Preparing the Mind for Emergency Combat


It almost goes without saying that mindset is a hugely important consideration when it comes to self defence – both in training and in actual usage. All but the deluded recognize that engaging in any form of combat is difficult and will require a certain resolve that is unique to fighting. Few people really have it in them to fight effectively – which is why the warrior archetype has been idolized since the beginning of civilization. To a degree, the fighter is apart from the rest of society; differing from others not only in physical ability, but primarily in his psychology.

Much has been written about the required psychological attributes for violence, from the musings of ancient warriors such as Miyamoto Musashi to more recent hypotheses and research by such people as Dave Grossman and Lonnie Athens, as well as the general thoughts of various use-of-force instructors such as Jeff Cooper and Rory Miller. But I feel that much of this can all be boiled down to a handful of key elements - which are detailed below.

These elements are trainable attributes that come under the ‘combat psychology’ heading of the Op.3 system model, and are what I believe to be the fundamental psychological requirements for effectiveness in combat.

These attributes are of course entirely intangible on their own – existing only as thought patterns in the mind of the individual. They do however, manifest in various behaviours of the effective fighter – in training and/or the actual performance of techniques under real stress. As such, each attribute ties-in with a physical aspect of the system model.

Before addressing these attributes, it would be wise for me add the disclaimer that I am NOT academically trained in any field of psychology. But like those who have been, all I can do is hypothesize; because ultimately there are no true experts on what is perhaps the most complex thing in the world – the human mind. My thoughts on the subject are based on what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced and the recounted experiences of others. If anybody out there is willing to fund/host a scientific study of some sort… you know where to find me!


Aggression on its own is perfectly useless. Growling, shouting and being ‘wound up’ is great for looking like somebody who is up for a fight, but is in fact not as big a player in the psychological requirements for fighting as I once thought. It is instead, what I now feel to be an important underlying mindset of combative training; an undertone that should exist in the training environment.

If we draw a parallel with basic military training, we can see a certain consistent level of aggression not only in the training itself but the overall environment. The banter, the sense of humour, is all tinged with aggression. And for good reason; how is the soldier ever going to cope in the field if he can’t take being called names or poked fun at?

Likewise, in my own training sessions, swearing and general ‘piss-taking’ is not an uncommon thing. While I don’t encourage ‘macho’ behaviour, I feel that the almost serene and peaceful environment created in the dojos of various ‘traditional’ Eastern martial arts is not conducive to effective combat-preparation.

We are, after all, supposed to be preparing for what will be a situation requiring an assertiveness that is born of aggression. And so the training must reflect this. But again, it should be subtle and simply allowed to be (as it is in the training of such team sports as football and rugby), and certainly not contrived – at which point it becomes a ‘show’ of bravado that is more likely to get somebody into trouble than get them out if it.

A point worth mentioning is that aggression should not be confused with anger. Anger is an emotional state that controls the individual. Much like panic, it is not something that the individual consciously chooses but is instead something that happens to us. Some self protection instructors have said that a little bit of anger is a good thing, if you can control it. Personally, I would say the same thing for aggression, but that it is impossible to practice ‘just a little bit’ of anger that you can control. Comparing anger to panic, we would be unlikely to hear somebody say that just a little bit of panic is a good thing.

Finally, aggression lays the foundation from which an essential decisiveness is born. When being verbally confronted and knowing that you are moments away from being physically assaulted, you have an opportunity from which to physically pre-empt the situation. In practice, this is a lot more difficult to do than many would believe. Similarly, when being on the receiving end of a vicious attack, curling up into the fetal position is a very natural and common response in human beings. Being able to force yourself out of that defensive mindset and physical position so as to deliver a counter attack takes a kind of determination that can only come from somebody who is capable of exercising aggression.


Tenacious Goal-Orientation

A common understanding of tenacity is the attitude of “never giving up” or “refusing to stop”. Personally, I prefer to re-frame this explanation as “I am going to achieve my goal no matter what”. In this way, we remain focused on the positive (what we want to achieve) rather than the negative (factors that are making our task difficult). The goal in this case is likely to be delivering some serious concussive blows to the head of an unsavory character, with the negative factors being the fact that we are having to hurt somebody in the first place - somebody who is likely doing the very same thing to us.

