T Nation

Street: Awareness and Avoidance


The following article was written by author Barry Eisler, former CIA Counter Operations and tech lawyer, who earned a Black Belt in Judo from the Kodokan International Judo Center. This article has some valid points on street awareness and the
author gives his opinion on “practical martial arts”. I believe this would be a good primer for your students. Plus it will be good to have a discussion on martial arts again. Some highlights, if you chose not to read the article:

“Survivors work backwards”

"People who don’t train for the attacks that really occur are learning ingenious solutions to fantasy problems"

real violence involves fear and other emotions that will cause your body to dump large helpings of adrenaline into your bloodstream. If you’re not accustomed to it, adrenaline will cut off your access to whatever training you thought you had and cripple your ability to respond effectively

"Pick an art based on how, how often, and how long you’re going to train, and on whom that art will help you defend against, not based on hypothetical death matches between wizened martial arts masters"


I noted that all good defenses are layered, and that the place of martial arts like karate, judo, etc. is at the inner layer while the place of awareness and thinking like the opposition is at the outer. I made an analogy to firearms in the home: like your punches and kicks on the street, your firearm is your last line of defense against an intruder in your house; your perimeter lights and other means of deterrence, and quality locks and other means of delay, are your outer layers. I think this analogy makes the relative cost effectiveness of the inner and outer layers of a defense system pretty clear. After all, assuming you’re not living out some Rambo* fantasy, would you rather shoot it out with an intruder in your bedroom or just have him take one look at your house and decide to rob someone else?

But no matter how much I talk about awareness and avoidance, people always want to hear about martial arts, too. It seems the Paralyzing Nerve Point Strikes of Long Dong Do are sexier than just knowing where trouble is likely to occur and arranging to not be there when it does. All right, let’s talk a little about the “sexy” stuff. But please, let’s keep in mind what really matters—awareness and avoidance.
That last sentence is worth a pause. If you think situational awareness has nothing to do with self-defense (hint: it has everything to do with it), you’d be at the bottom of the food chain in John Rain’s line of work. The survivors—and yes, after a quarter century in the business and combat all over the world before that, Rain is one of them—don’t spend a lot of time on fantasy scenarios because they know that, except in the movies, they’re not going to be attacked by ninjas. They focus on what’s likely to happen and spend their time preparing for that. If you want to survive, you should do what the survivors do.

Survivors work backwards. They reverse engineer the problem. They ask, “What kind of attack am I likely to face?” And they design their training and defenses, including martial arts, accordingly.
How about you? What kind of attack are you afraid of? A mugging? Someone drunk and belligerent in a movie theater or at a concert? A fanatical football fan? If you’re a woman, you’re most likely concerned about rape; I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Let’s go with these for a minute. Imagine them. Do you see your attacker adopting a “put 'em up” stance before launching? Executing a spinning back kick? A “fingers of death” thrust to one of your nerve centers? In the real world, people don’t attack like that. They’ll lower their head and charge like a bull. Or try to grab you in a bear hug or headlock. Or throw a John Wayne roundhouse. These are your most common street attacks. But how many martial arts dojos devote significant time to learning how to counter these attacks? Versus how many devote significant time to learning how to counter pretty roundhouse kicks to the head?

The title of this piece is “Practical Martial Arts,” right? Practical as in, “concerned with actual facts and experience, not theory.” People who don’t train for the attacks that really occur are learning ingenious solutions to fantasy problems**. They’re getting really, really good—at the wrong thing***. They’re the people Rain cuts through like a buzz saw if they get between him and a target.

What about training? Again, work backwards. Whatever you think you’re likely to face, you should try to get your training to imitate is as closely as possible. The more realistic your training, the better prepared you’ll be for the real event. This is obvious, right? Would you trust a surgeon who had only read an anatomy book? Or would you prefer someone who’d worked on cadavers and animals? In fact, wouldn’t you most prefer the surgeon who had actually performed the operation in question hundreds of times? Bruce Lee said, “The best preparation for the event is the event.” This is a profound statement and worth pondering.

