Q&A With The Experts: Mental Preparation for Encountering Violence

Q&A With The Experts: Mental Preparation for Encountering Violence

This week, we take a question from SOS Subscriber Lee Jordan (San Marcos), who asked the following question:

*Q: Violence against another human being is a terrible thing. What is the best way to stay mentally prepared to inflict physical harm and pain on another person if you find yourself in a threatening situation? Is it all adrenaline or is there another way to stay prepared?”

We contacted experts in the field and included their responses to Lee’s question below:

imagesName: Lars Fidler

Bio: A student mainly of Hardy Holm’s (Chief Instructor at Students of Goju Ryu) multifaceted system of self defense, Lars Fidler has studied and practiced self defense martial arts since 1997 and has taught it regularly since 2007. Lars holds belted ranks and/or experience in other forms of martial arts as well. He holds a teaching certification from Stockholms Universitet and is a martial arts instructor, focusing on self defense, at Students of Goju Ryu in Mariefred, Sweden.

ResponseGradual increase in intensity. As with most things, you need to get used to it in small steps. Start within your comfort-zone, and then challenge it. Physical contact. Grabbing with some force. Light shoving. Striking against a prepared opponent, who defends. Keep increasing intensity, and you’ll be surprised how easy it is, once a conflict starts.

The point is not to be able to look at an opponent and think to yourself “Now I will take my fist and smash it with all my power into this person’s face, aiming to shatter part of the bone surrounding his eye, hopefully pushing some sharp bone-shards into his eye and blinding him on one side” and then to execute it calmly. If anything, that’s a symptom of factor 2 psychopathy. The point is to make your body and mind used to executing techniques at a certain intensity, so that when you don’t have time to think, your subconscious will do what it’s supposed to.

If you have time to stand and think about it, you’re still at the stage where you should be communicating, not fighting.

Hervé Goncalves imageedit_35_7743165697

Bio: Hervé Goncalves is a self defense instructor and strength & conditioning specialist, and a former track & field national level athlete. Today, he lives in Paris (France) and manages a Krav Maga-FEKM club that also offers self defense courses.

He writes actively on his blog – trainingratio.com – where he shares his  experience in practical and efficient approach in body performances and recovery techniques. You can see him on  www.karatebushido.com and read more of his articles at art-martial.org. Hervé gives an annual public co-speaking with professor J-M Bruneau to engineering students, organized according to the five precepts of Sun Tzu, that involves strategic decisions and decision-making in uncertain environments, body movement in the context of combat, and the power of weak signals perception. He can be contacted at hgoncalves@trainingratio.com.


….he who makes a mistake is lost, but so is the one who hesitates… ” (Akio Morita, founder of SONY)

Initial Thoughts

What sets apart a physical street clash is that it always takes place at an undecided moment of time, preferably at a dynamic and an explosive situation pregnant with imminent danger, which may lead to acute stress due to the potential impairment of life.

Hence, the overarching aim is to ensure the protection of one’s physical integrity (and/or that of a third party). Fighting for one’s survival is almost hardly comparable to any other form of sports domination from the opponent, particularly in combat sports.

Therefore, in this respect, all psycho-physiological resources must be mobilized to ensure survival, all of which occurs in a minimum amount of space.

This stressful condition contributes to several adverse effects, including changes in the physiological and hormonal order.

Owing to the lack of time and pace for the decision, the body disconnects the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) that helps in making complex decisions and in fostering high-precision driving skills, but instead activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

The principle role of the SNS is to instantaneously increase the survival capacity of the fighter by increasing his energy and neuro-muscular functions, lowering the response time. This is commonly known as the ” fight or flight response “.

The ANS in the brain monitors and controls the characteristics, qualities and defects of these two activated modus operandi (PNS and SNS), based on the situation, which allows us to determine factors and hence optimize our performance parameters that help master stress during combat situations.

What must we seek to develop?

Each fight is charged with a large number of unknown factors. The preparatory role is to become familiar with operating in a condition teeming with multiple stress factors in order to avoid mechanics that are not very productive.

The combat preparation strategy thus aims at developing concrete behavior; below are a few examples:

  •      Concentrate on short and simple movements that are known to work perfectly in most cases and during stress conditions (Pareto principle: roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes)
  •      Reduce the opponent’s offensive capabilities and advantages through displacements and disorientation
  •      Develop your ambidextrous response skills from a neutral position
  •      Focus on the first movement, which is strategically significant in terms of the success of the response

Gestural competencies under stress

Once under the effect of the SNS, our proper driving skills are significantly reduced, together with a distorted vision and an interrupted hearing; therefore, precisely focused movements are almost impossible, whereas when confronting a threatening situation, our reactions require a visual-gestural coordination.

