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), 334 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.

Different Situations Different Solutions

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 25th Sep)

One of the ways to test security protocols and systems is to run a set of simulations against them to find out and discover their weak points, and the ways in which they can be breached and compromised. Every protocol and system has gaps and vulnerabilities that can be exploited, and running simulations allows you to expose and understand them. Changing a simple variable within a combination can cause a system to fail. Self-defense techniques, methodologies and solutions are no different; change a variable, such as the way a person reacts to a strike/punch, and you can see your solution fail and fall apart; expecting an armbar to cause a break that renders the arm inoperable, and finding that it doesn’t, can severely compromise your solution. There are no certainties in real-life encounters and to assume that there are is an extremely dangerous route to go down. Never assume that a punch is guaranteed to disrupt or damage, or a joint-lock to incapacitate an attacker; this is simplistic thinking that may seem to make sense in the training environment, but has no place outside of it.

I have written before about the importance of training a technique to failure, and understanding its inherent weaknesses, and eventual breaking points – and every technique, regardless of style and system has these. This doesn’t mean the technique is worthless. A punch can be ineffective in disrupting a highly adrenalized, pain resistant (whether due to drugs or natural attributes), and committed attacker, however it would be stupid and incorrect to say that because of this possibility, punching shouldn’t be taught. At the same time, it would be incorrect and simplistic to not recognize this possibility – and either alter a solution when this is realized, or choose a different one from the start if you believe this is/would be the case. Because situations determine solutions, you should never just have one to work to. Running a different set of simulations against a technique will determine what works when under a certain set off conditions. Every technique will work within a limited set of conditions e.g. a certain knife disarm may work if you are dealing with a single attacker, with a certain amount of room, on even terrain, etc. - change one of these components and the technique may no longer be effective.

In the world of safety-testing, simulations are extremely important. You would not want to step foot on a plane that had only been tested and flown in good weather, where all the conditions are set to allow it to fly successfully, unhindered. You want to know that it can cope with adverse conditions as well. A plane has tolerance in certain weather conditions but will fall apart in others; a technique is no different. Understanding the limitations of something is as important as being confident in its abilities, and effectiveness. We should be taking techniques and solutions and running them through different simulations and judging their effectiveness, and weaknesses, so we can understand what works when, where and why. In real-life encounters, we can’t set and/or (often) control the conditions and variables that are present and color the incident, and so we need more than one solution, to what may appear in a sterile training situation, to be the same problem. Sanitized self-defense training is a decent starting point, but continuing to train within a vacuum, where an attacker will only respond in one way, doesn’t reflect the reality of violence.

Not all solutions/techniques are equal. There are solutions that are preferred in one situation, over another. In one situation, it may be preferable to control the weapon, in another, the assailant e.g. in many active shooter incidents, the killer has multiple weapons, and controlling the evident/primary weapon may give them the opportunity to pull their second or backup weapon. When Mark Moogalian tried to wrest the rifle from the gunman during the Thaly’s Train Attack (2016), the shooter pulled a pistol and shot him through the neck. Later in the same incident when three Americans tried to subdue the shooter, they were slashed and cut, as he gave up using his rifle and pistol. There are times when it is advisable to control the attacker, rather than their weapon. Next time you run a “simulation”, change the number of weapons and see if your technique/solution breaks down and either needs to be modified, or another solution chosen. The Thaly’s Train Attack is only one of a number of active killer situations where those tackling the killer found themselves having to deal with a second weapon, after trying to control the first e.g. the Thurston School Shootings in 1998, First Baptist Church Maryville, Illinois Shooting 2009, Pacific University in Seattle Shooting, Washington 2014 etc. In your simulations, when you test your techniques, add a second active weapon – when/where I lived in Glasgow, assailants would tape a knife to each hand/wrist when they went looking for victims (something that the London Bridge terrorists did with their knives in the 2017 attack – preventing the possibility of a disarm), or would attack using a pair of cutthroat razors, etc. In these types of situations, would your current solutions be effective, or would you need to think about altering and changing your approach/methodology?         

