Get Strong, Hit Hard & Toughen Up!

Fear And Selecting The Right Self-Defense Techniques

All self-defense techniques are NOT created equal!

Being a “skillful martial artist” does not necessary translate to effective performance in a street fight or self-defense encounter.  I get A LOT of email, even from experienced “fighters,” about the “fear of fear.”  They are concerned that despite their fitness or technical skill that the terror and chaos of a “real knock down drag out street fight” will cause them to “freeze up” or perform poorly.

They question whether their self-defense skills will stand up to the test of the full-blown chaos and confusion of a life or death street fight.

This is an important enough issue to take a serious look at so why don’t we?

How the heck do you “turn fear into strength?”

You’ve heard it before:  “make fear your friend,” “turn fear into power…” “FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real” and my favorite, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Whats up with that?  Talk about skirting an issue!  Am I to believe that I can learn how to eliminate fear from combative or volatile situations?

Sounds like a bunch of new age bullshit don’t it? How can you “pretend” not to be afraid when you are?  How can you possibly benefit from being afraid of something? 

Well, for once there is some science behind the hype.

I’m going to tell you why fear and stress can actually make you stronger, faster and tougher if and only if you understand it, expect it, accept it and build it into your self-defense response system.

Fear creates anxiety which creates stress. Stress is a given in violent or volatile situatons.  And like it or not, it’s going to impact your performance.  It’s the way we’re wired.

That can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how smart you were when selecting techniques to work on for self-defense.

Fight, Flight or Freeze?

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, referred to as the “Fight or Flight Response,” a wide range of physical and biochemical changes take place.

If properly managed, your stress response is a powerful survival mechanism that will help you withstand, fight off or escape a violent situation.

Among many other things it will help you:

  • React faster,
  • Become stronger
  • Be more resilient to pain
  • Bleed slower
  • Run fast 

However, it will also:

  • limit or distort your perceptions,
  • make you less coordinated and
  • make you “dumber” (less capable of logical or creative thinking)

If you ignore, deny or misunderstand the reality of stress performance when designing a self-defense response system and your training methods, you’re in for a whole lot of trouble in a street fight.

What Is “Self-Defense Stress?”

The fear of interpersonal violence is a “Universal Human Phobia.”  Unless you are ultra-ultra-confident (or have a screw loose), the thought of being victimized is frightening.  We NEED to feel safe and secure in the world before we can enjoy other aspects of our life.

Fear and stress are normal when we perceive a discrepancy between a threat and our ability to control it.  This is especially true under conditions where the outcome has the potential for death, injury, degradation, victimization, embarrassment etc.

Expect that you’ll be “shitting your pants” in a violent encounter because, like it or not, it’s going to happen.  Accept it, prepare for it and turn it to your advantage.

The Symptoms Of Stress

Stress causes a variety of psychological and physiological changes. Without getting into the specifics of those changes, the affects of intense stress on performance fall into three categories:

Perceptual Distortion – loss of peripheral vision and depth perception, hearing may be blocked or impaired, changes in pain sensitivity, etc.

Cognitive Impairment– the emotional centers in the brain become dominant and creative or logical thinking are impaired.   You may halucinate, experience time distortion (slow motion or fast motion), you may even forget what you did or “remember” something that didn’t happen.

Motor Skill Deterioration – the ability to perform certain physical actions is impaired by stress. Actions requiring eye-hand coordination, precision or coordination are likely to fail.  However, other actions will actually be enhanced by stress.

Each of these categories could form an article (or book) of their own.  However, for the purposes of this post, I’ll confine myself the selection and performance of physical skills.

The techniques built into the Toughen Up Combative Training programs are “gross motor skills.” Simple, large-muscle actions that will be stronger and more powerful in stressful, adrenaline-charged situations.

If you want to be effective in the stress and chaos of a street fight, here are some things to keep in mind. 

The KYSS Principle (Keep Your System Simple!)

Why is it that so many martial artists get beat up in street fights? I’m sorry to burst your bubble if you thought otherwise but the fact is that many people, even after years of training, have been thumped by “unskilled,” intoxicated adversaries. How can that be?

If you confuse sparring with fighting you’re in for a rude awakening.  If you train with a distorted mental map of what you can and can’t do in a real-life, knockdown, drag-out, anything-goes street fight you might be in for a surprise when the shit hits the fan.

The more clearly you understand the realities of a “fight” and the effects of being in one, the better you can prepare yourself for the demands and chaos of personal combat.

Motor Skills Classification

A “motor skill” is a fancy name for physical actions, tactics or techniques. They can be divided into three categories:

Fine Motor Skills – are actions involving small muscles, dexterity and eye-hand coordination. The ability to perform fine motor skills deteriorates at low to moderate levels of stress.

Complex Motor Skills – are actions that combine three or more steps or actions in a sequence requiring timing and coordination. At high levels of stress, the ability to perform these skills is also impaired. Many martial arts techniques are complex motor skills. This explains why techniques that may work fine in low-stress training sessions fail in a high-stress street-fight.

Gross motor skills– are simple, large-muscle group actions like squats, push-ups and push/pull-type movements.  Unlike fine and complex motor skills, gross motor skills DO NOT deteriorate under stress.  In fact, they are enhanced by the affects of fear and stress.

The strikes and kicks I’ve written about in the Toughen Up Training Guidesand this blog are gross motorskills.  They’ve been intentionally selected on that basis.

It makes total sense to rely predominantly on gross motor skills when designing a self-defense response system that you know will be applied in stressful circumstances.

So before you fill your “tool box” with a pile of fancy-schmancy-bullshit-fighting-techniques, think long and hard about what will stand up to the stress of a street fight.  Then use them as a foundation for your training and self-defense game plan.

Enuff said… (for now)

Take care, train smart and toughen up…


About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • Dr. Brad

    Always a good informative read. Thank you for the info. The Toughen Up Guides are great also.

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