A few hints: real violence involves fear and other emotions that will cause your body to dump large helpings of adrenaline into your bloodstream. If you’re not accustomed to it, adrenaline will cut off your access to whatever training you thought you had and cripple your ability to respond effectively. Most dojos give a nod to adrenal stress training by having their students spar. But how much like the real event is point sparring, with light contact and no shots to the head? With rules and a referee and consenting players? With no “woofing” or verbal aggression, no uncertainty about the other person’s intentions beforehand? Introduce yourself to adrenal stress training before the actual event so you’ll be better able to handle the adrenaline dump during the real thing****.

I know what you’re thinking now… hey, he promised to talk about martial arts and there’s nothing in here about karate and kung fu and all that stuff! I mean, who would win between an aikido master and a savate master? Come on, tell me!

I’ve always found these questions strange. After all, are you planning on becoming a judo master? Do you expect to have to fight one? If not, how is the question relevant to you? Pick an art based on how, how often, and how long you’re going to train, and on whom that art will help you defend against, not based on hypothetical death matches between wizened martial arts masters.

Here’s another hint: training matters a lot more than technique. What difference does it make if you’re using a boxer’s punch or a judo throw or a karate kick if you haven’t practiced the technique 10,000 times or more? (sub-hint: techniques that can be drilled more quickly can be learned more quickly, too. Ten thousand repetitions of a drill that takes one minute takes less time than 10,000 reps of a drill that takes five minutes. So simple moves can be learned more quickly, and are less likely to fail under adrenal stress, too).

As for specific arts, I tend to favor the ones that can be practiced “live.” Boxing, judo, jujitsu, muay thai, sambo, and wrestling are all examples of arts that, by their nature, can be practiced as a sport against a determined opponent. If you’re trying to learn how to weave off the line of an incoming punch, it helps if the punch is thrown by someone who’s really trying to knock your head off. If you’re trying to learn how to hit someone with a hip throw, it helps to learn how to do it against an opponent who’s trying his hardest to stop you. Yes, I know neither of these examples is the same as the “real thing.” Training is an approximation. The closer the approximation, though, the better the training.

A few paragraphs up I promised to mention women and defense against rape. Let’s work backward again, as we know survivors do. What does a rapist need to do to carry out a rape? He needs to be very close to you, right? That’s grappling distance. So other things being equal, which is a more practical martial art for fighting off a rapist: a grappling art like Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), or a kicking art like Tae Kwon Do (TKD)? And which kind of training will give you better adrenal stress inoculation against a rapist’s attack: rolling on the ground face to face with a partner who’s trying to pin you, armbar you, strangle you, and otherwise submit you using all his strength, or point sparring with a partner who’s trying to kick you? Which art is a better approximation of what you’re training for? *****

If you’ve never been grabbed violently and thrown into the wall or onto the ground, the emotional shock of the experience is apt to be as debilitating as the physical event. The whole feeling will be completely unfamiliar to you; the chances of your freezing are high. But a woman who trains in a grappling art like judo or BJJ gets thrown around every day. She’s used to it—she has been partially inoculated against the effects of adrenal stress. When the real thing happens, it’s therefore considerably less shocking; the danger of freezing, considerably lower.

A more specific point: a rapist is likely trying to position himself between your legs. A scary thought, true. But one of the strongest positions in BJJ is the “guard,” where you control your opponent in precisely this fashion—by holding his torso between your legs. A rapist trying to force himself between the legs of a properly trained BJJ woman is therefore putting himself in a position the woman has actively sought to put her opponents in thousands of times before, a position from which she has trained and learned options like armbars and strangles and escapes. What does the TKD trained woman do from here? How familiar is the position to her? What sort of “muscle memory” and stress inoculation is she relying on?
Back to martial arts generally. I don’t mean to imply that arts like aikido, hapkido, karate, kung-fu, TKD, etc. aren’t combat effective; I know they can be. But because the way these arts are taught and trained is a more distant approximation of the “real thing” than is, say, a boxing or wrestling match, if you’re talking about a fight, or than, say, BJJ, if you’re talking about an attempted rape, the learning curve is longer. Again, you have to ask yourself how long you’re going to train, and how often, and measure the answers against your objectives.

But remember, none of this matters as much for your safety as awareness and avoidance. No matter what your martial art, make sure you practice those.

