SELF Magazine- September 1988

Foil-A-Mugger School

A Unique Self-Defense Class That Teaches Women How To Escape, Fight Back, Survive

SELF magazine cover sep 1988BY JENNIFER DRAWBRIDGE

Fear — and surprise and anger — are of the essence in Model Mugging’s self-defense lessons. Because while the attacks are staged, the feelings aren’t — a typical grab-from behind,, opposite page, really does come as a shock; verbal abuse, as at right — screaming, swearing, threatening — truly tests emotional stamina. And making the role-playing as real as possible is what trains women to be able to instinctively rally — physically, mentally — when they are genuinely called on to fight for their lives.

The man in the pumpkin-head helmet attacks women. He throws them, pins them to the ground. Screams in their faces. Says he’s going to rape them.

SELF magazine foil a mugger

A unique self-defense class that teaches women how to escape, fight back, survive.

It’s tough to watch. It’s just too real. And that’s the point. The women being assaulted are learning what real attacks are like, and they’re learning how to fight back—and win.

It’s all part of a unique physical and psychological self-defense program for women called Model Mugging. For one and a half years now, Melissa Soalt, also a practicing psychotherapist, has been an instructor. She first came to the course, though, for the same reason many students do—she’d barely escaped an attack, and she was afraid.

Her story sounds like the opening of a Hitchcock thriller. Melissa, alone in her room, hears a noise in her apartment. Fuzzy with sleep, she notes that the hall light is out and then checks the clock (reading it incorrectly). She decides it must be her fiancé, Jeff, coming home from the night shift. In fact, it is four in the morning, the hail light is out because the power has been cut and the man is a stranger.

Suddenly, something jolts her out of her half-sleep. She sits straight up in bed. At the end of the hall she sees a dark figure. He’s carrying a flashlight. “As soon as I realized it wasn’t Jeff, I started screaming at the top of my lungs, making such a horrendous noise that I couldn’t talk afterward.” Melissa’s timing was right; the man was closer to the door than he was to her. He turned and fled.

By anyone’s standards, Melissa was lucky. She had escaped, except for a sore throat, physically unharmed. Emotionally, though, it was another story. “I was freaked out. I stayed with a friend the nights Jeff worked because I didn’t want to be alone. I was angry and terrified.”

Tuning to a radio show on Model Mugging shortly thereafter seemed like fate. “I immediately thought, ‘I should do this,’ and, as a psychologist, I recognized the program’s therapeutic value. A physical assault or any sexual assault leaves a residue in the body. Talking doesn’t always resolve the problem without dealing with it physically as well.”

Down-and-dirty self-defense

Matt Thomas, the originator of Model Mugging, is an expert on physical. He has black belts in Kendo, Judo and Karate. Seventeen years ago, one of his students, despite her black belt, was raped. Matt read thousands of police reports, searching for patterns in attacks against women. He decided that the clean kicks and punches and upright posture taught in martial arts were no match for down-and-dirty street fighting.

What women needed was to learn how to fight back from the ground (where most women end up during attacks), how to depend on their strong lower bodies rather than their no match for men’s upper bodies, how to overcome squeamishness and aim for vulnerable spots — eyes, head, groin.

Model Mugging’s first graduation turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Matt put on a heavily padded costume and, one by one, went after his students. Not one woman was able to fight him off. Familiarity with techniques hadn’t prepared them for the shock of a real attack. Flash forward to the next session: In every class, the women are “attacked” by Matt. This time, graduation is a huge success: Matt is knocked out (literally) halfway through.

SELF magazine self-defenseThe course Melissa took had already evolved quite a ways since those early days. For instance, Matt realized that the instructor should always be a woman, because it’s more inspiring/instructive for women to see a woman bashing the tar out of an assailant. And the face behind the mugger’s mask? Almost always male — simply because it’s attacks by men that the majority of women have to worry about.

The real force behind its effectiveness, though, is Model Mugging’s emphasis on strengthening emotional as well as physical defenses. Although Melissa’s a tiny 5’, 106 pounds, physical ability was not, ironically, where she felt weak. “I’d had martial arts training. But I’d never had to repeatedly fight back using my full strength. And I could still feel a lot of rage and terror in my body,” says Melissa. “So I just plunged in — and found myself breaking down in class, being forced to work through my fears. That’s what makes you realize how strong you are, no matter what raw material you’re working with. The course just moved me light-years along, and I fell in love with it.” Seven months after graduating, Melissa underwent the instructor training course herself. And began taking other women through the process that enabled her to finally feel that she really could take care of herself.

Coming to terms with ugly stuff

The first of five five-hour sessions opens up with a discussion of why each student is there. Many are survivors of incest, physical abuse and rape. Others have friends or loved ones who’ve been attacked. Still others are simply aware of the frightening statistics — an estimated one out of three women in the U.S. will be assaulted at some point in her life. The talk helps Melissa and Mark Morris, her teaching partner and model mugger, pinpoint students’ particular fears, strengths and trouble spots, but, more important, brings class members together in support of one another.

