Situational awareness is a very important skill and component for self-defense. Being able to apply simple concepts to everyday life is a great step towards optimizing your safety, and something we promote at Girls Who Fight! Essentially, situational awareness is being aware of what is happening around you, and specifically allowing yourself to pick up on cues that might indicate if anyone or anything around you is a threat to your health and safety.
Why is it Important For Self-Defense?
Since situational awareness is about being able to pick up on hints about your surroundings, it’s an important preemptive step for being able to protect yourself. As is the case with many types of attacks, a matter of seconds can make the difference between safety or violence, or even life of death. For example, a girl who is exemplifying good situational awareness, who is walking at night without a phone to distract her vision or headphones to distract her hearing, will be able to pick up on a ruffling in the bushes, or a man following her from across the street. Even if these things did not result in a conflict, situational awareness allows her to register those potential threats sooner and change her course of action to better prepare and situate herself.
What Can We Do To Improve Our Situational Awareness?
Here is a list of simple techniques you can start applying to improve your situational awareness!
Allow your senses to sense!
This one’s an obvious one, but also the most ignored in our increasingly connected world, so it deserves a prime spot as a reminder. When walking, we need to remember to focus on our path and its surroundings, allowing our brains to register the elements that matter to us. That means walking without your head buried in your phone, or your earbuds drowning out the natural sounds. If we can see what is coming, the hole in the ground, the bump in the road, the street light hanging off the pole, or the group of conspicuous people hanging out in the dark pathway ahead, we at least will have time to analyse the situation and our options for changing course. Same goes for sound and smell. Just like we need to see what’s ahead, what we hear and smell can signal to us what is going on around us. Unfortunately, often our cell phones totally remove two of those three senses, which are crucial for being able to protect yourself, hopefully in a way that doesn’t force you to use physical techniques.
Being relaxed will allow you to pick up on more information about your surroundings. Research shows that our attention narrows when we are stressed or nervous, causing us to only focus an a few things at a time. The more information we can take in about our environment and situation, the better off we are at analyzing and planning our course of action. The other important part about staying calm, is that you will bring less attention to yourself than if you were to act antsy or frantic. Especially when we are navigating new landscapes, we do not want to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves, especially to alert other people that we are tourists and we do not know anything about our environment. Keep your head up, eyes and ears open, stay calm and natural, and you are on a great track to being situationally aware.
This one is not so obvious, but its concept seems inherent to our natural instincts. Where you position yourself in the environment matters. You would ideally be in a position where you can observe as much as possible, your access to exits are unrestricted, and other people can see you. One of the pieces of advice my dad always told me was to always note where the exits are when you enter a building. Another tip would be to choose a seat at a restaurant that would allow you to get to an exit easily. Try your best to analyse each situation, as they vary, and position yourself in a place that offers the most ability to observe what’s going on.
Taking it a Step Further: Identifying Behaviours
Author Patrick Van Horne, situational awareness expert and instructor of the Marine Combat Profiling system, identified behavioural elements that we can be aware of that might indicate a potentially dangerous situation. Van Horne states that every environment has a baseline, which is what is considered normal in any given particular situation. The importance of identifying baselines is that is allows us to identify anomalies, which are of course, those elements and behaviours that stand out, and do not fit in with the normal baseline.
Van Horne identifies three main categories for anomaly behaviour that we should watch out for. The first is hyper dominance. Generally, most people get along and remain relatively calm and unnoticeable in social situations, which often requires an amount of accommodating and submissive behaviours. Van Horne writes that dominant behavior “is an expression of the limbic system’s fight response”. If someone acts in a pushy, authoritative, or overbearing way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a threat, but it is something that should warrant our attention.
The second is comfortable or uncomfortable behaviour. Most people look relatively comfortable in most situations. Think about a bus or a subway ride, passengers usually appear relaxed as they engage in their phones, books, conversations, or their window gazing. Somebody who looks noticeably uncomfortable may not necessarily be a threat, they could be distressed for personal reasons, but it is certainly a trait that aligns with the behaviour of someone that is planning something bad or is on the verge of a violent breakdown. Common displays of uncomfortable behaviour include someone who is constantly looking over their shoulder, fidgeting or twitching, like having shifty hands or feet, pacing back and forth, etc. Checking the hands of another person is good practice in general, which can tell you if they are holding a weapon, or indicate that they are concealing a weapon if you notice that they keep touching a part of themselves as if to check if something important is still there.
The third is interested or uninterested behaviour. Most people don’t really pay a lot of attention to their surroundings. They’re preoccupied with their phones mostly, and if not their thoughts. Therefore, someone who is showing particular interest in something or someone that is not normally interesting is a cause for concern.
These three measurements of baseline behaviour can help us to start noticing things that can be alerting of a potential situation around us. Even if we are wrong, and the person in question is merely stressed, or even just odd, it is better to get in the habit of picking up these kinds of things.
Confidence and Appearance
How you present yourself in the world matters. In many ways, and particularly in regards to personal safety. Criminals will target people who appear to be least likely to put up a fight. Think about the lion who singles out the old or sick gazelle. The same concept applies to human predators. They will target people who do not look like they know where they are, and do not look like they will stand up for themselves. It is the path of least resistance and best opportunity for criminals
Confidence, or appearing to resemble confidence, goes a long way in keeping you from looking like an easy target. This concept is completely integral to self-defense and situational awareness and can be found on any website or governmental document about general safety. So what does it mean to appear confident?
Look like you know exactly where you are, where you’re going, and you’re not going to take any crap from anyone. Look like you’re paying attention to your surroundings and know what is going on. Keep your head up, your shoulders back, walk tall and with a purpose. Appear to be assertive and decisive, that you are in charge of your actions, not just stumbling from one random spot to another. Have your keys in hand when you’re walking to your house or car. Simply put, the less vulnerable you look, the less likely someone is going to mess with you.
Self-defense goes hand in hand with situational awareness and even with confidence. The point and goal of situational awareness, and my hope for all my students when I teach it, is that being able to pick up on indications of danger will give you the time and ability to avert it, so you won’t have to use any self-defense techniques to try to fight them off. While someone who is trained in martial arts is much better off than someone who is not, it is always the least ideal situation to engage physically with someone. You never know of their abilities, how many people they are with, and whether or not they have any deadly weapons. I teach practical Mixed Martial Arts based self-defense, and I hope that none of my students will ever need to use it. I hope that they will be able to use situational awareness, and exude enough confidence without even thinking about it, that they are not even targeted or can effectively avert the situation non-physically.