The reality of self-defence in violent situations

We’ve all heard it before: the best form of self-defence is to ‘not be there’ — but how realistic is this in an era where acts of random, extreme violence are on the rise?

The reality of self-defence in violent situations

In recent times we’ve seen a spate of sudden, violent attacks where there was no build-up — one minute, calm, and the next, chaos. A few were terrorist-related, many were not and some occurred in Australia. So, how can prepare for such events?

The primary concern here is that such violence will seemingly come from nowhere and you will not have time to mentally adjust to respond effectively. Secondly, you will not have a physical answer (technique) for the situation because there are just too many ways such violence could play out and you can’t anticipate and drill them all. Understandably, if you’ve been training for some time, you’d like to think that if an attack comes out of nowhere, you’ll be rewarded for all your hard work, responding as trained. But will you?

There are many good resources on this subject and I recommend the following:

  • 1. Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life by Van Horne and Riley
  • 2. The Survivors Club: The Science and Secrets that Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood
  • 3. Just 2 Seconds: Using Time and Space to Defeat Assassins and Other Adversaries by Gavin de Becker
  • 4. The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker
  • 5. Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected by Rory Miller


Take from this material what gels with you and your role (police officer, frequent traveller, checkout clerk, barman, teacher, etc.) and work it into whatever training you do. But don’t just read, do. Reading a book on fitness won’t make you fit.

I’ll use the Left of Bang thematic as the guide for this discussion and articles to follow. The term ‘left of bang’ refers to picking up the cues that something may be about to go down well before it does, and responding before the ‘bang’ — before the shots are fired, the IED explodes, the criminal attacks, etc. If we draw a line on a page to represent a timeline, with the ‘bang’ event being in the middle, then we want to have begun taking action to the left of that. If you begin a response on the right (‘right of bang’), you are reacting after the fact and the enemy has the jump on you. You may be able to recover, but it’s a bad place to start.

That’s an essential point. If you train to deal with such circumstances, then your system of training must encompass situational awareness skills that help you to be alert to the signs of potential dangers, understand how they might play out and how you might best respond. You must train to be able to act with incomplete information — that is, where it’s not completely clear whether something bad is about to transpire. This is left of bang. Such training must also train you to constructively react or recover from an immediately right-of-bang situation, where you have been taken by surprise. This is akin to the ‘immediate action’ drills used in the military to prepare for ambush situations and the like. Stunned as you might be when taken by surprise, a freeze response or denial will likely make things a whole lot worse.

If you’re just training in a martial art, sport combat or even some of the mainstream defensive tactics systems, you’re at a disadvantage. The problem is such systems are gearing you to fight the ‘known’, and the vast bulk of that training is physical, not psychological or tactical. Much of it is also right of bang — i.e. you react after the bad guy has already moved — which encourages a reactive mindset.

Such training offers a good base but won’t equip you for the unexpected. To have a chance — and we can only have a chance, better or worse, of dealing with such situations — we need to add training that takes us from reacting to responding. Meaning, we identify an issue or risk and respond before or as it develops, rather than waiting for the bang to set off a reaction. A great place place to start is with Endsley’s three-stage model of situation awareness: perception, comprehension and projection. That is, seeing what is going on, understanding what that (might) mean and, from that, projecting what might happen next. Train your observation skills by taking time when out and about to observe people, what they are wearing, how they are moving, what they might be doing. In left-of-bang terms, look for people who appear slightly out of place.