Does Muay Thai Really Teach Self-Defense?

Muay Thai is a popular combat sport known for its striking techniques that involve the use of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. It is often marketed as a martial art that can also teach self-defense skills. However, as someone who has trained and competed in Muay Thai, I can say with certainty that Muay Thai alone does not teach self-defense. And places that teach Muay Thai without incorporating aspects of self-defense should be frowned upon.

Muay Thai is a popular combat sport known for its striking techniques that involve the use of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. It is often marketed as a martial art that can also teach self-defense skills. However, as someone who has trained and competed in Muay Thai, I can say with certainty that Muay Thai alone does not teach self-defense. And places that teach Muay Thai without incorporating aspects of self-defense should be frowned upon.

During my recent podcast interview with Ben Brown, we discussed this topic at length.

Trigger/content warning: The podcast interview and this article contains mention of assault and rape.


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Misconceptions About Self-Defense

Self-defense is a topic that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Many believe that practicing martial arts will prepare them for any self-defense situation that may arise. However, this is rarely the case.

Misconception #1: Self-defense is about fighting.

When people think of self-defense, they often picture a predetermined-set of techniques designed to fight off an attacker. First you do this, then you turn like this, then you hit them there… and then you’re free and safe! Right?

Reality: Self-defense is about avoiding or ending a potentially dangerous situation.

It’s much more than a series of physical moves. It requires a deep understanding of situational awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation.

Most situations can be avoided altogether through proper situational awareness and de-escalation techniques. In fact, many self-defense experts agree that the best self-defense technique is to simply walk away from a dangerous situation. While Muay Thai can certainly help you defend yourself in a physical altercation, it does not provide the complete picture of what self-defense really means.

Misconception #2: Muay Thai is a form of self-defense.

Muay Thai is a sport that has rules and regulations. In a typical Muay Thai fight, competitors wear gloves and shin guards, and the fights take place in a ring. There is a referee to ensure fighter safety. The goal is to score points by landing strikes and knockouts. Watching a fight can be exciting, and seeing the damage that these moves can make are probably why people misconstrue Muay Thai with a proper self-defense regimen.

Reality: Muay Thai is a combat sport that can be used in self-defense situations, but it certainly lacks many aspects critical to understanding ACTUAL self-defense. That’s because Muay Thai was not specifically designed for self-defense; it’s a sport with a set of rules and regulations that dictate how the sport is practiced and competed. Therefore, the techniques used in Muay Thai fights may not always be practical or effective in a real-life scenario.

In a real-life self-defense situation, there are no rules, and the objective is to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible. There is no one to make sure there’s no dirty fighting. There’s nobody in your corner to tell you what to do.

Misconception #3: Taking self-defense classes guarantee your safety.

Will dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars ensure that you will escape assault of any kind unscathed, unharmed, and without trauma? Absolutely not.

Reality: Self-defense classes, even credible ones, do not guarantee your safety in a real-world situation.

Self-defense classes should be used as a tool to help build confidence and learn basic self-defense techniques. However, it is important to recognize that real life situations can be very unpredictable. More on this in the section marked “What Self-Defense Programs Should Include“.

Misconception #4: Self-defense is only for women.

The fear that women have of being attacked (usually by men) is incredibly valid. There is no shortage of news regarding physical or sexual assault on women. However, assault does not discriminate by gender.

Reality: Self-defense is necessary for everyone, regardless of gender. While women may statistically be more vulnerable to certain types of attacks, men can also be targeted in same and different ways. Everyone should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary.

What Self-Defense Programs Should Include

Although there is no body that sanctions schools that claim they teach self-defense, there are some key points that a quality self-defense program should cover. These points should be covered due to natural and involuntary bodily responses, the legal system, and more. This is by no means a definitive list, but a good place to start when you are considering self-defense programs.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness involves being aware of your surroundings, including any potential threats that may be present. This can include recognizing potential danger zones, knowing how to avoid dangerous situations, and being alert and focused at all times.

Verbal De-escalation

Many confrontations can be resolved without physical force by using verbal de-escalation techniques. These techniques involve calmly communicating with a potential attacker in a way that can defuse the situation and prevent it from escalating into violence.

Self-Defense Techniques

If physical force is absolutely necessary, a credible self-defense program should include techniques that can be used to protect oneself. This can include striking, grappling, and other defensive maneuvers that can be used to incapacitate or get away from an attacker.

