How do you prepare for a real stress situation, in which you are forced to defend yourself or others? I'm not talking about avoiding conflict, but a scenario where resolving the situation without physical conflict has been tried but failed, and you are forced to use physical action.

What is the training like when you really want to find out if you can withstand the attacker's verbal and physical abuse, and effectively neutralize the conflict?

From experience, I have seen people who either collapse under the pressure and cannot apply their training, or people who go overboard and have no control whatsoever over their rage.

  • I trained at a club where periodically each of us was expected to "start" on someone else, at some point in the lesson. Not sneak up and hit them in the back, not say "I pick you", bow, and spar - but maybe bump someone while walking by then round on them and get immediately in their face aggressive. This might progress to "violence", it might not. The "violence" might be instigated by the aggressor or the defender - who would afterwards need to justify it if it was them. It caused big adrenaline hits and was great fun. (Not an answer as there are already so many. Though mostly awful!) Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 11:20

16 Answers 16


First, each art and instructor is going to approach this differently. Most everyone that I've trained with over the years has, at least somewhat, agreed that aliveness is a vital component.

Unfortunately, there's no way to truly prepare; at its worst, we still always know that our training partners are not going to kill us. Part of the mental preparation then can not be physically training to prepare yourself for death. The best we can do in training is find ways to release adrenaline, and become more or less accustomed to the feeling (in the way a drug addict can no longer get high from the same fix).

Therefore, some of the best methods (in my opinion) that I've encountered have been:

  • Training while exhausted – Before practicing techniques (waza), and certainly before randori or sparring, elevate the heart rate by running, doing pushups, etc. From this elevated heart rate, greater stress is more likely to induce an adrenaline dump.
  • Play acting – Both parties in a technique's practice must resolve to act their role, and feel the intent to harm or be harmed, as they would in the circumstance. Method acting can do wonders for the martial artist wanting both to learn a new way to train, as well as deception in his execution.
  • Getting hit – The serious practitioner should realize that fear is what motivates him to move offline or to strike away an incoming punch, and learn two things: 1.) being struck does not hurt quite so bad as we imagine it to hurt; 2.) that we have plenty of time between the point when we see the fist begin to move forward, to when we're actually impacted. Knowing these two points, the serious practitioner should resolve then to learn to move at the last possible second. Interestingly, this serves the purpose of both forcing him to have the adrenaline response from realizing he will get hit if he does not move, and frighten him enough about moving that he'll be in a constant adrenal cascade. Over time, this lessens the fear response, and we become resistant.

Really, this is what, on a modern level, mushin (the zen concept of "no mind", or freedom from distracting thoughts) is all about: when you perform the exercises above, you are forcing yourself (in all three cases, albeit in different ways) to be in that moment. Mushin can be achieved through far easier methods, including meditation (which, if you've not been informed, is not about sitting around and not thinking... Meditation happens at every moment), but the above give you a short-cut glimpse into this oft-misunderstood principle.

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    "being struck does not hurt quite so bad as we imagine it to hurt" - I would argue that the greater problem is to underestimate the potential damage you take, and thus engage in a fight too easily. My Kung Fu teacher, in each and every sparring class, reminds us very vividly of the dangers involved in fights. With martial arts training and male hormones, fear is the much smaller problem. Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 12:38
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    There are distinct dangers in bumping your leg against a coffee table as well (the bruise resulting in a clot which dislodges only to find itself in a major artery causing an infarction). The fear of being struck can be overcome once one is struck; until such time, their presupposition is an anxiety over being struck. Part of overcoming anxiety is learning that it is: 1.) a worry over a future event that may not even happen; 2.) an embellishment of an actuality. Even anxiety over death must be faced and overcome to live a happy life now.
    – stslavik
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 16:44
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    I agree completely about the fear thing. The fear of getting hurt will cause us to do stupid things out of proportion to the real threat. Learning that a hit doesn't hurt as much as we fear it will is a huge lesson. Just like practicing breakfalls and learning that falling down is no big deal. This is not to say that a hit (or fall) can't be dangerous. In the news today, where I live, is a story about a 17yo who died after being hit once outside a nightclub. It's dangerous. But fear is dangerous too.
    – nedlud
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 5:55
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    Same thing happened here about 2 years ago – suspicion is that one of the valet's clocked a loudmouth in the back of the head (since amazingly "nobody saw anything" even though it was at the valet stand). Never saw it coming... And that's kind of the point – since he never saw it coming, there's nothing he could do; no way to change it. What sense is there in worrying over what we can't change (the inevitability of death, for instance). Getting hit is still less dangerous than throwing a few thousand pounds of metal down an interstate at 70 miles an hour.
    – stslavik
    Commented Jul 12, 2012 at 15:45
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    I think you need to mention 'fight in an MMA bout (After sufficient training)' to engage in and experience an adrenaline dump in the safest simulation of a fight situation. Great post! Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 20:15

