A basic introduction to street self defense – part 1

Part 1: Managing threats

This is perhaps the most important part of any discussion on self-defense. It is also routinely overlooked by many who instead jump to which caliber they want to CCW or whether an elbow strike is preferable to a kick to the bollocks. A lot of this section has been well developed by figures in the self-defense community. We are just lifting their ideas and republishing them. But we take no credit or make any claims of originality and thank the experts who have written and developed these ideas.

Threats come in many different forms from the aggressive pan-handler to the dangerous driver. You must understand you can’t defend yourself from threats you are not aware of. There is no magic skill that will stop someone stabbing you in the back whilst you’re listening to headphones and not looking around.

Awareness is the first line of defense.

Col Jeff Cooper established a very good way of thinking about awareness and mindset. He broke it down into a color code:

  • Condition White – you are relaxed, unaware and unprepared to act. An example would be sitting on your sofa at home reading a book.
  • Condition Yellow – You are actively scanning your environment for threats and aware of your immediate surroundings. This should be your default condition when out in public with very few exceptions.
  • Condition Orange – You have identified a potential threat and are prepared to act or evade if necessary.
  • Condition Red – An active threat that you must deal with now.

The code is designed to allow you to elevate your responses and not get caught out by a deteriorating situation. If you are in Condition Yellow walking down the street and suddenly see someone running very fast out of the corner of your eye you would pay attention. This signifies a potential threat so now you’re in Condition Orange. You’re attempting to workout why this person would be moving so fast, are they trying to escape something, are they coming towards you, etc? Unfortunately in this scenario gunfire follows the person fleeing and you see down the block someone with a rifle shooting. You’re in Condition Red and now acting.

OODA. OODA adds another layer to the color code. The color code is basically part of a system that allows you to break the bad guys OODA loop. OODA stands for:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

You have to understand that OODA is at the heart of everything. When you saw that person running you Observed them, you Orientated yourself to better face what is happening, you Decided to move to Condition Orange and then you Acted. Putting all those things together you did something.

An ambush works because it disrupts the OODA loop. Whilst the victim is still staring dumbfoundedly the bad guy has already shot/punch/attacked them. The victim was not able to make the decision in time to defend themselves or run away. This often happens because they were in condition white and it all ‘happened so fast’. They were always behind the bad guy, they were having to respond to what he was doing and were unable to seize the advantage.

These two concepts make up this first fundamental of self-defense: awareness. Some people have trouble adapting to this ‘always on’ mindset, we often do drift off in routine and get caught out. One way to combat this is to run a narration to yourself about everything around you.

“Two guys crossing the street in front of me, one wearing baggy pants, shop keeper putting up a new sign in front of me, blue car driving too fast” etc.

Once you have an awareness you now need to move onto handling threats. Before that we should talk a bit about threats and how they arise.

Unknown Persons

In the case of street violence the threat is clearly going to be from other unknown persons. Now whilst paranoia is detrimental it is good to develop a fixed routine when it comes to interacting with unknown persons that becomes automatic. Until someone has established they are not a threat you need to be on your guard.

Criminals want to win, they will do whatever they can to stack the odds in their favor. This means weapons are going to be likely. This means there are likely to be multiple attackers. This means they will want to get close to you before attacking. This means they don’t want witnesses. It will help to think like a criminal at this stage, if you were going to mug someone how would you do it?

Proximity is going to be preferred by the criminal, it’s easier to launch an effective surprise attack up close to you. Using this information we as the good guy want to prevent unknown people getting too close to us before we can judge their intentions.

We also want to make sure we aren’t being flanked or ambushed by an accomplice meaning we need to think about how we angle up to the potential threat.

So managing unknown persons comes down to effectively managing space. Avoiding conflict by effectively managing threats makes you into a hard target. Criminals often want an easy win so by acting correctly we can dissuade criminal intent. The battle you win without fighting is the true victory.

Let’s pause for a second and consider an approach by a normal person. A normal person with no ill intent is going to more than likely respect your personal space and attempt to appear nonthreatening. If I’m approaching someone to ask the time and they ask me to hold my distance I’m going to stop and listen to them. The bad guy however is going to keep sidling forwards.

