7 tips for avoiding & preventing physical attacks
Self-defense isn’t a competition; it’s a predator-prey paradigm. Predators pursue easy targets (the weak, vulnerable, and distracted). To avoid and prevent attacks, make yourself a hard target by taking the following precautions:
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Keep your head up and make a conscious effort to be observant, even hypervigilant. Note anything suspicious, such as people who aren’t acting in tune with the vibe and flow of others, unattended backpacks or bags, or someone wearing a coat or jacket when everyone else is wearing T-shirts and shorts.
- Count hats. When moving through a crowd, casually observe who’s wearing hats. This tactic keeps you walking tall and confidently and helps you make brief, casual eye contact with everyone around you. It shows any would-be attacker that you’re not distracted and that you can probably identify them. That alone can discourage an assailant.
- Avoid places of ambush. When you’re out walking, avoid places where attackers can conceal themselves to launch a surprise attack — between parked cars, in doorways, in alleys, around corners. When passing these areas, give yourself a wide berth; for example, when passing an alley, take a path closer to the street, away from buildings.
- Find strength in numbers. Violent criminals target people who are alone and in places where their crime isn’t likely to be noticed or recorded on video, which means two things:
- You’re safer in a public area with lots of people around.
- You’re safer when accompanied by a friend or companion.
- Beware of the dodge. A dodge is any deception an attacker uses to distract you or cause you to let down your guard. They may ask for directions, a smoke, spare change, the time, or your help — anything to occupy your hands and break your focus. They may also appear to be vulnerable, looking for a lost child or pet. Give a curt answer, if any, keep moving away from them, and call 911.
- Trust your gut. If something (or someone) feels wrong, it probably is. You’re more perceptive and intuitive than you think, but you may try to dismiss these feelings as signs of paranoia. That tingling sensation is your natural early warning system at work. If you think someone is following you on foot or in your car, you can try to smoke them out by abruptly changing direction.
- Never trust a stranger. Violent criminals prey on your trust and good nature. They’ll tell you anything to get you to comply. Keep in mind that there’s no problem the police can’t solve. If you need help, call 911. If someone approaches you needing help, call 911 for them as you move on.
Ending a fight before it starts
In the martial arts, self-defense training involves waiting for your opponent to attack and then countering their moves, which develops two bad habits:
- Waiting for the attacker to strike first: That first strike could be the last.
- Assuming the attacker will strike: In the real world, you don’t know for sure.
Here’s an easy step-by-step approach to determine the assailant’s intentions safely and beat them to the punch:
- Take the position of advantage. Stay far enough away from the assailant so they need to take a step to touch you, and line up on their point of entry (their weakest point of balance). Imagine a line connecting their feet crossed by a perpendicular line in the middle. Where the lines cross is your point of entry.
Assume the interview stance. Put your strong foot forward (the foot you normally step forward with from a standing position), and point the big toe of that foot at the point of entry. Distribute your weight 80 percent on your lead foot and 20 percent on the ball of the back foot, like a sprinter.
You can have your hands in three basic positions: hands up about chest level, palms facing out; arms folded loosely across your chest, lead arm on top; or hands crossed below your waist, lead hand on top. Keep your hands one level higher than the attacker’s. Never assume a fighting position (don’t “put up your dukes”) because that could be perceived as a threat and it shows that you’re prepared to fight.
- Be prepared to strike in response to the slightest movement toward you. Make it clear in words and body language that you’re not interested in fighting as you maintain your position of advantage in the interview stance. Your foot position and weight distribution are important for three reasons:
- They enable you to step into your attack to deliver your initial strike quickly.
- They enable you to put your bodyweight into your opening strike to deliver it with maximum force.
- They enable you to strike without warning. If the assailant even flinches toward you, follow the next step.
- Drop step forward toward the attacker’s point of entry and strike. You can strike with an edge-of-hand blow to the face or head, drive an elbow into them, flick your fingers out into their eyes like a dart, or kick their lower legs (knee or below). One effective opening is to drive forward with your chin tucked and face behind your elbow for cover while delivering axe-hands to the face or head.
- Shift into forward drive. Continue your attack, knees high, stomping with every step, and hacking away with axe hands to the face, head, and other targets. Stepping with knees high and stomping down enables you to maintain your balance on uneven terrain while providing opportunities to knee the assailant in the groin and elsewhere and stomp their feet, possibly crushing their arch (instep). Don’t stop until the assailant is incapacitated or you can escape safely.
Using the four pillars of self-defense to your advantage
In martial-arts-based self-defense systems, you respond to what the attacker does with a counter-maneuver, such as a blocking, holding, or throwing technique. That approach isn’t practical or effective for self-defense.
