Keep it simple and stay alive

Keep it simple and stay alive

My last article addressed the approach to training and what should be thought about and done, regardless of the discipline. In this article, we’ll focus on the kind of training, how to focus on street survival and any lurking pitfalls.

It’s quite possible that the most critical moment of dealing with an attack is the moment of recognition. That is, the moment when you realise that you are being, or are about to be, attacked. If you apply the awareness colour code that I shared in my previous article, you should see it coming and have the opportunity to escape.

In fact, your Number One priority should be to escape. Even in the event of an attack taking you by surprise, you still can determine the outcome by your reaction. Your highest chance of success is to have a plan in place, and to train according to that plan.

In an earlier article, I went through the MAC process (Move, Assess, communicate). This should be the foundation of your plan. If you have space, MAC will help you to either keep that space, persuading the criminal to leave, perhaps buy you time to escape, or create the opportunity to act offensively.

Have a default action and a default reaction. Know what you are going to do because it will make it that much easier to carry it through. First prize is either the attacker of yourself leaving the scene. However, if you have to act, what will you do? If the attacker attacks first, what will your response be?

The Gracie family took the martial arts world by storm back in the early 1980’s and 1990’s, beating everyone from Karate to Kung-Fu, and from wrestlers to boxers. Was their ongoing success due to a set of special techniques? Was it because they were superhuman? No! It was simply because they had a philosophy of how to win a fight, plus they were the first martial artists to have a plan.

Most martial arts wait for something to happen and then react. The Gracies knew that they wanted to get the fight onto the floor, and they had a plan to get it there. They executed their plan and 99.9% of the time, it worked.

Having a plan will help your brain function under the stress of a fight or any interaction with criminal elements. The ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ response is wired into us on a very primitive level. ‘Flight’ is the strongest of these instincts. That makes sense because your highest chance of escaping injury is to avoid physical combat.

If escape is impossible, you must choose between ‘Fight’ or ‘Freeze’. If an attacker approaches with an arm extended towards your head, then your brain will automatically look for an appropriate response. If you have a plan, your conscious thought process is to select that plan and initiate action, all in milliseconds.

Take too long, as in not having a plan and subsequently being unprepared, and the attacker will simply leave you to play catch-up. A brain without a plan is a brain that freezes, which means you become a victim, where after the fight is over.

However, keep the plan simple. When teaching students, I describe a fight as being like climbing a tree. If you stand at the bottom of the tree and look at all the layers of branches in an attempt to decide how you are going to get to the top, it’s likely that you’ll get lost in contemplating all the possibilities.

If you start climbing, things may well change as you climb. If you stand and only look at the trunk and make a  plan to get to the first branch, it’s most likely that the rest will sort itself out and become clearer as you continue to climb.

I have been very fortunate over the years to have trained with people from five different Special Forces units around the world. ‘Keep it stupid simple’ is such a universal axiom that it’s even used by the British SAS, albeit with a slight adaptation. “Keep it so simple a stupid person could do it’.

There are many similarities between what these desperate units do. If it’s simple and it works, then everyone should do it. Over and above this, I have noticed that what they all do extraordinarily well is fundamental to all of them. There is no over-complication to what they do, and I say no more, I really mean no more.

What makes them different from everyone else is that they never, ever get the basics wrong. I guess it could be likened to the more moving parts that comprise your technique, the greater the probability of something going wrong and disrupting it.

I once trained with a recruit fresh from an Israeli Recon unit, a specialist in unarmed combat. I asked him to show me his unit’s ‘pistil disarm technique’, but he said I would be disappointed. I replied that, on the contrary, I would be delighted.

He suggested that I should don a protective helmet for safety and use a training (dummy) gun. I put on the helmet and pointed the gun at his head. His reaction definitely surprised me, for when he grabbed the gun, he punched me in the face. After a short recovery, I said: “That was cool, but you didn’t step off the line of the weapon.”

His reply surprised me even more than the punch in the face. “No, you don’t need to step off the line of the weapon, because we’ve proved that someone can grab the gun and move it before the attacker can pull the trigger.” All I could think was, “I wonder who draw the short straw in proving that?” the point is that his routine was simple to remember and execute. It simply couldn’t fail.

The kicker though is that human nature seeks ever more complicated solutions. From a fighting point of view, we are likely influenced by movies to pursue what looks impressive and possibly unnecessarily complex. We see this in many martial arts. Ju Jitsu as practiced by Samurai warriors was remarkably simpler than the variant we observe today.

