How do I maintain martial awareness of a person's movement and intent when that person is physically very close (conversation distance, or passing on the street) to me?

The situation could be a person who is high/drunk and asking you for money on the street; they always come close to try and talk to you. Or, people walking down the sidewalk on the same side as you, they look like they might be trouble but you don't know. Eventually they will pass right by you, and after that, they'll be behind you which is even worse for you if they have bad intentions.

At the end of the day, how can I maintain safety (which to me is being aware of the person's movements and not allowing them to get too close) in these situations, without doing something provocative (such as obviously stepping back to maintain distance or by watching them as they pass and move behind me)?

I understand that acting (and being) confident is very important, but I'm not very confident in my ability to defend myself against someone who is less than two feet away from me when I am unable to act defensively in order to avoid escalating a situation.

  • Maintain awareness (closeness does not matter). Keep in mind that most probably no harm will be done by either side. Stepping back is not provocative but might startle the other person in other ways; but I have the feeling it's more embarrassing you than anything else. Avoid too-close situations early.
    – Alfe
    Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 12:09
  • This article might be of some help.
    – Ephraim
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 23:33

9 Answers 9


Interesting. My answer is going to be a bit all over the place, but stick with it, because the question you're asking isn't the issue you need to address.

Why Everyone is a Potential Threat

The issue with potential threats is recognizing a threat and not fabricating a worry. When martial artists begin training, we're thrown into a situation where, for a few hours each week, we are attacked again and again and again. We are forced to throw around and to get thrown around by people that we then stand up, shake hands or bow, and do it again. Then we go home.

Psychologically, this is a bit like Sub- and Top-drop in BDSM – a certain level of aftercare is necessary to bring an individual after a scene back to the real world. When my training group started going to dinner after class and talking about our experiences, we all improved. Incidents of fighting outside of class dropped. Overall stress levels decreased. Why? Because we were unwinding.

So you go to class and get your butt handed to you for a few hours then you go home; what happens? Maybe you sit up for a few hours, watch an action movie, or you do a project until you can sleep. Why? Because you have stress hormones coursing through your body. Let's say you go to sleep still amped up; what happens? You have stress dreams and you wake up most of the night. Your levels of cortisol and norepinephrine don't decrease, which makes you tired and edgy, and actually causes you to stress more. So, after a few days of this, you have a baseline stress level that's higher than the average person. Then you go to training again, burn off some nervous energy, feel good while you're doing it, then feel edgy again the rest of the week.

Now, meanwhile, your stress trigger is becoming people that you know and trust. If you know and trust the people that you're training with (the ones who are getting your blood pumping), you're going to trigger harder off of people who you don't know.

Recognizing Actual Threats

Our brain is extremely adept at analyzing patterns. So when your partner glances at a particular portion of your body, your subconscious mind registers the glance, and prepares your body to move as you've trained.

Now, when someone on the street gives you a similar glance, your mind is saying "This person is a threat - I know this pattern!". Train longer and you refine this pattern; no longer is the glance the warning you need, but the fist flying toward you, because you'll know you have plenty of time to move.

Martial arts are as much about avoidance of threats as they are about combating those threats. When your brain starts to acknowledge the patterns that lead you to those actual dangerous moments, you will begin to avoid those situations more fully. If going down a dark alley leads you to getting mugged, you'll stop going down dark alleys. This same pattern recognition (in a primitive form) is why prairie dogs always hide when they see a shadow.

You must learn to train your body and mind to recognize reasonable threats from fears, and learn to react appropriately. This is going to start by breaking the pattern that you've already developed – namely, that everyone is a threat.

  • This is very interesting, definitely an angle I didn't consider. How do I learn to train my body and mind to recognize reasonable threats from fears, as you said? If that'd make a good new question, I'll definitely post it. Also, thanks for pointing out that I have already developed the pattern, that hit home.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 2:22
  • 1
    For those answers, I'll refer you to: martialarts.stackexchange.com/a/172/25 martialarts.stackexchange.com/a/243/25 They may not seem related, but since what you're talking about now is a stimulus reaction, which is no different than a flinch reaction. You need to condition yourself to think in a new way, much the way you've conditioned yourself to react as you are now. We are conditioned beings: we are conditioned to shake hands like some Mithraic cult upon meeting new people, for instance. Learning a new way of behaving is simply conditioning.
    – stslavik
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 14:08

Mu shin, mu gamae which means no mind, no posture. You have to rely on your training that if something happens, your body will react before your brain can make a conscious decision to do something. This is why we do sparing and drills: to train to react instead of consciously forcing an action.

