The Mental Skills of Self-Protection

One aspect of training that is often lacking in the realm of martial arts is mental skills.  This involves learning situational awareness, developing a winning mindset, target hardening, understanding the fear response and how it affects the human animal mentally and physiologically, understanding intuition and how to inform it, understanding pre-incident indicators to violence, reading facial expressions and body language, confrontational management OTHER than fighting, etc.  A lot of people mistakenly think that self-protection is all about kicking butt–especially the un-initiated who have never trained before.  Sadly, much of the time, those who run the local dojos don’t pay much lip service to the mental game, or what I like to think of as “walkin’ around sense.”  It is our opinion, and the opinion of many experts we respect, that it’s best NOT to have to fight, and to avoid violent confrontation if at all possible.  Fighting is what happens when all other self-defense measures have failed, including running (i.e. flight) from an adversary.  Probably 95 percent of self-protection is mental.

Maybe many instructors assume people already have the mental game down—the people had enough sense to seek out training in the first place, right?  I find this is not necessarily the case.  It is also possible that the instructors are not well-informed themselves—it’s hard to teach what you don’t know!  We have periodically talked to people who have had years of martial arts training in one or more styles, and find that when do address aspects of mental defense, they have an “aha” moment.  They say things like, “Wow, I never really thought about that at all.”  Sometimes we’ll say, “Well, this defense against. . .(fill in the blank) is great, but how did you get there in the first place?  How did this guy get this close to you to put this on you?”  Sometimes the simple things seem so obvious, but they really aren’t to a lot of people, and it is a terrible disservice to many individuals who truly believe they are getting what they need to survive an encounter and to protect their loved ones. 

I had some interesting experiences when I was young that helped me begin the process of target hardening long before I even knew what it was.  First of all, my mother had fairly keen intuition.  She knew a thing or two about violence, and told me stories of her childhood (and adulthood) that I took very seriously and internalized.  I believe they fed my own intuition which, Gavin de Becker says, must be educated to serve us well.  I think this can be accomplished through direct personal experience, and through indirect sources, like the people we know or read about.  A disproportionate amount of the population is conditioned out of using intuition, and de Becker says that we are the only species that dismisses the information it provides.  This sixth sense is, in essence, our subconscious mind picking up on anomalies, or breaks in the pattern of our environment.  The subconscious can alert our conscious mind in many ways, including a sense of foreboding, goosebumps, a feeling, a persistent thought, and a myriad of other signals that tell us that something is amiss.  This reminds me of something I encountered with my mother when I was in grade school.  I was completing work on a science project at a local state park, it was early evening, and we were packing up for the day.  The park was empty, but we noticed as we made our way back to the truck that someone was watching us.  We kept vigilant as we walked across the parking lot, and a guy in an old, run-down car started circling the parking lot, almost like wolves in the wild circle around their prey.  We both had that sense of foreboding, the hairs on our arms and neck stood up and my mother looked at me and said, “We have to run.”  This was obviously not the response this guy was expecting, and we startled him as we sprinted to our vehicle.  He quickly changed direction, hit the gas, and his tires squealed as he sped out of the parking lot.  I guess we broke into his decision loop, and this is a good example of threat assessment and confrontational management that does not involve fighting at all!  We informed a park ranger, and he drove off quickly to investigate.  What his success was, I will never know, but I believe to this day that we both won what could have been a very ugly encounter had we been less aware and turned off our intuition.

As a young teenager, I also had the privilege of training with a progressive instructor in Tae Kwon Do.  Every month we had “street night”, when we dressed in our street clothes and discussed situational awareness and improvised weapons.  I wonder how many other schools do this sort of thing.  Mr. Story certainly gave us all plenty to chew on in our young, impressionable minds, and I am certain that it shaped me in a very good way for the future.  I have always been keen on avoiding bad situations, and extremely cautious in what I consider high-risk areas.  My college studies and jobs took me to high-risk areas frequently, day and night, but I can happily say that I never became a statistic in all those years.

