When one truly understands the nature of interpersonal aggression, and the ability to preserve oneself in those types of encounters, you begin to realise that martial technique (punches, elbows, kicks etc) are often secondary in survival. So many other factors can determine survival or termination prior to any martial technique ever being deployed. Some of these are context ( is this against one or multiple opponents etc), to the ever changing situation you may find yourself in (did it start empty hand, but now it involves weapons etc), to how all of this is hinged on the environment one finds oneself in (are you trapped, in a room full of obstacles, in a forest etc). Finally and crucially how well are you able to manage your internal game while all of this is going on?

One of the most important aspects of survival that is often overlooked in favour of martial technique, is awareness. Said another way what is the state of your attentional readiness? Do you know what kind of attentional readiness is applicable from one context to another? Do you even have an understanding of attentional dynamics to begin with?

The truth is how one attends to any given context is crucial to picking up the necessary environmental and situational cues, that will allow for the most appropriate choice of action. One kind of attentional skill may be fantastic for a specific context, but not for another. For example when sparring a single person, one tends to have a more centralised, narrow focus. This makes sense, as you are dealing with a single opponent (context) and the situation is defined by the rules of that engagement (for example hands only such as in boxing), and the environment itself is often clearly defined; for example it may be in a boxing ring.

Now place yourself in an environment like a bar (context), faced with an aggressive drunk person (situation). If you have any prior understanding of this kind of context that typically unfolds in this kind of environment, you know that the situation can dramatically change with little or no prior warning (a push and shove, could then lead to a person grabbing a beer bottle to smash over your head, or the person assaulting you has a bunch of friends who decide to jump in on his behalf). If you approach this unfolding situation with a centralised, narrow focus on the threat immediately in front of you, like you would in a one-on-one sparring match in a boxing ring – you will likely miss the cues when that person reaches for a beer bottle, and or not see when his friends end up surrounding you. Simply your attentional readiness, and knowing what kind of focus is most appropriate for the context/situation/environment you find yourself in, is often far more crucial to your survival than how good your right hook is.

In fact I would argue that if you are training in a complex martial based approach, where you have spent a lot of time learning a multitude of techniques, you will likely end up eating into your limited attentional capacity when you find yourself in a survival situation. Paying attention to what you feel is the appropriate technique to be used in a given situation uses up your limited attentional span. The truth is, you need your martial technique to be on automatic, so that you can then utilise your limited attentional capacity for other aspects of survival, like being aware of your environment. It is difficult, near impossible, for a person to both focus on the appropriate martial technique to be used in a given situation, while at the same time paying attention to their surroundings — one will invariably have to suffer.

In fact, anxiety and stress, both factors in a survival situation tend to narrow a persons attention. The result is that a person will likely miss important environmental cues, especially those on the periphery. In other words a persons ability to react becomes slower and less accurate. In addition high levels of anxiety causes a person to become self-focused. They begin to worry about the appropriate technique to use, question their ability to perform, etc. When a person’s attentional focus becomes so narrow, they are likely to end up panicking. This means they will find that they are unable to process information or reason, both aids in helping a person survive.

While I am a strong advocate of what is often termed sport training like sparring to help a person get used to pressure, and a live fight environment — it is clear that the type of focus developed in sparring, which is typically done against a single person, is detrimental to surviving a ‘street’ or self preservation encounter. In this sense, the type of attentional readiness one wants to develop for the street, is more like the type of attentional skill developed in football than boxing. Attentional demands need to be unpredictable, variable and fast-paced – often and crucially applied by multiple opponents.

There are several ways that I have found to introduce students to the attentional demands they will encounter out on the street. Anytime I work these types of drills, I always focus on the key element that we are trying to develop, which in this case is the ability to selectively attend to multiple external cues. My favourite exercise is running the ball. One student is assigned a soccer ball that he has to get safely from one side of the gym to the other. He is then ‘attacked’ by three or more people, who proceed to try and take the ball away from him. In this first instance of the drill no striking or takedowns are allowed. Think of it more as a standing wrestling match. The person with the ball has to be aware of multiple opponents, all vying to capture the ball he is holding. Naturally ‘attacks’ for the ball will be unpredictable, they will be variable with everyone deploying what they think will be a successful strategy. In other words it’s going to be fast paced.

As a person gets used to this drill, he is then asked to place one boxing glove on a single hand, and use the other hand to keep the ball, while his ‘attackers’ only have one glove too. Of course the contact level has to be managed correctly. In another variation I use a bean bag, where the bag is slipped into the back of a persons shorts (but sticking out enough so it can be grabbed). His attackers try to grab the bean bag, while the defender stops them from doing so, while getting to the other side of the gym safely. As with the other drill we could have everyone glove up later on.

The point of all of this is that in a self preservation environment, where you are required to defend yourself, you need to have a broad, big picture external focus, where you are confident enough that your body will draw upon the right martial technique, with little or not cognitive influence (i.e., thinking about the appropriate technique to use). This broad external focus, will allow you to observe, asses, scan the environment, and situation around you. As this article suggested earlier, often more than note, the level of attentional skills developed in self-preservation training, will likely save a person’s life more than their right hook.