Environmental Awareness

In our previous lesson on situational awareness, we discussed the need to understanding your surroundings to ensure that you don’t walk into a situation which requires you needing to use your self-defense techniques. The focus of this lesson, is environmental awareness during a self-defense encounter – meaning being aware of what is going on around, as well as your physical surroundings during a scenario. For every news report about a violent altercation, there are usually reports of “innocent” bystanders getting caught in the cross fire and being injured. This is why, as a martial artist, you not only have a responsibility to defend yourself, but ensure that those around you are also not put into harms way.

Muzzle Discipline

One of the first things you learn when training with a weapon in the military or police forces is the concept of muzzle discipline. This translates into any of the NRA training courses, or any course on handgun safety. The concept is fairly simple – wherever the gun is pointed is where you will be causing damage – therefore, NEVER point the gun at anything you do not intend to shoot. When it comes to self-defense, the concept of muzzle discipline takes on a similar meaning – when dealing with a self-defense situation involving a gun, you need to make sure that the gun is NEVER pointed at anyone.

In the heat of the moment, it can be very difficult to determine your surroundings, which is why you need to start training to be observant of what is happening around you. Based on the people around you, you may need to modify the movement so that you aren’t in a situation where the gun is pointing to the people standing next to or behind you. Even though you would eventually be found not-at-fault for the death of a bystander in a self-defense situation, the ramifications that your actions caused the death of another will most likely haunt you for the rest of your life. Sometimes, it can’t be avoided, and the gun will end up being pointed at someone (e.g. in a crowded situation), however, as the martial artist, it is your duty to ensure that surrounding casualties are minimized. By the same thread, you don’t want to “not take action” for fear of injuring someone else – its much better if one person gets injured and you are able to stop the situation, rather than it escalating and yourself and many others are injured as a result. On the other hand, as we discussed many times, sometimes, the best action is inaction – if you give up your wallet, or the bank robber their monies, many potential injuries can be avoided.

The Bystander Effect

Unfortunately, the more crowded a place, the more likely there will be bystanders getting injured – and at the same token, much less likely that someone surrounding you will help out in the situation. When dealing with a self-defense situation, you should take into account the muzzle discipline at all times, even if there is no gun involved. What this means is that you need to ensure that the technique you are doing, say throwing your attacker to the ground, does not inadvertently injure someone else as a result. In a self-defense situation, you need to think of the scenario as a complex calculus of who you can and will save as a result. For most individuals, yourself, your family, and your friends will come first, with all others coming in secondary. It’s a cruel calculus, but better someone you do not know gets injured than someone you do. The ultimate scenario is where no one gets injured, but if you have to maneuver through a crowded situation, you need to prioritize your motions to protect those who are most important.

The second component of the bystander effect, is how vocal you are with your defenses. As previously discussed, if you are shouting “back away, get away” to your attacker, the perception of those around you is that you are the one being attacked, and as a result, they are more likely to come to your defense (or call for help), than if you are just pecocking and they whip out their camera phones to record the latest installment of bum fights. Your voice is a potent weapon and tool, and should not be overlooked – don’t just mindlessly go into performing the techniques, make sure you are using your command voice to get better control over the situation. Many a fight and situation has been diffused simply by the presence of one or the other parties using their command voice. Remember, as martial artists, we want to take the path of least resistance which results in the minimal amount of physical damage to ourselves and others when possible. First we avoid situations where we might have to use our skills. Next we try and leave the situation. Then we try and diffuse the situation, or use our command voice to stop the altercation. Finally, as a last resort, we use or skills to defend ourselves and others.