Further reading and training:
Awareness and avoidance (there’s a reason this category comes first, by the way):
Gavin DeBecker, The Gift of Fear, http://www.gdbinc.com/home.cfm
Marc MacYoung, Cheap Shots, Ambushes, and Other Lessons
Peyton Quinn, A Bouncer’s Guide to Barroom Brawling
Mechanics and psychology of violence:
Tony Blauer’s tapes and courses, http://www.tonyblauer.com
Alain Burrese, Hard Won Wisdom from the School of Hard Knocks, available through http://www.burrese.com
Loren Christensen’s books and videos, available through http://www.lwcbooks.com
Marc MacYoung’s books and videos, available through http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com
Effects of adrenal stress on combat preparedness:
Dave Grossman, On Killing
Dave Grossman, On Combat
Peyton Quinn, Real Fighting
Firearms training and justifiable use of lethal force:
Massad Ayoob

  • Tip of the hat to David Morrell, writer of the terrific First Blood and creator of Rambo.
    ** As noted by Peyton Quinn of the Rocky Mountain Combat Applications Training institute. I took his course, and recommend that you do, too, if you’re serious. http://www.rmcat.com
    *** I borrowed that one from Tony Blauer. Took one of his courses, too—and and recommend that you do, too, if you’re serious. http://www.tonyblauer.com
    **** For a focus on adrenal stress in unarmed encounters, Peyton Quinn’s RMCAT is the place to go. For adrenal stress firearms training, Massad Ayoob’s Lethal Force Institute is incredible. http://www.ayoob.com
    ***** I can hear the TKD people already: with TKD, you take the rapist out with punches and kicks before he even grabs you. Well, maybe, but… how did you know he was trying to rape you before he started trying to rape you? By the time you’re sufficiently convinced of his intentions to respond with violence, my bet is that you’ve already been grabbed and it’s now a little late for TKD distance. This is doubly true for date rape.


I agree with what you wrote 100%being aware of your surroundings picking up on body language you can avoid the fight totally always assume the aggesser is armed. I think like 90% of all fights include alcohol and/or drugs Bruce Lee said Master one move by doing it 10000 times instead of 10000 moves once. some people are stupid like if a fight breaks out among two large groups they want to stick around and watch which is stupid leave. most girls are more atute to being able to tell if a guy is a creep, unless they are drunk, then thar sense diminishes. since your average guy can overpower average girl they have to be, I picked upbody language by spending a lot of time in bars in my younger years. And as a correction officer, i was lucky because of my size and strength, wrestling ability and a few tkd moves, and a killer right. That dont mean shit if your wrestling a guy and his boy cheap shots, or stabs you, i have two freinds that got shit stabbed out of them picking a fight. I think Ronda Rousey and female MMA will open the doors up for a woman to train self defense and maybe It will keep some girls from being brutalized.


As a corrections officer, you have my upmost respect, a seriously dangerous profession.


Some good stuff in that original article. Some of the research and practice that I have been learning about recently regarding different types of motor learning wthough (specifically “implicitly learned vs explicitly learned” motor skills) calls some of older motor learning paradigms that he is citing into question. After all, if only skills that were practiced thousands of times were effective under adrenal stress, the human race (and possibly earlier ancestors) would likely not have survived.

Not saying that experience is not hugely important and beneficial, but new research is showing that older models of motor learning may have placed too much emphasis on repetition and too little on the mode of learning/type of repetition.

Implicitly learned skills (skills which one learns in the absence of, or at the very least minimization of, conscious “rules/instructions”) have been shown to have very little if any degradation under adrenal stress (or any other type of stress for that matter), while implicitly learned skills tend to degrade significantly.

Some examples of commonly implicitly learned skills include, crawling, standing, walking, running, jumping, throwing objects, and riding a bike. Generally though, the earlier we learn a motor skill in our lives the more “implicit” that skill will be. One might think that is because of the number of repetitions that one has performed (due to amount of time the skills has been available for practice), but in fact it has more to do with how we learn when we are young (specifically the lack of development of the verbal/language portion of our brains) vs how we are taught to learn as we get older. Case in point all of those skills can also be taught “explicitly” (throwing a ball is a common one we see being affected by stress all the time due to the popularity of baseball) but if done that way will always lead to more susceptibility of degradation under stress.

