The Point of Contact

One skill we do not usually train in the dojo is self-defense decision-making: When does an encounter become a conflict, and when does a conflict become a fight?

Discretion and Valor

Under some circumstances we want to avoid threat situations. Tactical trainer John Farnam describes basic self-defense this way: “Don’t go stupid places. Don’t hang out with stupid people. Don’t do stupid things.”

That’s good advice. It works. But sometimes stupid finds you, and sometimes duty calls.

Under other conditions we might want to evade threats, like if there’s a riot down the block, and it’s heading your way.

The time may come when we need to respond to immediate threats. We will take the initiative to protect our selves or others.

But navigating the gray areas – the areas of uncertainty, where threats are unknown and predators may be close – is a necessary skill for practical self-defense.

Street Experience

If you live in a place where street violence is a way of life then you learn tactical awareness and decision-making from an early age. You get experience in detecting threats and responding to them.  You pick up on signals. You gauge malicious intent by reading posture, gait, gaze, proximity, behavior, and more.

Threat detection, your tactical early warning system, is a survival skill.  No matter where you live you are not born with it: You learn it.

This is a two-edged sword.  Continual exposure to a hostile environment is not like training. When people live in fear they become suspicious, stressed and isolated.   A menacing manner and flat affect may not be signs of toughness. They may be signs of abuse.

As practitioners we look for real world models for training.  An atmosphere of hostility and toxic emotion is not a good model. Constant threat is as debilitating as constant self-indulgence.  Both make people weak and fearful.

Training makes you strong and confident. It provides us with a gradually increasing level of challenge calibrated to allow us to adapt and get stronger. Going step by step we can reach a high level of ability, while avoiding injury or other setbacks.

That which does not kill me… does what?

Friedrich Nietzsche, a smart, unhappy German philosopher said: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

We all experience hurt and difficulty. If we accept that, learn from it and recover from it, we can use it well and become stronger as a result.  Our progress in training and life depends on how we use success and failure; how we use cycles of stress and recovery.

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger” is not always true.  In our neighborhoods, and our life choices, sometimes “that which does not kill me” will debilitate me – physically, mentally or morally.

Training works when you go step-by-step, overlooking nothing.  Which is why dojos were created. Training works better than just heading out into a dangerous neighborhood – or battle, ocean, or life – to fend for yourself.

Your Tactical Early Warning System

There is more to self-defense than fighting skill. Threat detection, your tactical early warning system, is also a key survival skill.  You learn it, just as you learn your fighting skills.

Threat detection is not an essential skill for sport-oriented martial arts. In kumite opponents face off.   We get a start command.  If we have been training for a while we are using well-practiced, deeply engrained skills of perception and tactics. We may not be aware we are using them. But we are.

You can observe this in yourself and in others. The attack strategy we will use in a given kumite match may form in our minds in an instant, before the match begins. You will continually and rapidly update it as you interact. Most of us learn quickly that you cannot pre-plan a kumite attack and expect it to work.

When you are facing an opponent you will sense and assess each other’s relative skills, strengths and weaknesses, position, intention, focus and determination. If your opponent is telegraphing intent with posture or with visual cues like target-glancing or misdirecting, you can pick up on it and exploit it.  You will do that so quickly you will not even be aware of what you are reacting to, you just feel it and move.

Lots of skill and training and heart go into kumite.

But choosing when it starts is not up to you. That is pre-determined in the class or in the match.

In a live encounter that choice is a basic skill. It is a key tactical decision.

We do not usually train thatskill in the dojo because some of the people who devised our training either had sport and fitness goals, or, they were accustomed to street confrontations and never thought to build fight-threshold decision-making into dojo training. There was no need for it.

Observe Orient Decide Act

We know what to do once the fight has started. We learn it in kata, we train it in kumite. But where is the red line? Where is the threshold that tells us a combative response is required? How can you develop the skill to spot threats and recognize bluffing, posturing, testing or innocuous acts that pose no threat?

We know when something is not right.  In the wild there was a deep survival advantage in being able to quickly identify the intent of another person, especially of a stranger.

It still is.