The difference is subtle but profound, I feel. Much in the same way that focusing on what we want rather than what we don’t want – in life – can have a noticeable effect on the way we feel day-to-day.

And for this reason, I prefer to be specific in the way I explain tenacity and refer to this attribute as being ‘tenaciously goal-oriented’.

This ties-in with the primary strategy of ‘constant offensive pressure’(1) – which is the concept of never pausing or allowing oneself to be stopped in the process of delivering the necessary violence to an attacker. In our system of self defence, this essentially means a continuous barrage of well-aimed, full power strikes until the threat subsides.

The problem with fighting people is that they tend not to enjoy being hit (believe it or not), and will do things to try and stop you. To overcome these factors, what is needed is an attitude of single-mindedness that refuses to be distracted until the job is done. It is widely recognized that in any form of violent confrontation, determination can and has allowed an apparently smaller/weaker individual or force to succeed against otherwise overwhelming odds.

For this reason, in every session I conduct, students will have at least one experience in which they are pushed to a point of uncomfortableness where they will want to quit, but are encouraged to continue beyond that – specifically, only stopping when allowed to and not when they choose to. In this way, they are developing the mindset of not giving in and achieving their goal no matter what. These experiences don’t necessarily have to come from combat drills either. Any physical activity that takes the student to a point of exhaustion can achieve the same end. This is why, in a violent confrontation, I would often favour the chances of somebody like a CrossFit athlete or similar sports person over almost all modern ‘martial artists’ – if only because they push themselves beyond that point on a regular basis, and do so in a way that that is ‘all-out’ rather than ‘paced-out’. In essence, they ‘attack’ the exercise they are performing.


Instant Positive Reaction

When recounting experiences of being violently assaulted, many victims will report having had an overwhelming feeling of shock by the initial onslaught, to the extent that their first – and often only – response was to curl up into some sort of protective posture and remain that way until the attack ceased. A similar response is to turn away from the direction of the attack and attempt to evade incoming strikes without making any attempt to fight back. As briefly mentioned in the section on aggression, these are actually perfectly natural behaviours in human beings that are commonly known as the ‘freeze’ and ‘flight’ responses. They are also entirely unhelpful in most assaults for the simple reason that you aren’t really achieving much in the way of ‘defence’, apart from prolonging how long it takes for you to be seriously hurt by covering your head, retreating or perhaps completely curling up into a ball.  

The preferred reaction would be one of an instant positive (aggressive and violent) counter-offensive. And this is exactly what we are aiming to achieve when developing the ‘instant positive reaction’. This is done by simple drills that aim to recreate the feeling of shock, but with an opportunity to respond in a more effective way – the ultimate goal being to literally re-wire the nervous system so as to reduce the strength of the desire to freeze/retreat/cover-up and create an unconscious assertive reaction.

The defensive response can never be completely erased, in my opinion. But what we can do is reduce the duration of how long we are in the passive/submissive mode. Even elite soldiers will freeze for perhaps a half of a second when ambushed by the enemy – but will of course respond by returning fire at the earliest opportunity.

What’s also noteworthy is that the element of surprise can not truly be replicated in training, at least not in any way that follows an acceptable level of safety. But it’s often quite surprising to people how adding a little bit of uncertainty in a drill can have a profound effect on the student.

To be a bit more specific on how this is achieved, the method we used to practice in the class was simply to stand with your back to a training partner who would at a time of their choosing, shove you (hard). Your job then would be to turn as soon as possible and hit the focus pad that they would be holding for you. It was when I attended a seminar instructed by Mick Coup that I was shown a couple of subtle ways of enhancing this drill. Without going into too much detail, this involves putting the student in the most physically unprepared state possible in a standing position and adding to the uncertainty factor by increasing the directions from which they can be ‘attacked’. An essential factor in this drill is that the student counter-attacks with as much determination as possible. I tell them that they are to try as hard as possible to destroy the target they are presented with - with perfect strikes and not just hit ‘at’ it. This not only helps to ingrain a more positive response but can add somewhat to the overall stress factor of the drill by way of performance anxiety. What we are doing here is essentially re-wiring the nervous system to respond in a different way to sudden, shocking physical stimulus.

