The Most Important Rule for Self-Defense


This post was inspired by Mike’s post at D&P.  To read his article click the link here.

What if I told you there was one technique that was infinitely more important than any other technique for self-defense?  In fact, it’s SO important that if you don’t learn this technique, then every other technique you ever learn is essentially worthless.

Can you guess what’s the super secret?

Situational Awareness

Not even the deadliest ninja secret passed down by Tibetan monks for centuries (yes, that’s a LOT of hyperbole) will help you from some thug who wants to play the Knockout game if you don’t even know he’s behind you.

There’s nothing really special to situational awareness.  It’s just being in the present and not off in la-la land.  Unfortunately, we are prone to getting so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we shut out the outside world.

This is dangerous!

Many assaults could be avoided if the victims were more aware of what was going on around them and not put themselves in dangerous situations.  Thugs and criminals are looking for easy targets.  What easier target is there than someone who is so clueless that you can walk right up behind them?

The SAS Method

The Special Air Service (a special forces unit of the British Army) classifies three levels of situational awareness, dependent on your location and the current situation.  While these are pretty general levels, I believe they are effective for getting people in the right mindset.

Level 1 – This is the lowest level of alertness and as such, should really only be employed in your house (your friend’s or a family member’s house is also acceptable).  At this level you are at complete ease and guard is dropped.

Level 2 – When you walk out of your house you should immediately switch to level two.  At this level you are alert to your surroundings.  This isn’t a high-energy level of arousal.  You are just taking everything in.  Your head is up, scanning your surroundings, occasionally looking behind you as well.  At level two you’re aware enough that you won’t be bumping into anything, tripping over curbs, or be taken by surprise by anyone.

Level 3 – Someone up ahead notices you walking down the street and nods to a couple of his friends.  You’re walking by yourself down the street at night at hear footsteps behind you getting closer at a rapid rate.  Your heartbeat quickens, you get tunnel vision, adrenaline starts pumping.  It’s fight or flight.  At level three there’s a clear and present threat that needs to be dealt with.  At this point you need to decide whether you have a clear escape route or if you will need to fight.

Arguably there could be a level 2.5, where you have that sixth sense “feeling” that makes your ears perk and the hair on the back of your neck stand up a bit.  This doesn’t put you into full on level 3 fight or flight mode, but it does make your hyper-vigilant until you can confirm there’s no threat.

Use your senses

Sight – Your primary sense for detecting potential threats.  Don’t stare at your feet as you walk or fiddle with your iPhone.  Walk with your head up scanning your immediate surroundings.  Look behind you occasionally.  Be sure to also look further ahead to ensure you are not inadvertently walking into a pit of vipers.  If you’re walking down the sidewalk with a lot of buildings around, it’s easy to sneak a peek at who’s behind you by looking at the reflection in the store windows without it looking obvious.

Sound – This is your secondary sense for when you’re out on the streets and why I recommend not having anything in your ears that will hamper your hearing.  Listen for anything that might cue an incoming threat.  Footsteps rapidly coming up behind you…is it an assailant or a jogger?  Were those gunshots or an old car backfiring?

Smell – The third sense for detecting danger.  Most people don’t think about using your sense of smell and while it won’t tell you that you’re about to be attacked like actually seeing a guy with a knife approach you or hearing a group of thugs yelling “get him!” it can let you know someone is nearby.  If you’re walking down a deserted street and all of a sudden you get a whiff of cologne or cigarette smoke, you know someone is in the area.  From there you can use your other senses to identify his location and assess whether or not he’s a threat.

Make it a game

What does that guy have in his pocket?

Judging from the sound of her footsteps, how far behind me is that lady?

Who’s wearing the Axe cologne?

Which car is blaring their music?

These are just examples.  The criteria can be anything.  The whole purpose is to get you in the habit of constantly observing your surroundings and not tuning out any of your senses.  Make it second nature to constantly observe everything around you.  This technique alone will protect you much better than any strike or block.

Finally, here’s a great video demonstrating situational awareness.  It’s a little hokey at times (Bad guys with bandannas?  How cliche) but it does provide some good info.


4 thoughts on “The Most Important Rule for Self-Defense

  1. Very nice advice. I worked in the Police for a year, and in self-defence this is prety much the first thing they teach you.
    Using the smell was never mentioned however, but it certainly makes sense, especially in abandonded areas.

    • Thanks Rob.

      There has been multiple times I have smelled cigarette smoke before I ever saw the person smoking it. The same goes for strong smelling colognes/perfumes. A thug might be able to hide out of sight and be silent, but if they’ve been using a bunch of Axe body spray, you’ll know it!

      I want to give myself as many advantages as possible. While your sense of smell will take a distant 3rd place for detecting a potential threat, it’s still an asset that can, and should, be utilized.

  2. This is a crucial article and everyone should take heed whether they study martial arts or not. You MUST be aware of your surroundings.

    It’s story time and it’s a doozy, so TL; DR: as a teen I got brutally beaten by a gang and it could have been prevented by some basic situational awareness and perhaps the conviction to trust one’s instincts. Hopefully the circumstances for my awakening to the importance of situational awareness can be of some benefit to those who have yet to experience for themselves the need for such awareness.

