3 Self-Defense Strategies Everyone Should Know

While many self-defense classes largely focus on physical techniques, learning how to avoid or stop a potential altercation before it turns physical is just as crucial.
Published: January 15, 2024

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

Most personal safety (or in other words self-defense) courses or seminars dedicate a great deal, if not all their training time, to the physical techniques meant to deter an assailant. Preparing students with only physical techniques leaves out a large chunk of information that is crucial to avoiding or stopping a potential altercation BEFORE it turns physical. The reality is that most self-defense training can be setting up the student for failure, and in the worst-case scenario, catastrophic results.

For any self-defense or personal safety program to be both effective and comprehensive, three sets of skills must be introduced and developed by the participants:

  1. Awareness skills
  2. Clear boundary-setting skills
  3. Physical defense as a last resort

It does not matter what martial art you study or choose to study. What matters most is your mindset. The objective of this article is to provide individuals with a more secure mindset by empowering them with the ability to be better prepared to defend themselves — either through heightened situational awareness skills, more effective verbal/nonverbal communication skills (boundary setting), and as a last resort – physical self-defense.

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Let us explore these three critical components.

1. Awareness

As a lifelong student of the martial arts and teaching on college campuses for over a decade — both in the classroom and in seminar settings — I’ve found my biggest area of concern is a complete lack of situational awareness exhibited by most people. Individuals have their heads buried in their cell phones; texting, checking emails, listening to music through their earbuds, and carrying on conversations — all leaving them unaware and distracted from what is going on around them.

Considering Taking a Self-Defense Class? Look for These 9 Components

Adopting a “switched-on” mindset is crucial and should become part of your persona. You must be aware of what is always going on around you. Simply adopting this mindset can help protect you from all types of threats. The ability to process what is going on around you and spot a potential danger before it has a chance to materialize should be your priority. The sociopathic nature of violent criminals is to target a potential victim that they perceive to be an easy target. Not being aware of your surroundings will make you an easy target. Learn to trust your instincts about people and things that seem out of place. Get in the habit of scanning the environment that you are in and remove yourself from the situation if you feel something is out of place and may pose a threat. The only way to avoid being the victim of a crime of opportunity is to remove the opportunity!

Understanding the Victim Selection Process

Predators tend to adhere to a specific set of conditions when choosing a potential victim. Knowing how they think and what patterns they are looking for will go a long way in your objective of preserving your personal safety.

Learn to think like a predator by trying to see things from their perspective. Ask yourself: are you a hard target or a soft target? People are hard targets when they appear to be aware of their surroundings, carry themselves with confidence, and look like they can handle themselves in an altercation. People are soft targets when they display none of the outward signs of awareness or any type of preparation. A soft target looks distracted, unaware, easy to approach, and, unlike a hard target, not prepared to defend themselves in a physical confrontation.

A predator will always pick the low-hanging fruit by measuring risk versus reward and always choosing the easiest path. The process of a predator determining a potential victim as a hard target or a soft target takes place in a matter of seconds. They analyze their initial perception of who you are, the amount of risk that you pose, if you are of any value, and if you have any visible or perceived defenses. You must make yourself the most unappealing target you can be. If you increase the risk you pose, the vast number of predators will go out of their way to avoid you, moving along to the next potential victim.

The thing predators value most is their own personal safety. Therefore, situational awareness is the number one deterrent to street crimes. If you even remotely look like you would be a problem for them, they will look to the next potential target. The bottom line is it’s important to be acutely aware of how you appear to others. Think like a predator. Remember, you cannot defend yourself against something you don’t know is there. It is your responsibility to ingrain the habits of awareness and alertness to be in tune with your environment. Observational skills are critical. If you know who is around you and what they are doing, you are more in control.

A criminal will reveal themselves through their actions. These actions can only be observed and interpreted by those who are paying attention to what is happening around them. Everyone is worth a second look.