When we look/consider all the different situations we may have to face, we need to consider all variables and understand the contexts in which a solution will and won’t work – there isn’t a one size fits all approach. This is what separates and differentiates Krav Maga from many other martial arts e.g. Boxing says that the only way to deal with an attacker is through striking, Judo and Wrestling through grappling, etc. These are linear approaches to self-defense and fighting, and we should not limit ourselves when dealing with real-life violence, to one approach. I have spent many years running simulations for businesses, agencies and enterprises, testing their precautions and preventions to avoid their assets being compromised and exploited, I take the same approach to the physical self-defense I teach.    

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(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 18th Sep)

At its root, martial arts and reality-based self-defense training is about intent; recognizing our partner’s, or aggressor’s intent whilst disguising/masking our own. Before I started training in Krav Maga I was – and still am - a Judoka (Judo Practitioner). A large part of Judo, is recognizing your partner’s intent i.e. what are they thinking about, and preparing to do, etc., and then formulating a response. At the same time, you want to prevent your partner from recognizing your intent, as this will allow them to formulate a strategy/response to prevent you succeeding, and possibly countering you. The earlier you can discern and recognize their intent, the better prepared you will be to deal with their attack e.g. you will have time to create space, position yourself, and generally get yourself ready to meet their attack. The better you are at hiding or masking your intent, the less time you will give your partner to formulate a response, and their only recourse will be to react – with training and the appropriate skills and attributes this may be enough, but their chances of making a better/more effective response would have increased had they been able to recognize your intent sooner. In a real-life encounter, the sooner you can recognize the intent of an aggressor (who may be trying to disguise it), the better your survival chances. If you can also disguise your response/intent then you will be equipping yourself with the advantage of surprise.

The martial arts are full of tales and stories about the great masters, recognizing an attack before it occurs. There is a scene in The Seven Samurai, where one of the swordsmen who is being recruited refuses to enter a room, because he believes he is about to be ambushed as part of his test, as to whether he is good enough to be considered part of the group. In the film, it is portrayed that he has a 6th sense for danger. If we unwrap the idea and the mystery of such a “6th Sense”, and look at what it actually is, we’re left with a high-level ability to discern intent. In a real-life scenario, it may be that the person who is about to enter a room where another person is concealed, may see the person opening the door glance towards someone/something in the room, and/or “feel” their anticipation and nervousness, or simply hear the other person’s movement, etc. All of these things are signals of a person’s intent. There isn’t any mystical power at play, just the experiences and abilities of a highly-tuned individual, who is able to read the intent in a situation.

We are naturally equipped with an ability to discern intent. Most of us have had the experience of walking into a bar/pub, or a social gathering where things have not seemed right or have felt out of place, etc. At the time – or even afterwards – we may not have been able to identify the cause of our unease, but we have picked up on the harmful intent within our environment; at base, this is what situational awareness actually is – the recognition of harmful intent in our environment. It may be that our fear system subconsciously picks up on a number of factors, such as someone (or a group) in the room looking at us a fraction of a second longer than would be normal, or a brief pause in conversation whilst those in the room size us up. If we were to consciously pick up on these signals, we would be identifying “target glancing” (occasional glances in our direction), scanning (predator(s) looking around, for cameras, to see if others might intervene with them/against them, etc.), synchronizations of movement (movement that puts an attacker in a position to make/launch their attack), “conspiratorial planning” (different attackers within the group, assigning roles and discussing their attack – possibly signaling to others of the group if they are spread out), etc. All of these things during the “Conflict Aware” phase of an assault – especially when combined – signal harmful intent within the environment, and should be signals to disengage, and/or not enter room, etc.

