Self Defense Class improves confidence and awareness

What started as a Miami Garrison family advocacy program has become a waiting-list only phenomenon for military family members of all ages in South Florida.

The phenomenon doesn't even have an official, permanent name, but those who attend Luis Rivera's Self Defense Class are showing signs of permanent changes in their confidence, safety and attitude.

Tonya Templeton, Information and Referral Program Manager, started looking for an instructor based on a need for a self-defense class for middle school and high school children, and those going off to college.

"We sometimes don't give those kids those skills," Templeton said, "because we assume they are big enough and old enough to know how not to get into a situation, and sometimes they don't know."

Luis Rivera, a retired special operator employed by U.S. Southern Command, is currently working on a PhD program in the Science of Martial Arts and Disaster Management, at York University. This class fell in line with what he needed as instruction subjects, and he volunteered to do the class free for military families.

"Well, I don't have a whole lot to do," Rivera said with a laugh, "and I enjoy working with children."

The class blossomed into teaching grade-schoolers as well, and it turns out the best students he has are some of the little ones. "They are very intent about the whole thing, and they manage to go through the entire class and pay attention," Templeton said.

The instruction covers levels of awareness, avoidance, confrontation, strategy, close combat principles and psychology. The instruction does not pull punches; rather it uses pads, with Rivera as the usual target.

Templeton, who is physically unimposing, speaks with confidence about what she learned in the class.

"He goes through the basics during each session, talking about the levels of awareness, how to have situational awareness and prevent getting in trouble," she said. "And of course there is a lot of laying on the floor and kicking, and flipping people over."

One surprise was how hard it is to teach someone how to yell, according to Templeton. "Unless you have been in a fight before, you haven't yelled 'no!' when you throw a punch. At first, many students speak softly; they have to be coached to let it out."

Rivera speaks to his classes about what to do if someone pulls a knife, and how to control a situation, rather than be controlled by it. "Danger is something to be avoided, not confronted," he said.

The class does not shy away from times when you cannot avoid an engagement. Rivera is blunt.

"As important as everything else is the technique, basically applying hard bone to soft tissue," he said. "You must be able to disable the other person."

For children as well as adults, with knowledge comes responsibility, Rivera said. "We cover the legal aspects of self-defense during the class as well."

The "psychological piece" as Rivera refers to it, is what makes for a more confident, aware attitude that minimizes the need to actually fight. "Basically, thinking about times that you overcame, rather than times that you got hurt," he said. "Talking to yourself and reassuring yourself that you can do it."

Rivera does a questionnaire prior to class, and is seeing an 80 percent improvement in confidence among the students. "That is a lasting effect," he said. "I have tested people who were trained over a year ago, and the level of confidence remains, they don't return to their prior sense of vulnerability."

There is a change of mindset among students, Templeton confirms, adding, "This level of training you would normally have to pay a lot of money for."

Why do it for free' "Anything we can do to help military dependents is worthwhile," Rivera said.