Situational awareness is primarily a mental exercise. When in public, always perform an initial scan, looking for anything that does not belong and anything outside of the standard behaviors of the environment you are in. Noticing anything outside of an established baseline relating to where you are starts with the initial scan. If you notice anything is out of place during your initial scan, you have two options:

  1. Leave the area immediately
  2. Take a closer look at your surroundings to collect more detailed observations

Additional pre-incident indicators may include:

  • An individual approaching you with hidden hands
  • Target glancing — a term used to describe a subject’s preoccupation with a potential target through repeated glancing
  • Sudden change of movement
  • Inappropriate clothing
  • Seeking a position of advantage and/or impeding your movement

Once someone rises above the established baseline and has exhibited at least three abnormal behaviors, it’s safe to assume action is warranted.

Aside from the additional pre-incident indicators we just covered, there are also specific physiological reactions to stress that act as precursors to violent actions. These are important to be aware of because they hold true across all cultures and age groups:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Heavier than usual breathing
  • Appearing nervous or tense
  • Pupil dilation
  • Physical posturing
  • Clenching fists

Use what you know about your surroundings to identify potential problems and plan appropriate responses should one of these problems materialize. Be cognizant that the attacker always has the advantage. They pick the time, place, and method of the attack. They have the element of surprise on their side.

A crime will occur when three conditions are met: 1) The presence of a potential and motivated offender; 2) The presence of a vulnerable target; and 3) The absence of effective defenses capable of stopping an attack. It’s up to you to ensure that these three factors are not met. The way to counter this is through early detection and avoidance.

Without proper situational awareness, a person is forced to be reactive. Through training and by exposing yourself to small levels of stress while training, — and increasing those levels — you can effectively prepare yourself to respond more effectively and to think more clearly under extreme pressure. Be proactive instead of reactive. Seek out competent professional self-defense training.

31 Key Tips for Awareness

Here is an overall summary of using awareness as self-defense in everyday settings, like grocery stores or restaurants:

  1. Avoidance IS self-defense.
  2. When you walk into a room, make it a habit to identify all of the exits.
  3. Look at people’s hands. Whether armed or unarmed, the hands are what can hurt you.
  4. Be aware of people who appear to be paying attention to what you are doing.
  5. Predators choose their victims based on their level of awareness and body language.
  6. When in a parking lot – are there cars parked with people sitting in them? Are those cars running?
  7. Be a hard target. Walk with your head up with purpose and confidence.
  8. KNOW your surroundings.
  9. Continually visualize “what if” scenarios.
  10. Always have an escape plan.
  11. Try to evaluate yourself from a predator’s perspective.
  12. Distractions are the number one enemy of situational awareness.
  13. Through observation, spot anomalies within the established baseline.
  14. Pay attention to intuition. If a situation feels wrong, get out.
  15. Always keep your head up and scan your environment.
  16. Don’t approach corners too closely; give yourself space to increase reaction time.
  17. Ask yourself — does this person have the means, intent, and opportunity to hurt me?
  18. Do not allow verbal conflicts to escalate.
  19. Stay away from places you know to be high-crime areas.
  20. When it comes to escape, space is your best friend. Distance removes an attacker’s opportunity.
  21. You can’t fight (or react) to something you don’t see.
  22. It’s better to prepare for violence and never face it than to be faced with violence and not be prepared for it.
  23. Never leave a drink unattended when at a restaurant or bar.
  24. Never sit with your back towards the entrance while in a restaurant.
  25. Be vigilant when buckling a child into a car seat or placing groceries in a car.
  26. Avoid being alone or traveling isolated routes while walking to and from school, work, or shopping. Use a “buddy system.”
  27. Position yourself with your back to the wall with visibility of entrance points and close to alternate exits.
  28. If no plan is thought out, you are likely to hesitate in your reaction and a catastrophic result may be the consequence.
  29. Your mantra should be to identify the threat, avoid the threat, and escape the threat. Your mind is your best protection to avoid a conflict.
  30. No stranger gets in your house… EVER.
  31. Never go to Crime Scene #2. If all they want is money, give it to them, but if they want to take you to a secondary location, make your stand right there. You have a better chance of surviving. Statistics show you will not escape or be rescued if you allow yourself to go to a secondary location.