During the Pre-Conflict phase of a violent encounter, when an assailant has put themselves, or is in the process of putting themselves into a position where they can cause you harm, and you have discerned that they have harmful intent towards you, you have one of two engagement options: you can wait for them to launch their assault (having prepared yourself, possibly moving, changing your stance to limit their attacking options), or you can pre-emptively attack them. If your decision/strategy is to go pre-emptive, you will need to hide/disguise your intent, or your assault will lack the element of surprise – this may give your assailant the opportunity to counter it, or at the least turn on their pain management systems so that they can prepare themselves to deal with the pain. If you decide to wait to respond to their attack, your assailant may still try to hide their intent to physically assault you, however there are certain clues and indicators that demonstrate a person’s intention to punch/strike you. One of the most common is turning away and loading weight onto the rear leg; this preparatory shift in weight identifies their intent to bring it forward to add power to their punch/strike, and looking away can be an attempt to not show you the emotional change/intent in their face as they get ready to act violently towards you. Turning away can also make it look like they have lost interest in the confrontation, as well as giving them a chance to quickly scan for others, security, etc, before they launch their attack.     

Once the physical fight is underway, you will need to understand the intent behind your attacker’s movements and attacks e.g. are they moving forward into space that would make your kick or punch more effective i.e. they are walking on to it, etc., are they moving away, and is this disengagement genuine or is their intent to get you to move forward onto their punch or kick? Discerning their intent, and hiding/disguising yours now becomes a physical thing.

Our survival in any confrontation is about discerning and recognizing a person’s intent. Often, predatory individuals will try to mask it however few individuals are truly skilled at hiding the intent behind all of their actions and behaviors. There are times when part of the intent is obvious, such as the anger and high emotion that an individual who you have spilt a drink over demonstrates as they stand there, shouting and making threats towards you – now it is a matter of discerning the intent behind the threats e.g. are they preparing to attack, or simply sounding off? Again, if we know what to look for, the intent becomes obvious and apparent. Once the physical fight begins, we must try to identify the intent behind an assailant’s movement, and how we can take advantage of it – whilst hiding our own intentions. Distilled down, reality-based self-defense, and the martial arts, are lessons in and demonstrations of intent. 

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Training With Partners

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 11th Sep)

The most important piece of training equipment you have is your training partner. The way the two of you interact together is an integral part of both yours and their development. To get the most out of a training session both of you must be “working” together, however this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it’s because one partner adds an objective that they feel the instructor forgot to mention, such as adding in undue resistance so that their partner gets to experience how a real-life attacker might react or respond (something that at some point needs to be practiced, but not when first learning the mechanics of a technique), or that a drill needs to have a competitive edge added to it, etc. These are often honest mistakes that partners make, believing that they are assisting their partner’s development, rather than hindering it. In this article, I want to look at a few areas, where well-intentioned partners go wrong, and how and why their approach to training won’t actually help their partner learn and develop.

When you learn or train something, it is no good if you always and only fail; you need some wins. If you’re never able to make a block, because your partner is feinting before they throw them, you are soon going to lose confidence in yourself, and the system you are training. Your partner may genuinely believe that feinting before throwing a strike is helping you, however if you keep failing to make a block because of it, you won’t be getting to practice your blocking, which would be the purpose of the drill you are engaged in. Most training drills shouldn’t involve trying to catch a partner out, or be seen as a competition where your partner needs to feel that they make more successful blocks than you do, etc. If you are working with somebody who is not able to complete a technique because you are working too fast for them, or applying too much strength, dial it back until your partner can get what they are practicing too work. If they are learning something for the first time, you may have to dial it back quite a bit e.g. I’ve had students on occasion, pulling a gun back as soon as they see their partner try to practice a disarm for the very first time, arguing that this is what would happen in real life, etc. This may be the case, but all their partner is getting to practice is not doing a disarm. Yes, at some point dealing with an attacker attempting to retain their weapon has to be practiced, but if an instructor doesn’t tell you to try retaining the weapon (unless your training at a level, where this is expected), then you probably shouldn’t take it upon yourself to add this component in. Stick to the drill, and have confidence in your instructor’s teaching structure and approach; it’s highly unlikely that they’ve simply forgot to mention something that you think should be included.