I know this was a slightly off topic rant, but it’s a slightly related tangent off of something that the author brought up that I personally find fascinating and has great potential to maximize training efficiency.


Great article @idaho Idaho. You know I wholeheartedly agree: If you can’t or don’t drill it live, you’re just fuckin dancing.

And @Sentoguy - that sounds interesting, can you elaborate at all on this?


Gave up a long time ago think some of rules stupid , a bout half my coworkers were douchebags , on a power trip. Being around all that misery rubs off on some people, worst people to deal with thieves, easiest to deal with one time passion killers who got life.


I also would like to explore this more and according to your research, you would use different training, teaching methods for an adult vs a child / teenager ? Are “they” leaning toward a behavior modification type of training? Training the mind to think a different way about the move, with the goal of teaching a move that degrades less under stress?

So, the instinct to run from a hungry sabertooth is biologically wired or picking up a rock to defend yourself is implicit (wired ) and does not degrade, so, I am talking out of my butt here, but, training someone skills (martial arts, etc) is trying to tap into this instead of the traditional 10 thousand reps? That’s confusing, I know.

Really good post and information.



I’ll give a synopsis based on what I have been able to glean from the research, lectures, and information readily available online:

Key terms-

Implicit- in the absence or at least minimization of “declarative” (words/rules based) knowledge

Explicit- in the abundance of “declarative” knowledge

Reinvestment- the tendency to consciously control one’s actions; tendency to rely on explicit knowledge to guide motor skills

Reinvestment scale- a scale which measures the likelihood of an individual to “reinvest” in their motor skills when under physical, mental, and/or emotional stress (somewhat innate, but also affected by mode of learning those motor skills)

The old model of motor learning- skills are generally taught via explicit instructions (“rules” describing specific motions of the body to be executed in a specific sequence and with a specific timing), then as the athlete gains proficiency the skills become more “automatic” (implicit) until eventually the skills are performed without the need for conscious control at all. This is process is generally thought to require thousands if not tens of thousands of repetitions to complete.

Research/Evidence however shows that if an athlete learns via this initially explicit means of attaining motor skills, that things such as emotional, mental, and/or physical stress can cause even elite level athletes to “reinvest” in their movements and regress back to an explicitly driven means of their execution (which is accompanied by a return back to an inferior execution pattern of the movement as well). This is commonly known as “choking under pressure.” This is of course somewhat of an individual issue as you do seem to have athletes/individuals who are more capable of handling pressure and those who are less capable.

There is a potential solution to this issue though, and it has the potential to vastly change how we think about teaching/learning motor skills and their corresponding resilience under stress.

This new potential solution involves learning motor skills in the absence of (or at least minimization of) explicit knowledge/attention to what one’s body is doing. There are so far 4 methods of eliciting this type of learning that have proven effective (that I have found)-

  1. interrupting communication between the verbal and motor cortexes via electro-stimulation (probably not very practical for the average athlete)

  2. “errorless learning”- learning in such a way as to eliminate the need for self correction (and therefore lack of creating “rules of execution”) and thus creating an environment where very little if any attention is paid to the “learning” of the motor skill. This often involves progressing from the simplest, easiest version of a skill to progressively more challenging versions, but always attempting to make the skill “mindlessly easy.”

  3. “Analogy learning”- simplifying the execution of the motor skill into an analogy which encompasses the skill’s essence. This allows the mind to easily assimilate the new skill without the need for many “rules” and quickly gain proficiency in the skill so that it becomes “mindless” very quickly

  4. learning the skill while simultaneously executing a challenging mental “secondary task.” This occupies the verbal/analytical portion of the brain thus not allowing it to participate in the motor control of the new skill.

These can also be combined if need be. For instance “analogy learning” could be utilized to initially teach the skill, which would be executed in an environment that would attempt to minimize mistakes/errors, then a secondary task could be added to further minimize conscious involvement in the acquisition of/refinement of the skill.