Rory Miller has written a few books that talk about this topic extensive and provide a variety of drills focused around the mental aspects of self defense, specifically:

  • Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected
  • Drills: Training for Sudden Violence

In Facing Violence he talks about the various stages of escalation in the real world and what, your options are in each stage, and some of how to recognize the various stages when you are in them. It also tends to emphasize ways of avoiding a physical confrontation if you can avoid it, but committing to it fully if you need to be engaged.

In Drills he provides specific drills (section IW: Internal Work) that are entirely geared around the mental aspects. There's also a section (WW: World Work) that includes awareness. The internal work exercises includes both "psychological first aid" as well as techniques to identify your own "glitches" or limits. There's also a section on articulation.

He has his own particular style and biases, but I've found these books to be very valuable in this regard.

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    +1 for Rory Miller. Also 'Meditations in Violence'
    – Guy
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 14:46
  • +1 for Rory Miller. As mentioned, "Meditations in Violence" is a great suggestion.
    – mjeshtri
    Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 16:29

One of my instructors used to say that martial arts is only good if you know you are going to be in a fight. If you are attacked unexpectedly what will likely happen is you will have a natural instinctive reaction (fight or flight, flinch response). This is because you weren't in the mental mindset of expecting a confrontation (as you would be in a class or a competition).

One thing you can do is to train a little everyday. This will allow your mind to be thinking about the martial art more often. When you are thinking about your skills you are going to be more likely to use them in a surprise situation.

Of course conflict should be a last resort. There may be situations where you need to use your martial arts skills to defend yourself, but it isn't going to be very often.

I invite you to read Terry Dobson's account of a conflict situation called Aikido In Action. At the end of the article he says:

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.


Note that this answer generated a lot of debate. This is good, in my opinion, as I hope it prompted people to think about the issues of how we all should react to violence. However, it made the comments really argumentative which is not the purpose of this site. Thus, I have added some of the comments after the section. I believe that the section I added reflect the opinions of many. If you have a problem with this post, please add another answer of your own.

If you are at the stage of a physical confrontation, in my opinion, you have already failed as a martial artist*. You have missed dozens of clues, failed to run to safety, and in all likelihood helped precipitate a physical confrontation. Do you carry and know how to use a whistle for self-defence? If not, you should.

That said, put them down hard enough to be able to run towards safety. Remember that you may be asked to defend your actions in a court of law. Did you use "reasonable force"/"minimal force" to get out of trouble? This requires control and self-discipline.

As for training, all of your classes should be about using your might in a controlled way. This is what sparring is all about. Can you remain calm and controlled when someone really is going for you? Fight in a ring (or at a competition event) and find out.

No nonsense self-defense is a good site to read on the matter of self-defense in general.

Note that I am assuming that the question is aimed at civilian self defence and neither law enforcement and military self defence advise is sought. Those latter two are utterly different beasts that would require their own answers and those above advise would no longer be fully applicable.

Edit: Anecdotal evidence is never acceptable as proof for any argument whatsoever. It is a logical fallacy. Just because you know of someone that had something happen to them where they had to stand and fight, does NOT mean that it is good advice to do it in all cases. Are there cases where you must fight? Sure: soldiers do it all the time. Their job is to kill the enemy. They even use martial arts for that -- look up the etymology of the word if that confuses you.