The physical work in the first session is deliberately toned down — easy warm-ups, stretches, kicking and fighting drills, then some low-intensity “muggings.” “In the beginning the take downs, as they’re called, are slow, partly so that the participants’ bodies can learn the technique well without freezing or flailing,” explains Melissa, “and partly because one aspect of our job is to boost their confidence — coming at them full-force before they’ve had a chance to develop their skills would be devastating.”

While the simulated attacks are in progress (and Melissa is on the mat coaching the women), the class is encouraged to whoop it up, screaming encouragement and names of moves (“Eye!’’ “Groin!’’ ‘‘Kick!’’). It’s ugly stuff, and hard to come to terms with, both for students and their friends and family. “People’s first reaction when you tell them about Model Mugging is very often holding back. It’s not ‘Good for you! — my friends didn’t know how to react,” recalls a former student, now an instructor-in-training. Another alumna, a survivor of abuse and incest, recalls, “Some of my friends just couldn’t understand it. They didn’t like the idea of using such strong methods.”

That unease is an intrinsic part of the problem — women are unused to fighting and often uncomfortable with the idea of using violence against someone else, even if their lives are on the line. Recalls one grad, “I think in our first class only a couple of women started out smashing hard, with the attitude that they were going to try to stop whoever tried to hurt them. The rest of us just wanted to run away.” Vociferous support from Melissa and fellow students helped psych her into a self-defense frame of mind. “I can’t tell you what it meant to have a roomful of people telling me that it was my right to defend myself, that it was my job, what they wanted me to do.”

Interestingly, notes Melissa, the men in the lives of Model Mugging students tend to be very enthusiastic about it, often paying their wife’s, lover’s or daughter’s tuition. “Some men do get defensive,” she admits, “but we make it clear that this program is not about hating men, that men are not the enemy. The enemy is violation.”

Making muggers the underdogs

That enemy becomes stronger as the classes progress. In the second and third meetings, verbal abuse and bedroom scenarios (students are attacked as they lie on the floor, eyes closed) are added. So are the verbal strategies, kicks, punches and fending-off techniques needed to resist them. But among those who have been attacked, the memories called up by the increasingly violent struggles can be intense. The women are encouraged to use the strong emotions to fuel counterattacks — and while the mugger sometimes slows his pace, he does not stop until the woman delivers a “knockout” blow. “The fear these women feel is real,” says Melissa. ‘‘Being attacked is frightening, and often it brings back an even more terrifying past. What we have to do is acknowledge that fear, then get on with it. Women need to know — and feel — that being afraid does not mean being helpless.”

SELF magazine instructorsIn the fourth class, a guest mugger makes an appearance—muggings are now so intense and prolonged that it’s difficult for one man to handle the 13 to 15 women in a group. (Wearing a costume that makes them look like a cross between the Michelin Man and Jason of Halloween fame, the muggers sweat off an average of seven pounds per class.) A beneficial side effect: The slightly different verbal and physical styles of the new attacker help keep overconfidence from creeping into a class.

The fifth class. Graduation. Students invite family and friends to come and celebrate their newfound strength with them. Many in the audience cheer loudly with the graduates as students neatly dispatch mugger after mugger. Others look uncertain. They never saw the mismatched crew of frightened women, all sizes, all shapes, all ages that started the course. They see a team of smiling females coaching a seemingly invincible fellow superwoman to smack the stuffing out of two men wearing what looks like not enough padding. In a weird reversal, the hulking, swearing, threatening muggers seem like underdogs. And, in a way, they are: Of over 6,000 Model Mugging grads, well over 100 have reported stopping physical confrontations by being assertive and aware; of the 30 or so who ended up being physically attacked, two chose not to fight, several managed to escape and the remaining 22 knocked out their assailants in the first few seconds.

A powerful testimonial — but no more so than the women’s own stories. Incest, rape and violence have haunted many of them for years. For years, they were always frightened, always the losers. Now? “If you’ve been hurt physically and lived with thirty years of thinking people can do whatever they want to you and you just have to hope that they pick someone else, then the feeling that you can fight back and probably win…I can’t tell you what it is. You’re strong. You don’t have to run and hide. You have a chance.”

Jennifer Drawbridge is a former SELF staff writer now freelancing from Rockland, Maine.



The men in the lives of Model Mugging students tend to be very supportive. “We make it clear that the program is not about hating men, men are not the enemy. The enemy is violation.”

Great ad for the Model Mugging course: student-turned instructor Melissa Soalt, weighing in at 106 (and at 5’ even), can dispatch both pseudo muggers Mad Moods and Mad Fearer with little trouble.

Local Schools for Street Smarts

By 1988 Model Mugging has spread from originator Matt Thomas teaching occasional classes to 35 instructors teaching over 100 courses a year in Denver, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City (Mo.), Honolulu and a slew on the West Coast. In fact, police departments in some cities have been so impressed that they’re using Model Mugging to help train their female officers.

For information on current Model Mugging self-defense classes visit the website:



Original article in SELF Magazine, September 1988 – pages 188 to 189, 206, and 208: download file size is 3.83 MB

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