone is also a great distraction, as well as a knee or foot to the groin or back of the knee. If you can peel one of their fingers away from their fist and bend it backwards sharply, you can most likely break it, giving you extra time to get out of there. Carrying keys? Place one or two of them facing outward between two of your knuckles, Joe said, and you have a hidden weapon. Scratching of the face in an upward direction, he said, is another simple but effective tip. 

But the most powerful part of your body if you have never trained, like me, is probably your elbow. If your hands aren’t conditioned to punch, Joe said, but you try to punch your attacker, you could wind up with a broken hand. That’s why your elbow is your best bet. It’s strong and powerful and, if you really get your entire body behind it, can be very forceful. When practicing on a punching pad, the strikes I made with my elbows were probably the most powerful.

Another tip Joe shared with me is to sound angry. As silly as it may sound, if you sound enraged and furious, the attacker will most likely be intimidated long enough to stop and take notice. I was relieved to know I had done something right during my encounter. I guess your adrenaline and instinct just kind of kicks in.

And then Joe threw me over his shoulder and I decided all bets were off. I’m a hopeless cause, I thought. But, thankfully, that’s not a common way that a “bad guy” would try to take off with someone, he said, so I should be OK.

For as much as I learned, I would suggest that people who feel similarly uncomfortable with their ability to defend themselves look into taking a couple of self-defense classes. I’m planning on going back to Joe to practice more and refresh the things he taught me. I’m certainly no Bruce Lee, but I do feel a little more confident that I would be able to take care of myself if faced with a dangerous situation, and I feel like that confidence is half the battle. No offense Joe, but here’s hoping I (and all of you reading this) never have to use these tips.