I can think of a thousand cases where without any fault of your own you must fight. I can think of a billion cases were you could have avoided it. But, in my not so humble opinion, any martial art teacher that says that you should stand up and fight in all or most cases is a dangerous cretin that will get his/her students killed.

(*): Yes, this is a general statement. Yes, it does not apply to 100% of cases -- soldiers or police for example will have to use up to lethal force to defend themselves and others. Yes, all martial artists, in my opinion should have enough common sense, learned ability and intelligence to avoid getting into trouble. Sun Tsu said that Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. Surely, that is what all martial artist aspire to. The rest is just excuses for having failed that goal. </flame war baiting></do not feed the troll>

These are additions from comments, with credit

GrandmasterB states that "In an ideal world, yes, the martial artist should be picking up on indicators and know how to avoid putting themselves into bad situations. But its not always up to the defender whether or not a physical attack occurs. It could be a home invasion, carjacking, or (as is more common) someone you know/are familiar with. Or you could be defending someone else. Short of living in a steel safe there's no a priori guarantee of a non-violent way out of all situations."

David H. Clements adds "I think there is a confusion of different types of confrontation that can occur and what you can realistically do to avoid them. There's a difference between a "monkey dance" (which is a mutual engagement), other social violence dynamics (sometimes mutual, sometimes avoidable but not trivially so, etc), and what happens with a predator who has specifically isolated you in a situation you aren't realistically always going to be able to avoid (e.g., in an apartment alone)."

Swift quoth "The point that I'm trying to make is that just because it's a violent situation doesn't mean you automatically have to resort to violence on your side, i.e. the mugging example, Id just give up the money. In the CCW example I said "deadly physical force would be warranted", we should all be aware of the legal ramifications of our actions with or without weapons. Nothing is ever black or white, every situation is different. The vibe I got from Sardathrion post was that we, as martial artists, should avoid violence whenever possible."

Finally, Rophuine gets irate "I'm not saying the sentiment isn't on the right track: most violent escalations involving a martial artist will involve a failure on the part of the martial artist. It's important to keep that in mind. But it's also important to be ready for violence when it is unavoidable, and that flexibility is the whole point of martial arts. To stick to the argument that it's always a failure of the martial artist is an insult to every martial artist who's stepped in once a situation has already turned violent and defused the situation."


There's a good article called "The truth about violence" by one Sam Harris which explains the necessary mental preparedness nicely, imo. With regard to your question, I'd say the key takeaway is this:

This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape—not to mete out justice, or to teach a bully a lesson, or to apprehend a criminal. Your goal is to get away with minimum trauma (to you), while harming your attacker in any way that seems necessary to ensure your escape.⁠

Note that "for the purpose of escape" part. Even if it has to get physical, you still want out. It might always get worse.

For this to work, you have to handle your anger, pride, and fear such that they don't get in the way of your judgement. As a male, knowing what testosterone does to you is critical to that. You can't avoid your biological setup, but you can handle it gracefully.


This is a huge and complicated topic, with active academic research ongoing. I am not an expert; any summary I give will be incomplete.

With that said: Everyone's heard of "fight or flight" mode: That's what happens when someone perceives an immediate danger, and has a rush of adrenaline.

Those who've been to a psychology class more recently will recall the "fight/flight/freeze" model by Walter Cannon. This has also been called "flight/fight/submit," because the freezing corresponds to that of a wolf accepting a lower place in the pack hierarchy.

Traditional martial arts try to avert the adrenaline rush entirely, by training you to fight in calmness, without experiencing fear or anger. Modern "reality-based self defense" arts like Krav Maga teach you to feel the fear, and use it to trigger violent action instead of immobility.

If you're interested in the psychological theory of stress from a martial perspective, I highly recommmend kojutsukan--it's an accomplished martial artist researching deeply into the emotions behind combat, and how to leverage them to win.

  • Add to "fight/flight/freeze" a fourth option "posture", as proposed in "On Killing" by Lt. Dave Grossman. Freezing is not instinctually equivalent to submission: a deer may freeze when it hears a noise (as might humans who sit up in bed at night unable to move because they've been roused by glass breaking) in an attempt to not draw attention. Posturing can be equated to a bear rearing up on its hind legs to frighten off intruders in its territory, or a blowhard puffing out and slapping his chest like a gorilla.
    – stslavik
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 18:18

I've heard and grown fond of this statement:

Martial arts without meditation are like a loaded gun in the hands of a baby.

