One local instructor talks about the psychology of an attacker, and what to do (and what not to do) if you're assaulted
It's easy to see why Leonie Sherman is a good self-defense instructor. She carries herself with a confidence and a sort of bottled intensity that's apparent even as she sits calmly at a table outside Lulu Carpenter’s on a crystalline winter morning. The strength she radiates isn't automatic, however, nor is it accidental, and for years she's worked in Santa Cruz to show would-be victims how they too can find their inner strength.
"A typical curriculum, I would say, covers basics of awareness," says Sherman. "What to pay attention to in order to keep yourself safe and keep yourself looking confident."
Sherman was awarded the Community Hero award in 2009 by the Community Assessment Project (CAP) of Santa Cruz County for exemplifying the goal that "By the year 2010 crime within Santa Cruz County will continue to decrease and residents will have increased confidence in their personal safety at home and in the community." She teaches classes for a wide variety of demographics, from children at schools to inmates in jail. Her youngest student is 6 and her eldest 89. This diverse spectrum leads to differing focal points and individually tailored sessions, but there are some lessons that remain pertinent to everyone.
"People are often surprised that self defense isn't just chopping and kicking, but it also involves using your voice really effectively,” says Sherman. "That can range from setting a boundary and being straightforward, all the way to yelling at the top of your lungs."
Much of the information in her classes focuses on verbal confrontation with an attacker, for, according to Sherman, the distinction between yelling and screaming is an important one.
"When an attacker hears a scream they get a very clear message that this person is very scared and they hope somebody else hears them and comes and helps them out,” she explains. “A yell is directed at the person who's scaring you or making you nervous, and it sounds more confident ... aside from the verbal message it sends, [it also says] 'you picked the wrong person.'
“It sounds strange but many attackers have some kind of script in their head of how things are going to go,” she adds, “and when you flip that on them they don't really know what to do."
Of course there are times when physical confrontation becomes a necessity, and Sherman teaches a number of techniques that are "debilitating and extremely painful." If an assault does become physical, it isn't time to start screaming—it’s time to fight back.
"There's a pretty common myth in our society that if you fight back against an attacker you're going to make them angrier," says Sherman. Statistically, she says, 60 percent of the time when a woman fights back, her attacker leaves after she attacks him only once. Moreover, if a woman being assaulted strikes her attacker (in any way, shape or form) three or more times, 85 percent of the time the attacker runs away.
"That's a really important thing for people to understand," says Sherman. "That your odds are better, not worse, if you fight back."
In addition to teaching classes at several local middle and high schools and the Santa Cruz County Jail, Sherman also teaches self-defense classes sponsored by the Santa Cruz City Council. A typical class that someone would take in Santa Cruz through the Department of Parks and Recreation (information available on the City of Santa Cruz website, ci.santa-cruz.ca.us) costs $5 to $15 for 12 to 15 hours of training—a price tag that would be $400-600 elsewhere.
While she is aware of the purported recent rise in violence in the city, Sherman sees a silver lining around what for some has become a disturbingly dark cloud.
"It's hopeful to see that despite an increase in attempted crimes there has also [been] an increase in people fighting back to keep themselves safe," she says.
Sherman began working for Women's Crisis Support as a crisis counselor in 1995 and gained an "intense education" from the assault victims and survivors of domestic violence she worked with there. She took one of the city's low-cost self-defense classes—for which she is now an instructor—during that time and was awoken to her true calling.
"I realized that was the missing link—I don't want to be just therapeutic,” she says. “I want to be part of the solution as well, which, as far as I can see it, is helping women feel stronger and more confident."
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