Situational Awareness & Why It Matters

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.

Stay Relaxed

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.