Instead of solving a problem with a simple and effective solution, we are influenced by contrary opinion and thereby complicate the sequence. Practice your simple, effective plan and avoid analysis paralysis. A top combat instructor told me that the mark of an advanced student is one who can flawlessly apply the fundamentals in the face of noise, chaos and fright.

In your practice sessions, concentrate on the hardest, most demanding training that you can manage. Consistency will deliver smooth and powerful technique. “It’s much harder,” as Bruce Lee said, “to be the man who practiced one kick 10 000 times, than to be the one who practiced 10 000 kicks once.”

Practice bing hit (albeit safely). If the first time you are hit is in the street, it’s highly likely that moment will be the end of your fight. If you are repeatedly hit in training, you’ll get used to it. A hit in the street will blend into your expectations, it will summon your reflexes and release an effective sequence in response. You can’t be too fit for a fight. Consider a gunfight, if you came out victorious, you’d never think, “Wow, my gun was just too big for that”, or that “I had too much ammo.”

In a situation where you are in fear, you are going to get a huge adrenaline boost. There are many consequences of this, one of which is that your heart rate will go through the roof. In this regard, 145 beats per minute would not be unusual. Your heart will be racing, you will be out of breath and only gross motor function will remain. As someone said to me: “No threading needles in a gunfight.” Over the last few months, I have seen an alarming increase in videos of people carrying out gun disarms with their partner, using a real and loaded gun, or knife defense with real knives. Apart from the obvious danger of being shot or stabbed, this simply isn’t realistic. Your training partner holding that loaded pistol or sharp knife is simply not going to attack with the same force as would a criminal in the street.

Even subconsciously, there will be a degree of holding back, of knowing what is coming next, which translates into a lack of conviction. I have found that if I am using a dummy knife or simulation pistol (with the correct protective clothing, of course), I am aggressively committed to the attack, which is therefore much more realistic.

When you train, finish the technique or scenario that you are rehearsing in the manner that you would want to see it concluded in reality. If you are training with pepper spray, get your partner to behave as if they have just been ‘pepper sprayed.’

If you carry out a gun disarm, don’t finish by giving the gun back to your partner. Instead, drop the gun and access your own training pistol, simply because you know the condition of your pistol and not his. Move, drop his pistol, get yours out and issue assertive verbal commands.

Have your training partner get down on his knees with his hands on his head or get him to go for the one you have dropped, and then consider the decisions you might need to take. Avoid finishing any scenario by praising yourself unnecessarily until you have carried out the technique all the way to its conclusion.

Training to Survive

Training to Survive

Taking a look at what you should consider when training, regardless of the style, programme or philosophy.

Fight To Win:

There are so many martial arts and fighting styles these days, it would be impossible to analyse all of them. We would get lost in a world of opinion, unprovable theories and what’s real. Thus I am going to try and keep this article independent of all of that. What I will say ahead of time is that I have spent close to 30 years training in different martial arts and fighting styles, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is this: your mindset plays a bigger part in your ability to win a fight that any skill you can learn. If you have to fight, fight. If you fight, fight to win. This ranges from a gun fight to a fist fight, ground fight or any other type pf fight you can think of. Your desire to be the one who walks away, your value of yourself as a person and your determination to keep going until it’s done will determine the outcome.

There is a famous algorithm that states: Watch your Thoughts, they will become your words. Watch your Words, they will become your Deeds. Some attribute this to Lao tzu, others say it was Buddha and yet others say it was Frank Outlaw (for those who recall, Margaret Thatcher’s father). One of my best friends and training partners favours the latter attribution, which I am pretty sure is the least likely. Regardless of who said it, it applies perfectly to training.


Decide right now as to why you are training and what you want to be able to achieve? Are you training to protect yourself and your loved ones, or for the training as an art form, the exercise it provides or for the sense of community involvement? None of these reasons are any better than the other. Neither are the necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, once can often segue into the other. However, they don’t always all go together either. You also need to decide, am I prepared to do what is necessary to save my life? The default answer, of course, is yes, but think about it. Are you prepared to carry out a technique that will break someone’s bones or end their life, knowing that is what is going to happen, or will you hold back? I have thought this through in great detail. I have answered yes to a lot of the scenarios I have considered. However, there is one scenario I haver been unable to reconcile myself with and I’m pretty sure that in this case I would not be able to do what needs to be done.

