Self-defense 101: The 'basics' taught at program


– Photos by Frank Weir

PHOTO #1: Attorney Tricia Reiser (left) demonstrates the hammer blow, while Len Niehoff holds a cushion.

PHOTO #2: Instructor Tricia Reiser, Lori Burke, Jen Lawrence, Theresa Rose, and instructor Len Niehoff pose (left to right) before the start of the WLAM self-defense class.

PHOTO #3: Reiser discusses self-defense techniques with the class.

By Frank Weir

Legal News

So you’re walking down a dark side street late at night and suddenly you’re grabbed. Your aggressor has a tight grip on your shoulders.

Decision point. What do you do?  Or, more accurately, what should you have done before getting into this position?

Two local attorneys who also are self-defense experts, offered pertinent suggestions that might surprise you at a special program for the Washtenaw County chapter of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan.

The event was held at Keith Hafner’s Karate studio on Main Street in Ann Arbor where both Len Niehoff and Patricia Reiser have trained for several years. Reiser, a Wayne State University Law School grad, is a private practice attorney in Ann Arbor, while Niehoff teaches at the University of Michigan Law School and practices at Honigman Miller.

Both Niehoff and Reiser are third degree black belts in Tae Kwon Do at Keith Hafner’s.

Back to our hypothetical.  Niehoff and Reiser ask first, why are you there in the first place?  They explained that the first step in self-defense is to avoid the situation if possible.  So, in keeping with this hypothetical, what could you have done to avoid being by yourself late at night on a dark street in downtown? 

Looking at these kind of questions is the first part of self-defense.

But, if you really could not avoid the situation, what do you do?  Niehoff and Reiser provided a simple method that can work for anyone: Balance, Breathe, and Break Away. 

Balancing is something that your body will naturally tend to do if you are grabbed or pushed—you will move a foot back into a position that makes you feel more stable, for example.  So, first you will find your balance.  Then, make a lot of noise. Scream. Swear. Shout “NO!” “Stop It!” This will not only attract potential help, but also will ensure that you breathe.

“Sometimes, this alone will be enough to drive off an attacker,” explained Reiser.  “Attackers do not want any resistance,” Niehoff continued. “They want an easy victim. Strong, immediate resistance can result in them abandoning their attack to search for an easier victim.”

A loud shout is what most would consider a common sense approach, but what next? Niehoff and Reiser went through the potential weapons that you carry with you every day—head, hands, elbows, legs.  The goal was for everyone to have a “weapon” to use from their upper body, and a “weapon” from their lower body after the end of the class.

“Everyone should leave feeling empowered that they can do something,” noted Reiser.  “People have a misconception that self-defense involves the complicated, admittedly cool, moves that Jackie Chan might use in the movies. That just isn’t realistic.  Even highly trained martial artists are more likely to use simple, easy techniques if they find themselves in a real defense situation.”

Niehoff and Reiser went through the possible weapons and targets present on the body, and noted situations when a particular move may not work well.  For example, Neihoff noted that executing an effective punch requires some space, which may not always be available.  Punching in a close space won’t be very effective because the lack of distance makes it difficult to generate much power.  Additionally, punching can lead to injury—to the puncher—if the wrist is not straight, and the fist is not tight. 

There is a deceptively simple answer to this problem—the hammer blow. Reiser and Niehoff explained that almost everyone can use this move successfully—hit your attacker with the side of your clenched fist, like a hammer. 

“You would be surprised how powerful those blows will be,” Niehoff said, “and the natural reaction to a blow to the nose is for the attacker to bring his hand or hands to his nose and face for protection. That may allow you to break free.”

Most participants found the suggestion to be a revelation and when Niehoff and Reiser demonstrated with padded targets, the power of the blow became more apparent. They noted that shouting as you hit helps increase the power of the strike.

Other simple to use moves were demonstrated to targets such as the knee and groin.  Some common myths were dispelled as well—for example, kicking an attacker in the groin is not necessarily the best defense move, and may not be advisable at all. Niehoff and Reiser demonstrated how kicking your attacker can quickly result in you being forced to the ground—a position you definitely want to avoid.

Niehoff and Reiser also cautioned against having a false sense of security.  For example, if you have pepper spray for defense, it does you no good if you don’t know how to use it, don’t know how far it sprays, and don’t know where it is in your purse. Make sure that you know how to use it.  Does it spray in a stream, or does it disperse more widely? How do you deploy it? How far does it spray?  Buy an extra canister and practice in your backyard when no one is around.

The pair acknowledged that being attacked is always a terrible situation, and there are infinite possible variables. The goal, however, is to do something, ideally causing your attacker to recognize you are not a victim and to abandon the attack.

“It is very difficult to defend an attack, however, if the attacker is determined to make you his victim. This is a typical scenario in domestic violence cases,” Niehoff said, noting that these situations are more difficult, but not impossible to defend.

WLAM President Jen Lawrence was excited that the chapter offered the event.

“I think it’s important to offer something like this because we have such a diverse membership and board members and we want to offer skill development to our member that they would not normally have,” Lawrence said. “And I believe it is important for women especially to empower themselves with self awareness and tactics to stay safe and defend themselves.

“As president of the chapter, I feel these sorts of opportunities are just as important as our monthly networking and social activities.”

Lawrence acknowledged and thanked both Reiser and Niehoff.

“When Tricia Reiser joined the WLAM board, I was thrilled. She spent years as a prosecutor and now is a partner in her own firm. She has spent years training to become a black and I was hoping to utilize her expertise. This is the first time we have offered a self-defense class. And we were delighted when Len Niehoff was able to join Tricia in teaching the class. Len has been involved in martial arts training for many years too.”

Lawrence concluded that, “It is so important to empower our members to feel more self confident and aware of their surroundings. Many people in scary situations have a gut instinct but ignore it. I hope members can use this to be more aware of their surroundings and trust their instincts.”