There is also the well-known statement by Musashi:

Make your warrior's walk your everyday walk.

And one shouldn't forget the analogy mind like water, or the japanese word mushin (see @Sardathrion's comment).

What do all these mean? Well, the first one means that if you don't meditate, training in martial arts will get SOMEONE hurt. You or someone else. Meditation helps calm the mind, and not be overtaken by emotions when something happens. It also helps you learn to see things clearly. @Sardathrion's answer is quite on topic here - if you get to that point, you probably have made a series of mistakes, but that's not what we're discussing :)

Musashi's quote - do you really want to go around all day on hair-trigger-alert mode? You'll punch your boss, elbow your wife, choke out a good friend -- who knows. You'll have an overzealously defensive reaction that is unwarranted. Meditation helps you. It means that your warrior's walk (the ready state) is the same as the everyday walk.

Mind like water - one of my favorites! The water in a pond reflects the moon. No matter what you do to the water, it reflects the moon. Your mind should be like the reflection of the moon on the water. No matter what goes on outside, and how turbulent things are, you should be calm and centered inside.

Serious training, it goes without saying, means learning how to control, neutralize, disable, hurt, maim and kill, and you have to be ready for these. Meditation also helps you get in a state where you start contemplating the questions of what it means to be alive, dying, taking a life, so you are not troubled by doubt or uncertainty should the moment come.

  • Another expression would be "mushin nugamae" (lit. no mind, no posture). Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 15:24
  • Yes! How did I forget that one? Editing this in now. Thanks.
    – Anon
    Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 15:25
  • You are most welcome. Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 15:50

For the physical aspect, you have to ramp it up to as close to the intensity of an actual fight as you can. That is to say your training partner will be trying to knock you out, they'll be throwing kicks that if unchecked will have you limping for a week, throws are aggressive and quick, and takedowns are often done as slams. You'll get hurt in the beginning with this, and it'll really suck, but gradually you'll get used to it. When you get poked in the eye you keep going, you don't bother checking if your nose is bleeding or if it's just snot, you don't take a time out for getting hit in the groin, and if you get a minor joint injury, ignore it and keep going (obviously stop if it's a full break). You want to get in the habit of dealing with any damage you take later, and your immediate concern is your opponent and taking him out of his ability to do any further damage to you.

Some attacks will be worse than that training, but I haven't yet encountered one that is - for me the training has been more intense and more stressful than any of the real fights I've had. The injuries have been worse too (the most I've come away with in an actual fight is some skin scraped off, although I don't recall how it happened as I didn't feel it at the time), which brings up an interesting question of how much you want to get hurt in training to protect yourself from getting hurt outside of training. Particularly since getting attacked shortly after sustaining a training injury really isn't good (same goes for getting attacked after a long, hard class that has your quads so sore from plyometrics drills, squats and horse stance that you can't really bend your knees). Still, preparing for the worst means experiencing something that's at least pretty close to it.


The army does this by actually shooting at you.

My opinion on this matter isn't very popular around these parts, but I'll share it gladly: If you want to prepare for a real life situation, you need to experience a real life situation. If someone starts something with you, end it. If you don't want to do that because your kung-jitsu instructor is a man of peace or whatever, then the best thing you can do is to prevent a situation from escalating. The moment someone is up in your face and you know talking won't help (only experience can teach this, unfortunately), then you take immediate and decisive action. A straight or cross to the chin will knock out just about anyone who isn't much bigger than you are. My dad weighed 75kg and he knocked a guy out who weighed at least 100kg with a single well-placed kick. So there is quite a large bit of leeway when making the calculation.

Seriously: take the shot the first chance you get. The more talking and shoving going on, the more people in the crowd forming around you will get worked up, ergo more "escalation" and the bigger the chance that the situation will get out of control. Drop the other guy as soon as possible. This is the same strategy employed by nations on the brink of war: take out the other guy at the first sign that war is imminent. What happened when the USA attacked Iraq? Did they wait for Saddam Hussein to get his tanks into position, or did they tank-rush him and destroy his palace before he even finished his breakfast?

