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Self-defense seems self-explanatory: defending oneself in a threatening or dangerous situation.

“It’s the ability of a person to protect themselves from harm,” said Capt. Ricky Thomas from the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, who has a background in martial arts.

But there is much more to it.

“There’s a whole lot that actually goes into [self-defense],” said Capt. Michael Rackey from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office.

Thomas said in the self-defense classes that the sheriff’s office teaches, which are by request only, the focus is on prevention and situational awareness.

“Self-defense is a set of skills that includes a lot of different parts and knowledge base that allows you to know what to do before, during and after a violent attack,” said Darlene VanGaasbeck Gentry, a black belt in hapkido and aikido martial arts. She teaches a chemistry lab at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a self-defense class. She also teaches rape aggression-defense systems classes for women, kids, senior citizens and men in her community.

Gentry said self-defense is composed of four parts, beginning with risk awareness. “Awareness is key to seeing something that might be dangerous in advance,” she explained. The next step is risk recognition, she said, followed by risk avoidance. The final aspect of self-defense is risk reduction, or ways to prevent putting oneself in a vulnerable position, she said.

In addition to preventing the situation from happening, many experts agree that knowing how to get out of a dangerous situation is a key part of self-defense.

“It’s knowing how you can get away [from a situation],” Rackey said, noting that a person should be aware of the avenues of escape at all times. For example, he said, in a restaurant, be aware of all exits, whether it’s the back door, windows or the entrance.

Self-defense has many values

Beyond the obvious value — protection and being able to fight back — self-defense has other values, like preventing a situation from occurring.

In today’s culture of distraction with smart phones, handheld games and social networks, it takes no effort to be distracted — a perfect recipe that puts someone at risk of being involved in a hostile situation.

“We all have the bad habit of not being aware every day,” Gentry said. “It actually takes effort. All of us could stand to be a little more aware of our surroundings. That goes for everybody.”

Awareness at all times is the most preached-about aspect of self-defense because it helps prevent a situation from happening.

Tom Korentsides, who has been practicing martial arts for more than 40 years and teaches the Shido School of Self-Defense in conjunction with Calvert County Parks and Recreation at the Southern Community Center, said he couldn’t describe just how much people aren’t aware of their surroundings.

“People are so unaware,” he said. Potential threats “are waiting out there in the dark, and people walk out there like lambs. People are unaware that there’s a universe around them.”

Dfc. Michael Licausi from the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, who is a staff instructor with the county’s criminal justice academy, explained that many times, “as police officers, when we come upon a victim … they weren’t paying attention.”

But, Gentry noted, not everything can be prevented, no matter how efficient someone may be with a particular technique, adding that she teaches that in her RAD classes. “It is not your fault if you were targeted,” she said. “It’s never the victim’s fault. They feel a burden that they should have been able to do something.”

Another reason self-defense, or at least awareness, is stressed so much is that if someone is “faced by a life-threatening situation, you’re going to be paralyzed by fear,” Rackey said, explaining that it’s usually because people don’t think it can happen to them. He explained that a premeditated plan for how someone would handle certain situations is part of defending oneself. His advice to combat such “paralyzing” fear: “Play the ‘what-if’ game. Visualize a situation out.”

Awareness, strategy, practice are best means of self-defense

In everyday life, there are many things people do to put themselves at risk, but there are also a lot of things people could do to be prepared for a dangerous and threatening situation.

Awareness is key. Authorities and those in martial arts and self-defense classes cannot stress the importance of awareness enough.

“Your No. 1 weapon is your mind,” Thomas said of being aware and realizing when a potential threat is around.

Awareness isn’t just paying attention to people and surroundings when walking to one’s car in a parking lot; it’s also paying attention to what is going on before entering an establishment and being able to use one’s senses.

“You have your senses; you need to be able to use them,” Rackey said of people looking down at their cellphones while they’re walking or jogging with both earphones in instead of one.

Lettie Randall, a purple belt who has trained with Korentsides for nine years, said her training has taught her to “think about things I wouldn’t normally think about. It gives you a different perspective about what other people think and what could happen.”

Strategies for handling particular situations are a vital part of awareness, but many people have no strategies at all.

Deborah Cavanaugh, co-founder of Waldorf Action Martial Arts with her husband, Roger, and who has 37 years of experience in taekwondo, tang soo do, Shaolin long fist kung fu, tai chi chuan and shuto kahn karate, said most people think they know what they’re going to do when they actually don’t.

“Most people don’t think about self-defense until it’s too late,” she explained.

Liz Nehrbass, a green belt who has been training with Korentsides for four years, said she has definitely thought about what she would do. She said she and her 12-year-old daughter, who also has trained with Korentsides, have plans associated with keywords they would use if something were to happen. “If I tell her a word, she knows what to do. But you can teach that to anybody,” she said.

However, there needs to be a healthy balance of awareness in one’s life. Rackey said, “We need people to be aware, but not to the point where it affects your quality of life.”

“Refresher” classes and continually practicing are very important because “these skills do perish, especially the physical ones. But awareness doesn’t perish; that you can carry with you and use every day.”

That’s another problem experts say puts people at risk: taking a one-day or one-week self-defense class and thinking he or she is prepared. They emphasized how easy it is to forget learned skills without constant training and practice.

Thomas said the short-lived seminars and classes are “hocus pocus. Unless you’re out there practicing, training and honing your skills, you’re not going to be able to physically fight and defend yourself. There’s no secret move that you’re going to use” that will work in every situation, he explained.

“Two weeks out, people have forgotten,” Cavanaugh said, adding that she encourages people to continue practicing what they learned even if they take one of the brief classes.

Continual training and practice also helps to ingrain actions into automatic responses to particular situations.

“If I’m tapped on the shoulder, I turn around with my hands up,” Randall said, noting that it’s just her reflex now. “It’s automatic. You don’t know or realize you’re doing it.”

She also said the constant practice and sparring has helped develop her body’s pain tolerance. “Your body can absorb more pain than someone else’s because you’re used to it,” she said.

In addition to forgetting defensive techniques and moves without honing the skills, it makes it more difficult to be able to defend oneself in any situation with the limited moves someone does remember.

“There’s no guarantee a technique will work in a particular situation,” said Gentry, which is why she tells her classes to come back and practice; they may remember more moves.

On the other hand, Rackey said people should have a technique that works “no matter the disparity in size, gender [of the attacker] … something that can be easily done” in nearly every situation.

“It’s not muscle; it’s skill,” Randall noted of perfecting techniques. “Tom pounds into [women’s] heads: You can out-think a man, but you aren’t going to out-muscle a man.”

Nehrbass said the best advice she could give, especially to women, is to “walk around not looking like a victim.” She said “people are going to pick up on” someone “walking tall” with their head up.

“It’s all about awareness and not presenting yourself as an easy target,” she added. “It’s empowering,” Nehrbass concluded of learning how to defend herself and her family.

Rackey reiterated the point, noting that “more times than not … people aren’t going to approach a confident person.”

Licausi said one of his best pieces of advice for self-defense is to vary daily routines, like traveling to work or taking a walk at different times and going different routes. “Don’t get stuck in that rut of doing the same thing every day,” he said. “It helps you be safer.”

“If I was in a situation, I would be able to defend myself,” Randall said confidently. “I don’t know what I would actually do, but it’s like Tom says: You may not remember everything, but you’ll remember something.”