SAFE International – Interview with Chris Roberts

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Here we interview Chris Roberts, Founder and CEO of SAFE International which aims to empower 500,000 people in self-protection by 2020. More information of SAFE can be found at their website http://safeinternational.biz/

So can you give us a bit of background on yourself and where the idea for SAFE International came from?

I was kind of a late bloomer. I started martial arts at about 23 with Shotokan Karate and got my black belt when I was 27 or 28. I then started teaching a more martial arts style self-defence which is what I knew at the time. I find so many people no matter what system they learn originally, never look past that system to see what else there might be. If you see my course now, it’s completely different to what I taught 20 years ago and in some respects I make fun of what I taught then, though I respect it was what I knew at the time and is what got me to where I am now.

SAFE started in 1994. I had a plan but it didn’t exactly go that way. I was just teaching in high schools to start with, that was our primary focus and business. One school liked the course and I knew the principal and from there it spread. We made high schools our primary business and it still is but now we’ve expanded to women’s courses among others too and it just grew as people hadn’t seen self-defence taught in such a way before.

In what ways do you think SAFE International is different to the many other self-defence systems out there in the world?

There’s obviously a lot of competition out there in terms of self-defence and martial arts. As far as we’re different I don’t mean the moves which have been around for 1000’s of years. The overriding thing we bring that is different is the humour and the fact the courses can be fun. People always say “Chris we never realised self-defence could be fun and it doesn’t have to be intimidating” but we’re still being very physical with people. Very early on I had a woman who ran a sexual assault centre and she asked if I would present to her women after she heard me speaking at a high school. So I asked how would the humour go over? She said that’s exactly why I want you, the women know the seriousness of the subject, but you’re just making it comfortable to talk about. You have to be true to yourself and it’s just sort of who I am anyway. It sounds odd, but I truly believe that the more comfortable the women or the people are with me, the more comfortable they are drilling me in the head during the physical part of the course as they trust me. If they didn’t like me or found me creepy, they wouldn’t be comfortable. They trust us with the drills, but still get the adrenaline rush etc. that they would really experience.

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So would you say that the majority of your SAFE International clients are female?

It wasn’t necessarily on purpose but I’d say yeah, it’s about 90% female. We teach some boys in schools and I do some work with men, but they usually want to train privately. Maybe it’s an ego thing, where they don’t want their buddy’s to know they’re learning self-defence. Then there’s others like yourself maybe that train with everyone and don’t care. Women don’t really have the same ego issues, they just want to learn and get home safe to their family.

So the goal is to empower 500,000 people with self-defence by 2020?

That’s the goal, we’re at about 190,000 now, and that took a few years starting from scratch. We’re teaching about 13,000 each year now and as I add more partners that should hopefully grow naturally. I don’t really know where the number came from. I like to set some lofty goals but like to be realistic; I had 1 million in my head but thought to myself you’ve been hit too many times in the head to set that goal! It seemed a reasonable but achievable goal! We seem to be on track, it’ll be a challenge but I think we’ll get there!

So let’s talk about the SAFE International courses then!

Sure! I think this is what also makes us different from other stuff out there. My courses are primarily designed with the idea in mind that the majority of the people who attend will never go to another self-defence course again. A lot of people present material going okay well when they come back we can add this, but they don’t come back. So I thought if I only had 4-5 hours, what would I do? I can do longer or shorter, but primarily for a women’s self-defence programme for example it could be 2 hours for awareness and avoidance strategies for daily routines, body language, who attackers choose and why, intuition, verbal strategies etc. Then two hours on physical. It’s not technique based, its conceptual, just a few primary concepts. It’s interesting, after a couple of hours, the women want to talk about avoidance and awareness, there’s been times I haven’t got to the physical we’ve done 4 hours on avoidance. I don’t mind that, first of all they’re the paying customer, and secondly it’s the most important part that I think lots of people rush through who don’t know how to teach it or don’t find it interesting. When you teach these groups of women though they’re fascinated with the topic once we really get into the meat of it!

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So would you say the avoidance plays more of a part than the physicality/martial arts side?

Typically it’s around 50/50, but it depends. Some groups ask if they can skip the avoidance part and go straight into the physical side but I won’t do that, I say if you’re interested in avoiding violence we have to do this stuff. They don’t think it’s going to be interesting but then once they get into it they really enjoy it. I have done like 4-5 hours of physical with a group though, keeping it simple, nothing complex, all gross motor skills, all warranted legally, morally etc.

