Personal Safety Blog
Gershon Ben Keren's Personal Safety & Self-Defense Blog
Gershon Ben Keren started writing his self-defense and personal safety blog in 2012, since then he has published weekly (and sometimes more frequently), 328 articles on self-protection, crime prevention, target-hardening, and other areas of personal safety. Below are the last 5 articles of the blog. If you would like to read more, please visit his blog site by clicking here.
In real-life confrontations, stances – as stances – rarely exist. If you have time to adopt a “Fighting Stance”, like an MMA fighter, at the start of a bout, you will have missed an opportunity to attack your aggressor. In violent incidents, there is no referee, telling you when the fight will start, and if you have the time to get into a stance, you obviously recognized that the situation was turning physical, and therefore you should have made a pre-emptive assault, instead of getting into a position which sees you waiting for your aggressor(s) to attack you. If you were taken by surprise – which you shouldn’t have been, if you are aware of your surroundings – you won’t have the time to get into a stance, you’ll be blocking and moving, and trying to play catch up on what has happened to you. In this article, I want to look at the role stances play in real-life confrontations, their relevance and use, and what they can teach us about fighting.
I strongly oppose the notion that Krav Maga is MMA for the street. This isn’t about rules, and what techniques are effective or not; that’s another debate/discussion. The format of an MMA bout, bears little resemblance to a real-life confrontation – real life violence is non-consensual, and occurs without warning. There is nobody there to start (and stop) the fight, and combatants generally start nose-to-nose, without the luxury of distance. From a fighting perspective, there isn’t an opportunity to get into a stance, you are simply fighting from the moment things go physical. However, there are occasions, during the verbal confrontation, that precedes most physical confrontations, when you do have the time and space - and should adopt a stance - but it won’t be your “fighting stance”.
Anyone who has worked in some public-facing form of security, will have found, or been taught a stance/position, where they don’t look aggressive, but are ready to act. On many CP (Close Protection) courses, you are taught to stand, with arms half-folded – the idea being that you appear non-threatening, but have a free hand that can be used, to push, grab and make quick distracting strikes, etc. Personally, I liked to put my hands out in front of me, palms somewhat down in an Interview/De-escalation Stance. I’d normally, “talk” with my hands, moving them as I spoke, so that if I had to go pre-emptive, my hands were already moving, and were less likely to cause a reaction from the person I was dealing with. If in these situations, if I’d pulled a “traditional” fighting stance, with my hands coming up to guard my face, I may well have been viewed legally as the aggressor, and seen to have committed an assault i.e. I was in a position where I could cause harm to the person I was dealing with, and would have given them a reason they should fear for their safety. Forgetting any legal perspectives on the “Fighting Stance”, if they had a weapon on them, they may now feel threatened enough, and feel justified, to use it. Adopting a “Fighting Stance” during a social interaction is only going to escalate things, and let your aggressor know where your intent is.
So, what is the purpose of a “Fighting Stance”? It is there to teach concepts and principles. A fight is a dynamic thing, and you need to be mobile in all directions, so your weight needs to be divided equally between both feet – as you move, not as you stand there. Obviously, if you are striking, weight transfer will occur, though it should never result in more than 60% of your weight being loaded onto the front foot – something worth checking, next time you throw a straight rear-hand punch/strike (if you can lift your rear foot from the floor as you strike, you should look at centering the weight in your hips, by sinking them). Fighting is about moving, and a “Fighting Stance”, should teach you how to move.
When you move, you need to be stable, and able to generate power. Many people confuse stability with balance. The individual who throws their rear-hand punch, with everything they’ve got, loading 90% of their weight onto the front foot is balanced, but they are not stable – they are effectively standing on one leg. A “Fighting Stance”, should teach you the importance of keeping your head over your shoulders, and your shoulders over your hips i.e. not to lean, whether you're moving backwards or forwards. It’s not so much a stance, as a lesson on what to do when you are moving.