The other upside to this is that you can take him out before his buddies even know he's looking for trouble, saving you risk of getting a beat down. Fights always start out with two guys stepping outside and it's only when a few minutes have passed that someone announces it and attracts a crowd. Your goal is to knock him out and get out of there before the crowd shows up.

UPDATE: as I was saying, my opinion isn't very popular. See, this is where experience gainsays theory: cops will NOT arrest you if you didn't use a weapon. But if they do arrest you, you will be let go with a warning. And if you are charged, simply knocking someone out without causing major damage will net you a suspended sentence at worst, but usually nothing more than a "don't do it again". Taking the initiative allows you to minimise the damage dealt. If you pre-emptively take out your opponent, you might just need to land one punch. Conversely, in a full-on fight, you're going to have to strike targets as they become available, e.g. eyes, nose, mouth etc. Those bleed a lot. Clipping someone on the jaw leaves very little damage in comparison.

Thugs or not, my students performed exceptionally well not only in competition, but also in the real world. Only one of them ever had to "neutralise" an opponent before word got around that we actually know what we're doing and that we're not a turn-the-other-cheek school. After that, no one ever tried to goad us into a confrontation again. Thus preventing further bloodshed (or bruised ego's at any rate). If you're not prepared to back up the claim on your Tap Out shirt, you're just inviting more drama from drunk douchebags. It's called MARTIAL arts for a reason. Otherwise you could just as well take a course in diplomacy and proper tea ceremony etiquet.

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    -1. If you either escalate or strike pre-emptively, you have become the aggressor and will no longer be covered by self defence. This means you might be arrested and if so, will have to defend yourself at a trial. Unless you are stupid, this will cost you a large amount in lawyer fees with no grantees of escaping jail. If you talk to the Police, your chances of escaping jail will be much reduced. Even if you stay on the right side of self defence, a punch can kill. Finally, individual are not bound by the same laws as countries so any comparison between the two is ludicrous. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 10:44
  • +1. We do raise to the level of our training. If becoming a street thug is your goal, then by all means learn to street fight. If your goal is to survive combat, then by all means learn how combat works. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 10:47
  • I've had success both in competition AND in teaching self-defense. You don't have to sacrifice one for the other. Martial arts is about learning to fight first and foremost. On the mat or in the ring, there are certain rules we obey. In a real fight, there are none. Your opponent may be carrying a knife or a gun. Taking him out as quick as possible is your best option. Start nothing, finish everything. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 11:28
  • I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV: Check with either your lawyer(s) or your friendly LEO before stating that "taking him out" is a legal thing to do. Everywhere I looked into it, it was not legal. 'nuff said. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 11:53
  • -1. Sorry, your update forced this. Your anecdotal evidence is utterly irrelevant, worthless, and at best observation biased. Not because of what you say (although I believe your understanding of LEO procedure and the law to be naive) but because anecdotal evidence is not evidence. The sad thing is that there is a good answer in there... Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 12:04

I have experienced attempts to brawl with me, stab me, rape me, storm my house with a bunch of armed buddies, and the aftermath each time. Post Traumatic Stress comes in a multitude of forms, and it will cost you years wasted on recovery.

One book I consider a helpful reading in addition to the mentioned above my own answer is "Deadly Force Encounters". That book is written by a former Police Psychologist, and while made for police officers it is far more informative than all the poseurs who thought that a black belt makes them street-fighters, too, or that one survived drunken brawl makes them veterans of sorts.

Deadly Force Encounters


Having been in several real world fights where, unfortunately, a big, psychotic drunk relative that literally has red eyes and becomes virtually possessed with rage and fury, I know WELL how it is to be a real fight for my life, for he was literally trying to put his fists through the back of my head with each haymaker strike.