    I was sixteen and on Summer vacation in Snahomish, WA (visiting family). My brother and I were taking the shortcut to Blockbuster through a dirt road with a ditch off to the side. We approached a group of young men whom we could hear messing around in the ditch up ahead. We didn’t pay them any mind and kept walking.

    When they saw us passing, they yelled out to us and made movements to climb up the slope and greet us. If I had known then what I know now, I would have grabbed my brother and sprinted to safety. But alas, I was a sheltered and naive young man who thought that it was silly to flee such a friendly greeting from a gang of rough looking young men in a secluded setting. Oh boy.

    We hung around and greeted them (seemingly 10 or so 18-20 year olds), chatted for a bit while they bounced around and joked and recounted their gang activities for us in a lighthearted way (no biggie, just some good times they had jumping people here and there, gang brawls, party beat downs, car bombs… the usual stuff kids get into). My innocent self couldn’t imagine that they would have anything against us… after all we did nothing to harm them and we weren’t a rival gang or anything. In fact, they invited us to join them in a gang fight that they had planned for later that night (we politely declined).

    We were chatting in a sort of circle with some of them drifting on the outskirts when one of them evidently gave a verbal signal of some sort (which I was entirely unaware of, but my brother understood clearly enough… something like, “You wanna flip the script?” Then a pained look on another’s face, “Ehhmm, aight.”) The next thing I remember is being face down on the ground disoriented with blurred vision and not knowing what happened. As I tried to press myself up I didn’t feel any pain or awareness of anything going on around me except I noticed that my vision was sporadically being shaken and blurred (as they punched and kicked my head). Somehow, some instinct inside me told me what was happening… the only thing I was trying to do was get up and run with little sense of danger or anything else, I just felt compelled to stand and run.

    Again, I felt nothing at the time and could not comprehend or even see what was happening, but my body seemed to know and tried to flee on its own. I tried a “breakout” from the group that was surrounding me and quickly fell back to the ground; I fell again and again until I managed to worm my way out with steady enough feet to get a few yards away and break into a decent jog, at which point they stopped hitting me and fled.

    They did not “mug” me since they had no interest in stealing anything I had, they just wanted to have a bit of fun at my expense by indulging in some “ultra violence.”

    I was so unaware of my surroundings before the fact of the beating that my hands were actually in my pockets when I was knocked out. This left me with a huge gash from my eyebrow down to my lip as a I fell flat on my face from the ghost-punch that knocked me out cold (the gash did not leave a scar and thankfully there were no missing teeth), and it left me with some nasty wounds on my knees (which did scar) as I fell and repeatedly fell once I started to try and run after regaining consciousness.

    The fact that I lost consciousness and the fact of an intolerable pain in my head and a persistent mental “fog” for the next few days indicates that I had some sort of concussion and probably should have gone to the hospital afterwards. Heh, we actually continued on to Blockbuster where I checked myself out in the bathroom and left a wastebasket full of bloody paper towels. At that point, it was like I was wandering around in a dream world and still didn’t feel much pain or even fear, reality just seemed dull and blunted in some way and I just wanted to clean myself up and sleep it off.

    If you’re wondering about the year of this attack, I’ll tell you the new release that we rented at Blockbuster: Good Will Hunting.

    As far as I’m concerned, that was a lesson earned and well learned in situational awareness. My brother was actually aware of what was going on before the fact, and his heightened senses saved his ass. When it went down, one guy punched him on the side of his face and he easily rolled with the punch and broke into a run while the same guy chased him for a bit while swinging at him with a golf club (he was one of the more sinister looking of the bunch since he had missing teeth, wide eyes with wide pupils, a glowing smile, and apparently a “squishy” nose from all the drugs).

    My bro got out of it without much harm really. Oddly, I credit his readiness to his penchant for rap music, which no doubt alerted him to the very real existence of violent thugs and predators in human form (“Homo homini lupus” – “Man is a wolf to man,” somehow it’s more menacing in the original Latin). He knew how they walked, how they talked, and he could spot them for what they were the moment they yelled out to us. On the other hand, I had little to no functional knowledge of that kind of predatory behavior.

    I think the reason my bro didn’t grab me and tell me to run from the beginning was because he was a bit paralyzed by the fear and perhaps he rationalized that his instincts may have been wrong (we weren’t in a movie or rap video after all). This raises a point that is very much related to the necessity for situational awareness: my brother could have saved us both if he’d trusted his instincts.

    It was a painful lesson, but it has prepared me well. Some people, I guess, just need to get bit before seeing the vipers in their midst.

    There are many more details to the story that will both baffle and horrify you, but those parts are left for the asking and would be rather unbelievable to anyone who hasn’t been so viciously attacked within a hundred yards of where they’re staying. On this score, regrettably, I can say that one’s instinct to NOT get the cops involved for fear of reprisals may be well founded.

    • Wow, that’s one hell of a story. Glad to hear you and your brother both made it out without any serious injuries. That’s a really informative story as well; would make a good post actually. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to use this story as an article (credited to you, of course). Would also be interested to hear some of the stuff you left out (in private message) to see if any of it could benefit others in the case of an attack.

      Shoot me a private message and let’s talk.

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