It requires a great deal of training, dexterity, and time-consuming and complex calculations. You’re having to think, “Okay, the attacker is doing this, so I need to counter with this move.” By the time you figure out what to do, you could be lying unconscious on the ground.
A much simpler and more effective approach is to break down every attack according to the four pillars of self-defense:
- Position: Where you and the attacker are in relation to one another. At its most basic level — you’re both standing, you’re both on the ground, or one of you is standing and the other is on the ground.
- Distance: How far you and the attacker are from one another — far range (outside each other’s reach), close range (inside each other’s reach), or extreme close range (in physical contact with one another).
- Momentum: How forcefully and in what directions you and the attacker are moving. You can use momentum to your advantage in three ways:
- Increase the momentum of your attack toward the assailant to deliver more powerful and devastating blows.
- Make the assailant miss, so their momentum throws off their balance and they waste energy.
- Strike the assailant as they move toward you to multiply the force of your strike.
- Balance: How stable you and the attacker are on your feet. Balance is required to deliver powerful, accurate strikes and, if you’re using a firearm, to shoot straight. Your goal is to maintain your balance while keeping the attacker off balance, which takes both the force and accuracy out of anything they try to do to you.
The type of attack doesn’t matter — a punch, a body grab, a stab, or even a firearm. The fighting tactics or techniques the attacker uses don’t matter. The only factors you need to consider when you’re in a physical battle with an attacker are position, distance, momentum, and balance.
Focus on improving your position, maintaining your balance while keeping the attacker off balance, and driving forward into the attacker while delivering devastating blows.
Ranking self-defense tactics
All the options you have for defending yourself can be ranked based on effectiveness and efficiency (the amount of strength, effort, expertise, and physical contact with the attacker they require).
As you choose the means for defending yourself, consult the following use-of-force hierarchy, which ranks your options from most to least effective and efficient:
- Projectile weapons: Any weapon that can injure an attacker from a distance — firearm, bow and arrow, slingshot (or just throwing a rock)
- Nonlethal weapons: Any weapon that slows, distracts, or temporarily disables the attacker without causing physical injury, such as personal alarms and pepper spray
- Impact weapons: Any weapon that causes blunt-force trauma and improves your ability to knock out the assailant (for example, a black jack, lead pipe, axe handle, hammer, brass knuckles, sap gloves, or fist packs).
- Edged weapons: Anything with a sharp edge or a point — from daggers and hatchets to ice picks. (By the way, throwing a knife is a waste of a good weapon. Never throw a knife unless you need a free hand to draw a gun.)
- Striking (hand-to-hand combat): Striking the assailant with empty hands — edge of hand (hand open), heel of hand (meaty part at the base of the palm), or hammer fists (hands balled up in a fist but using them to strike the assailant with the bottom of the hand, near the pinky). (Avoid throwing a traditional closed-fist punch; doing so can seriously injure your hand.)
- Gouging, biting, ripping: Gouging the eyes, biting the attacker, and ripping the flesh (for example, the nose or mouth or an ear) are the most primal means of inflicting pain and injury, and they’re highly effective.
- Grappling: Wrestling, judo, jiujitsu, aikido, and other martial arts that involve close contact and rely on grabbing, holding, tripping, and throwing an opponent are at the bottom of the list for good reasons: they require the most skill, power, strength, and leverage; they increase your exposure to risk; and they’re unnecessary.
Consult your local law enforcement agencies or other reliable sources of information for rules and regulations that apply to owning, carrying, and using any weapon.
The three levels of self-defense
Your response in a self-defense scenario can be broken down into three stages: First, you want to avoid an attack. If that doesn’t work, you want to escape. And if you can’t escape, you have no other option but to overwhelm the assailant or let them do to you whatever twisted notion they have in mind.
I structure my approach to those three stages according to the following three levels of self-defense:
- Awareness and avoidance: Being vigilant, avoiding places of ambush, managing your personal space, making wise decisions, carrying yourself with confidence, identifying potential setups, and hanging out with people who don’t increase your exposure to risk are all ways to protect your safety and discourage would-be attackers.
- Escape and evasion: Run away, using objects and your environment, if necessary, to evade the attacker. Dodge behind parked cars, around utility poles, around furniture; throw a chair in their path; do anything to increase the distance between you and the attacker until you can safely escape or launch a counterattack.
- Control and domination: Control and domination is, by far, the hardest level of self-defense. Outside the use of a weapon, imposing your will over another human being requires skill, power, and fitness, all of which translate to more time in training. The good news is that you rarely need to knock out an adversary or throw them to the ground to defend yourself. A brutal counterattack is often enough to foil their attempt to control and dominate you.