Know your limitations:

Know your limitations and find solutions for those situations you cannot reconcile yourself with, if there are any.

Lastly think about what you want to be able to achieve. Do you want to remain unarmed? Do you want to carry a step-down weapon, a lethal weapon, to be able to kick at head height, to be able to punch well, or all of the above? You probably won’t find someone who will be able to teach you how to deliver a spinning round house kick and simultaneously teach you good gun skills. I’m not saying you won’t, but someone who has great skills and teaching capability in practical pistol application probably won’t be an expert in reverse round house kicks, this means a Taekwondo expert, or if it’s unarmed self-protection that is required, then a combat specialist is called for. If it’s practical pistol application you are seeking, then find a pistol instructor whose teaching is directed at the street environment. There are without a doubt one-stop shops out there. However, I was reminded recently by a colleague that a jack of all trades is often just that.

Visualise carrying out the techniques:

My last comment on this issue is that just because you are no in the dojo, academy or at the range, remember that the training doesn’t need to stop. Visualise! Visualise yourself carrying out the techniques ‘perfectly’ (more on this later). Visualise yourself in different scenarios, solving the problems, reconciling your actions, living with them afterwards. It has been proven many times over that your brain can’t tell the difference between visualisation and conscious action. Many of the world’s top sportsmen and women use visualisation to perform at the level that they do. Tennis players, golfers, formula 1 racing drivers all use visualisation. They see themselves doing the stroke or driving the bend perfectly. Doesn’t it make sense that if these top sportsmen would use it to perform to their maximum, that you could use it to perform to the maximum in your life>


You have started the learning process with the correct thoughts. Now it’s time to commence with the physical training. When you learn a technique, an instructor teaches you, you watch a video, however your learning is going to be done. Walk through the technique both before you carry it out and while you are doing it. You acquire a new skill by physically building a pathway from the short-term memory side of the brain to the long-term memory side. This neural pathway is established over a period, much as scar tissue is grown to repair a cut on your hand. This pathway takes a certain amount of time to establish. However, the more often that the technique is embedded in your short-term memory, the longer it will remain. Self-talking through the technique helps your brain embed it in the short-term memory and helps you to verbalise each individual step to ensure you have memorized and understood those steps.

The above can be summarized as follows: Visualise the technique in question if you don’t have time for actual training. Articulate this technique, and then you will be able to visualize it even better. However, do not neglect training in the technique if you have the time available for this.


When I teach groups one of the first questions I ask is: “Does practice make perfect?” Most of the time I get a resounding and enthusiastic “yes”. Well, it’s a trick question, because practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. If you practice a technique badly, what are you going to become? Yes, you will be perfectly bad at it. When you learn a technique, practice it slowly and thereby you will practice it perfectly. Take the time to make sure each and every step is there, what it achieves overall and why it is important. I believe there is an 80/20 rule to training.

A lot of students ask me: “But I’m not going to do it slowly in the street, so shouldn’t I train it fast here?” My answer is the same answer I was give by Ryron Gracie, my instructor in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. “You are right, but out of slow practice, speed will naturally come. “To add a maxim from the racing world. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

Lastly on the issue of deeds, I often hear students say: “But this does not feel natural”, or instructors say: “You should do what is natural”. I only know of one situation where it makes sense to use what is a natural startle response to the human body, which is the isosceles stance in pistol shooting. Our hands are naturally pushed way from ourselves under stress, while the body lowers itself in the isosceles stance. In any other situation, a natural response would normally be incorrect, such as pushing your hands towards the attack path of a knife in order to ward off the blow. Hence I ask my students: “Is swimming natural?” The answer is: “No, swimming is a learnt survival skill, flapping around in the water and then drowning is natural.” In a fight, most times, natural is the equivalent of drowning. We must learn to fight, and we must learn the appropriate survival skills. So if a technique feels unnatural, that could be a good thing, and therefore we must train until it starts to feel natural.


If you do something often enough, it will become habit, or to refer to a phrase often heard in the training world: “muscle memory”. I have always found to rather be an odd term, as muscles don’t have memory as such. Well, they do, of course, in terms of repetitive muscular action, but not related to specific technique as such. I like to refer to this as a reflex action, an action that can be initiated without a conscious thought process. Why should we not want a conscious process? Well, it takes 0.75 of a second to initiate action in response to a brain input, or maybe in terms of the action on the part of another person. That’s too long anyway, as if we have to think about it intermittently, then we have already lost the upper hand.