The training session therefore has to give empirical concentration on various positions (standing, seated, on the ground) and on moving targets and hence develop the following competencies:

  •      Widen the vision to 360 °: awareness and management of “tunnel” vision, the loss of deep areas, acute loss of hearing and the acquisition of vigilance enabling you to locate a threat apart from the first assailant
  •      Immediate response and fundamental foot-fist sequencing capability
  •      Vigilance in the face of obstacles and firearm seizures
  •      Skills to defend oneself through clothing constraints (bare feet, skirt, heels, backpack)
  •      Emotional hardening in the protection of a third party (family, friends, acquaintances, etc.)

In order to develop these skills and gain effectiveness during fighting, the training session must be planned well; for instance, with situation scenarios in closed environments, while introducing workouts that direct kinesthetic senses (blind fighting or combat in the dark, which necessitates the use of senses).

Psychological factors under stress

Surviving during an attack at times involves a person getting physically hurt, demanding an internal condition that needs to be part of the training process.

The logic in preparing self-defense must aim at:  

  •      Immediately recognition indicators of stress and taking proper actions: heart rate greater than 115 pulses per minute (bp), adrenaline effects (trembling legs, reduced perception and loss of peripheral vision, hyper vigilance)
  •       Ability to loosen yourself emotionally from the current situation through breathing and visualizing techniques
  •      Overcoming internal inhibition, so as to defend oneself automatically

Training must also incorporate the use of appropriate relevant tools, either for their psychological impact (for example: shock knives, paintballs, chest protector, and helmets) or for their ability to evaluate results (videos, stopwatch, Fitlight Trainer, etc.).

Study of the behavior

To progress further, practices based on human behavior, such as criminology and victimology, serve to complete a trainee’s knowledge on physical and cognitive language, which can be used for understanding weak signals and threat perception (hidden weapons, opponents, predator behavior, etc.).

This prepares for implementation of precautionary measures (negotiation, discussions, etc.) or even strategies and specific tactics in self-defense.

Closing thoughts

An ordinary citizen will often suffer from a post-traumatic syndrome from the victimization of a physical or psychological violence, regardless of the outcome.

It is possible that, in order to protect our physical integrity or when providing assistance to a third party, we must undergo damage or induce damage to the assailant.  

Understanding these types of reactions requires determining the overriding role of psycho-physiological stress, which prevents analyzing the situation in a lucid and thoughtful manner (application of the cognitive process is complicated and long).

The central issue in preparation is to build up a vaccine for stress by developing a modus operandi that takes into consideration the key factors of fighting under adrenaline (outlined above) that may reduce performance during an attack or otherwise violent situation.


Analyzing the Experts:

  • Takeaway 1: In a violent situation, your adrenaline will undoubtedly kick in (“fight or flight”), and the primal urge to protect yourself and your loved ones will likely come without thought, but preparing your body and mind to handle such situations can help you better deal with your body under stress and the consequences post a violent encounter. One thing’s for certain – there is no “easy” answer to how to best prepare one’s mind to undertake a violent action against another human being. Like any other “skill”, doing so requires training, but in a very strategic (as outlined by Hervé Goncalves, a first-time contributor who provided an extensive response on this matter) and gradual way (as voiced by SOS Expert Lars Fidler). Training should also extend outside of the gym or “fighting” environment; Goncalves recommends learning best ways of responding to stress, including practicing breathing and visualizing techniques.
  • Takeaway 2: You’ve probably heard it before, but the first line of preparation in any potential violent situation is prevention – think about what you can do to keep yourself out of such situations or how you can defuse the situation verbally (if possible). As part of your mental training, Goncalves recommends studying methods in negotiation and discussion. Fidler says it well: “If you have time to stand and think about it, you’re still at the stage where you should be communicating, not fighting.”


*The above question was edited slightly by the SOS team for clarity.

Image credit: Survival Mastery

Bosko Jenkins
Bosko Jenkins

A post from the founder and head publisher at Science of Skill, LLC. A martial arts black belt and self defense instructor, Dan has spent years training with and interviewing some of the world's best self protection experts. His passion lies in encouraging others to train smart and to improve the skills that make them safer and stronger.

28 posts

Comments are closed.