You know, we have read some great books on self-protection.  One of my favorites is still Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear.  It is all about intuition, and the pre-cursors to violence.  I also like Erin Weed’s book, Girls Fight Back—it is especially great for educating young women, and I think of it is a practical companion book to the Gift of Fear.  Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence is a great read on human behavior.  The great Geoff Thompson, who lives on the other side of the pond, has a great book called Dead or Alive, and I really like Al Peasland’s Fence Concepts.  Those guys in the UK are really good about addressing the mental aspects of self-protection.  While you read, keep in mind that though many aspects of human behavior are universal, there are subtle cultural differences between Great Britain and the states; situational awareness is highly contextual.  In other words, you approach self-protection differently wherever you go, from the moment you step out of your house, to traveling into the city, to traveling to other cities and beyond the borders of your state and country.  One good example of this is the presence of firearms—this little equalizer changes the nature of the game quite a bit, and how you might approach certain volatile situations.  Other countries restrict the use of firearms more, or prohibit them altogether.  Attack Proof, by John Perkins, is a very interesting book on personal protection.  I love Bruce Siddle’s book entitled Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge.  This text gives you the scientific scoop on survival stress and how it affects our performance in combat situations.  It is geared more towards the law enforcement and military communities, but it has merit for anyone interested in self-protection because no matter how you slice it, a lethal encounter on the street is a combat situation.  I also learned a lot about survival stress from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  I took this blurb from that describes Grossman: “A former army Ranger, paratrooper, West Point Professor of Military Science and author of the classic book, ON KILLING, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman is currently the Director of the Killology Research Group and one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of human aggression and the psychology of combat.”  His CD set, The Bulletproof Mind, is absolutely outstanding, and I had the special privilege of seeing this amazing man speak to a group of LEO’s a few years back.  It had a huge impact on me!  I am currently reviewing Kelly McCann’s new release: Combatives for Street Survival.  His videos and writing are always practical, and he has tremendous insight into inter-personal human aggression, as well.  Great scenarios in that book.  It may sound a bit odd for civilians, or anyone outside of the bodyguard profession, but I even recommend reading up on surveillance counter-measures.  You would be surprised at how often the most ordinary people among us are targeted and stalked—it doesn’t just happen to celebrities or the very rich.

I have to mention one other great instructor who focuses a lot on winning mindset: Brian Willis.  Brian is a speaker, writer, trainer, and retired Canadian LEO.  His work is mostly geared towards law enforcement, but is equally valuable for the civilian community.  I read his Excellence In Training Weblog, and receive his Winning Mind newsletters.  They are so well-written and informative, and POSITIVE.  Links to both sites are in our blogroll.

In addition to all of the aforementioned, I read magazines and other blogs, most of which I try to share with you on this blog.  I learn so much from talking to people, too.  All of this informs what I do and shapes my perspective.  Not everyone would go about this subject with the same fervor, but I would say that self-protection takes education and training, and it becomes a way of life.  I have a lot to accomplish, and I want to preserve my life to see that through; it is a relatively small investment of time and effort when I put it in those terms.  In any case, I hope you’ll catch up on a little reading and construct a mental defense to complement your physical skills: fortify your mind and body!



  1. Excellent stuff. I train in Krav Maga here in Edinburgh and the instructors are good at grounding what we do in the practicalities of everyday life and awareness or your surroundings.

    Ego is a big thing. Even if you train never be afraid simply to run away.

    • Krav is excellent, and we (the instructors) are about to delve more into it ourselves. I agree with what you say about ego, and certainly if I have an opportunity to disengage and run, I will. I recall a story a few months ago–an incident was caught on a security camera. A guy threatens this woman and starts to pull out a firearm. While he’s in the process of drawing the weapon, she bolts and disappears. He’s left standing in disbelief. Very effective and a lot less messy for her!

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