Psychology is Your Most Important Tool for Self-Defense

By on April 26, 2022

Here’s a controversial statement: self-defense is largely a myth.

That is to say, no matter how much martial arts training you may have done, it ultimately won’t be useful in 99% of situations.

This is why I feel the tendency to discredit traditional martial arts as “unrealistic” is largely missing the point. Martial arts, in my opinion, should be seen as a tool for physical performance and self-development, first and foremost.

That time I got attacked on a hill by a ninja…

Here’s a concrete example of me being a pushover.

My Experiences With Self-Defence

Just the other day, I was out filming at night in an underpass. As you do. Some guys came up to me and got right in my face, before saying “turn that sh*t off.”

The guy speaking was very overweight and his friend was too drunk or high to pose any real danger. I was easily the more imposing physical threat out of the three of us.

But I did as I was asked.

Why? In all honesty, my first instinct was to protect my camera and the footage I’d already gotten (I’ve since reflected on whether this was a “healthy” concern, in the situation). Moreover, though, I realised that no matter how easily I could take them on paper, there was a high probability that one might have a knife. A well-hidden stab to my gut would end the matter, there and then.

Self Defense

They might have had more friends nearby. And it turned out that they did: as one joined us moments later and started accusing me of being a cop.

Even if there were no knife and no friend, taking on two people at once is only a trick that works in movies. It’s extremely difficult in real life. Even if those two people are out of shape.

And even if that weren’t the case: things can always go wrong. A stray punch could cause me to fall over and crack my skull. I could slip and fall.

See also: Human Hacking – The Art of Reading Body Language

Or one of them could be seriously injured. Like, even if I won the confrontation, is that something I really want weighing on my conscience? Let alone the broken knuckles and bloodied shirt?

That Time I Got Beaten Up…

I’ve been in fights. I was attacked in the street when I was in my early twenties. I took a few punches to my face which broke my cheekbone. I could have lost an eye, according to the doctor. I had a lot of stitches in my lip and you can still see the scars.


All things considered, I think I did pretty well.

Street fights that last longer than a minute are, once again, mainly the stuff of fiction.

I was also extremely drunk during this encounter, and outnumbers. And… vertically disadvantaged. No amount of martial arts training was going to help me here.

I could have lost an eye

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. But, for the most part, thinking your Neo in a real street-fight is more likely to get you seriously injured, than anything else.

What can be helpful, is psychology.

How Psychology Can Help

I would consider that first situation to have been a “win.” I “won” in that I got away with my stuff, and with no broken nose. I actually ended up having sort of a laugh about it with the most chilled member of the group.

See also: Nootropics and Cognitive Enhancement for Gaming and Martial Arts

I wouldn’t say we’re best friends now, but some of the tension was certainly gone.

(The hilarious thing is that, had they arrived a couple minutes later, I was considering taking my top off and wearing a Batman mask… Things might have ended differently, had that been the case!)

My reverse roundhouse needs a lot of work…

Point is: this was a successful de-escalation. I spoke to them as I would speak to anyone else, told them a bit about what I was doing, and explained I was happy to give them some privacy in their underpass to do… whatever.

See also: How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making

Nine times out of ten, de-escalation is a far more valuable skill for successfully escaping a confrontation. Most of the encounters I’ve been in, have been the result of guys wanting to fight someone, or being generally angry and aggressive. These weren’t motivated crimes, and therefore, the right words could deflate the situation.

It also comes in very handy as a parent.

So, if you are genuinely interested in self-defence, I would recommend learning de-escalation as a priority.

The Right Mindset

Here’s another true story.

When I was a young teenager, two much older guys attempted to mug me in broad day light. After I refused to hand over my wallet (which was admittedly the wrong thing to do), one grabbed me in a headlock and threw both of us onto the bonnet of a car. He was trying to choke me, I think, but predominantly his zip was really digging into my face.

To escape, I remembered something I’d learned from karate: grab the little finger and bend it back.

I grabbed it, bent it back a bit, then stopped.

Then I remembered something else from karate: if you’re going to make a move work, you need to psychologically commit, 100%. You can’t be squeamish and you can’t worry about hurting the other person, or yourself.


So, I grabbed the finger again and, this time, I jammed it backwards and down as hard as I could. There was a disgusting crunch and squish noise. Honestly I can still hear it/feel it today.

The guy let go of me instantly and went to stand with his mate. He was as white as a sheet and he told me he was going to leave now.

So, I guess I won that one!

But the deciding factor was the psychology: it was being able to turn off my instinct to pull my punches (or my squishes).

This is another reason that the “victim” will usually be at a significant disadvantage. We naturally don’t want to fight and we are thus restrained: we don’t want to hurt ourselves and we don’t want to hurt the opponent!

Compare this to someone who is angry and, perhaps, unhinged, and you see the problem.

More Disadvantages

Throw in the fact that the aggressor is likely to throw the first punch (we tend to shrug off overt displays of aggression and give people the benefit of the doubt, until they hit us!). Add to that the fact that most people will be very scared in such a situation. Then there’s the element of surprise…

Overcoming Punch

And if it comes across that you’re scared, this will put you at even more of a disadvantage.

If it does come down to an actual fight, then your effectiveness will hinge on your ability to stay composed, focused, and committed to decisive action. This, arguably, matters more than precisely how crisp your punching technique is!

The only way to learn this really is through practice, which is where pressure-testing martial arts and sparring in an intense fashion can really help. But MMA fighting is not the same as being attacked by people in the street who might have knives.

