The Importance of Instinct in Threat Assessment


Spotting potentially dangerous situations before they occur is one of the most important jobs security professionals have. Whether they’re bouncers at a bar, or a night watchmen at a construction site, recognizing a hazardous situation before it begins keeps people safe.

Like all skills, some people are very good at predicting & preventing dangerous situations, and some people aren’t. Why is that?

When I’m working a special event where alcohol is being served, I’ll see hundreds of intoxicated people over the course of my shift. Only a very small fraction of those individuals will be any sort of problem, violent or otherwise, and yet I can often pick out the people that are going to cause trouble from those who aren’t.


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Size/Strength vs Technique vs Spirit in the Martial Arts

Mixed Martial Arts fight between Fedor Emelianenko and Hong Man Choi

Have you ever gotten frustrated at being unable to apply a joint lock, do a throw, or get good shots in when sparring against someone much bigger or stronger than you? You’re not alone. Many people come to train in the martial arts because they’re looking for something that will help level the playing field for them if they should ever have to raise their hands to defend themselves physically. But after they’ve been training for a while, they still find themselves struggling to do the same techniques that bigger, stronger people seem able to apply more easily. They become disillusioned and often quit because they don’t realize what it takes for smaller people to be successful in the martial arts. (more…)

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4 Key Principles for Defending Against Larger Sized Attackers

Being a smaller woman, I’ve had to practice my Jiu-jitsu/self-defense techniques with a different mindset throughout my martial arts career of nearly 20 years. I’ve had to learn to compensate for my inherent physical disadvantages while making the most of my advantages. When it comes to self-defense though, I’ve identified 4 key principles  that help provide the greatest efficiency when defending against larger sized attackers with greater strength when unarmed. (more…)

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Women’s Self-Defense: Dealing with Assaults from People You Know

It is said that 3/4 of assaults on women are performed by people they knew prior to the incident. This is something I tell participants in my women’s self-defense classes. The scenario of an anonymous, malicious attacker coming at them from an alley or other remote location that women fear most is actually rare in comparison. This is a very important fact to address and should affect the way people teach self-defense for women.

More Common Assault Scenarios

So if the men are usually people that the women already know, what are the scenarios? Firstly, assault doesn’t necessarily mean an attack. An assault can be unwanted touching, like a sexual harassment situation at a night club, party or even at a workplace or at school. On the other hand, it could be more than that. Most rape situations that occur are date rapes. Another consideration is domestic violence involving a husband, boyfriend, father or brother, which is actually a very different type of situation, the scope of which I can’t really cover in this particular post. So what does this mean when it comes to teaching women’s self-defense?

First Line of Defense: Awareness

Awareness is the first line of defense. When it comes to dealing with people previously known by a woman, this can mean different things. It may mean recognizing potential miscreant behaviour in an individual like a man openly eyeing women, making demeaning comments, being very drunk or high, etc. Once a woman is aware of such behaviour, she can avoid situations in which she might come into contact with him or be alone with him, or she could report his behaviour to a bouncer, supervisor, teacher, etc. It could also mean being aware of the actions of people around you, like if a man she knows appears to be following her as she leaves a party, walks home from school, to her car after work, etc.

And even if no “warning signs” are going off, a woman should still take precautions with men she is less familiar with. A woman should not go into man’s home alone when she doesn’t know him very well. She should make sure that people know where she is when she is going on a date, what time she should be home, where she can be reached, etc. And every woman should carry a cell phone. These are just a few precautions.

Second Line of Defense: Boundaries

Once a potential threat has been identified, and a woman is unable to avoid being in contact with the man, she should set boundaries to prevent assault. If possible, the woman should keep physical distance between her and the man. If he is approaching her in a way that makes her fell threatened, she should stand in an interview stance (strong leg back, hands up, palms facing him). If he makes overt advances on her in a way that makes her uncomfortable (verbally or physically), she should tell him to back off in an assertive, non-aggressive tone. If the man persists in his advances, she should increase the strength of her tone as necessary.

Third Line of Defense: Combat

If the threat develops into an assault, the woman may escalate to physical combat as a defense. Now if it is a social situation and the assault is fairly minor (i.e. unwanted touching) and using words and an assertive tone have done nothing, a woman might choose to use a less violent combat method (i.e. sharp kick to the shin, stamping on a foot, etc). I also teach women to combine this with words to gather witnesses, yelling “No!”, “Stop!” or “Let me go!” This will usually be enough in a social situation in which other people are around.