For a technique to become a habit or a reflex action, we have to actually establish a neural pathway as mentioned earlier, a path for that new technique to progress from memory input to conscious action.

New Technique:

How long does it take for this tissue pathway to grow? Some say 21 days, some say 200 repetitions. In my experience, I would say three months. I have found that for me to go from learning something for the first time to being able to use it, takes me three months. For you it might be quicker, so it is important to find out.

Once it’s there though, is it always there? Yes and no. recently the US Army conducted a study to determine it unarmed combat is still relevant in modern warfare. In other words, how retainable are combative skills?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Something like 40% of US Army combatants had needed to use their unarmed combat skills during their last tours of duty. The answer to the second question was even more interesting. To test how retainable the Army Combatives Programme is, veterans from the Second World War who had learnt the original programme from Fairbairn & Sykes were asked what they could recall. The results were amazing, as the veterans were able to recall a very high percentage of the original techniques.

In the split second of a fight:

Now does this mean that once you have learnt a technique, you no longer have to train any longer? No, not at all. There is a huge difference between being able to recall techniques and being able to use them in the split second of a fight. I liken this to riding a bike. When I was a kid riding a bike every day, I could perform some pretty impressive tricks. Then I got a car and stopped riding my bike. If I got on a bike today, could I still ride it? Yes. Could I do those tricks? No. I simply would not have the sensitivity, reflexes and feeling I had in my youth. In fighting, once you have acquired the necessary techniques, these are ultimately perishable. You will simply lose the sharpness, reflexes and capability to react instinctually if you do not train regularly.

Things to remember:

Decide why you’re training, what you’re prepared to do and what you want to learn. Think it through, see yourself doing it, and reconcile yourself with the consequences of your actions.

Seek professionals to learn from. I am not using the word ‘expert’ here, as there are far too many self-proclaimed experts out there for this to be a good reference point.

Talking through a technique is an excellent way to ensure you have all of the details down part. If you are unsure, ask your instructors how to do it, and also ask why you are doing it. If you understand they ‘why’, you will better understand the ‘how’. If your instructor is unable to tell you why a step is there, it might be a good idea to find a new one. It is the responsibility of an instructor to truly understand they ‘why’ and not just the ‘how.

Practice perfectly: If the technique feels awkward but makes sense, then maybe you just haven’t done it enough times for it to feel more natural. Remind yourself that swimming felt awkward when you first did this too.

Keep training, visualize, talk through it, and practice it. Combative skills are perishable and you won’t have time to select the right technique, you’ll need to be able to just ‘do it’.

Tactical Awareness

Tactical Awareness

In this series of articles, I am going to look at what I call “the brain stuff” of self-protection. So many people spend so much time and money (sometimes well spent and often wasted) on self-defence classes, courses, seminars, etc. As an instructor, I used to talk about awareness before we got into the techniques and concepts. I always felt that students were listening to me, but firstly, were waiting to get on with the hitting, kicking and gouging. Secondly, it was often lost on them, because they could not see how they could do this “awareness thing”. It didn’t seem to mean anything to them or to be a priority.

Then one of South Africa’s biggest financial firms asked me to travel around to all of their offices in the country, talking to their employees about how to stay safe. What, no hitting, kicking and gouging? I realized I needed to rethink the way I put an awareness across, in order to make it important and practical. So, I made some changes in the way I thought about awareness and that changed the way I explained it. Since these first talks, I have now travelled the length and breadth of the country doing the same talk for various companies as part of their staff investment plan and have had huge results and feedback.

Question 1: Who in here, has been or knows someone who has been, involved in a criminal interaction of some sort? Around here, 99% of the room put their hands up.

Question 2: Who in here, has been involved in or knows someone who has been involved in a building fire of some sort? About 1% of the audience puts their hands up.
I pause and let everyone process what they have seen in the show of hands. Then I say, “doesn’t it seem odd to you, that we are most prepared for the least likely event and least prepared for the most likely event?”
So, I’m hoping with this series of articles I can give you the “brain stuff” around self-protection. The elements of self-protection that takes the least effort, the least investments, are the easiest to practice and become good at, with the highest possible paybacks.