The Instant Positive Reaction psychological attribute parallels and is manifested by a physical tactic of the same name. As has been mentioned, this tactic revolves around delivering an instant counter-offensive. Specifically, we want to use ballistic striking to the head of our attacker and done so in a way that provides a higher ‘rate of fire’ than usual (even if at the cost of reduced concussive power). This ‘full-auto’ flurry of strikes is for two reasons: 1) it increases the chances of putting the attacker ‘on the back foot’ and thereby turning the tables on their chosen attack method and 2) it is a natural occurrence when under high stress for strikes to become ‘panicky’; being in such a hurry to make the strike connect with its target often results in increased speed, but reduced range of motion (think of a ‘jab’ compared to a ‘cross’). And so this form of striking is an extension of a pre-existing natural reaction.


Present-Minded Self-Awareness

The aforementioned ‘panicky’ quality that striking takes on is but one of several ways in which stress can negatively affect performance.

Victims of violent assault will often report having had a sense of 'de-realization' during the event. This means a sense of detachment from the reality of what is happening (being assaulted in this case) which can cause the subject to analyse what are relatively trivial things when there are more pressing matters to be dealt with. This could manifest as the individual failing to take any sort of physical action to defend themselves as they consider the consequences of what is happening to them. The experience of having your ‘life flash before your eyes’ is an example of this. Also, consider the ‘deer caught in the headlights’ phenomenon.

There can also be a serious diminishment in general cognitive function which can cause a behavioural loop. An example of this from shooting incidents is failing to acknowledge that a weapon has run out of ammunition, and continuing to pull the trigger despite the obvious lack of recoil and sound from discharging rounds. In unarmed combat the behavioural loop can manifest as continuing to fight for a particular hold despite it not going ‘on’ after several failed attempts (in which case there should be a transition to a different technique) or perhaps continuing to throw the same strike even though the opponent has covered up and is not being affected by those strikes. This could also mean failing to realize that an attacker has ceased to be a threat and continuing to inflict damage upon them despite them having been neutralized (at which point, these actions have become illegal and are considered ‘overkill’).

The acute stress of an assault can also result in plain old negative self-talk, which is something most people have experienced at some point. This is that little voice in our heads that feels the need to tell us we are about to fail or indeed that we are failing. The ultimate result of this is for the person to give up. This of course runs completely contrary to the tenacious goal-orientation that is an essential ingredient in winning a fight of any kind.

The remedy then, for all of these negative effects is to first be aware that we are falling victim to them. Whether we are failing to use a full range of motion in our strikes in our panicky rush to make them land, or have found ourselves caught in a trap of over-analysation, or a useless behavioural loop, the key is to be present-minded enough to keep our mind ‘on the job’ and self-aware enough to notice when our actions have become ineffective or redundant.

This is an attribute I refer to as ‘present-minded self-awareness’ (also known as; being switched on!)

Unlike in sport fighting in which the fighter has a corner-man to shout advice at him mid-fight, in an emergency combat scenario this ability to observe ourselves while performing is the only thing that will allow us to rectify our mistakes (that could cost us our lives) in real-time. Likewise, in the army, while soldiers are trained to have enough present-mindedness to be able to control their rate of fire during a contact, they will generally have a section commander to issue fire control orders. So if he notices you’ve become a bit trigger-happy, he can shout at you to slow your ‘rate of fire’.

‘Slowing the rate of fire’ then, in Op.3 is the name I’ve given to the tactic which involves consciously slowing down what we are doing so as to switch from throwing short, sharp (but ultimately less powerful) strikes to more deliberate, well aimed, power-shots that land at a slower rate but with more concussive effect. This can only take place however, if there is first a conscious decision to do so. Likewise, we can only break out of a pattern of hypervigilance, negative self-talk, or unnecessary force once we have realized that we are stuck there in the first place. 

With all this said, it may come as a surprise that there isn’t a hell of a lot you can do to ‘train’ this attribute other than continuous repetition of technique and exposure to the stress that creates the symptoms. There should come a point in a student’s training where ‘in-fight’ coaching is reduced and they are encouraged to self-correct during training drills. Particularly when hitting the pads, having learned and understood the principles of striking – bio mechanics, breathing, form etc – they should be consciously observing themselves for errors mid-drill and correcting them accordingly.

