Hidden Fundamentals of Self-Defense

Confession time. I am a martial arts and self-defense instructor, and I get bored to death listening to the majority of martial artists talk about and demonstrate street self-defense.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t a self-defense instructor enjoy discussions and information sharing about the topic he teaches?

Well, it’s not due to an inflated ego, or because I don’t think I have anything to learn from others. In fact, it comes down to one main reason.

Martial artists tend to frame every self-defense problem solely in terms of technique, when such problems call for more than a standard technical answer. Self-defense is as much about psychology, quick-snap information gathering, and improvisation, probably more so, than it is about memorizing forms.

This is why I enjoy discussing self-defense with ex-bouncers and military personnel (better yet if they also happen to be martial artists) rather than people who strictly learned self-defense in a dojo or school. These individuals understand from experience the psychology of the encounter, and how important it is to surviving or thriving in one.

I was fortunate to have been taught by an instructor (Master Gary Rasanen, along with his Sensei, Grandmaster Reno Claudio and others in the Hoteikan System) who understood and spoke at length in class and in private about fundamentals of real self-defense situations apart from just the technique. Master Gary and Grandmaster Reno gained their experience both from the military and in the dojo, as well as life experiences growing up in working class New York City neighborhoods.

Learning under Master Gary and the instructors he introduced me to has been an enormous honor. Cross-training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has also bestowed on me another valuable perspective, as I am able to learn from BJJ legend and former MMA champion Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro and ex-Bellator MMA champion Marcos “Loro” Galvao, allowing me to see things from the angle of men who fought at the highest levels professionally.

But I also want to mention another person whose viewpoints were influential on me: my dad, who worked as a bouncer in some of the most popular bars and night clubs on Long Island in the 1980s and early 90s.

Despite each of the above individuals representing in some cases radically different backgrounds from one another, there is a common thread that I can detect from speaking with all of them about fights: the psychology of the combat encounter.

Master Gary instructed me on the importance of situational awareness in a street encounter.

When you bring up fights with Shaolin, he spends a great deal of time talking about the important of mental fortitude, preparation, and the ability to adapt to circumstances. This has great portability to the realm of street self-defense.

And in discussions I’ve had with my father regarding some of his stories from the bars and clubs he worked in, rarely center on fight action but the events leading up to the fight. In fact, searching out “Bouncer Stories” on Google or YouTube will yield you the same type of information. A good bouncer can defuse a bad situation just as easily as he can mop up a fiasco of fisticuffs, because he knows that letting it get to the point where a fight breaks out costs his employer patrons and money.

This is not to downplay the importance of techniques. It goes without saying, you have to learn them. Even something as simple as learning how to block and throw a punch can go a long way in helping you during an encounter.

But my problem with the average martial arts instructor on the topic of self-defense is the tendency to frame everything in the context of what I call play-by-play self-defense theory.

“Your opponent does THIS, and you do THAT. But if he does THAT, you do THIS. Then transition to THIS. And finish with THIS!”

Students pick up on this pattern of thought, and play along.

“But Sensei, I have a question? What if instead of THAT, he does THIS? Aren’t you screwed then?”

“No no, I actually like when he does THIS. Because, now watch my wrist here…watch it turn…you see that? Now here comes THIS!”

“Oooooh I see.”

“Great, now practice that! No no, turn the wrist, like THIS. See it’s all in the wrist turn…”

After 5 minutes of listening to this type of instruction, I’m ready to fall asleep. I’ve been at all types of different schools for seminars and classes, some great, some awful, and I have spoken at length on this topic with countless numbers of individuals in the martial arts world, and sadly, this above scenario is one that I’ve witnessed a million times in one form or another. It’s like the student is being prepared to win a video game match where combo memorization is key.

And all I can think of when it happens, is how this well-meaning martial artist is gonna get some poor guy or girl killed in a real fight. Not so much the experienced martial artist who has a level of technique that might overcome other weaknesses, but the novice, the average Joe who comes to class once per week, isn’t terribly athletic, and just wants a baseline of knowledge with which he or she can protect themselves and their family. (Which begs the question: is that a realistic expectation for good results? I’ll get into that)

The play-by-play self-defense theory creates a context of discussion that leads to ridiculous arguments like, “BRO, ARE YOU LEARNING SPORT JUDO OR STREET JUDO?” Or in the BJJ world – “BRO, IS SPORT JIU-JITSU MAKING HELIO GRACIE CRY IN THE AFTERLIFE?” We’re always so concerned with what the Founders might think. Haven’t Jigoro Kano and Helio Gracie earned a break?