What the Eyes See

We’ve covered the issue of weapon control and ensuring proper muzzle discipline. We’ve discussed the need to be aware of those around you so you don’t cause any undue harm to bystanders. We need to redress the issue of movement in a self-defense situation. As we’ve mentioned many times before, when moving in a situation, you need to move to where your eyes can see, and limit the backwards motions to a minimum. Normal vision is considered 107 degrees off to each side, 80 degrees upwards, and 70 degrees downwards (60 degrees inward per eye), however your individual range will vary widely, and your training should account for such. A single step backwards is not terrible – however, a leap backwards, or several steps is. However, if you are aware of your surroundings before you get into a situation, you should be well aware of any physical obstacles around you. A technique that is very helpful, is ensuring that you are constantly scanning your surroundings – I talk about oblivions in another lesson, and you need to ensure that you don’t fall victim to the lure of technology. Whenever you are traveling, or moving from one area to another, you should be scanning to ensure you have a good mental picture of the area. In this way, even if you need to move backwards, if you have scanned the area ahead of time, you can do so with a lot more confidence than just acting alone.

This being said, even with scanning, in the heat of the moment, your muscle memory will most likely take over, and as such, you need to be prepared to press forward and outward in your defense, rather than consistently retreating. What you don’t want to occur is you getting your back up against a wall, or you stumbling and falling by moving backwards (or worse yet falling off a ledge). It takes time and training to get good at the scanning process, and it’s why we don’t start testing this skill until the advanced belt levels (see the upper belt lesson on the gauntlet). At this stage in your training you should be primarily focusing on the proper execution of the techniques, while at the same time start working on your scanning skills so that you become much more environmentally aware of your surroundings.

Taking Care of Business

The last thing we want to touch on during the white belt lesson on environmental awareness (don’t worry we’ll be circling this topic another 4 times by the time you reach black belt), is what to do in situations when you are not alone. Let’s say you are out walking with your daughter in the evening and someone comes up to mug you. What do you do? First, you need to assess the situation and see if this is just a grab the money and run situation (99.995% of the cases) or something much more sinister. If it is the former, give up the money and let them go. If it is the latter, you need to be aware of what and how your daughter is reacting to ensure you have control of the situation.

As a martial artist, we spend most of our days practicing and imagining “what if” scenarios. If you are frequently around friends or family, you should include them in your training to the extent that you prepare them for what to do in these situations. Spend some time with them showing them how they should react, and what you are most likely to do in these situations, and ULTIMATELY make sure that they are prepared to follow your commands without hesitation. It doesn’t need to be anything formal, but the more prepared they are, the more prepared you will be for these situations.

So what do you do if you are accosted and need to react. The first thing is to get your relative out of the direct path of harms way, which usually means placing them behind you or off to the side, you want to be the barrier between them and the attacker – but if you do this, you also need to be aware of their movements to ensure you don’t end up tripping over them. If you’ve been training with them, you should prepare them to run off to a safer location (get behind something solid), and call for help. In a situation where there are multiple attackers, this is not always the best recourse, and your read of the situation should be good enough to determine your course of action. In many cases it’s a catch-22 situation. If you stay together, there is a greater chance of both of you getting injured. However, if you split up and have them run off, the attackers will need to split up their attacks on multiple fronts and become less effective – but, if they do catch up with your friend they are much more likely to be injured. Again, it all comes down to your preparedness and practice.

Concluding Thoughts

This lesson was all about ensuring you know what is going on around you during a self-defense situation. It starts with understanding how your techniques may put others at risk, it follows up with the proper movement and directional motion, and finishes up with scanning and protection concepts. Again, at this level the main focus should be on the performance of your techniques, and start expanding your awareness in your daily interactions. A good practice to start is the 10 second flash test. Whenever you walk into a room, take 10 seconds to memorize everything you see in the room. Leave the room, and in 30 seconds write down everything you can remember. Go back into the room once more and see how correct you were. As you practice this exercise, you will find yourself becoming better and better and recognizing more and more details each time you perform this task, and eventually when walking into a room, you will be able to know the location of things without having to focus on them. It will start becoming second nature to you, and will set you well on the path to becoming much more environmentally aware.

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