You’ve just touched upon the next question actually! The legal aspect! Obviously it’s a very tricky, grey area when it comes to self-defence.

Definitely. Obviously different countries, states, provinces etc. have different laws, but I try to keep it as basic as possible, stating that if you are left no other option, you have tried to be aware and verbally diffuse, absolute last resort, that persons left no choice but to defend themselves. I talk about giving yourself permission to do it. A lot of people still hesitate; I can’t hit the guy until he hits me first. But there are so many pre-contact cues that will give you the legal right to strike first. If someone says I’m going to rape you etc. they’ve already told you what they’re going to do, why would you wait for them to do it? A lot of people who have done my course say they’ve seen escapes from say a front choke, but never seen avoiding to begin with, and if its seen coming to strike first. A lot of women have struck the pads or worked with their partners with no real resistance, or broke a board at the end of the course, that’s okay, but there’s no real pressure testing and people leave thinking, oh that would really work if someone attacks me.

So how do you pressure test? It’s such an artificial environment in a self-defence class.

Yeah, I’m the first to admit; when I first started doing it I hated it as I hated being the prick in people’s faces. I don’t have the face of tough guy, I don’t suit the part. When I teach men they look at me and think what are you going to do? But then when I bring the realism and the look on my face then the verbal aspect, it becomes more real. I do it in small increments, everyone has different pasts and I may be able to get aggressive with some quite quickly, others I can’t and I have to take it slowly as I don’t know what they have been through in their past. I like to take people just past their comfort zone so at the end they can’t believe they have made that much advancement. You’re right though it’s still not real so all you can do is create it the best you can. Some people say you should put all your videos out full speed, full power no consent. If I did this I’d probably have no clients as well as being in jail! With 4-5 hours you’re limited, but I can still accomplish a lot. Some people just realise I don’t want to get into this situation as physically I suck! You can’t make people good if they just don’t have the ability.

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Let’s talk about the International aspect then. SAFE obviously started in Canada with you. How did it then progress?

About 6 years ago, I lost my voice for about 4.5 years. I have a condition where I get botox injections twice a year. So for that time I couldn’t teach so I was at a point where I had to make SAFE International but didn’t really have any plans to teach outside of Canada. But then I thought what if I can never teach again, how am I going to carry on the message? So I thought let’s get the International part going. That’s where social media has been fantastic. I’m not a recognised name like some others such as my buddy Richard Dmitri so Facebook was my medium to get my info out there. People started to see it and asking how I was teaching 13,000 a year. I found a formula that worked and wanted to take it international. I prefer to get a small quality number of instructors that are decent human beings. We’re a team and they’re amazing people so we’re attracting attention. We’re operating in Australia, Ireland, Milwaukee, Houston, Wisconsin, Florida, a few in Canada and Richard Dmitri is going to do some work for us on the West Coast.

Do you have such a thing as an instructor training course?

It’s a certified partner program. I usually do a 1-1 with the person, I don’t count the hours, and some spend as much as 2 weeks with me doing live seminars together with them doing part and me doing part. It’s probably around 60-80 hours in total.

It sounds a comprehensive programme. A big risk of building up self-defence programmes is the filtering down of the original knowledge in my opinion. What do you do to prevent this?

There’s always that fear that if I have someone who is especially good at a certain area such as Muay Thai, we introduce it into the program, but then it isn’t really a SAFE course anymore as the course should be the same at each location. It’s a challenge, but growing it slowly and by me doing all the training means I have no one to blame but myself. Most people approach me though so why would they want to change it if it’s working?

Do you teach different courses for say women, men, police etc?

We don’t really teach police as I made a conscious effort to really focus on the regular people. There are enough people out there to teach police and military etc. with the credentials. I want to teach regular people. Financially it’s the biggest client base, and teaching just regular people is where my love lies. We’ve taught from 10 years old to up to 85 as they can get attacked too and are maybe most at risk. Just teaching the general public is where my passion lies.

Where do you see SAFE International in the future then, the next year, 5 years, 10 years etc?

Well its funny as this year I’m going to be 50 and people keep saying you should be getting ready to sell the business and get retired but anyone who watched me teach realises I enjoy it too much, I think I’ll always be involved. I think my goal now it grows it with quality people. It’s so much more fun growing something with a bunch of other people that are amazing. The goal is just to help as many people as I can. I’m one of those few instructors that had a great childhood, no violence. Most come from a background of violence and I don’t think that should be the norm. So if I can teach some information to avoid pasts like that it’s a massive goal as I’ve heard some horrific stuff so that’s my main motivation to prevent that in the future.

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