Other than this, we utilize a basic breathing technique that is designed to calm the mind and slow down the heart rate. Once this has been learned, the next step is simply to practice it as often as possible. The goal is to condition our minds and bodies to be able to slow down on various levels at our command – so that we can utilize this at a time of acute stress or anticipatory anxiety where we would feel like we’ve been hit by the world’s worst caffeine buzz (for want of a better analogy).

Many of the negative psychological effects of stress can generally be thought of as the mind ‘running away with itself’. By practicing calming of the mind on a regular basis, we are creating a long-term benefit that will help reduce these effects. Also, we can actively practice this during stress inoculation drills and even in the moments before partaking in such drills in which there will be a build up of anticipatory anxiety. In this way, the ability to remain present-minded and self-aware can actually be measured to a degree.

Violent Intent

I’ve heard it said by martial arts instructors that when physically protecting ourselves in self-defence, our actions can not be considered ‘violent’.

Personally, I think this desire to somehow transcend violence while at the same time training for what will be a violent situation is a huge mistake. The funny thing is, the last time I checked, slamming your fist into somebody’s face is a pretty violent sort of thing. Whether you are doing this because the other person attempted to mug you, or whether you are mugging them, hurting people is violent (believe it or not!)

And so, from the moment a student commences training for self defence, it is important to establish exactly what it is they are trying to get good at. You can label all the attributes we are trying to hone such as accuracy, speed and power etc, and you can fine-tune the performance of techniques – all the kicks, punches and joint manipulations and the like – but ultimately, what we are trying to do is get good at delivering violence; hurting people.

Of course, all our training is in the context of protecting ourselves or other people, and so ALL our violence is in fact counter-violence. However, this doesn’t change the destructive nature of what we are trying to achieve at that moment when action is required.

It seems that many ordinary people like to maintain a belief that if they had to, they would be psychologically capable of delivering violence. And while there are plenty of cases of people who are otherwise perfectly normal, gentle human beings successfully defending themselves or their loved ones by fighting back, I would argue that these cases are in the minority compared to all those similar people who were successfully victimized by others. Also, assuming that we will be ready ‘on the day’ despite not training for it is a very dangerous assumption to make.

Personally, from what I have seen and experienced, I am inclined agree with criminologist Lonnie Athens’ theory of ‘The Process of Violentization’ which essentially states that a process of brutalization is first required to make somebody psychologically capable of violence. And so although untrained people can and have successfully used violence to defend themselves, it is often the case that these individuals have at some earlier point in their life experienced a level of violence or threat of violence and have likely even used violence themselves.

Consider why the military use such an elaborate tried-and-tested process to create effective soldiers. Instead of simply handing them a weapon and telling them to “get on with it”, a multi-faceted process is used to enable the individual to kill the enemy; including such elements as desensitization, the presence of authority, diffusion of responsibility, rewarding with medals and even peer pressure.

The fact is, most of us are able to enjoy living relatively peaceful lives in a civilized society because the vast majority of people have gone through a process of civilization. They are largely incapable of violence because it has been installed in their minds from a young age that hurting people is wrong. And rightly so. Unfortunately, it’s this very conditioning process that allows so many people to be victimized by those who have no problem whatsoever with being uncivilized – having likely been conditioned with an entirely different set of values as a result of a very different upbringing (2)

With this in mind then, effective training in self defence requires a very real element of violence, albeit in controlled doses. Just as a vaccination shot inoculates the patient by giving them a small dose of the very thing they are being protected from, students can be inoculated against violence by being exposed to small doses in training.

This is achieved in several simple but profound ways. Firstly, the training environment itself – a fitness studio in the case of our weekly class – is declared as a place where the social rules have changed. For the duration of the class, students are given permission to be violent. Obviously, this applies only to controlled violence by doing only as instructed and in no other form, but I find the act of actually telling people they are allowed to be violent has a noticeable effect.

Naturally, we have instances where people get hurt during drills where somebody misses a target or goes too fast/hard. And naturally, the person responsible instantly apologizes – at which point I tell them not to. While I believe it’s impossible to stop decent people from feeling bad for accidentally hurting their training partner, I make it a point that they don’t make a big deal of their apology – even on the rare occasion that the injury has been fairly painful. In a training session where we are supposed to be developing our ability to utilize violent intent, reinforcing the conditioned response of guilt after causing injury makes no sense. As soon as the class is over, students can go back to being civilized human beings – which they will do instantly without being given ‘permission’ (it takes more than two hours to undo a lifetime of behaviour) – but for the duration of the class, the social rules are different.

