The best way to handle any confrontational situation is to avoid putting oneself in harm’s way. Unfortunately this is not always possible.

The nature of violence
When faced with an aggressive, unprovoked act of physical violence, there needs to be an awareness and recognition of the reality of this situation. Human nature is quite predictable in that the strongest will typically try to dominate a smaller opponent with foreseeable human behaviour – posturing, lifting of their chin, threatening their prey. Predators typically select victims that they feel they have an advantage over, those that appear vulnerable or those that they think they can easily overpower.

It will be confronting, violent, brutal, laced with vulgar language. Self-preservation becomes the sole focus.

When faced with a confrontational situation, it is important to understand and be aware of the physiological changes that your body will experience. Fear is a normal human instinct, and your body will react to this emotion – increased heart rate, adrenalin dump, nerves/anxiety and tunnel vision. With senses heightened your ability to make logical, rational decisions is likely to be impaired. It is important that you are able to acknowledge these changes in your own body and mindset, and to recognise that your opponent will be experiencing the same reactions.

Understanding the flee (do whatever to escape), freeze or fight response is significant. This response is innate, and will vary from person to person and from situation to situation. Some people will naturally choose to flee from confrontational situations, but this may not always be possible. For example, when backed up against the wall, escape may not be possible. In contrast, someone with a natural fight response may be overwhelmed by numerous, armed opponents, and flight may be their best option.

“Everyone is an individual and liable to react differently under chaotic circumstances”

Hanshi McCarthy.

In a survival situation, human instincts will kick in with a single minded focus on the immediate threat. While it sounds like this is the most appropriate response to handle the situation, it may leave you vulnerable to an attack from a third party who may choose to enter the fight (eg. a friend of your opponent).

The best scenario is obviously to avoid a physical confrontation. The next best option is to control the situation through verbal negotiation. Physical confrontation is always the last resort. In today’s litigious society, preference is for self-defence techniques that control a situation rather than critically injuring an opponent. The need to use excessive force is an undesirable outcome – the results of such an interaction are not likely to favour you or your opponent. In saying that, in a life or death situation, protecting and defending yourself and loved ones is number one priority and “anything goes”.


A critical part of self-defence is an awareness of the intentions of your opponent, self-awareness and awareness of the physical environment.

Awareness of your opponent refers to their body language, body positioning, tone of their voice, the way they hold themselves. Understanding the intensity of the aggressor i.e. is there a clear intention to fight, are they highly agitated? Are they holding a weapon? Do you know your opponent? Do you know their capability? Are there any other factors in play such as the influence of drugs/alcohol, peer-group pressure? Ego, pride and fear are key factors which need to be carefully considered.

In addition to understanding these indicators, your ability to evaluate their intent is crucial in identifying the options you may have to de-escalate the issue. You may only have seconds to weigh up all of these factors, therefore your ability to rapidly assess the situation is essential. Your initial, instant assessment will form your profile of your opponent including your evaluation of their physical ability, mental state, and degree of motivation. It is not likely that these factors will remain static throughout your confrontation, therefore it is important that you remain vigilant and responsive to any changes in your opponent.

Self-awareness is the most important element in a confrontational situation. How do you handle fear? Are you aware of your natural fight/flight/freeze response?  What is your ability to work under fatigue/stress? What are your capabilities as a martial artist? Awareness of your own mindset is also important here – has your pride been challenged, what is your intent? How is your body reacting – what is your breathing pattern? What is your body language indicating?

Environmental awareness is not just being aware of the threat of your opponent. In combat, you need to evaluate the actual physical environment eg, who else is present – are they friends of your opponent- what is their intent? What is the physical layout of the environment eg is there glass, are there obstacles like tables or walls, are there escape options? Are there materials that can be used as potential weapons? All of these are important considerations especially in public areas where there are many unknown variables.

How do you handle the threat?

Your actions will be key to the outcome of conflict. Your body language will signal your intent –the confidence you display, the tone and authority of your voice,  and the language that you use. Is your body language threatening? What emotions are you exhibiting? Are your decisions driven by logic or emotion (typically in an escalated matter your judgement can be clouded by emotion)?

Your intent is also important. Is negotiation an option? Can you de-escalate the issue by managing the situation through non-threatening language?

“The greatest victory is to defeat your opponent without fighting”

Sun Tzu

If the issue continues to escalate, the way that you hold your body is important to maximise your ability to defend yourself. Do you have your hands in a position to defend yourself? Do you have the ability to freely move? Are you vulnerable from an attack from behind?


World renowned karate historian & practitioner Hanshi Patrick McCarthy has categorised the most common forms of violent assault into Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAPV theory). Essentially there are 36 different fundamental forms of attacks in a one on one, empty handed fight state. Understanding and identifying these practices allows students to develop appropriate, pro-active responses to handle different situations.

In addition, Hanshi McCarthy regularly advocates his tool box theory.

“It’s better to have as many tools in the toolbox and never need to use them rather than just having a hammer as not every opponent is a nail”

Hanshi McCarthy

Awareness of the human body can highlight both strengths and vulnerabilities, providing insight into how to best protect oneself in a physical confrontation. An example of typical fight scenario is an opponent will grab with their left hand, preparing to strike with their right hand. Knowing this in advance allows one to take pro-active action.


Training for reality

Successful training is getting better at reacting under the pressure of fear (you will never lose the state of being afraid). It’s also important to train under pressure and fatigue – while training will never match the intensity of a real life situation, it should be at a level that sufficiently prepares one to face the reality of physical confrontation. Knowing technique alone is not enough, it’s critical to undertake realistic training, practicing with intent which in turn builds mental toughness and tenacity.

Training should also obviously be focused on increasing your physical skillset – techniques, strength and speed as these skills are clearly beneficial in an unwanted situation.

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