Think of BIF from Back to the future, now add about 100lbs, get him drunk with rage and fury and multiply his aggression from the movies about 10x and you have an idea what it's like to fight this guy. Were I not into serious old world gung-fu where we specifically train to fight all out, fight drunk guys, guys on drugs or the like.. I would have needed reconstructive surgery at the very least after each confrontation.

The ONLY way to train in ANY form of fighting is to train ALL OUT. You have to make sure that you have solid strength, speed, timing, reaction.. which means to specifically train your blocking, grappling, locking AND KNOW how to counter attack all in one flowing movement. These types of skills and knowledge are a MAJOR part of what is missing from most martial arts today. This is why most MA's lose when it comes to real fights.

I've visited many martial arts schools over the years and in every one of them I've seen people throwing punches, blocking and doing other techniques with NO power, NO intent, NO strength, NO focus.. they were doing movements as if they were literally drunk. I was with a few of my students at the time and they also could not believe it.

Where I trained, we were specifically taught that most of the people that you're actually going to encounter in a real fight, ARE going to be people on drugs, drunk or very aggressive in nature. This is why we practice doing hundreds of push up, blocking with 15-20lb weights, movement, stepping, grappling, internal power and something called discipline technique, which is what REALLY brings your fighting, skills and abilities to a whole new level you usually only see in the movies.

Discipline technique is when you practice one technique, be it a punch, kick or other strike hundreds to thousands of times per day with the correct technique over a period of years until you can literally kill with one strike.

Bruce Lee did this by punching 2000 times per day with varying weights and 1000 kicks per day for years and he did achieve this kind of killing power. This is also why his fighting skill was at a whole other level from anyone else he met or fought. This is one of the MAJOR missing pieces of knowledge, skill and practice in martial arts today. These are trade secrets that most people don't know or understand.. but in a real fight, especially with those that are on drugs or extremely aggressive and large, that is what you MUST have to be able to prevail.

When you are able to strike with that kind of power, your overall energy, strength, skill, speed, timing and reaction are ALL enhanced significantly and your abilities and skill go up accordingly. That is why almost no one today attains the levels of the old Masters that you see in kung-fu movies, because most don't have the time, patience or discipline to train that way anymore.

When you are at that level, you're courage also increases along with your skills. While you will still feel fear in any fight, once the punches start going or the attack comes, you're training WILL automatically kick in and the fear will disappear in a second and you will just begin to move as you have trained over the many years. That is why happened to me when I was attacked each time, I instantly just thought "This is just like fighting the advanced students down at the advanced school".. because that is how they would come after you for real world practice and training. Once it started the fear vanished and I simply moved as I was taught, blocked, grappled, locked him up and counter struck a dozen times or more, but because of the heavy alcohol and decades of nerve damage, he hardly even felt the blows, even though I used to strike my trees in the backyard 300 times per day for over a year. He was all screwed up the next day, but that doesn't help when you're in a literal fight for your life, which I was because he was screaming "I'll KILL YOU, I HATE YOU, DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE".. with each strike.

So I circled around and countered his next few crazy strikes, push locked his arm against him as I got into a deep bow and arrow stance and pushed him against the wall, then took a deep breath, guided some chi to my arm and hit him with that discipline strike to the solar plexus, knocking the wind and breath completely out of him, dropping him to the floor and eventually going unconscious. This is a technique called "sealing the breath" in gung-fu.

So when it comes to real fighting, you have to not only know the right ways to train, which is to DRILL for such situations over and over and over again, which almost no martial arts know or practice anymore today, but you have to have people that are at a level to be able to spar with in such situations.

This is why in gung-fu, we keep our shoes on, use no equipment, hit hard to the body and train to both attack and defend with real aggression because that IS how it's going to be in a real fight. It's not going to be a boxing match with rules, gloves on, head gear or anything else. It's going to be wild punches, tackles, possible ground fighting, grappling, some kicks.. it's going to require a strong root, which means strong stances, speed, hard hands so that when you strike the other persons body, head, faces or bones you don't break your hands, as well as having at least some basic iron body training so that any hits will not stop you. But again, SO few train this way or even KNOW that they should be training this way which is why most people fail when it comes to real world confrontations.