Signals of Malice

Signals might be overt – threats, gestures, demands, a confrontational approach. If you are already under attack there may be no subtle decision-making skills required.

But what if someone up ahead on the street just ‘looks wrong?’ What if they are coming up behind you and it feels like something is up?  We size them up. They might be doing the same to us. Based on what?

Facial Recognition

Our faces show our emotions. Even if we try to conceal them we have microexpressions that flash across our faces revealing mood, and sometimes intent.

These microexpressions are fleeting – they may last less that a thirtieth of a second. But we can perceive them even faster than that, subconsciously, without realizing we saw them. So sometimes, when someone gives you the creeps, and you can’t quite put your finger on why, there could be real impressions you are responding to, not just “intuition.”

Those micro facial expressions are the same all over the world. They do not depend on language or culture. The facial expressions that show anger, contempt, happiness and fear – are nearly universal. Kind of like language before the tower of Babel.

You do not need to be close up to someone or even see their face to read their emotion. 95% of people can observe someone walking and, seeing only a single stride, sense that the person is angry. That is fast, and it is accurate.  Expressions, postures, gait, statements, behaviors and point of focus all can indicate emotion – even if people are trying to conceal it. In context those cues may also reveal threat.

If someone is speaking to you, testing you, challenging you, or conning you, there is a lot of information coming your way. If you stay aware and keep the initiative you can tell what they are up to, and you can also track how they are responding to you.

Behavior Distance Location Purpose

That is all good insight, but where is the threshold: when do you withdraw, avoid, or engage?  How do you make the decision? If you don’t make it, you are leaving it up to your assailant or to chance.

If you are hesitant, fearful or unsure – you give up the initiative. If you are jumpy you can escalate a situation that could have been nothing at all.

If we wait until tactical distance is closed – allowing a potential threat to come in close – we waited too long. We will end up reactive, behind the assailant’s decision curve.

There are infinite ‘real situations’ – from unwanted touching to a deadly force ambush – and everything in between. No two situations will be exactly the same and no two people will be identical either.

How To Train Tactical Awareness and Response

We train tactical combatives in traditional karate using various controlled methods to simulate aspects of real world contact.  That simulation works.  It is possible to train in tactical decision-making too. It is a good dimension to explore.

Adding Tactics to Your Skill Multiplies Effectiveness

It is possible to role play some tactical situations – like moving down a hallway, in stairs, or passing a doorway – and dealing with distance, timing, reading an opponent – learning to observe, orient, decide and act with skill. Dealing with attacks from unexpected directions and multiple attackers are other training options.  Many people are doing this and getting good results.

This experience will increase awareness and tactical skill. It will energize all the other components of martial arts training including kata, body conditioning, bunkai, and kumite. It will be useful training in the event that a real world application may arise.

The people who created our styles knew that training works better than just sending your people out into a dangerous world.

They did not include tactical decision-making in the curriculum because

1. some influential Okinawans in the generation teaching in the 1900’s were focused on sport and fitness training.

2. Several of their students, the generation of Okinawans teaching during the 1920’s, were visitors in other lands – Japan, Peru, and Hawaii for example – where they taught karate to non-Okinawans for the first time. They wanted to distinguish their Okinawan arts from some Chinese chuan fa styles that were well-known in East Asian ex-pat communities, including in South America and in the US.  Those Chinese arts were disseminated beginning in the anti-Manchu rebellion period in China, and were still in use in the 1920’s. Those arts were commando-oriented and associated with political subversion and criminal gangs. The Okinawan teachers wanted to make sure people knew they were teaching a self-defense oriented martial art.

3. Many of our lineage ancestors were living in turbulent times and places when they were, for better or worse, honing their awareness and response skills in the real world around them, every day.

We all have different life circumstances. So we choose training methods that will give us what we need to prevail.


Post by Jeff Brooks, author of the influential book True Karate Dō, instructor, Yamabayashi Ryu, Mountain Karate, Saluda, NC

Photo: (London) Met Police video screen grab of choke hold during robbery. There are two people in that photo.

Post © 2018 Jeffrey Brooks, Mountain Karate LLC

Adapted from “The Good Fight – The Virtues and Value of the Martial Arts”

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