Self-defence – what sort of attacker am I likely to face

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I have written this blog after running a ladies self-defence class and being asked about what an attack might feel like, and so with this in mind I think it is important to understand what your attacker might be like and the strategies they will likely employ against you.

When training in martial arts you will learn a lot, usually fighting against someone trained in your art so fighting like for like so to speak.  But something I do not see that often in martial arts is how you might be attacked by the untrained or unskilled opponent; this is what the Japanese call Goshin Jutsu or the art of fighting the unskilled opponent.  This is quite surprising given that a lot of people start to learn a martial art to gain some level of confidence in dealing with an attack.

The other thing I see missing and for you to think about is stamina, in this high stress environment the fight is unlikely to last no more than 3 to 5 seconds (although may feel a lot longer) before both combatants tire out, again in most martial arts clubs I have been to the sparring goes on for 1 to 5 minutes, this is not how the real fight goes.

There are three types of opponents you may come across in a fight:

  • The unskilled opponent, basically someone with little or no formal fight training, this does not however mean that they do not have some ability to fight or have not been in a fight, just that they have not been trained.  These are the people we will look at in this article.
  • The Semi-skilled opponent, this is someone with some level of training, usually 18 month or so in one or more martial art.  They have a basic level of competence and a more structured approach to the fight.
  • The skilled opponent, who usually has several years of structured training in one or more martial art.

If you are attacked your opponent will likely have a perceived advantage, this being strength, size and power, a weapon or numbers.  Remember this is their perception and not yours, they may know nothing at all about your ability.

If we look at the stages of the fight, there are 3 stages:

  1. Initial incident, something will happen that initiates the confrontation with your opponent, it might be as simple as looking at them to saying something or something physical such as knocking their beer over.  Whatever it is you need to recognise this point has occurred, ideally space is your friend, make sure that you do not allow your potential attacker to get within striking range (Usually 2 to 3 feet, plus the length of any weapon they might have).  Your senses will warn you when they are too close.
  2. Escalation, usually this is a number of phrases or words escalating in volume, here your attacker is trying to build up the anger to allow them to do what they might not do normally.   Essentially, they are trying to bring themselves into a state of rage that allows them to channel their anger and perform the habitual acts of violence they will be performing.  Be aware of this escalation, if at all possible, try and de-escalate the incident.  You will find this is something the police and to some extent soldiers in the British Army are good at doing.  
  3. The final stage is the attack, they have built up enough aggression and you have somehow let your guard down at which point they will see an opening and will strike out.  With some people they may move from stage 1 to stage 3 and miss out stage 2, so again space is your best friend.

So, what types of attacks might the launch and what should you be prepared to defend against?

Note:  we will assume no weapons are going to be employed in these scenarios.

Dirty fighters

Do not expect your opponent to fight fairly, this is not a tournament and there are no rules, there might be biting, gouging, hair pulling etc. and not just punches and kicks.  These types of opponents are vicious, aggressive and may well enjoy fighting and the rush that it brings them. 

Usually, they will use lots of tricks to help distract you, such as engaging with you verbally and while you are distracted and talking attack, they may apologise and turn away and then just as quickly turn back and strike.

They will usually attack first and without hesitation, either while you are talking, look away or turning you back on them.  They are waiting for the right opening but will attack as soon as they see it.

The grab and punch

This is a typical strategy where you will be grabbed with one hand and then repeatedly punched with the other hand.  You might also be grabbed with two hands, and this followed up with a head butt.  The grab will usually make you freeze and possibly flinch away, thus providing an opening for the follow-on strike, and causing an initial hesitation in your response.

This has the additional benefit of creating space between you and the attacker which allows them to continue striking, think of this like a sword and shield, the arm is the shield and maintains space and the fist or elbow is the sword stabbing out from behind the shield, this is very effective for controlling you, stopping you moving forward or away from you.  This allows them to easily escalate if they want to, letting them say draw a knife and stab you.

Interestingly enough you will see this tactic employed by police officers who will draw their baton, place it over their shoulder and with the other hand reach out to keep you at a distance allowing them to strike freely with the baton.

Finally by grabbing you they essentially stop you from escaping.

Hair pulling

You see this a lot with women when they fight and is similar to the attack above, here though there is a grab to the hair and this is used to pull and control the opponent, while the other hand is then used to strike. Strangely enough while men will use closed handed strikes, women will tend to be more open handed when striking out.

The Headlock

This may not be where the fight starts from but swinging, looping and hooking punches will naturally lend themselves to wrapping around the head, this will end up with your attacker grabbing your neck with one hand in what is known as a head lock or guillotine and the other reinforcing the grip or punching you with the other hand.

In this situation your head could be facing forward so the strikes are hitting your head and face or you could have your head to the rear in which case you may have strikes to the head or back and kidneys as well as a knee to your mid-section.

Hooking punches

These will likely be thrown in groups, most likely starting with the rear hand and then continuing in a long sequence of repeated left and right blows one after the other, normally these strikes are aimed at the head and come in big looping strikes.


You will also often see the attacker or defender grappling, this is usually more like a rugby tackle where they hit you at high speed, grab you two handed around the torso to take you (or slam you) into the ground or wall.  These are less likely to be throws or double leg take downs and just simply momentum, weight and strength applied in the tackle to take you down.

Ground and pound

If taken to the ground you will find your attacker either bending over you or sitting on you striking down on you with their fists, mainly to the head and body.

If you curl up into the foetal position then this may well turn into repeated kicks to the body or head.


In conclusion the fight will be short and aggressive, lasting 3 to 5 seconds, you will likely be caught off guard, your attacker will start first with a verbal assault building up rage and then viciously launch into a series of blows to overwhelm you.

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