Iron Hand Conditioning - 1 How to Properly Condition Your Hands 1/2



Good self defense training (no matter the style) eventually has to hit these four things to be more applicable in real situations:


You're not sure exactly what's going to happen and you have to analyze and react. For example, you're dealing with one attacker and a second one jumps in suddenly. It helps to put people in a training space they're not familiar with as well, to heighten the feeling. To take it even further, maybe even folks trained in completely different fighting styles. A lot of freezing up is the brain trying to make sense of a lot of new info thrown at it in one point - "Wait, what's going on?"

Emotional Assault

Racial, gender slurs, rage. In your face aggression and anger that gets you really triggered. This also gets the adrenaline running. The real difficulty in making this part of a drill or training is that few people are able to bring up the aggression in a real way, and also that it can fuck up how people view each other. And that's not a thing to just say "tough it through" - words people may have been abused to as a child or that they may have had family members murdered to isn't going to be something you "rationalize away" the pain. You probably want people who someone isn't familiar with (doesn't train with all the time) to enact this.


There has to be room to give and take hard hits. Safety gear for the "assailants" is a good plan.


A real situation will not happen in an empty room with a nice flat ground. (Closest probable place? Empty parking lot...but then trash, rocks, etc. on ground). Train to deal with furniture, chairs, tables, doors, light poles, crap on the ground, traffic cones, just... stuff. Train to use whatever is in your pockets/purse. How quick can you grab a weapon or a thing that can be used as a weapon? How well can you use it?

All of the above increase the stress and difficulty of the situation, and also make things less safe for training overall - the more hyped up someone is, the less control they'll have, the more physical hazards there are, the more likely someone is going to trip over them, fall into them, etc. This is why training usually starts with the minimum amount of complications and as you gain skill, they add more and more difficulty.

Stress is more than the moment

An under addressed issue is how do you deal with the stress AFTER the encounter?

Where is the closest safe space you can get to? How do you check yourself for injuries (people have been stabbed and didn't even realize it...)? Who would you call, who would you get to talk to or help you if you have to go to the hospital? Do you have a lawyer you'd speak to? etc. Getting emotionally ok may take a little time, might take months - I had a friend who was jumped by a group of folks and he took months to stop feeling scared going out.

Ultimately there's always a limit to how much you can reasonably train for - you always might just end up overpowered, surprised, or literally out-gunned. Then there's the part of what do you do to put life back together after you survive? At that point you're looking at everything from EMT training to emotional therapy. Unless you're in a situation where altercations are frequent (which then adds some predictability to the KIND of trouble you'll face), there's really only a limit to how far you can prepare.

Ramp up your training, do some high stress, unpredictable stuff now and then, but plan for it to potentially wipe you out for a week. Otherwise, just remember that the nothing is 100% effective - you train as much as is reasonable for you and have the courage to face the fact you've got whatever you got and are doing what you can.


Well, i'm going to reference a movie. Pulp Fiction. If you recall the part where Ringo and "hunny-bun" are robbing the restaurant? Joules reacted REALLY calmly. That is what I recommend. Stay cool. You know your training. You've done it a million times (hopefully). Just do what you know.

I don't recommend doing anything if you're not 100% confident in your abilities. Also, check to make sure your not overconfident, and end up getting yourself injured. Just do what they say...

Chances are, if they are holding you up, they are giving you a chance. They aren't hurting you for a reason. Perhaps they don't have the guts to kill you. Maybe they don't want a gun to go off in the middle of a city. If they really just wanted your wallet, why wouldn't they just stab you and take it from you? So you should really only try to act if you absolutely must.

If they have a gun, and are more than three feet away, there isn't anything you can do. unless you have throwing spikes up your sleeve, or some magic pixie dust, just do what they say, and you probably won't get hurt. Don't play around when they have a gun.

That's it for the boring stuff. But what if they have all intentions of hurting you? It really depends on what weapon they have. If its a firearm, and they are three feet away from you, you are too far away to do anything. (unless you have a ballistic weapon handy).

Just about every other weapon, in order for you to get hurt, there has to be movement. I have to slash at you with a sword to cut you, thrust at you with a knife, whatever. There is a much better chance of making it in this case.