In a fight, both hands should always be active. The idea that you will ever simply have your hands up in a static position is erroneous – they should be doing something; preferably striking. There really shouldn’t be a time when they are both up, simply guarding your face. This mistake often gets made, when people confuse sparring with fighting. Sparring has many merits, however it shouldn’t be looked on as replicating a real-life fight. Sparring is something you and a partner do together, a fight is something you do to each other i.e. my aggressor is trying to violently assault me, and I am trying to violently assault them – the fact that I am doing this in order to defend myself is a secondary concern. A real-world confrontation sees somebody coming at you, there really aren’t moments when you are circling each other in stance – if there are, why aren’t you attacking in these moments? Fighting should be a zero-sum game, if your attacker isn’t doing anything to you, you should be doing something to them – you shouldn’t be giving them the time and space to recover and maneuver.
We need to stop confusing real-life violence with combat sports. We need to recognize the format of violent confrontations, and understand the purpose of the “stances” we teach from, and practice in. There should be no static elements in a fight – we should be moving and attacking, or at worst moving and defending, in order to set up our attacks.
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Often, when people with little understanding of what real-life violence looks like - because they have been fortunate enough to never experience it first-hand - try to imagine incidents, situations and scenarios, they build their “models of violence”, from the media, the movies, and third-party anecdotes, imagining that common armed criminals such as muggers, are at some point looking to, “complete the task of termination”, rather than simply exit the environment with your wallet. A rich diet of action movies, and extreme news stories, can distract us from the reality of violence – which is more likely to comprises of pushes, shoves, grabs and punches, than assassination attempts. In this article, I want to look at some of the elephants in the room that often don’t get discussed in self-defense classes, and some common misconceptions around violence.
There is a tendency when teaching techniques to remove the context e.g. a knife defense gets taught, without an explanation as to why somebody is making the attack in the first place – when we introduce the attacker’s motive into a scenario, we can understand much more about the when, where and whom of assessing risk. One of the other five situational components, that features in a violent confrontation, is relationship i.e. what is your relationship with your assailant? It is often implied – or sometimes explicitly stated – in self-defense scenarios that our attacker is a stranger, however this does not reflect reality, where we are statistically more likely to be assaulted by someone we know; and when we look at particular demographics such as children, this is especially true. There is a value to teaching “Stranger Danger”, and other similar programs, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we are addressing the danger of sexual assaults on children, when they are far more likely to be committed by family members and their friends. If our child safety programs don’t reference this, it would be wrong to think of them as being truly comprehensive.
Even when we are presented with the facts and statistics, it is all too easy to think that they don’t apply to us. In a now-famous study concerning how we apply statistics to ourselves, there was a survey that consisted of a number of factual statements, where participants were asked to state their opinions, thoughts and ideas about them. One of the statements/questions was, “The average life-expectancy of a US Citizen is 88 years old. How old do you expect to be at your time of death?” Nobody answered 88 or younger, everybody believed that they would beat the statistic; that it didn’t apply to them. We can argue to ourselves that we, personally are most likely to be assaulted by a stranger, however we are part of the statistics that say this isn’t the case. We do a huge disservice to our female students, if we present rape and sexual assault scenarios in the context of strangers, making surprise attacks from the rear; when in fact most rapes involve people the victim knows, and occur in their home or somebody else’s.
Most violence happens face-to-face, and is preceded by dialogue. A subjective study will confirm this. How many verbal altercations and disputes have you seen, versus physical fights? How many physical fights have you seen – from the starting point, not having walked in on – that didn’t start first with a verbal confrontation? Do sneak and surprise attacks happen? Of course, and we need to train for them, however we also need to train to deal with violence from “conversation” range, and from the standpoint that there are things we can do to better our chances of surviving such altercations during this phase of the fight (the Pre-Conflict Phase) e.g. controlling range, bringing our hands up in a placating manner, attempting to de-escalate the situation (if it’s spontaneous in nature), etc. If we train from the perspective that people just attack/punch us, out of the blue, and that’s what is most likely to happen to us, we aren’t training for reality. Most violence is low-level, that occurs spontaneously, and can usually – with the correct training - be de-escalated. One good way to stay on track and make sure we are training realistically, is to introduce “motive” into everything we teach; why is the person targeting us, why have they chosen to be violent towards us? Is it something we’ve done? Is there something they want? If every time we teach or learn a technique the motive of the attacker is introduced, we will quickly see if we are creating contrived, and unlikely scenarios.