If it is a more serious assault situation, like rape or a violent attack from a man, it makes no difference whether they know the person or not. She may use as much force as is necessarily to nullify the situation. As a woman, of course, she is justified in using more force than the attacker is using on her to make up for her lack of size or strength as compared to her attacker.

And Remember…

Awareness and boundary-setting are the most important skills for women to learn. They are the ones that help women keep out of trouble in the first place. Combat is nice to know and helps with confidence, but ultimately the other two skills are the ones that will be used most often.

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Reacting to Aggression: How to Avoid and De-Escalate Conflict

In light of the Vancouver-area women’s self defense class I’m running this weekend, I was thinking about the different reactions to aggression in day-to-day life and how the vast majority of physical fights can be prevented with assertive conflict avoidance and de-escalation strategies.

There are 3 main ways people react to conflict. The first two I’ll discuss below are the ones most people use. They are the reactions people have when they give in to their conditioned fear-based adrenal responses in the face of aggression. The third type of response is self-aware, allowing a person to keep their head and stay in control of the situation.

1. Passive Response:
This is when a person under-reacts to aggressive behaviour. The person avoids eye contact, turns the shoulders away and/or hunches over. In a woman’s case they might allow aggressor to get close and make physical advances. Verbally, the person would be saying ‘No’ to the advances or saying that they don’t want any trouble, but they do so without confidence or in an unconvincing manner. When you take on a “scared rabbit” victim-like demeanour, it confirms to the aggressor that you’re an easy victim and can bring on further physical aggression and assault.

2. Aggressive Response: This is when a person over-reacts to a situation. They display a defiant attitude. The non-verbal communication that is usually displayed is hands on hips and/or puffed chest, firmly set jaw and direct, menacing eye contact. The person might also point their finger at the aggressor in a menacing fashion. Verbally, the person would talk back to them defiantly, oftentimes swearing. Basically, the person puts on a show that they’re unwilling to back down, which fuels the fire to the point where aggressor loses face and has no choice in his or her mind but to escalate things with a violent response.

3. Assertive mode:
Responding assertively means assessing a situation and responding appropriately. Every aspect of the person’s response exudes non-threatening assertiveness. They stand in what we call the “interview stance,” both knees bent with the strong leg back and the hands up with palms open for protection in a way that looks non-threatening. The person has confident body language, which includes a straight back and firm but non-menacing eye contact and tone of voice. The person keeps a safe distance while talking. The verbal response is also assertive. A woman might say to a man’s unwanted advances, “Look I’ve already told you once that I’m not interested. Go away now!” Here is an example of what a man could say to an aggressor who is accusing him of hitting on his girlfriend: “Stay back now. We can talk things over just fine from there. I was just asking her where the washroom was. I didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s just all go back to having a good night, ok?” When it comes to verbal responses, a person should modify their intensity appropriately until the person backs off, whatever the situation.

Physical defense should only be used as a last resort when avoidance and de-escalation tactics have failed. By being assertive, not passive or aggressive, you can usually keep yourself physical fights.

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The Practicalities of Conflict Avoidance

In modern society, people who stand up for themselves and for the rights of others are often seen as heroes, as champions of justice. There are, however, a potential costs to this form of heroism.

One of my students recently told me how a friend of his complained to a group of people loudly talking and swearing at the back of a bus. He pointed out that their swearing was disruptive and that there were children on the bus. Several stops later, the man and his girlfriend got off and the group followed them and attacked. The women held the girl back while the men beat him down until he lay bloodied and unconscious.

Last week, an LA moviegoer who was watching a screening of ‘Shutter Island’ spoke up against someone who was talking on his cell phone in the theatre during the movie. A dispute ensued and the man who had spoken up had a meat thermometer plunged into his neck for his efforts. Read the complete story.

Does this mean that we should all just let things go for the sake of avoiding conflict? More often than not, the answer is yes. While the meat thermometer attack is a response you’re unlikely to encounter, in a public place to boot, there are a lot of other potential risks to consider. When you’re dealing with a complete stranger, you don’t know whether or not they have friends willing to jump in, whether they’re carrying a weapon, whether they’re drunk or high, or what they’re capable of in a state of anger. And what do you risk if the conflict ends in a fight? Disfigurement, serious injuries, physical disabilities, brain damage, paralysis. You risk losing the ability to do the things you love and take care of the people you love. It’s not worth it to get directly involved over the little things.