As for the specific techniques, You'll have to learn those from a good instructor, who knows the difference between theory techniques and the real/legit/practical ones.


So I wasn't on here in 2012, but I didn't really see this biological answer...probably because there aren't brain doctors or modern psychiatrists on here, but it's relevant if someone was curious of the underlying factors at play.

The Brain: Real world situations are experiences which affect the brain and thus affect the whole body. The hippocampus serves as the memory center which catalogs the memories with the experiences to reference when similar situations arise. The other basic parts that fit in are the amygdala which houses the adrenal & hormonal responses and instincts and the prefrontal cortex which houses the reasoning parts of the brain.

When a person experiences an event (verbal, physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual) the initial responses register amygdalically and then as the prefrontal cortex processes what is happening the hippocampus logs it all away as the whole "experience". When a similar experience happens again the reference is in the biology and thus shoots up with the previous experience responses in the body.

Thus we have "training" and some of the other "mock situations" mentioned in the other answers. This stores the experiences in the hipocampus with associated biological responses in the hopes that any future experience of your body (including brain) will know how to perform in order to best address the situation.

Trauma: Any traumatic experience "including being assaulted" would result in the amygdalic response of adrenaline and other chemicals rushing in and require additional processing in the rational prefrontal cortex in order for the hippocampus to store the memory with full processed experiences. If this processing doesn't happen it becomes what is know as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The only way past that is the same as originally mentioned in fully processing in the moments(now memories in the hippocampus) that the trauma occurred and bringing the prefrontal cortex into play. Severe trauma like a bomb blast, sexual abuse, any situation resulting in complete powerlessness and damage being done at the same time results in trauma. The "fight/flight/freeze" mechanisms are coping amygdalic responses which are selected based on previous situations that worked stored in the hippocampus. If none are found it defaults to the closest thing that can be found. The need is still there for the prefrontal cortex to turn into full cognitive responses, otherwise the prefrontal cortex literally shuts down and the person starts operating completely on the amygdalic responses being received.

Preparation: Thus the major preparation is basically like survival training for the event. Soldiers are psychologically conditioned for combat experiences often by traumatizing them in training and programming via the above process to have default responses for those traumatic situations thus better preparing them to react appropriately when the need arises for real. The best result is full cognitive reasoning with the pre-frontal cortex during the traumatic event.

Please note this is the very abridged summary and there are multiple topics that have volumes of books written on the subject, but unless your going into the profession anything deeper seems excessive for this answer. Please comment if you would like references for specific subject matters as this is a huge subject with a ton of information. I will add more references to target specific topics if anyone desires to know more.

Some general references:


I had 3 types of training I feel helped me mentally preparing for a real life scenario.

  1. Role playing - my coach told us: he wanted to rape your girl friend, kill him. When we were shocked he started describing what I "did" to my friend's girl friend.. that person attacked me like never before, I was really afraid, the fact that I took him easily sparring didn't matter in this point.
  2. Mass attackers, circle training - 1 person stands in the center of a circle and people attack him from all sides, he may not escape from the circle. This exercise will get that survival instinct out of you.
  3. Weapon training - same coach from before gave my friend a real commando knife, in its case and told my friend to kill me, again no real danger (the knife is in the case) but it's way scarier then a plastic knife. The use of the word kill also has a part in it I assume.

I want to say that this kind of training will not work with any group, the coach needs to know for sure that this things will "pass" before he tries them. Even then I'm not sure doing that stuff is a good idea in general, just saying it helped me.

  • Emphasis on the last line.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 10:34

In my experience, the best preparation for dealing with the mental stress of a physical conflict is to train your fighting techniques to the point they become rote action (i.e. without conscious decision/high order executive function), and to spar with as many different training partners as one can manage, with as much contact as can be safely endured.

Doing so helps one normalize the combat environment, and quickly fall into a relaxed mental state free of panic and/or overanalysis. Full contact sparring will boost confidence in one's fighting skill and ability to correctly gauge injury.

There is also some degree of a 'je ne sais quoi' factor as well. Some people seem to deal more easily with high stress situations than others. In some cases, no amount of training will be enough to overcome a panic response.