Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Importance of Surprise in Self-Defense

Surprise is a very important fundamental to understand when it comes to self-defense, but it's difficult to incorporate into one's training. There are two sides to the coin to consider; removing an attacker's ability to surprise you and using surprise to add effectiveness to your own physical defense.

Removing An Attacker's Ability to Surprise You

This is accomplished by being aware of your surroundings and taking sensible precautions. When out and about, whether you're walking home from a transit station, walking to your car in a shopping garage, out for a run for exercise, etc, you should always be generally aware of all the people and vehicles that are in close proximity as you move about.

As part of this practice, you should avoid closing off your hearing and outward focus by listening to an MP3 player or talking on the phone while walking about. You should avoid going close to areas that could allow a person to jump out at you quickly. You should also avoid allowing people to follow you into an isolated area or to triangulate around you as a group.

Even if you're as good a martial artist as Bruce Lee, if you let yourself be caught by surprise, you may not have the opportunity to put those skills to use for self-defense.

Using Surprise to Add to Your Own Self-Defense

Catching an attacker by surprise is one important way a person can make up for lack of size or numbers in a self-defense situation. Women have been known to successfully repel much larger attackers by using the element of surprise. Most of the time, if a woman has been targeted for an attack, she has been perceived as an easy victim, which makes using surprise that much more effective a tactic.

I remember one example of a woman in Ottawa who was attacked while rollerblading. A man jumped out of the bushes and took her to the ground. He may have thought that she would be helpless while wearing a pair of those cumbersome skates. He was wrong. The woman managed to kick him in the groin using her skate. She successfully immobilized her attacker and was able to flee to safety.

Weapons of opportunity make for great elements of surprise because they're usually not accounted for by the attacker, whether it's sand thrown in the attacker's eyes, a pen used a striking implement, or a trash can thrown in their path to trip them up.

Even when you're not using a weapon of opportunity, you should do what you can to conceal your attacks. This is why we try to avoid telegraphing our strikes and kicks with exaggerated motions. You should also save any strikes you intend to use for a moment in which they can be used most effectively. For example, you shouldn't try to knee someone in the groin from far away. They're more likely to see it coming and if you miss, you can better believe your attacker will be even more ready to defend against it the second time.

These are but a few examples of how surprise can be used. Please feel free to share your own examples of how you've used surprise to keep yourself safe.


Journeyman said...

Excellent post on an important topic. I can't agree more about removing an attacker's ability to surprise you. Awareness of your surroundings is crucial. I wrote a post about this on my blog, if you don't mind, here is the url for it.


You're also right that no matter how good your skills are, if you get blindsided, they're of no use.

As for surprising your attacker, you made some interesting points. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to defend yourself, do so with animal like ferocity. Scream, yell, bite, scratch. Most predators don't want to have to work that hard to accomplish their goal, and they don't want to get hurt, either. Yell fire! That'll draw attention, consider having one of those loud whistles on hand (although you need to use them before the attack has started, as a deterrent )

Great post.

Anonymous said...

I agree about avoiding getting caught of guard: it’s like my old sensei said; if someone stood behind a door with a hammer and he had no reason to suspect foul play in all likelihood he would get knocked out, no matter his skill level and his decades of experience. The main thing to achieve a tactical surprise, at least in my view, is to vary your counterattacks: in our system we usually attack high once or twice, then switch to low and then either strike high again or go for a lock or throw. It’s like my sensei says: the first he might block, the second not that likely and the third will go through unless he’s insanely good. It’s obvious the key to successful self-defense is combining counterattacks and developing the reflexes to immediately and intuitively react to his movements, especially when he’s more experienced and tries to counter you. In any case once you decide to counterattack it should be done full-force with absolute determination otherwise you will fail. Here too the adage of master Yoda applies: “do or do not, there is no try”.

Lori O'Connell said...

Good blog post, Journeyman. Totally agree.

I have mixed feelings about teaching women to yell fire. I think it's a good tactic for men because most people don't want to get involved in a man-to-man fight, and may not bother calling the authorities to deal with it. But I find that people are more likely to help a woman being victimized by a man. And if someone does contact the authorities, the victim has a better chance of being helped if they say a woman was yelling "Stop! Let me go!" than if they say that they heard someone yell fire. Because then people are looking for a fire not a woman who has been attacked.

As for the anonymous post, it sounds like your dojo teaches very similar defensive concepts to what we teach.

Journeyman said...


Thanks for your thoughts on the fire idea. It's only one of many. I included it because I have seen a disturbing trend of people looking the other way for male on female violence, domestic or not. People on the streets put there heads down, thinking someone else will do something. Yelling fire gets attention, and the more witnesses the better. Many attackers will flee when many sets of eyes are on them. Yelling fire is only one strategy, I wouldn't rely on it as a guarantee of safety, or teach it in place of other sound defense methods, but as an attention getter, it can often work well.

Lori O'Connell said...

Journeyman, it may depend on location. If the woman is in a more public place and there are more people close by, then maybe yelling fire would make more sense as people might turn to investigate more. But if the woman is in a very isolated place that is hard to locate, then it may make it harder for the authorities to find her as they would be looking for a fire. I guess context is everything. I appreciate the counter thought though. It's a good point.

Journeyman said...

Good point. I was coming at it from the context of being in a place with lots of people close by. In an isolated area, you are absolutely correct. Context and location play significant roles in strategies for survival. Thanks for clarifying, or helping me clarify, my point.


Anonymous said...

Not that it matters much but the anonymous comment was from me, I was just in a hurry so I forgot to sign off.