At my school, we do a fair amount of dynamic pad-work, and often when people partner with somebody who’s a different height to them, they forget to make the appropriate adjustments to the way that they hold the pads. I have had taller people make the argument to a shorter partner that they need to learn to punch upwards, as this will be their experience in the real world. Again, this may be the case, however to prevent bad habits from developing it is better to first learn how to strike and punch well, against somebody your own height, rather than learning to punch upwards (or downwards). For a straight punch to have maximum power, the shoulder must “sit” in the socket, rather than be raised or lifted. This allows the arm a certain degree of structural integrity when delivering power, and it also allows the back muscles to be relaxed (another important part of power development – engaged and relaxed back muscles). Only when you can punch well at your own height, should you try varying your striking height. If your partner keeps raising or lowering the pads, instruct them otherwise.

There are some people who only have one speed when training, and that is full out. This often involves their partner getting hit, or having to experience pain, when they train with them. The problem with this, is that their partner will become hesitant, and pull and hold back their attacks for fear of getting hurt. This will mean that they start to make unrealistic attacks e.g. if they keep getting hit hard in the groin every time their partner makes a defense, they’ll start to make their attacks with the hips held back, so that they can protect themselves, etc. This doesn’t make for a realistic training experience, as an attacker would not position themselves in this way. To make/practice a good defense, you need your partner to make a good attack. If they are nervous, reluctant and hesitant to engage with you for fear of getting hurt they won’t do this, and you will have deprived yourself a training opportunity. It is often those individuals who train in this way who wonder why their ability to perform techniques is inconsistent, and that their success in making them work depends on who they train with i.e. they are good against those individuals who “gift” them the technique for fear of getting hurt and/or who attack in a non-committed fashion, but not so good against those who aren’t hesitant and make proper attacks.

We all respond to motivation differently, and not everybody will respond to the things we say, as we might. You may respond well to somebody telling you that you are not punching hard enough, or that you should be punching harder, etc. Other people, especially if they are beginners, may take your “encouragement” as criticism, or even belittlement. It can sometimes be a fine line, between motivating someone and “trash talking” them, regardless of your intentions. We learn best when we are comfortable in our training environment(s), and if when you are motivating someone they don’t seem comfortable, and are not responding positively, the answer is probably not more “encouragement”. People need to practice, and practice takes time. Few people have the learning capabilities to remember more than a few basic teaching points when initially practicing a technique. Trying to keep reminding a partner about everything they should be doing is neither helpful nor constructive, no matter how well-intentioned. Advice and motivation, could well be overwhelming, and come across as overly-critical, to the person you are training with. When you motivate, see how your partner responds, when you offer instruction and help, keep it simple (and make sure you follow your own instruction – there is no better way to confuse a partner than to tell them to do something, and when it is your turn fail to do it yourself).

When training reality-based self-defense, we are all in it together. We are not training for sport or competition, where we may feel the need to demonstrate where we are in the school “pecking order”. Rather, we are looking to train ourselves, as well as those we train with, to be able to protect ourselves from attacks in the real world. Our goal should be to help each other, as well as be helped by each other, and a large part of that means being the best training partner you can be.           