A common mugging tactic when mobile phones were just getting popular in London was to ask for the time, when the person drew out their phone to look it would be snatched or the assault would be initiated. The bad guy used the request to close distance and commit the crime. We need a way to stop this and manage the potential threat.

The Fence and Verbalization

Geoff Thompson, a British bouncer and now self-defense instructor/life coach, is credited with coming up with the fence concept. When you fight your hands are up, it is much easier to throw a punch or deal with a punch and defend yourself with your hands in front of your face. Having your hands up in front of you also creates space and acts as a visual boundary that most people will react to.

The fence is a basic tool that with practice can simply become ‘talking with your hands’. Here is an example of a woman employing a form of fence.

I would also strongly recommend watching this Youtube clip of Thompson talking about the Fence and the part 2.

The fence accomplishes a few things:

  1. It puts you in the frame of having to fight. Your hands are up and ready.
  2. It acts as a boundary to create space
  3. It signals you are not an easy target.

A strong overt fence can end interactions with unknown targets. I’ve employed an overt fence to a homeless guy who was encroaching on me very fast babbling about some sob story and as soon as my hands came up he stopped in his tracks and then wandered away.

The fence does not work alone, you need verbalization to back it up. Again when managing unknown persons we want to keep space between us. Space lets us run and get away, it also lets us arm ourselves. Someone coming at you with a question needs to be told to stop. There also needs to be an escalation, some people won’t back up the first time requiring a harsher verbal command.

  1. “Hey can you hold up please?”
  2. “Hold up NOW”
  3. “Back the FUCK UP”

This is a simple escalation – the first is a polite request and most people with good intentions will listen to you. Drunks however or dodgier people might continue approaching you so you escalate it further to a louder more decisive command. The final escalation would be the most forceful hence the use of crude language. It’s important not to swear at the person “You fuck” but swearing is the language of the street and is a good final escalation. Someone continuing to encroach after this is displaying they are a likely threat. Remember, normal polite people will respect your desire for space.

Threat awareness – aggression clues.

Once you’ve ID’d a potential threat and are engaging with them you need to be looking at further clues that suggest they have criminal intent. Some of these are:

  • Grooming gestures, touching face or head.
  • Looking about them for witnesses.
  • Touching areas where a weapon might be located.
  • A weight shift – this signifies imminent violence, they are adjusting to strike you. Example here.
  • Face draining of color usually indicates blood rushing to the rest of their body in preparation for action.

All these clues can happen very quickly. This is why it is important to establish your verbal commands automatically. It doesn’t actually matter what the unknown person is saying. What matters is their behavior and language. If they stop and are non-threatening at the first request then you can perhaps engage in dialogue. If not you want your verbal routine to run so you can pay attention and look for the pre-assault clues.

Movement and positioning

You don’t want to be flanked or snuck up on. Being aware of your environment as discussed earlier is key to this, tripping over a kerb whilst moving to maintain distance from the potential threat could be terrible. A good balanced fighting stance should be maintained, you want to be firm to resist an attempted bum rush.

As you engage with the potential threat you want to be moving, ideally in a way that benefits you. Orientating the situation to an exit where you can get away. If you remain static and face the threat you’re less aware of what is behind you and to your sides so movement is your friend here.


In this section we’ve talked about the need for awareness, the need to understand how criminals and bad guys think, and some basic tools to allow us to manage these situations. All these things can be practiced with a group of friends.

It is very important to practice. It might seem silly telling your friend to back up as they approach you but it will make a difference when it happens. The other thing to practice and build upon is employing a fence, at first it may feel unnatural but over time it can become an incredibly normal looking habit.

In Part 2 we’ll look at how this basis allows us to react to active threats. There is no magic punch or elbow strike coming down the line. The importance is rather on establishing mindset and working on different skills that can be adapted to different scenarios. With that in mind we’ll discuss options to train for and suggest a framework on how to train.

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