I mean, do we honestly believe that a national level Judoka, say Nick Delpopolo or Hannah Martin, wouldn’t be able to throw someone in a street encounter? Come on. Whether you are training Judo techniques for sport or for self-defense recreation, the important thing is that you have a baseline of reliable moves with which to you can begin to approach the psychology of the fight.

We all know that a competitive Judoka can throw anyone they get their hands on. And we expect that the competently trained recreational Judoka, even below black or brown belt level, has one or two tokui waza (preferred technique) that they could use on almost anyone. Perfect. These techniques can be easily transferred to self-defense, and practiced within the context of live combat, but cannot reach full effectiveness without a proper understanding of fight psychology, or what I will call for the purposes of this post, “The Hidden Fundamentals” of self-defense.

These hidden fundamentals are not physically demonstrative. Some of them are intended to prevent a fight from ever happening. This approach could best be compared to how a military prepares before battle. It involves making some quick assessments while having a plan of action that is adaptable to any situation.

So here are some of the core hidden fundamentals of self-defense that I believe are key to protecting yourself and others.

1. Keep a Reasonably High Endurance Level

This seems obvious, but it’s a basic tenet of self-defense that even experienced martial artists ignore. Nothing diminishes physical, mental, and technique prowess quicker and more dramatically than poor endurance or “gassing out”. Even a poor martial artist can win a fight against a bigger individual by way of endurance.

Fights are draining in every way possible. They involve fear and anxiety, which leads to physical exhaustion, and high adrenaline which can result in an adrenaline dump, at which point your body will no longer want to cooperate. And it’s not just a factor of who is “in shape or not”. There are people who appear to be “fat” that have high cardio levels from years of training despite their poor diet or genetics, and there are buff people with beach bodies that gas out quicker than a Hummer H2. Excess muscle demands more oxygen. Intense, inefficient movements that look like nothing but squeezing and spazzing out, means that arms and legs will fill with blood and become like heavy dead-weights attached to a sinking ship. If that happens, and your opponent gets a second wind, you’re as good as dead. If they get on top of you, just hope that they will be kind and decide to let you up instead of attempting to hospitalize you.

Good endurance levels result from live training in the dojo: sparring in a striking class, “rolling” in BJJ, or randori in Judo class. It’s the best available simulation of a combat scenario in terms of endurance – doubly so if you compete. Competition grappling or striking will let you feel the nerves, anxiety, and fear, as well as the necessity for quick thinking and improvisation that factors into a street fight. These simulations are incredibly valuable in the pursuit of self-defense ability.

You can also improve endurance with supplemental training such as running, swimming, rock climbing, hiking, etc.

The best advice I have for improving endurance: improve your efficiency of movement. Know when to step on the gas and when to hit the break. Don’t squeeze to death on a submission hold that is low percentage or isn’t really there. Waste no time trying to escape from a bottom position. Don’t come in with wild throw entries off of poor setups. Efficiency and proper breathing will exponentially increase your endurance level beyond what it appears to be in the gym. Any time I’ve been complimented on my cardio and energy level, I quickly point out that it’s due to movement efficiency, and a willingness to continue working until practice is over, without breaks. That’s really all it comes down to. And it can save you in a fight, because most people have shitty cardio.

Like an army, you must be prepared to fight a prolonged battle if necessary. In a case where you are the smaller, less skilled person, that prolonged, endurance battle will benefit you much like a weaker, guerrilla army that outlasts a large attack force through sheer endurance.

2. Situational Awareness and Assessment of Threat Level

There are an endless variety of self-defense encounters that one can find themselves in, with varying levels of danger.

Is this a one-on-one encounter, or does the person have friends? How many? Do you have anyone to back you up? Are there police or security in the area? Can you identify any weapons on them, or items close by that can be used in the fight for or against you? Are you on a train or moving platform? Are there structures nearby that could impede movement both in your favor and to your detriment? Is there anyone behind you, or is your back against a wall or other surface that could prevent a rear attack?

You don’t have to answer these questions by itemized checklist in the heat of the moment, but you should be aware of all possibilities and do your best to make a snap assessment of these factors within a 10 second window, give or take.

This is also where the psychology of the encounter plays a huge role.

I have a basic rule, at least when it comes to one-on-one scenarios: I am willing to have it out verbally as long as nobody is within striking distance of me. The moment someone is in my face making threats, I have a decision to make: do I continue to keep it verbal at the risk of being sucker punched, or do I preemptively attack?

There is a strong tradition in the martial arts community towards a defensive-minded, “attack only when attacked” ethos that has biased all the classic self-defense techniques in its favor.