When we consider that most violence happens face-to-face, and is preceded by dialogue, and recognize that the person who initiates the physical confrontation will have the advantage, we really have to teach and/or practice pre-emptive strikes and attacks. If you are in fear for your safety, and your attacker is in a position to cause you harm, then you are being assaulted, and you have the right to defend yourself (under US law), and that includes being the one who makes the first strike. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is school, and the guilty person is the one who “started” it. If you have the opportunity presented to you to make the first strike, and put your assailant in a position where they are the one who is reacting, don’t pass it up. Be aware of what would constitute reasonable force in such a situation, and don’t pass up on an opportunity to disengage, and get to safety, because you’ve been lead to believe that in every situation you need to fully incapacitate your assailant – not being there is, in most cases, the safest strategy. If you believe that your attacker might eventually pull themselves together and come hunt you down, you’re most likely confusing yourself with Jason Bourne.
Reality Based Self-Defense, means basing what we teach on reality – how real-life altercations actually occur, not simply what we imagine them to look like. We should not be trying to create realities which don’t exist or are unlikely, just because they “could” happen; anything could potentially happen, and we need to put aside our flights of fancy, to be grounded, and to teach, train, and practice for the real-life situations we are actually likely to face.
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A core component of self-protection is risk management and mitigation – whenever I do any form of consultancy, this is where I always start. I’ve written in more depth about what risk is, and how to define it. In short, risk is where assets, threats, and vulnerabilities intersect; e.g. where there are no threats and vulnerabilities, there is no risk to our assets (which can and does include us). It is virtually impossible to live in a world, or act and behave in such a way, that there is no risk; as soon as you leave your house, you become more vulnerable to attack – and the risk to your safety goes up - because you lack the protection of your home. One way to mitigate and manage this risk, is to never leave your house, but obviously that would be both an impractical and unhealthy solution to dealing with the risk, especially when there are other practical and simple ways to reduce vulnerabilities, and often the opportunity to limit your exposure to threats and dangers e.g. don’t go to a bad part of town late at night, etc.
One of my students relayed a story about a female friend of his, who believed somebody was following her. She approached a man on the street, and asked him if he would walk with her, until she got to her house. He refused. Amongst my student’s group of friends, there was a sense of moral outrage, about the man’s refusal to assist, and the emotional part of me agrees. However, the objective risk-mitigator/manager in me sees things differently. Obviously, those friends of the woman, knew that her story was genuine; that she felt she was in danger, and approached somebody whose presence would deter the person following her, to walk her home. To the person being approached, they have no idea what the back story to the incident is e.g. is the person following her an ex-partner who is jealous that she is seeing other people (and could be armed), is she part of a gang that is using her to lure targets/victims to a location where they will be mugged, abducted, etc? What are the risks, and the level of those risks, involved in walking this person home? And are we prepared to accept them, because the cost/risk to the person asking for assistance is potentially greater? Most of us, I believe, would accept these possibilities, to do what we would see as the “right thing”, but at the same time, we shouldn’t do this blindly, in case by doing so, we are putting ourselves in danger . We should gather more information.
We need to understand the “threat” portion of the assessment more fully, and we can gain more information concerning this, by asking questions e.g. does the person know the individual following them? If so what is their relationship? Where were they coming from, and when did they notice/realize that somebody was behind them? If it’s the crazy ex who saw her in a pub or bar, and has decided to follow her home and confront her about something – and he has a history of violence – walking her back to her house may not be the safest strategy for either of you; especially if she has just moved in order to avoid him knowing where she lives. Just because somebody asks for help, doesn’t mean that the help they are requesting is effective help. They could be making the situation worse for themselves, as well as you. In this scenario going to another place of safety, would be a better strategy. As part as your own personal self-protection planning, you should have safe places you can go to – apart from your home – when you find yourself having to deal with a threat. These can be friend’s houses, well populated places, police stations and hospitals, etc. If the woman you were trying to assist believed she was in imminent danger, there may be places of safety closer to you both than her house.
