Self-Defense Clinic — The Best Offense

Circa 2010

Amaster in Tae Kwon Do with belts in Jujitsu and Aikido and experience as senior instructor in hand-to-hand combat at the Secret Service Academy, Mark Copanzzi knows a thing or two about self-defense. Today he heads the Secret Service’s Information and Resource Management Office, but takes a week each year to teach self-defense to people with disabilities.

Copanzzi complements his combat skills with genuine concern for those who have made sacrifices in service to the nation’s military. Each year, he travels to Snowmass Village, CO, to teach a course titled “Self Defense for Everyone” at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

For Mark Copanzzi, teaching self-defense to people with disabilities is much more than simply a job or a hobby. “My father has become blind and my son is serving in the Navy,” Copanzzi said. “It’s very personal for me.”

Copanzzi inherited the Self-Defense for Everyone program in 2001—at the time, the class was primarily a lecture with a few minutes for questions. But it wasn’t long before Copanzzi had decided his students were ready for some hands-on training when it came to keeping others’ hands off.

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“The students love it,” Copanzzi said. “When I first floated the idea, everyone was afraid someone was going to get hurt, but I knew I would never let that happen. I also knew if the class were to have any real value, then techniques would have to come along with theory.”

Copanzzi’s class has become an annual hit at the clinic—sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans—and became so popular that Copanzzi had to add a second course. While some aggressive techniques are taught, Copanzzi routinely tells his eager students that the most important muscle in any fight is the brain.


“The first principle I teach in my courses is self awareness,” Copanzzi said. “Avoiding conflict is the only certain way to survive it. You have to understand who you are and what is truly possible for you to do.” Acquiring knowledge of the self requires that the students assess how they present themselves to the world, not just recognize their physical capabilities and limitations.


Copanzzi says that while a little self-confidence is important, it should never be taken too far. “When approaching intimidating crowds or suspected criminals, it’s instinctive to turn your eyes away or put your head down,” Copanzzi said. “But that is exactly what will mark you as an easy victim. Even a friendly ‘Hey, what’s up?’ as you pass someone suspicious can ensure you are not a target. But don’t make eye contact. That could be interpreted as a challenge.”


Copanzzi uses examples from having trained Secret Service agents to help his students constantly assess and adapt to their surroundings. He has his veteran students visualize their homes and imagine “what-if” scenarios so they can be prepared in a variety of unsafe situations.

“We explore things students can do to secure their homes and themselves in their daily routines,” Copanzzi said. “It can be as simple as taking the most well-lit path, knowing the safest public transportation times, and really being aware of the layout of their neighborhoods. It makes a difference. Fortune favors the prepared.”

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Students in Copanzzi’s courses are happy with the mental exercises and valuable lessons, but the smiles truly break out when it comes time to practice technique. “I can’t train everyone to win, but I can train anyone not to lose,” Copanzzi said, “because when dealing with your life, losing is just not an option. The key to any real fight is to survive the moment. Protract the fight by yelling and using items such as a cane or piece of a wheelchair to keep an attacker at bay. Criminals only have a short amount of time to commit a crime before they have to move on. Make the struggle not worth their time.”

Much of Copanzzi’s technique focuses on teaching the veterans to be masters of their space—a style similar to that used by boxers or wrestlers. The training demands that each student knows the limits of an opponent’s reach, as well as his own, to be effective. Copanzzi also teaches the veterans how to break out of holds should their attackers prove impossible to keep at bay.

“People in a fight are eager to get to the point where they can grab you,” Copanzzi said, “but once they are fully extended to do that, it takes little effort to turn the tide on them,” Copanzzi demonstrated the principle by stretching his arm out to grab the shoulders of one veteran who uses a wheelchair. The veteran was then instructed to clamp his head down forcefully on Copanzzi’s hand and turn his wheelchair. Coppanzi was left with no option but to follow his twisting elbow and break the hold.

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“I don’t feel defenseless anymore,” said Edward Wright, an 80-year-old Air Force veteran with paraplegia. “Nobody is going to jump me now, or if they do, they will regret it. I will even teach my wife.”

For Copanzzi, the unique interactions with each of the veterans provide the biggest thrills of the clinic. “I can teach tips and techniques for different scenarios, but the techniques are just tools,” Copanzzi said. “They need to be adapted to each veteran’s abilities. I get thrown now and then by how clever some of these veterans have proven to be at adapting a technique for their use.”

Copanzzi says he doesn’t see a point at which he would want to stop teaching his courses. He loves empowering veterans who seek his skills, and he craves the inspiration he has learned to expect from his students.

“The first couple years of teaching, I was heartbroken and pitied my students,” Copanzzi admitted. “But I have learned that the veterans at this clinic are the definition of tough. They carry a light inside them and they come ready to mix it up. They just amaze me.”

by Ryan Strinbach

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