Students Take Up Self-Defence at Sportcentrum Universum: “I am Learning Skills I Hope Will Never Come in Handy”

By Thea Bladt Hansen

Collage by Anna Sazonov

— The walls of Sportcentrum Universum’s fitness studios are decorated with inspirational slogans encouraging you to “breathe” and pictures of yoga enthusiasts oozing with zen. But every week, the decor becomes rather oxymoronic when the studios are used as training spaces for Maarten Lok’s self-defence classes where students learn to fight “like we do it in the streets” and always aim for the groin when kicking an attacker. 

Besides student housing and academic buildings, Science Park also hosts Universum, the main location of the Universitair Sportcentrum (USC), which is currently a popular destination for students wishing to learn self-defence. One of USC’s most popular self-defence classes is Krav Maga – a style of self-defence which was developed for the Isreali army. 

Maarten Lok, Universum’s Krav Maga instructor, has practised various types of martial arts but decided to shift to Krav Maga 11 years ago: “I was a bit fed up with rules and I thought that it [Krav Maga]  was very interesting: a lot of technique, but no rules at all. And I was also in the military, so I already knew the basics of military fighting.” Maarten Lok focuses on preparing his students for failure in fighting by showing them how to quickly change their approach to fight off attackers and how to avoid allowing frustration or fear to take over in a fight.

In a recent poll conducted by The Herring on the AUC students’ Facebook page The Excellent and Diverse People of AUC, 51 out of 85 respondents answered that they have considered learning self-defence, whereas 31 students state that they have either practiced self-defence before starting AUC or taken it up while at AUC. 

According to Rolf Soldaat, Sports Manager at USC, the popularity of Krav Maga can in part be attributed to the UvA’s decision to give free USC memberships to all first- and second year bachelor students: “First- and second-years have received a code to do fitness for free for the rest of this year, and that caused a spike in people attending Krav Maga, boxing and kickboxing. I think people are longing for something new and unknown after a year and a half of lockdowns.” 

Elena Kissiova, third-year Science major, started practising Krav Maga at Universum this semester; not because of a particular personal or global event, but rather because of a general feeling of uneasiness whenever she is alone: “It is weird, because I am now learning skills that I hope will never come in handy. But if a situation like that happens, I want to know how to handle it.” Kissiova likes how specific Lok’s teaching style is: “[it is] very focused on women and women’s experiences. He is also not invasive… but he pushes us when he sees that we are not hitting hard enough.” 

It has only been a few weeks, but Kissiova has already improved her reflexes and although she has luckily not had to use Krav Maga outside of classes yet, she generally feels more secure and also more confident in her own ability to practice self-defence. Kissiova describes that the most important thing she has learned so far is that “I am not stronger than my attacker and I have to inflict pain. Even if you forget the movements or part of the technique, you just have to remember to aim for the weak spots.” 

Lok’s main motivation for teaching students Krav Maga echoes the paradox Kissiova mentions, that is; spending time and energy learning a skill that you sincerely wish you will never have to use in a real-life situation. “Nobody wants to fight; nobody wants to be in a violent situation. Nobody wants to be in a fire or have a heart attack or get a disease or be in an accident. But if I am in an accident, I will hope that someone can deliver first aid. So, if you know a little bit about how to deal with violent situations, you will be able to act the way you should,” Lok says.

Soldaat explains that Universum started offering self-defence classes 11 years ago when the sportscenter moved to its current location: “The previous location was in the city with street lights and crowds on the street, but when we moved a combination of the dark streets and the high number of students gave us the idea to offer self-defence classes for students.” 

Universum now offers 15 different types of martial arts, with Krav Maga being the most real-life situation-focused. There is Krav Maga practice twice a week a Universum, and additionally Maarten Lok also instructs 10-weeks long self-defence courses specifically for women, where women meet for one hour a week for a programme based on Krav Maga, which focuses on how to deal with sexual assault and sexual aggression.

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