If you find yourself tempted to engage someone in a conflict, stop and calmly think it through. You’ll find that it’s probably not worth it. This isn’t cowardice; it’s simply having the confidence and mental fortitude to know what your priorities are.

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5 Rules of Street-Oriented Ground Defense

I was recently asked what my general rules that I apply to all ground defense (for street application as opposed to sport). It’s pretty straight forward. I’ve laid them out in this post.

Rule #1: Protect your head and neck. If an attacker is trying to immobilize their victim and eliminate their defensive capabilities, the most dangerous targets are the head and neck. While defending from the ground, the forearms should be kept up close to the head (when possible) to protect it and the chin should be tucked with the shoulders raised to prevent strangulation.

Rule #2: Keep your elbows and knees tucked close. On the ground, an attacker will try to immobilize your limbs to keep you from fighting back. When your arms are straight and spread out away from your body, they are easier to control. If your attacker knows joint lock submissions, they will more easily be able to apply them too. Keeping your elbows tucked close to your body prevents this and also allows you to use them to protect your head and neck. Keeping your knees bent allows you to kick out and hides your kicking reach.

Rule #3: Create and use space. When defending from the ground, the more space you have the better. This is particularly important when your attacker has the size/strength advantage. Space opens up more defensive options. Use whatever attacks to vulnerable targets you can, in combination with whatever body shifting you can manage to create more space. Then use the extra space to apply more powerful defenses. Another good use of space is to try and ward off an attacker with kicks and takedowns from the ground before they get on top of you.

Rule #4: Watch out for other hazards.
The ground can present a number of hazards that you need to watch out for as you defend yourself. The attacker may produce and use a concealed weapon. If you see them reach back for something, assume it is a weapon and take the necessary measures to defend yourself. You also have to watch out for environmental hazards like glass or other debris/obstacles on the ground that could cause you harm.

Rule 5: Get off the ground! The ground is a dangerous place to be (See my article on the dangers of ground defense). You greatly increase your ability to protect yourself and escape by getting off the ground as soon as you have the opportunity to safely do so. As such, all defenses should end with the student getting back to their feet.

For more information about practical, street-oriented ground defense, check out Lori O’Connell Sensei’s book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground.

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Can-Ryu Ground Defense Concepts Applied

In the past few weeks, I discussed the updated ground defense system that I developed for my style, Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu. In my post “Fundamentals of Can-Ryu Ground Defense,” I explained how we use a combination of attacks to vital targets and body shifting manoeuvres. The body shifting was demonstrated in more detail, complete with video in my post, “Body Shifting from the Underside of a Ground Attack.” Since then I’ve had a number of readers request that I demonstrate applications in more detail through video.

In the video below, I demonstrate a few different applications of Can-ryu ground defense concepts. These applications are really only the barest surface scratch of the myriad ways our ground defense concepts can be applied. I perform them at an instructive speed with a compliant partner so you can better see what I’m doing, but in practice it can be applied more dynamically and at greater speeds with no prior knowledge of how the attacks will shift and change. For more video footage and advice on ground defense, check out my new book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground. Enjoy!

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Body Shifting from the Underside of a Ground Attack

There are 3 types of body shifting I emphasize as part of the overall strategies I teach for defending from the underside of a ground attack. These, in combination with attacks to your attacker’s vital targets, are designed to be used by anyone regardless of size. They are adaptable and can be used interchangeably depending on the way the nature of the attack changes throughout its course. These body shifting methods include: bridging & rolling, shrimping and turtling.

When first introducing these movements to students, I like to have them do it dry, without an attacker (as in the video below), so they can learn the movements. They can also be incorporated into the warm-up for any ground defense or ground grappling class. They get the blood pumping, they strengthen core muscle groups, and it helps them improve their technique. These and other useful ground strength/technique drills can also be found in my new book, When the Fight Goes to the Ground: Jiu-jitsu Strategies & Tactics for Self-Defense.

In my next posts, I’ll show how these are applied.