So, what is awareness?
In so many self-defence seminars, we hear the instructor say, “You must be aware”, “Be aware of your surroundings”. What does that actually mean and how do we “Be aware”?
To go back to the fire example, awareness is not the fire fighter, or the fire extinguisher, it’s not even the sprinkler system, it is the smoke detector.  It’s the system we put in our homes and offices to tell us “get out of here, there is danger and if you stay it will become a major problem for you”. The smoke detector does not sense everything and then decide which out of the millions of inputs is smoke, it senses smoke and tells you when it senses it.

In the same way, awareness is not about seeing everything and deciding which one is criminal behaviour or situation, it’s about knowing what criminal behaviour or situation is and telling yourself and your loved ones when you see it. If I tell you to be aware of everything that’s going on around you, your brain will fry, sometimes in the first few moments. Imagine stepping outside onto a busy street and trying to see everything that’s going on. It would be impossible. To have good awareness, the first thing we need to do is see what matters to us, or another way of saying it would be, to see what might impact us. Does the lady pushing the pushchair with a four year old in it matter to me? No, she is highly unlikely to attack me. Do the two younger guys standing on the side of the road watching people walk by, studying them and taking note of the ones who have visible valuables matter to me? Yes. What if I am not going in that direction? Then no. To sum it up, decide who might have an impact on you and fade the rest into the background.

Is there an easy way to identify people who might have an impact on me, I hear you ask? Yes, 100%. Human behaviour is almost entirely predictable, when our subconscious is in charge, we all behave the same. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Cape Town or Johannesburg, Basra or London, criminals do the same things prior to an attack. An odd example of this would be: What does an elephant do before it charges? Most people say, “flap its ears, trumpet, shake its head and then charge”. This is in fact a mock charge, but that’s not the point, the point is, before an elephant does a mock charge, no matter which elephant it is or where it is, it will do the same as any other elephant. Well here is the good news, humans are the same.

Before an assault, the criminal will do one or more of the following:

Pre-event indicators:

  1. Targeting Glancing – A large head movement scanning the area for security/police and looking back at the intended target person or persons.
  • Self-Grooming – A repetitive movement of the hand around the face, neck or head. This action indicates a discomfort with the actions they are, or are about to be involved in. The fear of getting caught doing what they are about to do.
  • Indexing – A repetitive touching of the waist band. When we are preparing to use something we think about it and check it to see it is still there. We do this in every day life too, if you get out of your car to go into a shop, what do you do? Yep, touch your wallet. So why does the criminal touch his waist? Because that’s where they tend to carry their weapons.
  • A Hidden Hand – This is a significant indicator of trouble. If someone is approaching you in a context that supports criminal activity and you can’t see their hands, it’s worth assuming they are carrying a weapon in the one you can’t see.
  • A Correlation or Interception of Movement – If you are walking and someone is moving in the same direction, but at an angle that will end up with them in the same place as you, or they are in front and on a path that will intercept yours, this could spell trouble. Now if we add to pre-event indicators together in one situation, you can be pretty sure you shouldn’t be where you are right now.

Lastly, I would like to cover the colour code of awareness and preparedness. The colour code system was created by the legendary Jeff Cooper. The idea was to give people a framework to understand what level of awareness they should be in, in order for them to see an incident coming and be prepared to deal with it.

I have an adaptation of the colour code system that I believe helps students internalize and understand it’s application better. The main things I try to get across to audiences are:

No one level is a constant, the most likely colour you’ll spend extended periods in is yellow. However, the system is in constant flux. If you are at home watching a movie (in colour code white) and you hear a bang outside, you’ll jump to colour code orange (what is that noise outside?). Once your cat comes waltzing in and you realise it was the cat flap, you’ll go back to colour code white. Now you hear another noise, you go to orange again. The cat is in already, so you decide to investigate and go to yellow alpha (all your senses are in high alert). You see someone in the back garden climbing over your wall into your garden (you move to red). They see you and jump over the wall again and run (back to yellow alpha) and so on. The colours to be most careful of, are trying to go from white to black in one jump, you simply can’t do it. If you don’t know that trouble is there until it’s happening to you, your attempts at action will probably be either the wrong ones or most likely nothing at all, freezing. Either way the end result will probably be, passed out or passed away.

What’s the takeaway from this?

  • Be prepared by learning about awareness (a great book to read is “Left Of Bang”) and practicing it in everyday life.
  • Look for unusual and unnatural behaviour.
  • Be in the right colour code.