Example: “The punch comes AND…”, “He grabs you AND…”, “An attacker comes at you AND…”

I reject the notion that self-defense must be viewed through the narrow prism of victim response. Martial artists have always operated on the basis that the fight begins when the first punch is thrown.

Question: does a war begin when an opposing army shoots the first missile?

No. War begins when war is declared. If someone threatens to hurt you, or challenges you to a fight, and then moves into a position from where they could easily strike you, it’s decision-making time. Do you go on offense to preempt their action, or do you wait to counter? There is no wrong decision, it depends on the circumstances. The only error is to not consider the possibility of preemptive attack at all. It’s about recognizing when you are in a fight, and knowing that it can indeed be possible to end the fight without anyone getting hurt.

Someone may have threatened and invaded my space, but if I decide based on, say, a gut feeling, that this person may just be looking to intimidate me and does not wish to fight, then perhaps I can end the encounter by diffusing it.

3. Risk/Benefit Analysis

The best advice on weapons defense I ever received was from my Judo Sensei, Master Gary, who long ago told me, “You know what I’d do if someone pulled a gun or a knife on me?” I asked him what he’d do, and Sensei proceeded to pull out his wallet and hand it over.

Perfect. No one gets shot, no one gets stabbed, you live to report the incident and cancel all your credit cards. Life goes on. That’s called a proper cost/benefit/risk analysis. The benefit of retaining my wallet from a stick-up criminal is not worth the risk that my technique fails and I get shot or stabbed to death. Besides, the criminal just wanted my money, and we both know that after handing over my wallet that it’s in his best interest not to upgrade his crime from armed robbery to first-degree murder.

Now, here’s a different scenario.

You are feuding with a mentally unstable neighbor, who also happens to own a handgun. Maybe you own a handgun too, but you’re not carrying it around while you rake the leaves off your front lawn. Your insane neighbor, however, has decided to arm himself before confronting you about whether or not he’s going to pay half on putting up a new fence to stop your kid from entering his pool. So things get heated, and suddenly he pulls a gun on you.

You try your best to defuse the situation, but then he starts rambling about how you’re just like everyone else in his life, and he’s not going to take it, etc. Basically a version of John Malkovich’s last scene in Burn After Reading (oops, spoiler alert).

Your neighbor doesn’t want money. He doesn’t want to prove a point. He clearly wants to kill you out of a long-building frustration. In this case, you are taking a greater risk in not attempting to disarm him than by using a technique you’ve learned.

That scenario, while possible, is a little far-fetched. So here’s another one that might hit closer to home.

You are a teenage girl (or boy), and a creepy man approaches you with a gun or knife, ordering you to get into the backseat of his moving van. This too might be a good time to use a technique, as the alternative probably involves you being chained to a water heater in this guy’s basement while he serves you rodent meat every two weeks on a tray. Not good. In fact, I’d say the odds are that he doesn’t kill you during the encounter, in the event your technique fails, as his interest probably lies in drawing as little attention to himself as possible.

Self-defense techniques are meant to save you in worst case scenarios, not make you a hero on the local news channel. Weapons defense in particular is a risky venture, especially because unlike throws and strikes, you can’t train or compete in a live environment where people can stab or shoot you in a vulnerable position. Unless you live in the type of neighborhood where stick-ups are a regular occurrence, chances are that you won’t have many opportunities to perfect your disarm technique when the stakes are for real. If you’re going to attempt to disarm, you have to get it right the first time. And unfortunately, training with rubber knives and plastic guns in a laid back environment is the best available way to perfect that technique. (I’ve heard of schools that use real knives, not real guns, but still, nobody’s trying to kill you at the school…I think)

There also, of course, scenarios where during the course of a fight, someone reveals a weapon.

Let’s back away from weapons defense for a moment, though, and apply risk/benefit analysis to confrontations that are not patently deadly.

Somebody is threatening you, but you’re with a friend or loved one. Is fighting worth the risk of harm to the person you’re with? What if the other person and their friends outnumber you? Then it is definitely not a good idea to engage, even by yourself, but especially not if a wife, girlfriend, family member, etc. is with you.

What if they insulted the honor of your wife, and after given the opportunity to cease or apologize, they continue? You’ll have to decide for yourself. Sometimes there is more to lose by not fighting.

4. Adjusted Fight Tactics

Risk/benefit also applies to the fight action itself, in the form of your fight strategy, or adjusted tactics based on what you’ve observed.