The second method of enabling students to harness violent intent is ‘shot placement’ - which I feel is one of the most overlooked training methods in the martial arts and unarmed combat training in general. Shot placement is essentially performing strikes on a live person, allowing the strikes to actually connect with their target, with the safety feature being the fact that the technique is performed in slow motion.

This doesn’t mean having slow motion Captain Kirk style fights, but instead is simply isolating a single strike and performing it on a training partner who literally stands (or lies) there and lets you do it (slowly). Ideally, this is done immediately before or after having performed the same strike full force on a training pad. The theory is that the combined sensations your body has of a) landing the strike full force – feeling that impact in the striking limb – and b) seeing, feeling and possibly hearing the same technique connect with human flesh will be brought together into the overall experience of the mind and body. I feel this is important because if the individual’s only experience of performing strikes has been on pads (or god forbid, in thin air as is seen all too often in the traditional arts) then the day their fist connects with a human target, the sensation of live flesh, the sound it makes and the sight of possibly watching the target drop like a sack of shit could come as quite a surprise as they suddenly realize what it is they’ve been training to do (3)

With regards to intent, it’s important for the student to maintain a combative mindset while placing the shot. When going so slow it’s easy to forget what it is you’re simulating – that is, hurting somebody. And so maintaining a ‘war face’ despite moving so slowly and using a range of motion as you would a real fast and hard shot is essential.

Another simple method for becoming used to the feeling of trying to hurt somebody, is… trying to hurt somebody. This means that when a striking pad of some sort is being held by a partner, instead of aiming to hit the pad as hard as you can, you instead try to hurt the person holding it. Mick Coup uses a neat trick in which he instructs students to try and break the hand of the person holding the focus mitt. This is of course impossible to achieve, as the pads are designed for the very purpose of protecting the holder. However, when the student is quietly instructed to hurt their partner, the effect is profound; strikes that were genuine attempts at hitting as hard as possible suddenly become even more powerful as the striker’s intent changes. This same concept can of course be used for any striking equipment being held by a partner – a kick-shield being held against the holder’s leg or a chest shield on the torso for example.

Likewise, trying to hurt yourself has the same effect. Have somebody throw leg kicks at a shield or bag as hard as they can and then once they’re in a good flow, instruct them to try and break their own shin on the target and you will generally see a tangible difference in the strike and the striker. Again, it will of course be impossible for the student to actually hurt themselves (providing you do indeed use a pad and not a log or tree trunk!), but the idea is to introduce a real element of violence into the training.

There is also of course, full force-on-force ‘fighting’ that is done with protective equipment and with other restrictions that stop the participants from actually being able to seriously hurt each other. In these drills, the fighters are actively fighting and trying to hurt their opponent, but because of the various restrictions cannot achieve this; they are however fully exercising their intent to cause harm at this point.

Lastly, there is another level to this type of training in which there is a genuine intent to hurt somebody. And this involves actually hurting somebody... deliberately. This is done in an extremely controlled way and with only a relatively low level of pain that does not result in injury. The person being hurt must also be doing so completely voluntarily. This is what I would consider advanced training and it is designed purely as an introduction (and somewhat desensitization) to the feeling of having the intent to hurt somebody, carrying out that action and actually achieving your goal. I’ll admit, this is pretty radical and is about as outside-the-box as you can get in self defence training, and for this reason I won’t be giving details as to how this is done.


Final Thoughts

The general public entrust police officers and soldiers to be armed, on the basis that they are highly trained with their weapons and have gone through a selection and training process that makes them suitable to be responsible with the potentially devastating power that those weapons afford them.

In the same way, if students of self defence are to be trained properly – that is, to be made physically proficient and psychologically capable of violence – then they too must exercise the same sort of responsible behaviour.

