No longer willing to put up with being bullied in preschool and elementary school, Kathryn Tian ’17 and her family looked to martial arts as a way for her to defend herself when she was seven years old.
“One of the kids […] tried to stab me in the eye with a stick on the playground,” Tian said. “My parents felt that I needed to know how to live safer.”
A decade and 21 world titles later, Tian credits martial arts with shaping the person she is today.
“It boosted my self-confidence and allowed me to be a more outgoing, talkative person,” Tian said.
While Tian doesn’t deal with the elementary school bullies anymore, she said she continues to value the self-defense skills she has learned throughout her training. She has even attended some classes at her old martial arts school specifically for self-defense.
“As a woman, [learning self-defense] really helps you be aware of everything around you,” Tian said. “I’d say the impact of it has been very noticeable.”
This awareness is key, according to Jennifer Bunting, one of the lead instructors at IMPACT Personal Safety. According to its website, IMPACT is a nonprofit corporation which seeks to educate and train participants in “self-defense and boundary-setting techniques” through various classes and training programs to better prepare people to handle potential conflicts.
“Awareness is one of the biggest things that you can do to keep yourself safe,” Bunting said. “When people don’t realize that they are potentially putting themselves in danger, they aren’t aware of what’s going on.”
Teenagers especially tend to not be as conscious of their surroundings as other age groups because of having grown up with technology such as cell phones, Bunting said.
“Because of their phones, a lot of people are distracted,” Bunting said.
“When you are in an unfamiliar situation or unfamiliar setting, being focused on your phone, what you’re listening to or who you’re talking to via text message or Snapchat, you do take away one of your senses.”
To combat this, Bunting recommends that students look around when in public to scan for safe areas and to look out for other people that they could potentially ask for help should a conflict arise. She also suggests notifying a friend or relative about one’s whereabouts and expected time of return.
Security guard Mark Geiger agrees that most students are less aware of their surroundings than they should be because of their phones, as they opt to look at the screen while walking instead of scanning the area.
“If you’re in public, pay attention to your surroundings, look, see what’s going on and where you’re headed,” Geiger said. “If your car is parked, see if there’s anybody hanging out around it. Don’t be afraid to go back into the store if you don’t feel comfortable.”
And while Geiger points out that sometimes looking around frantically can make someone seem like more of an outsider rather than walking nonchalantly, he says that staying aware of one’s surroundings throughout a journey is oftentimes more effective than waiting until a potentially dangerous situation arises.
Bunting additionally emphasizes the value of confidence in keeping safe, explaining that there are ways to scan an area without seeming frantic, making oneself a target.
“Being calm and looking around is a very different thing than appearing to be nervous and scared,” Bunting said. “Looking around isn’t really the problem. It’s how you’re looking around that would be more important, to try and maintain a body language that is confident and secure.”
Upper School Attendance Coordinator and advisor to the Harvard-Westlake Boxing Club Gabriel Preciado encourages students to also extend this awareness to make note of potential weapons.
“Wherever you’re at, things can be used as a weapon, so familiarize [yourself] with the items around you. In case something weird happens, you know you can grab the next available thing to distract that person,” Preciado said.
People will carry objects such as pepper spray or pocket knives to protect themselves, and this can help them feel more confident, both Bunting and Geiger said. Geiger, however, says these sometimes offer a false sense of security, and paying attention is often more effective.
Bunting also said she does not recommend such objects since, in the case of an attack, it may be difficult to perform simple tasks. Furthermore, she said, these weapons can often backfire. Instead, Bunting recommends alternative ways to build confidence in oneself rather than relying on external objects.
In Tian’s case, she said martial arts helped her develop a more self-assured manner.
“Learning self-defense really gives you a sense of confidence walking around, mostly at night,” Tian said.
Self-defense classes, such as the ones offered at IMPACT, also aim to boost confidence, Bunting said, and are designed specifically to help prepare for real-life situations, unlike standard martial arts. In general, classes at IMPACT focus primarily on being aware of one’s surroundings, trusting one’s instincts, preparedness and various physical maneuvers.
According to a Chronicle poll of 332 students, 35 percent of students have taken a self-defense class.
Phaedra Robinson ’17 said that the self-defense class she took at the end of last year made her feel safer and more equipped to deal with conflicts.
“I took a self-defense class with a few other Harvard-Westlake girls, and it was super valuable,” Robinson said. “I learned a lot of new things, and I actually think we should add it to the Senior Transition Day because going off to college, that would be a really great thing to have under everyone’s belts.”
Bunting says that, in most situations regarding safety, people have a lot of options, and self-defense classes help people understand these options.
“We talk about having a plan for all of the other parts in our lives, but we don’t think about having a plan for ourselves for our own safety,” Bunting said. “I think arming yourself with that information can never be a bad thing. [Learning about self-defense] changed my life. To be able to learn this and to have the self confidence – it’s amazing.”