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Subtleties & Fine Details

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 4th Sep)

It is very easy to get bogged down in the fine details of something, and miss the point. A visiting student from another school, once tried to engage me in a debate, about the orientation of the fist when punching. His argument against me fully rotating the fist – so that the thumb is positioned down, at the “bottom” of the fist – was that this was unnatural, and that if you raised the arms straight up and made a fist, it would be at a 45-degree angle. I explained why I punched this way e.g. fist-to-wrist alignment, engagement of the shoulder in the strike etc. whilst at the same time, not trying to counter his arguments and reasons for striking/punching the way he did (if something works for you, I’m not going to try to convince you to do something else – there are people who teach and deliver their roundhouse kicks, differently to me, and with the same amount of power; I’m not going to try to teach them a different method, if the end result will be the same). Unfortunately, his goal was to try to get me to change the orientation of my fist when punching, by simply repeating his argument. Eventually, I asked him to demonstrate what his punching looked like. Like he said, his fist was at a 45-degree angle, however his hips hadn’t turned, weight hadn’t transferred forward, the back muscles hadn’t engaged, the hips hadn’t “sunk”, etc. There was so much to work on, before the “debate” on fist orientation was to be had, however the fixation on one component, was making him blind to everything else. He was focusing so much on 5% of what he was doing, that 95% of what goes into making a good punch/strike was being lost.

It is often these little differences, that are seen to define systems and styles, and lead people to conclude that what they are doing is right, and what everybody else is doing is wrong. When delivering a punch, with as much power as possible, whilst remaining stable and balanced, there are certain things that have to happen bio-mechanically, and if every instructor sat down together and discussed these, we’d be largely in agreement; there might be some nuances, and some exceptions and caveats noted, but by-and-large we’d all agree, on the components that need to be in place. This is because several factors, that we’d all agree on, make up 80-90% of the power of the punch, and this is the same for many techniques.

I remember having great difficulty, in my early days of training, determining whether a gun positioned to the side of my head was in front of the ear or behind it (under the real-life stress and duress of having a live firearm placed there, I’m not convinced I’d be able to make an exact determination of its position). The idea being that if it’s positioned forward of the ear, the gun should be pulled forward to reduce the amount of time, that your head is in the line of fire – and if behind, backwards towards the aggressor. It’s also worth noting that these preferred methods, may not be possible, depending on where the aggressor is positioned, and how they are controlling you with their other arm; your body movement may be restricted so that you are unable to move in the direction you’d want to, etc. Whilst the position of the gun is a factor, it’s not as important as your ability to move the gun away from your head as fast as you can. A faster hand movement in the “wrong” direction is in fact more important than a slower hand movement in the “right” direction. If the success of your survival is wholly dependent on determining whether the weapon is half-an-inch, forwards or back from the ear, it is probable that you don’t possess the ability to make either technique work. It is important to understand which skills and abilities are needed to make a technique successful, and which components are the most important to a technique’s success, and to work on developing these.

In real-life scenarios, certain details aren’t available to us, which might appear to be in the training environment. In a “controlled” sparring environment, picking targets to strike/hit, is a luxury that the relative time and space given to you, allows you to do. In a real-life assault, no attacker(s) will afford you this luxury. Many years ago, I attended a seminar, where an instructor was talking about where to aim on the jaw/chin, and at what angle to strike, in order to guarantee a knock-out. I’m not going to say it’s not possible –  and you can increase your chances of landing such strikes, by positioning yourself in the pre-conflict phase of a confrontation and/or striking pre-emptively – but being able to put all of those pieces together under stress and duress, and get the timing right, is extremely difficult. My default advice for striking the face, is to aim at the center of the thing, which floats above the shoulders – that’ll give you a good chance of connecting with the target (and that can be a lot harder than it seems when you practice it in the training environment – which is why I’m an advocate of large striking surfaces, such as the forearms and shins, against relatively large targets such as the neck/trapezius and legs). Specifics and details are important, but they’re not as important as those things and components, which power the technique, or increase the chances of a technique being successful.

Fighting rarely comes down to subtleties. Training, sparring? Yes, there are subtleties, but real-life fighting? Almost never. That doesn’t mean we should neglect the details in training, or not break techniques down, etc. but it does mean we should understand the “few” things that make a technique work, or increases its likelihood of success, and prioritize our emphasis on these. These are the foundations that support everything else, and without them, we will have nothing to build on or develop. Good foundations on their own, will support us much better, and increase our survival chances, more than anything else.  

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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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