Research has shown that when individuals learn by any of these methods that their improvement and retention in performance are about the same as when individuals learn via explicit means when under no stress/pressure. However, when physical, mental, or emotional stress is introduced those who learned via explicit means see a significant drop in performance while those who learn via these implicit methods see virtually zero decrease in performance, even after a relatively small number of executions of the skill (in comparison to the old motor learning paradigm’s recommendations).

If anyone wants, here is a lecture by one of the leading implicit motor learning researches in the world:


Thank you for the detailed response, really good information. I was looking at this for a new angle on firearms skills, which degrade extremely fast under stress.


Yeah, absolutely! The thing that I really liked about it is it’s simply talking about motor learning (which includes all “physical skills” and is not limited to just one arena of application). The fact that Masters and numerous other kinesiologists have proven these methods effective in this manner on numerous occasions in double blind studies also lends a ton of credence to their efficacy.

Could the theory behind why it works be slightly off? Arguably. But who really cares if the method works?

The trick with something like firearms would be safety and/or finding ways to incorporate some of the methods into effective skill specific practice methods (for instance you might have to start a total noob with the barrel of their gun only inches away from a target in order to set up an “errorless learning” environment, which could be dangerous depending on what you were using as a target, not to mention the logistic issue of getting that close to the targets at a civilian range (with military of LEO’s you likely have more leeway) and then of course there is the cost of ammunition.

I could definitely see something like forcing trainees to count backwards in 7’s from 3500 or such while continuously loading magazines or doing simple draw and re-holster drills to add a secondary task and force their implicit motor learning system to learn the task free of conscious control.

One other thing of note and particular relevance is that some studies have demonstrated the implicitly learned skills allow for better performance when quick decisions need to be made (hypothesized to be the result of the declarative mind not needing to be split between making the decision and controlling the motor system).


No real rehabilitation in corrections, its hard to be Mary Poppins when you are on constant guard against predators.



Great posts. I am a particular fan of 2 and 3 with beginners. I can add a sub-category under those: teaching them how a task should “feel”. This comes a bit under each category because it is often described with analogy but also via tactile reinforcement (regarding lifting specifically), and it reinforces errorless learning because as soon as they can feel it physically, they can replicate it easier and faster.

In my experience feeling a movement always comes prior to technical mastery anyway, and takes the person’s mind off the “rules” and “laundry list” of check marks…and puts it onto the task at hand by getting them to focus on what they’re physically feeling happen. That focus is very hard to replicate when listening to instructions but very much mimics what happens when an athlete gets :“in the zone”


Absolutely Aragorn! Whenever possible teaching via “feel” is a great implicit learning method.

Even then though many adult learners will begin to create “rules” about that skill’s proper execution if their logical brain is not occupied by some secondary task; we have been conditioned to learn in that manner since childhood.

So, try adding some sort of challenging mental task (say the alphabet backwards, count backwards in some challenging interval, recite the Declaration of Independence, etc…) while also teaching them to feel the skills will result in even more resilient motor learning. It won’t be that “pretty” at first and you may need to regress the skill back to an extremely basic level (like teaching footwork by not moving but just learning how to stand and brace against incoming force from random directions so their body learns how to maintain balance and equilibrium), but all research seems to point to the fact that you can either practice to be good at practice, or practice to be good at application/competition and these methods are designed for the latter.

The one issue with these that I can see (from a professional instructor standpoint) is with student retention. Even though Masters and others have proven that absolute beginners can and do learn motor skills via these methods (and at statistically equal rates to more traditional methods), in some cases they may not be the “most mentally stimulating or immediately gratifying” methods of learning. In today’s Western society where everyone wants instant gratification and has some form of ADD (thus craving “new” flashy techniques all the time) such methods of either boringly repetitive practice or seemingly unconscious skill development (to the point that they may not even realize that they are learning) can be a hard sell. On the other hand I’ve also encountered situations where they work so well that you have people think that they have “mastered the skill” with very little practice and therefore no longer need to continue training (usually more so with “self defense” skills than “active combat” skills).

If you are a LEO or Military instructor then of course you likely would have less issue with these concerns as you have a captive audience who must do as you say and can’t really back out or leave without serious repercussions.