There is a terrible poster campaign running on Boston’s subway network. It is well intended, but poorly executed. It involves intervening on another person’s behalf, when they are having to deal with an aggressive individual. In it, a white man is shouting aggressively at a Muslim woman, who is sitting in a subway car. The poster advises that you should intervene, by going up to the woman, sitting next to her, and starting a conversation, about the weather, movies, etc. The misplaced belief is that the aggressor, who is now being ignored, will walk off frustrated. It’s a lovely idea, but ignoring someone who is emotional and angry will, in most cases, only escalate the situation. The poster was designed by a French artist – there is a reason I don’t give drawing lessons, and there is a reason why artists shouldn’t be given well-intended, but misplaced/misunderstood advice about de-escalation. When you accept a risk, such as intervening on somebody’s behalf, you need to make sure that you have the “tools” to do the job, or you may make the situation much, much worse, increasing the risk of violence, both to yourself and the person you are helping (I have written articles on more effective strategies for intervening in such situations – you can use the search box on www.kravmagablog.com, and type in the search term “intervening” to find them). Are you prepared for a violent confrontation, if/when the aggressor doesn’t walk away, but instead gets physical?
We can mitigate risk, by having the correct tools to deal with a situation. A large part of risk management is reducing our vulnerabilities – those things which a threat can exploit, either directly or indirectly. Often, our vulnerabilities come from ignorance and misguided advice about what violence is, and how we should handle it e.g. when we are in the presence of an aggressive individual we might think we should pretend to be on our phone, and that they will respect the social convention of not interrupting a conversation – a predatory individual who is looking to cause you physical harm, has already ignored perhaps the greatest social convention of all; being perceived as impolite is not going to deter them. Neither are they going to be deterred by the fact that somebody else might know where you are – they know that the assault will be over before any assistance can reach you.
We may choose and believe that walking the woman home is an effective strategy, but as we gain more information about the situation, we should be flexible in taking it on board, and changing our strategies for dealing with it. Understanding what the threats and vulnerabilities are in a situation allows us to make informed and rational decisions, rather than emotional ones. Most of us want to do the right thing, and will accept a certain level of risk that comes with that, but there may be ways we can do this, while limiting both our vulnerabilities in the situation, along with those of the person(s) we are trying to help.
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Most times when I make a post or put up a video that contains some form of throwing, somebody will contact me, and/or make a comment, that throwing is too complex a skill, takes too long to learn, and therefore shouldn’t be taught. There’s also usually an assertion that throwing is something that only the strong can do, and isn’t appropriate for weaker and smaller people, etc., and therefore shouldn’t be included in any Krav Maga syllabus. Rather than fall back on the simple argument that Imi taught and practiced Judo, and incorporated various throws into the Krav Maga that he taught, I would rather address some of the arguments that people make regarding throwing and its appropriateness to reality based self-defense, and why throws, takedowns, sweeps and throws can be incorporated into a Krav Maga syllabus – I’m not saying that they always should; if an instructor lacks the appropriate training, skills and knowledge, they shouldn’t be teaching their students something that they don’t know/understand, and I’d make the same argument about striking; if somebody doesn’t understand the mechanics behind striking, and how to move, generate power – especially if it is a smaller/weaker person – transfer weight effectively, etc., then they probably shouldn’t be trying to teach and develop this skill in others (simply telling a person to be aggressive when they strike, isn’t teaching them effective striking).
Are throws, takedowns and reaps, appropriate for the smaller person? When Jigaro Kano, created and developed Judo, this was one of his goals; minimum effort, maximum efficiency. He wasn’t creating a system that relied upon brawn and strength, but one that utilized movement, weight shifts, and the taking of balance, so that an aggressor who is thrown, falls without having to be lifted. In a well-executed throw, there is no effort expended, and weight differentials don’t matter. In fact, once balance has been taken, a heavier attacker, will have a harder job trying to regain it than a smaller/lighter person, making throwing a very effective strategy to adopt when dealing with a much larger opponent. If somebody doesn’t understand the mechanics of a throw, then they will have to use strength and force, and this is why I wouldn’t advise an instructor who doesn’t understand these things to teach throws, reaps, sweeps and takedowns. However if they do, then being able to equip a smaller person with a way to defeat a much larger aggressor, is certainly something they should do; in fact they will be able to cause much more damage to an attacker using a throw – and the ground to hit with – than they will with their striking.