Firstly, being careful about who is taught is important. Personally, the main reason I am reluctant to teach people under the age of 18 (who I don’t know personally), is because I need to ensure that there is a suitable level of mental and emotional maturity before I start to enable them for violence. I can remember being fifteen years old and showing a ‘move’ to a friend at school, who promptly went and performed it on a fellow student – just to see what would happen! Luckily, he didn’t do it correctly. And considering that what I practice and teach now is a little more ‘heavy’, I am wary of teaching younger people. And of course, not wanting to discriminate due to age alone, if I ever felt that an adult of any age didn’t possess the right mentality I would politely refuse to teach them. I’ve never had to chuck somebody out of a class, but I have responded negatively to email enquiries about training that were clearly from people who wanted to learn to fight for the wrong reasons.

Continuous emphasis on the context of why students are training and what type of situation they are training for, throughout the training itself, also helps to keep attitudes ‘balanced’. While we are essentially practicing to attack those who attack us, it’s important to emphasize that everything we do is only in response to the actions of an aggressor. For this reason, all students should be made aware of the ‘use of force continuum’ (4) from early on in their training. Lastly, reprimand for any out-of-context violence that may happen in a class must be swift and delivered in a way that the student won’t forget! Luckily, nobody has ever done anything silly in one of my sessions, but this doesn’t stop me from giving them reminders about conduct.

For an idea of this type of reprimand, go to an army training centre firing range and wait for somebody to mess up. A recruit only has to come close to making a mistake during loading or unloading drills, that when spotted by one of the training staff will result in immediate unpleasantness!

With that said, and at the risk of sounding extremely cynical, I personally am not too worried about students of self defence all over the world becoming renegade vigilantes and using extreme force against criminals, or becoming psychopaths who hurt people for no reason… not because I have great faith in humanity, but because I seriously doubt that there are many self defence schools that manage to instill the aforementioned psychological attributes in their students in the first place. Especially when they believe they are somehow learning to fight in a way that isn’t violent.

As should be apparent by now, in the training I deliver, we get straight to the point. To use yet another comparison with the military, when recruits receive bayonet or fire-and-maneuver training they are only being taught to kill. Anything they learn in the way of Values and Standards is delivered in an entirely separate lesson. In the same way, the unarmed combat classes I teach offer only to make people good at hurting people who are trying to hurt them (to the necessary, legal degree). The context is always legal self defence, but there is no promise to offer discipline, respect, tradition or spiritual enlightenment as claimed by many martial arts schools. My students don’t bow to each other, wear coloured belts or have to learn a second language. If they take anything positive away from the class other than being able to fight – and they do – then this is only as a welcomed side effect. Compare this to some training that is available out there in which it seems the ability to defend yourself is the side effect of having learned an ancient tradition.

Sharif Haque

Sep 2013


1) This is a term I have borrowed from Mick Coup’s Core Combatives system. The concept is what I used to refer to as ‘forward drive’ – until I was corrected about how ‘forward’ isn’t always necessarily the direction the fighter will be travelling in, and so ‘constant offensive pressure’ really is the most accurate description.

2) While not entirely relevant to the subject of the article, when considering the mindset and violent capability of those criminals who might attack us, I find interesting parallels between how the military enables its soldiers to be effective and the various traits of street gangs. Consider the initiation ceremonies/rites of passage, hierarchy and chain of command, uniform and gang ‘colours’ etc.

3) There is a kind of middle-ground between shot placement and full-force strikes that manifests in throwing strikes at a training partner at high speed, but stopping just short of their target. This has its place in training, but should come second to the other two striking practices. However, it seems that in a few self defence schools, this high-speed/stopping-short type practice is all they do. While this may be good for an instructor insofar as them not having to do that boring slow motion stuff, or invest in all those pads, I personally feel it should be used sparingly – only to give the student a feel for what the real thing might sort of look like at full speed with another human being. Because in truth, while the fight sequences may look good, the student’s nervous system isn’t being conditioned with the necessary sensations. Only when you’ve placed your elbow-strike on somebody’s head can you appreciate how that actually might hurt you quite a bit when you get that bone-on-bone contact. Likewise, from the training partner’s perspective, when having a Thai-style kick buried slowly but firmly into your thigh you can begin to understand what that might feel like for real. The same goes for slamming a strike full force into a pad – both parties get a lot of valuable experience.

4) See my article; ‘Self Defence and the Law’.