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The Power of Intention in Self-Defense

I was recently chatting with a Shorinji Kan friend of mine in Toronto who is preparing to test for brown belt in his style. He was saying that he felt that he was ready for the physical rigors of the test but was somewhat worried about the mental pressure and intensity he was anticipating from his ukes (attackers) during the test. I replied, “It’s all about intention.”

If your intention to defend yourself is stronger than your attacker’s intention to see his or her attack through, more than likely, you will prevail. My favourite analogy to explain this is that of the alley cat vs. the doberman.

A doberman is a big dog that could easily rip a cat to shreds in terms of a physical contest. But have you ever seen an alley cat fight? In comics or cartoons, an alley cat fighting is usually portrayed as a whirling mass with sharp claws sticking out violently. This is a pretty accurate depiction. An alley cat also hisses and squeals an awful high-pitched noise while it fights. So sure, the doberman could make short work of the cat, if it wanted to. But the doberman isn’t stupid. It realizes that if it did go in for the kill, it would take many scratches in the process. It could lose an eye or it could take one on the nose, damaging its sense of smell that it relies on for survival. Seeing the risk, the doberman shies away, because it simply isn’t worth it.

Another good analogy is the human vs. the wasp. Many people when encountering a wasp will uselessly flail their arms and run away to avoid a wasp. But why? Humans are massive compared to a wasp. Even if it did try to sting us, we could destroy it with one swift smack of our hand. As with the previous analogy, it simply isn’t worth being stung. So we choose to run away in a comical fashion.

So let’s apply this to our mentality when defending ourselves.

When I teach women’s self-defense classes, I tell the students, it’s not about being stronger than your attacker – that’s not likely to be the case. It’s about being an unappealing target. This starts before an attacker even makes a move. For example, I tell women that if they’re taking money out of an ATM and they feel like they’re being watched and sized up as a target, immediate hit cancel then yell and swear, maybe even kick something saying, “I TOLD HIM TO PUT MONEY IN OUR ACCOUNT! THAT &@#$* IDIOT!!!” This accomplishes 2 things at once. It communicates that the woman has no money to be stolen, plus it shows that she’s no pushover and might fight back or yell enough to bring attention to the situation if he makes a move on her. The woman has successfully made her potential intention stronger than that of her attacker’s.

But then if an assailant decides that the woman is worth attacking in a different kind of context (it certainly isn’t worth taking any risk just for money or material possessions) the woman has to become an alley cat. I teach women to yell loudly and aggressively, using words that communicate that she is in trouble, like “STOP!” or “NO! LET ME GO!”, while combining it with strikes to vulnerable targets.

This plays on the psychology of the attacker. Most attackers who physically prey on women are not looking for a challenge. They look for easy victims that reinforce the perception they are trying to create that they themselves are stronger and more powerful. They also don’t want to get caught. This naturally limits the risk he is willing to take and the defending force he is willing to face in the assault.

A woman can make further increase her intention by raising the stakes in her own mind. She can do this by thinking about the situation like she is not simply defending herself. She can imagine that the man will attack and rape her daughter, mother, sister, anyone she cares deeply about, when he is done with her. Alternatively, she could imagine that this man will take away her ability to do the one thing she loves most in life. If she is an athlete, he could paralyze her. If she is a writer or another kind of academic, he could cause her brain damage. By thinking in these terms, women can increase their intention to fight back to a degree they couldn’t normally summon up in their day-to-day lives. And when a woman fights back with that much intention, you better believe that the attacker would think twice.

Now to bring this into a grading context like my friend is anticipating.

Your ukes who will attack you during your grading will definitely be putting pressure on you as that is what they have been commanded to do to test your skills and intensity. When you’re facing intense circles or V’s or multiple attacker situations, make your intention stronger with a loud kiai. It may not psychologically affect your attackers in your particular situation because they’ll all be fairly experienced martial artists that are used to hearing kiais (though it does have a greater affect on students from the lower ranks). A kiai does, however, put more intention into your weakeners, the strikes you use to soften up your ukes, so you can take them down. When they feel a solid weakener, they’ll loosen up because they know if they don’t, they’ll get it twice as hard the next time. As a result, your intention to defend becomes stronger than theirs to attack you.

Good luck to all the Shorinji Kan-ers who are up for gradings this and next month!

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