I wouldn’t suggest using high-risk, low percentage techniques against bigger, stronger opponents. American practitioners of traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu often tout the effectiveness of pressure point based attacks. For me, these techniques require a level of precision that carries too high a risk. I’d prefer to attack or lock up a limb. It’s hard to mess up a Kimura lock on an available arm.

Or how about those old self-defense demonstrations where the guy would flip someone by their wrist? Call me crazy, but I’d feel safer attempting a hip or shoulder throw.

It also comes down to paring down to your most reliably effective techniques (this is the same for people who compete in both Judo and BJJ). The practice room is for experimentation – not the case with the tournament bracket or the bar alike. You might be decent at a number of throws, but if O Soto Gari is your time-tested, go-to throw that you know you can execute like a boss, guess which throw you’ll be using in a self-defense scenario?

For strikers, you may not want to throw bare knuckle balled up fists at a guy with a big old melon head, especially if you have the type of hands that could play stunt double for those of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. Put me squarely in the camp of grown men with Princess hands – these delicate paws were not meant for looping overhand power punches thrown gloveless at people’s big  damn skulls.

I do, however, possess some razor sharp elbows. There are benefits to being the skinny kid after all! The point is, use what you have to your advantage, and take note of who you are using it against. Hammer strikes and elbows from the clinch can be just as devastating as a big power punch, except they won’t break your hand.

5. Psychology and Defusement

You are the Commander-in-Chief of your own destiny. (No, I didn’t steal that from Anthony Robbins) And when it comes to confrontation, you have an inner diplomat, and an inner General. Your diplomat wants to find a verbal solution to avoid armed conflict, and your General is busy drawing up plans for war.

Some people keep their General locked up in an office doing menial paperwork all day, while their diplomat runs the show. They will almost never fight unless somebody attacks them, and even then, they might continue to beg off. This is not good.

But there are others who, when faced with potential conflict, basically say to their diplomat, “Fuck off, I want to hear what the General has to say!”

Treat conflict like a responsible nation, led by a virtuous Commander-in-Chief does: war must be the failure of diplomacy. Let diplomacy run its course, but allow for war planning in the event that all other reasonable options have been exhausted. The diplomat does the heavy lifting while the General plans in secret. Most of the time, the General’s plans should not have to come to fruition. If you find yourself getting into fights on a regular basis, the chances are good that your General is running the show.

OK, analogies aside: what does this mean?

Use psychology to defuse situations, and save yourself the trouble of having to test your techniques in real time.

Start by thinking from the perspective of the belligerent across from you: what does their ego need in order to safely retreat from the situation?

I don’t have many street fight stories from adulthood, but I have personally been involved in a number of confrontations that could easily have led to a fight if I hadn’t used psychology and defusement to my advantage. Both for myself as an individual, and on behalf of friends or acquaintances who almost found themselves in a real fight.

To accomplish this, it is important to realize that you are not the only one who needs to leave the confrontation feeling good about what just happened. While the martial artist should be freed from the shackles of ego in such encounters, the person you are dealing with is probably not trained and is therefore in complete service to their ego.

Example: you are out at a night club, and as the result of a stupid misunderstanding or some other bluster that should not normally lead to a fight, a guy confronts you backed up by his group of friends.

There’s a lot of ego on the table at this point, and you need to manage and account for that. Belittling him with your superior wit might make your friends laugh, but it puts him in a situation where he needs to save face, or else his people won’t respect him (especially if this person is the “alpha” of his group).

And just like each group has their alpha, there is also the person who tends to be the butt of the jokes, the one who feels like they need to constantly prove themselves to the others. You’ll find that this individual is the most likely to engage in confrontations, yet lacks respect from his friends, therefore making them the easiest person to defuse, as the group typically resents having to fight for their idiot friend. You might be able to get away with embarrassing them with wit, as his own friends might even find it funny, which will deflate the individual and lead to his friends backing him off for you.

However, the people in the group that come to the table with the respect of their peers, have the most to lose. Recognize and respect that. You must tread a thin line that requires you to remain calm, confident, strong, while allowing the person across from you to seem as if they were the alpha who decided to spare you a fight.

“Hey man, obviously neither of us is backing down. If you want to fight we can do that, but why ruin the night for either of us? Go enjoy your night, I’ll enjoy mine.”

It can be a tricky path to navigate, but it’s the hallmark of a martial artist who is at all times in control.

Remember that it is your training in the martial arts, be it Judo, Sambo, BJJ, Karate, etc., that allows you to be so confident. There are benefits from learning techniques and submitting to the traditions of an ego-free environment such as a martial arts school, aside from the martial abilities you acquire.