Legal Considerations

As unbelievable as this may be, there could be legal consequences to defending yourself. Local programs should include information about when it is legally permissible to use force, how to avoid using excessive force, and how to avoid legal consequences if force is used. Of course, the program should always put your safety first while explaining your local laws.

Psychological Preparation

In the unfortunate case that you need need to use self-defense, it can be very stressful and traumatic. A credible self-defense program should also include information and training related to psychological preparation. This can include techniques for managing fear and anxiety, as well as information about how to seek support and counseling after an attack.

It’s Not About Winning A Fight

Self-defense is about trying to get away from a situation with as least harm done to you as possible. It is not about hurting or incapacitating an attacker (even if it may happen in the process). If you can attack them in a way that makes them stop, great. But if you can run away, even better.

The Issue with the Term “Self-Defense”

There are many disciplines of martial arts, from striking to grappling and even ones that include weapons. There are places from each of these categories that proudly claim that they teach self-defense. In that case, is it possible to know everything you need from just stand-up? From just grappling? From just the use of weapons?

The truth is – anyone can claim to teach self-defense without any formal training or certification.

This has led to a proliferation of “self-defense” classes that are not based in reality or are outright dangerous. The false sense of security being sold can lead students into dangerous situations where individuals may be taught techniques that are ineffective or even harmful in real-life scenarios.

Self-defense is much more than physical fighting and involves being aware of your surroundings and avoiding dangerous situations whenever possible. Taking self-defense classes can be beneficial, but it is important to recognize their limitations. Everyone, regardless of gender or location, should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary. While Muay Thai is an excellent martial art, it is only one tool in a larger toolbox. Being well-rounded and prepared is the key to effective self-defense.

But Knowing Something Better Than Knowing Nothing at All?

Short answer: Sure.

Longer, more helpful answer: It is important to recognize the limitations of that knowledge.

Many people have misconceptions about what self-defense is and what it entails. Some may think that simply knowing a few techniques or moves is enough to protect oneself in a dangerous situation. However, self-defense is much more complex than that. Failure to address that is failure to address the needs of someone who is truly looking to learn self-defense.

The Bigger Picture

The issue of self-defense goes beyond just physical techniques and strategies. It is also important to address the societal and cultural factors that contribute to violence and the need for self-defense. One of these factors is the pervasive presence of rape culture.

Rape culture is a term used to describe a society that normalizes and excuses sexual violence.

Rape culture is a term used to describe a society that normalizes and excuses sexual violence. It is seen in the way sexual assault is often minimized, excused, or even blamed on the victim. This toxic culture can lead to a sense of powerlessness and fear, especially for women and marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence.

In this context, self-defense is not just about learning physical techniques to protect oneself, but also about understanding and challenging rape culture. It is about educating oneself and others about consent, healthy relationships, and the importance of taking a stand against sexual violence.

A credible self-defense program should cover not only physical techniques, but also topics such as assertiveness, boundary-setting, verbal de-escalation, and situational awareness. It should also address the social and cultural factors that contribute to violence, such as gender-based violence, racism, and ableism.

Ultimately, self-defense should not be seen as just an individual responsibility, but also as a collective one. It is important to create a culture that values consent, respect, and non-violence. This can be achieved through education, advocacy, and community building.

Muay Thai gyms and other places that teach martial arts have a responsibility to not sell false sense of security, especially when the situations involve lives at stake. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when choosing a self-defense program, and it’s my sincere hope that you will end up with one that can maximize your skills based on your concerns and needs.

Sources/Points of Reference:

  • “Martial Arts and Self-Defense Training: What Do They Teach and Are They Helpful?” by David L. Arnold (Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2000)
  • “Self-Defense: A Skeptical View” by David K. E. Bruce (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1973)
  • “Self-defense or Self-delusion? A Comparative Analysis of Three Self-defense Systems” by Ron M. Doran (Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 1994)
  • “The Limits of Self-Defense Training: Some Cautionary Notes for Women” by Donna L. Schilling (Women and Criminal Justice, 1996)
  • “The Failure of Women’s Self-Defense” by Joanne Kaufman (The New York Times, 2015)
  • “Why Self-Defense Classes Are Lacking for Women” by Kaitlyn Tiffany (The Atlantic, 2018)

If you want an in-depth guide to training in Thailand, I’ve got just the thing.

Fighter, social media manager, content creator and writer. Currently training and fighting full time in Bangkok. Originally from NYC.

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