Combat>Mental aspects>Developing awareness

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Developing awareness


To develop awareness, your need to be alert, notice what is happening in the world and around you, and know something about human behavior.

Ways to develop awareness

  • Accept full responsibility for your safety. If you do not make your safety and a priority, you will be less likely to detect and recognize danger cues and more likely to be selected as a target.
  • Identify situations in your life that require a higher level of vigilance. You cannot be aware all the time, nor do you have to be. Identify times and situations in your life where a higher degree of vigilance is merited.
  • Build and refine your self-defense schemas by continuous learning. Periodically, read books and articles about self-defense, take self-defense courses, etc. Try to review periodically what you know and continuously build on what you have learned.
  • Analyze the news. Analyze news events to familiarize yourself with criminal patterns and behaviors in your area.
  • Practice your observation skills. Look for specific things as you go about your day-to-day activities. Play awareness games with yourself where you pretend you are looking for specific behaviors in the public.
  • Establish self-defense habits. Build self-defense habits into your daily routine, such as always parking in well-lighted areas, locking your car, and having your keys in hand before approaching your car.

Awareness in self-defense

The sooner you detect and recognize a threat, the more options you must respond to it and the more successful your actions are likely to be. Awareness is the key to detection.

Many people confuse the ability to defend themselves with the ability to fight. If you believe self-defense is being able to defend yourself against an assailant, you will probably direct your efforts toward learning physical techniques. However, self-defense training should first be directed toward avoiding the need for physical techniques.

The sequence of a self-defense situation is:
  • If you cannot prevent trouble, avoid it.
  • If you cannot avoid it, defuse it.
  • If you cannot defuse it, escape.
  • If you cannot escape
  • If all else fails, then you may have to fight your way out of the situation.
To avoid a self-defense situation, you must always be aware of your surroundings. If you are aware, you may take actions to avoid confrontations that may lead to a self-defense situation.


Awareness means you are sensitive to your environment. Sensitivity is defined as is the state of being "very keenly susceptible to stimuli." A skilled martial artist is always sensitive to and capable of responding instantly to a variety of attacks. Fighting skills, such as power and speed, may erode with age, but knowledge and sensitivity may grow throughout one's lifetime.

As martial arts students, our goal is the unification of mind and body, where the mind and body both act as one to react to any situation without conscious thought. This may only be accomplished through repetitious, physical motions. While driving, we apply the brake without consciously thinking about how to apply it, we just do it. This braking reaction comes braking so many times that the motion has become an unconscious action.

To become this sensitive, the body must be subordinate to the mind, responding immediately to events that the mind can recognize and identify. When we are sparring, we must unconsciously be aware of an attacker's positions and motions and respond accordingly. This requires a highly developed state of sensitivity. The more developed the degree of sensitivity, the more subtle the motions or actions of the attacker may be detected.

To develop sensitivity skills, we must improve the way the mind processes information. The mind receives information from the senses, processes it, generates a response, and then directs the body to produce a specific action. In wing-chun, they use a sensitivity exercise called chi-sao or "sticky hands." In this exercise, practitioners remain in constant contact and engage in a series of simulated attacks and counterattacks. The purpose of chi-sao is not to hit your partner, but to develop sensitivity to a variety of motions and to feel weaknesses and strengths in each motion. A chi-sao practitioner may detect forearm tension, shoulder tension, and overall body stability just simply by using touch. The energy used by the practitioners should be supple and flowing, without abrupt stoppages and mechanical motions. The chi-sao practitioner must respond in a strong yet relaxed position, still sensitive to the changing nature of his partner's position.

After the detection of the opponent's intentions, the mind must process the information and generate a response. The greater the number of responses available, the more difficult it becomes to select just one, so it is best to have only one effective response for each attack situation. 

Once the mind selects an appropriate response, the body must physically execute it. Different muscle groups must be trained to act as a unit to execute the response properly. This means endless hours of practice with a variety of partners against a variety of attacks. Developing sensitivity is not easy. Training the body is a must, but it is the easiest part of the training. Like everything else in martial arts, sensitivity training is 90 percent mental and ten percent physical. 

Cooper color code

Many martial arts schools, self-defense courses, and police academies teach the Cooper Color Code of mental awareness. This is a simple way to describe levels of mental awareness.

Cooper divided awareness into four color categories (TKDTutor added the fifth one):
  1. Total relaxation. You are unconcerned with your surrounding environment. For example, you may be in your own home, relaxing, and engrossed in a TV program. Many people are within the white level even when they are faced with unfamiliar surroundings. 
  2. Daily awareness. At this level, you are aware of your surrounding environment. This is the routine daily base level of awareness where you casually observe your surroundings and periodically assess risk and threat. You are conscious of what is happening around you and can detect potential trouble. For example, you may enter an elevator with a stranger. You are aware of a potential problem though there is no actual problem yet. Staying somewhere inside the yellow level, even in familiar surroundings, is a good self-defense strategy. 
  3. Ready state. A conscious focusing and assessment of an emergent threat and possible evasive responses. At this level, you are prepared to defend yourself. There is an obvious cause for alarm, such as someone cursing you. The change from the yellow level to the orange level should be a common, easy, and undetectable occurrence. There are many situations in which people find themselves that call for the orange level of awareness.
  4. Fighting mode. It is based upon a perceived threat where the fight-or-flight response kicks in. You must act now with a decisive and aggressive attack or counterattack.
  5. Total panic. You are out of control and unable to comprehend or handle the situation.
Once these five levels of mental awareness are understood, it is easy to gauge your state of awareness at any given time. As martial artists, we must strive to avoid the white level under most circumstances. 

Being prepared to defend yourself and being paranoid are two distinctly different outlooks. Remaining constantly within the yellow level and moving easily into and out of the orange level is simply a state of mental awareness that must be practiced. Like fighting skills, this too will become second nature in a short time. You must develop this awareness without becoming nervous, paranoid, and without allowing it to affect your outward appearance or actions. As the motto of the Boy Scouts states, "Be Prepared" or, as your mother always says, "Better safe than sorry."

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