Some people believe in going the route of supernatural confidence in an attempt to scare down the opposition:

“Tell you what. Not only will I fight you, but you can pick two of your friends, I’ll fight all three of you, and if I haven’t knocked you all out within three minutes, your drinks are on me. And I’ll let you have the first swing.”

“Come on Jack, let’s go! This motherfucker’s crazy!”

More likely though, their response will be along the lines of “ALRIGHT, SOUNDS GOOD!” and you’ll be left saying, “…shit.”

Life is not a movie, and you shouldn’t take chances with your words any more than you would with a low percentage technique.

Most people can be reasoned with, using dialogue and not bluster. It is certainly possible to intimidate your way out of a fight, but comes with the risk of conflict escalation.


These fundamentals are not meant to be a step-by-step guide to self-defense that is to be memorized, but general principles that one should ponder regularly, until it becomes a pattern of thinking.

The last thing you want to do during a confrontation, is to become paralyzed in thought, trying to recall some abstract concepts you read in a blog somewhere. This approach has to become natural. We are talking about fundamentals, which means that they are reflexive, automatic responses to a variety of situations that one might face. Just like your best techniques.

If I block an overhand punch and catch the arm, I don’t stand there thinking, “OK, now grab the wrist, lock the arm in a vice grip, step forward with my right foot, pivot around like I’m sitting in a chair – GOT IT. Alright now I drop beneath his center of gravity, scoop him with my hip as I rise up…GOOD, GOOD, and now I continue my pull and whip my head into the finish! THROW COMPLETE!”

No, it’s automatic. I turn into the throw without thinking, because I’ve drilled it so many times that seoi nage has become committed to muscle memory.

You can do the same with the hidden fundamentals of self-defense, except you practice with mental drills. Next time you’re sitting on the train, or waiting on line somewhere, imagine yourself in confrontation with the person across from you. Now begin the thought drill. Situational awareness and threat level – what is the environment around you like, and how would it affect combat? What is the threat level based on the situation you’ve imagined? (Say, you are with your wife, and the person has become belligerent. Now imagine that they are less belligerent. Take yourself through several different scenarios and think about how you would respond, and what the consequences of each response might be).

Think about how the person might attack you. How would you respond and with what techniques, based on multiple attack possibilities?

When you’re on your couch, bored and watching TV, imagine a home invasion under numerous circumstances. What is your response? Do you have an escape and re-entry route with counter attack plan in the event that you’re in a separate room when it happens? What household items are available to use as a weapon? If you possess a firearm, will it be useful in case of a surprise attack, or do you have a plan to retrieve it some other way?

At what point do you stop complying with home invaders? (I, for example, would draw the line at having my family tied up – not a risk I’m willing to take, and would engage an armed opponent at that juncture to try and gain control of his weapon at the risk of my own life and those around me)

Doing visualization exercises for confrontations and scenarios, from the benign to the utmost extreme, will help forge a self-defense mindset that may allow you to observe, act and react in a quick, decisive manner.

This, in conjunction with technique drilling that assumes as little as possible about the nature of the attack but instead relies on widely applicable combat principles (i.e. head movement, avoiding the point of attack but moving with its direction to off-balance an opponent [kuzushi], not turning your back to an opponent on the ground, controlling the head to control the body, etc.), will best prepare you for unpredictability and danger of self-defense scenario. As mentioned above, you should also force yourself to compete in your respective art, if not regularly then at least once every year or two years, just to experience the nerves and anxiety and practice handling them, which is the closest simulation you’ll get to the mental challenges of a street fight.

Remember that it is your practicing of these methods and the confidence gained from drilling, sparring, competing, and thinking about self-defense, that will ensure your safety from ever having to fight in the first place.

That leads into the most important hidden fundamental of self-defense: don’t be an asshole.

Surprisingly, assholes tend to find themselves in confrontations more than the average person. Patient, disciplined, self-confident, courteous people who know how to pick their battles, are very good at avoiding conflict. Shocking, I know. And those latter qualities are the best self-defense techniques that the martial arts will convey to you.

I’m around other martial artists constantly. You know how many “fight stories” we share? Very few, if any. We talk about other things. Most of us don’t get into many fights.

You know who has a ton of fight stories? Idiot townies at bars and house parties with inflated beer muscles and something to prove. Hang around those environments, you’ll hear many tall tales of street brawls and gas station encounters.

Once in a while, an idiot will cross your path and put you in confrontation. Or you’ll observe such a person trying to victimize another (a situation I found myself in four years ago), and decide to do something. Sticking to the hidden fundamentals of self-defense will ensure that, more often than not, you prevail without a punch thrown.



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