If Someone Breaks Into Your Home

Imagine you hear a crashing noise downstairs. You get out of bed and go to explore what you think it might be.

If you tiptoe around the room feeling frightened, there is a high chance that someone will get the jump on you. But if you burst into the room in an intimidating fashion, you’re actually more likely to get the element of surprise and thus improve your chances of success.

Distraction and the OODA Loop

One of the most powerful tips that my Karate teacher ever gave me was to “punch mid-sentence.” You start talking, then strike when the other person is listening.

This makes a lot of sense, because it means you’re able to get inside that person’s “OODA Loop.” OODA stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” and it basically refers to the process that occurs each time you need to respond to an outside stimulus.

Getting Kicked in the Head

Before you can block a punch, you first need to notice it, turn your attention to it, choose to block, then block.

See also: Deathstroke Training: Building Intelligent Muscle

If you are mid-sentence, this is much harder to do and the attack may land before an opponent has been able to re-orient.

Closing Comments

Of course, I’m not saying that psychological tricks will make you unstoppable. I’m not recommending that you punch people who you suspect might attack you, mid-sentence.

BUT if your concern is self-defence, then you should probably spend a good amount of time focussing on the psychological aspect. Maybe more than the physical aspect, even.

Grant Awesome Dodge

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be an amazing fighter to be better than most people. When someone says that Wing Chun is useless because it doesn’t stand up against MMA… well, that only becomes an issue when the streets get overrun by gangs of criminal MMA fighters. Which, admittedly, would be a good plot for an 80s-inspired action movie…

See also: Humanly Possible: John Wick and Gun-Fu (Can You Dodge a Bullet?)

Spend a year with any martial art and you can probably strike harder and faster than 99% of people you’ll meet. Most people have literally no idea how to kick. And every person who would attack you in the street, it seems, starts with a big right hook.

Of course, that’s without even mentioning the obvious fact that MMA is a sport and not the same thing as self-defense.

See also: Train Like Goku and Vegeta – Strength Training for Martial Arts

What matters is whether you can actually put that into practice. And that’s far more a matter of psychology than anything else.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.


  1. Al says:

    Good article, if it’s not worth killing someone over it’s not worth fighting about.

    As a karate practitioner myself I will point out that an average person who has watched/read Fairbairn and internalized the mindset that go with the simple techniques will have the edge over 95% of martial artists.

    Target Focus Training do a line of over priced training tapes that are also rather good despite their horrible and childish marketing.

  2. Barton White says:

    Watch out for those hill ninjas.

  3. Westly Scott LaFleur says:

    Jocko talks a lot about how the major fundamental advantage of martial arts training is being able to feel confident in tense situations where physical violence is a definite possibility.

  4. As a selfdefense trainer I couldn‘t agree more with you. Everything you havr written is true. The psychological side is imO the most underrated aspect and I am teaching selfdefense, not train. It is about education and knowledge how to avoid a confrontation and how muggers etc even think and work. The situation determines the solution, not techniques.

  5. Bill Stewart says:

    I’ve often told my students that “talking” is ALWAYS better! I’ve acted out scenarios with them and stressed the importance of deescalation. Very few things are worth the risk of seriously injuring someone (and as you pointed out, living with the aftermath)! There is also the reality that people sometimes go to jail just for defending themselves. Better to talk your way out than have your life ruined! Lastly, as once again you touched upon, if you have to fight, make sure you’re fully committed to do what you need to do to walk away. Half-measures will generally just make it worse! Good article!

  6. Ashhad says:

    Great Article.
    It is good to know that you can teach your loved ones how to defend themselves even if they do not have time to attend live classes on self-defense. Ideally, they should attend classes but not everybody has the time.
    This article would be even more valuable if you gave a recommended reading list in order to read about the psychological aspect of self-defense.

  7. Ryo says:

    Self-Defense is not only fighting, fighting is just one of many aspects of self-defense. Meaning the de-escalation mindset you’ve mentioned is certainly one of the most important, if not the most importanttool of self-defense.

    Having said that, not every altercation can be solved by verbal de-escalation. Some indiduals already made up their minds to hurt you and/or your loved ones long before they met you. Those cases are probably in the minority but at the same time it only has to happen once to change or end your life forever. And in those moments i’d rather know how to fight. And fighting is learned by actually fighting. You know there is a reason why many traditional martial arts are said to be less effective. It’s not really a problem of the martial art itself but the methods they use in their training and the promises they make in their marketing in regards of effectiveness. They lack pressure testing and live resistance. You learn fighting by applying your techniques against live resistance and people who are trying to hurt you in one way or another. Training without these methods is like only doing the movement and technique for weight lifting but never actually using weights.
    Coming back to the psychology aspect you’ve mentioned, this also how you drill your mind and be committed to your actions when shit hits the fan instead of freezing before the fight or after the first hit. It also has great effects on how you carry yourself and your overall presence(confidence) which in turn affects your opponents psychology.

    Knowing how to fight is not always the solution but it’s much better to know it when you really happen to need it.

    • Adam Sinicki says:

      Yes exactly – that’s kind of my point, too. While sometimes you no doubt may have to fight (though rarely), on those occasions psychology makes SO much difference. Like you say: that comes from the experience of actually fighting. Unfortunately, unless you’re a bit unhinged, you’re unlikely to match the mindset of someone willing to attack you in the street. And then there are all the other considerations: such as the need to protect others, the consideration for your own belongings, the fact they may be carrying weapons.

      There’s no easy answer. But the idea that doing martial arts makes you invincible is very much overly-optimistic in most cases.

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