2. Boundary Setting

Most conflicts can be avoided if you establish clear boundaries. This skill is the most useful and often the most difficult to develop for the simple reason that we were all brought up by our parents to be polite, helpful, and respectful. Some people are uncomfortable being overtly direct.

Through verbal/non-verbal communication, one needs to establish clear boundaries. There is an importance of speaking firmly and clearly and meaning what you say. Predators have the uncanny ability to detect a lack of belief in oneself. Express those boundaries in a non-confrontational yet effective way. You don’t want to come across as aggressive nor do you want to come across as passive as many times this elicits the same response. You need to be ASSERTIVE and develop de-escalation skills. Standing straight, making eye contact, feet staggered and shoulder-width apart, hands open and palms facing forward (this is also a universal sign of neutrality and an excellent defensive position) is called your “ready stance.”

When you feel your personal space has been breached, verbally command the person to:

  • “BACK OFF”
  • “STOP”
  • “GET AWAY”

And turn up the volume every time you repeat yourself until you are yelling. You cannot be uncomfortable to tell someone to get out of your personal space. It is your responsibility to communicate when your personal space has been breached. More times than not, an assertive response by you will de-escalate and end a possible conflict because, once again, predators are looking for easy prey and don’t expect you to be prepared and engaged. At this point, you do not seem to be as much of an easy target as you appeared to be for you to have been targeted to begin with. This applies to children as well as adults. A predator will likely move along and try to find another potential victim. BE ASSERTIVE TO AVOID BEING A TARGET.

Aside from a random act of violence, I want to make you aware of the possibility of being attacked in seemingly normal interactions. What you think is a normal interaction may not be what it seems. A common technique predators use is to put their potential victim through an “interview” process or sizing up a potential victim, such as asking for the time or requesting spare change while edging closer to see if your personal space can be breached. In an instant, an attack could occur.

Another example would be asking for help due to some type of emergency. The element of someone needing our assistance may make it difficult for us to say no. The bottom line is that they are looking for what they think is easy prey. Consider that anyone could have malicious intentions and never allow convenience to outweigh security.

Your ability to recognize an assailant’s “probing” process will determine your ability to prevail. The probing phase is a major characteristic of a predator. Recognize that an attack begins long before the actual assault. If you fail to recognize the development of the attack, your ability to mount a successful and effective response may not be possible. Self-protection is not about fighting. It’s about awareness and commitment. If you develop strong awareness skills along with equally strong boundary setting skills, you will less likely be targeted because you are not an easy target!

The mental aspect of self-defense is as important, maybe as useful, and more permanent than any form of physical training and should be prioritized. Mental training is the key to unlocking the maximum potential of physical training.

Increase Distance or Introduce a Barricade

When confronted with a real or perceived threat to your safety, immediately take action. Increase the distance between you and your threat, introduce a barricade, look for escape or help, or, lastly, defend yourself.

Increasing distance is the best first action you can take when confronted with a perceived or real threat to your safety. By increasing the distance between you and a potential assailant, you create more options and time to react. If you see a threat across the street, for example, and you double the distance between you and your threat, you will be in a better position to make decisions and take action such as changing directions, running/walking away, or calling the police. Increased distance equals more time.

If for some reason you cannot increase the distance between you and a potential threat, the next best option is to introduce or create a barricade. Anything can serve as a barricade — a chair, parked car, table, fence, building, etc. This in itself will increase the time needed to reach you. Always look for methods of escape or help. If all else fails, and you have no other option, physically defend yourself with full commitment until the threat is no longer a threat.

Boundary Setting: Key Points

Here’s a summary of the boundary-setting principle for physical safety:

  1. Set strong verbal/non-verbal boundaries
  2. Assertive stance – feet staggered, shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward
  3. Look them in the eye – strong eye contact
  4. Establish a strong boundary using distance or objects
  5. Make clear statements:
    • “GO AWAY”
    • “BACK OFF”
    • “NO”
    • “STOP”

Be a broken record and get louder until it is effective.

3. Physical Self Defense

When the reality of a potential conflict eclipses all reasoning, or in the event of a random act of violence, and you CANNOT avoid a conflict, you must rely on physical self-defense. You need to develop a combative mentality with no hesitation. Your mantra must be surprise, speed, and violence of action. The objective is to reverse the confrontational dynamic and make the predator the prey.