When I did my first IKMF (International Krav Maga Federation), Instructor course, there was time devoted to learning and practicing break-falls or fall-breaks. It was well understood by those running the course that if you didn’t know how to fall, and were thrown to the ground, or knocked down in the fight, there was a serious risk of injury. Let’s turn this around for a moment, and look at ourselves as the person throwing, or knocking the other person to the ground, etc. If they don’t know how to fall, they are probably going to get injured. If we teach our students how to break their fall, and insist that this is an essential self-defense skill to avoid injury, why not teach them how to cause this type of damage to the other person? Although there’s not a straight comparison, it’s almost like teaching somebody to block and/or take a punch, without teaching them to strike.
Throwing, and throwing well/efficiently, is a skill that takes time to develop (but then so does learning to strike/punch well), and it’s not one that I introduce to my students straight away. It is quicker and easier to teach somebody to punch/strike in a way that will have an effect, than it is to teach somebody effective throwing, and the syllabus I teach acknowledges this e.g. you’re going to learn eye-strikes, and hammer-fists before you learn any type of throw, sweep, or reap. However, my goal is to get my students to adopt Krav Maga for life, not for a few weeks or months, and given a lifetime, there are many areas of combat that they can spend time practicing, learning and developing skill in, and this doesn’t just include throwing e.g. ground-fighting, offensive knife and baton (useful skills if you practice any form of weapon-disarming), flying knees, high kicks, etc. If your goal as an instructor is to teach a basic syllabus, without a focus on skills development, equipping students with rudimentary self-defense skills relying on aggression and mindset to be effective, there is nothing wrong with that; it’s the approach I take when teaching seminars, short courses, and corporate training events, where I have limited time with the students to develop their skills. However, if you have longer, the way to improve your students’ fighting abilities is to develop their skills and attributes. My school’s Black-Belt program is around 10-years, throwing is a fighting skill that really starts to be developed around years four to five. This is how I teach, and if people offer shorter or longer paths to Black Belt that is for them, not me, to decide.
One of my first Krav Maga instructors told me that it is worth knowing how to, and to be able to kick head height. His two reasons were as follows: so you would be able to teach and practice blocking high kicks, and so when advocating that high-kicking is a potentially risky strategy in a real-life conflict, nobody could make the argument against you, that the only reason you weren’t teaching high-kicks was because you yourself couldn’t do them. Is your only defense to a throw or a takedown to break-fall? If it is, you will quickly find yourself coming undone against a person who knows how to grapple – and there are grapplers who know how to negate strikers very quickly. If you don’t know how to throw, I would argue that your ability to defend against these types of attacks, might be lacking; admittedly, they are not the most common types of attack, and if your goal is to teach a basic program, with a reduced syllabus, that is fine, however there are those Krav Maga instructors who want to offer a more comprehensive approach to dealing with violence, and to say that to do this isn’t in line with the original intention of Krav Maga would be wrong. Imi believed that it was important that a practitioner could defend themselves from those skilled in other arts and systems – this is especially true for military personnel who would be going head-to-head, with other trained military personnel.
There are many ways to teach Krav Maga, and to me that is the beauty of the system. When I teach a 90-minute seminar, it’s basic, simple strikes, a focus on aggression, and a large dose of personal-safety and self-protection, so those attending learn to predict, prevent, and avoid violence. At my school, my program is much more comprehensive, and once students become effective at striking, punching and hitting, other areas of combat and fighting-skills start to be developed. If other instructors want to stop at this point, and have students simply continue to practice what they have learnt, I’m not going to claim that this isn’t Krav Maga, however at the same time I’d expect the same courtesy extended to myself, and other instructors and associations, who try and equip our students with other fighting skills, such as throwing, sweeping, reaping, and groundwork.
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Self-Protection Google Talks
SEPS Head Instructor has presented two author talks at Google (one in 2015 and another in 2017). In these talks/presentation he goes through the different processes and methods that criminals and predators use to target and access their victims, and how to predict, prevent and identify them, along with ways to de-escalate aggresive individuals etc.
Gershon Ben Keren 2015 Google Talk
Gershon Ben Keren 2017 Google Talk
Anthony Brooks NPR Interview
In 2013, NPR/WBUR Journalist, Anthony Brooks, visited Krav Maga Yashir Boston, to talk to Head Instructor & SEPS Founder, Gershon Ben Keren, about violent situations where compliance may not be the best option - this was in response to the express kidnapping and murder of Amy Lord in South Boston. In this 15 minute interview, Gershon Ben Keren, talks about different types of violent crime and how to deal with them. To listen to the interview click here.
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