Without exploring any physical techniques, it is important to understand how we all physiologically react under this type of stress.

Considering Taking a Self-Defense Class? Look for These 9 Components

The Adrenal Stress Response

A physical altercation is not unlike almost having a car accident. When we are under extreme duress, we become adrenalized and go through several physiological responses such as:

  • Auditory exclusion: Voices and sounds are muffled affecting our ability to hear
  • Tunnel vision: We lose or have limited peripheral vision
  • Visual slowdown: Things appear to be moving in slow motion
  • Tremors and palpitations: This can create rapid or shortness of breath, shakiness, and sweating

With this being said, when we are adrenalized, our fine motor skills are greatly diminished. Therefore, we must rely upon gross motor movements to compensate for the loss of fine motor skills.

No matter the martial art you decide to study, the techniques that are taught have to be easy to learn, retainable, and most importantly, effective. Your objective in a street altercation (when you cannot avoid it) is to “stun and run.” If you can’t run, continue your counterattack until your assailant is unable or unwilling to continue their attack.

Real violence unfolds rapidly and may offer no preparation time. Physical action on your part has to be completely one-sided. You must be single-minded in your attempt to defeat the assailant. This mindset is miles apart from the sporting arena. There are no weight classes, rules, referees, or time limits. This is not a reciprocal event whereby the participants are trying to score points on each other. The person defending themself must immediately, brutally, and effectively reverse the confrontational dynamic and attack the attacker. Training should not focus on any type of sparring as this does not truly replicate how real-world violence occurs. You are in an environment with NO rules. Make the attacker react to you, rather than you react to him. Always keep constant forward pressure on the threat until there is no longer a threat. Take their space explosively and violently!

The moral concern that many people struggle with is that we were brought up and taught that fighting is bad and we should treat people nicely. The reality is that you are up against someone who does not share the same values. Never be in the mindset that it can never happen to you. This will put you in a vulnerable state of mind.

The best method of obtaining a comprehensive self-defense skill set is to train with a competent martial artist who understands that a large percentage of the population does not have the time nor the desire to devote to studying in a traditional martial arts setting. There is an interest in a subset of martial arts gaining traction termed “Combatives.”

The reason Combatives is becoming popular is because it appeals to a wide audience as their curriculum has been developed for one purpose: succinct effective self-defense utilizing an intentional limited number of techniques that are applicable in multiple situations. This will provide the participants the ability to do the repetitions required to “burn in” and develop the motor memory needed to effectively execute the techniques. To quote military martial arts expert Kelly McCann, “What you learn in the afternoon must work for you that evening in the parking lot.”

Whatever approach you choose to train, take it wholeheartedly. Survival is not about style; it is about reality. You must be prepared both physically and psychologically. Your performance will be in parity with your preparation. You will not rise to the level of your expectations; you will fall to your level of training.

Final Words

In closing, I hope the most prominent message that you received here is that when confronted with someone who can do you harm, being nice doesn’t work. Specifically, women who fight back are more likely to stop a sexual assault. In my opinion, first-year university students must participate in such a program. They are, for the first time in their lives, in a new environment away from their families and support structure that they have known their entire lives. Teaching women tools to protect themselves is a highly effective approach. Every time you train, train with the motivation and purpose that you will be the hardest person someone tries to assault.

You won’t get to pick who tries to hurt you. You won’t get to pick when someone tries to hurt you. You won’t get to pick why someone tries to hurt you. You won’t get to pick what they will hurt you with. You will either be prepared or you won’t. Hope is not a strategy.

I don’t teach people or introduce these principles to instill fear or stoke paranoia. I do it because I want to help as many people as possible to become more situationally aware and in turn, safer in the environment in which they live and interact in.

I leave you with a quote by Jiu-Jitsu Grand Master Rorion Gracie:

“Self-defense is not just a set of techniques — it’s a state of mind.”

Bill Pinckney is an adjunct professor in New Jersey State University’s kinesiology department. He primarily teaches Karate and personal safety classes.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
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Strategy & Planning Series