However, my best advise would be: do not worry about it. Looking at statistics, you can pass a billion people in the streets before one of them attacks you. So, most of the time, all your martial awareness is going to do is make you look like a tool or worst, like you are about to attack someone! Acting like a street fighter (or worst becoming one) will make you a terrible person with few (if any) friends, a life of paranoia, and a not too distant painful death. You sure you want to go that way?...

If you want to feel safe, then make sure you look for a series of signs that will trip your warning. From the neighborhood, to the level of lighting, to the time of the night, to what they are wearing all will give you clues. Furthermore, if it looks like a shit place, do not go there. If it looks dangerous, go another way. If you know this bar attracts knife fights, go drink somewhere else.

Needless to say, sometimes a few kind words are enough to diffuse a situation.

Finally, the last bit of advise which you already know: be confident and do not look like a victim. Do not avoid eye contact by lowering your gaze, do not hunch over, do not look scared. Avoid being aggressive yourself -- instead be assertive. Show that you are aware of your surroundings. If it comes to that, nod and even say "hey, having a good night? Good me too!". Be friendly and not provocative.

  • Thanks for the answer. I certainly don't want to be hyper vigilant and attract trouble. My concern with mu shin is that we don't do drills and sparring in Aikido which is my primary art (systema is my second art but I quite literally just began it). So frankly I'm concerned that I'd be unable to apply any of my training in a real situation where no-mind and no-posture (and no-preparation) are the realities of the encounter.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 16:52
  • @Jeremy: Aikido has randori, sometimes practiced against multiple opponents, which should help. If not, pick up a book on Shodokan Aikido -- I suggest the ones that either Nariyama or Allbright wrote and do some randori-ho. Tomiki's big drive was to develop mushin mugamae in Aikido. Commented Aug 6, 2013 at 7:12

So, there's two useful habits I've developed towards dealing with those situations.

Shifty Eyes

Your peripheral vision is actually really good at detecting motion. The useful factor in this is that when you are walking in a sketchy area, you can simply practice scanning back and forth in a way as if you had just noticed something.

When someone is looking to target someone, it first makes you a bad mark. You're aware, you're looking, and not staring at the ground, or at your cell phone. Awareness already shakes off some predators.

If someone is close up on you, the fact that you're constantly shifting your eyes around means it's neither a sign of fearful submission nor a sign of challenge, and, done correctly, also makes them afraid you're seeing something (or someone) they can't see. I like to shift regularly over their shoulder - it makes them nervous because if they are intending bad actions, they expect to be the full attention and here you are looking at something BEHIND them.

Causal defensive movements

Reach up and tug your ear lobe. Rub your nose. Scratch your chin. All of these look like natural actions - and all of them bring a hand up towards your head for blocking/attacking. Practice taking a halfstep forward to close off the attack line to your groin.

If someone is up close, you can really put yourself in a defensive position without telegraphing fear or aggression.

  • Thanks! These are both quite helpful. I like that they are concrete actions to take.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 15:51

I understand your feelings on this matter. As a female martial artist, I have learned that even though I am well-adept, I am still small, and many will inevitably view me as a target. I had a friend who jokingly called me a Poodle; even though a Poodle may bite just as nastily as a German Shepherd, most people don't take them seriously because they don't look threatening.

As a result, I needed to ensure that I eliminated any "misunderstandings" as much as possible. This did not mean going around and acting aggressively, as one poster also stated; rather, it meant eliminating any body language that would suggest that I am an easy target. For instance, don't look down as you are walking, and make sure that you are constantly aware of your surroundings. Not only does this mean looking around and turning your head, but paying attention to your peripheral vision and listening to voices and other noises around you.

Pay attention to vehicles on the street and anyone who looks sketchy. If it comes down to it, take a detour if the person in question is close to you or heading in your direction. You can easily talk to yourself and say, "Oops, wrong way" to imply that there is no fear (this also allows you to see if you are being followed). Noticing a sketchy person from a distance will help a lot. Pay attention to his/her body language and take caution when you see groups of people walking (especially at night). Walk with other people if you can because that easily cuts the risk in half.

If you are confronted, be firm, look the person in the eye and politely ask him/her/them to leave you alone (being louder can attract attention, which attackers hate). Show that you are not afraid and (regardless of whether or not you can get hurt) are not a victim. The way you walk and hold your body up says a lot. Most people gain their first impression of you based on your body language (which is especially helpful in interviews, heh). If you look like someone who won't be easy to take down, an attacker will be more hesitant to attack you.

Another option is to increase your martial arts skill set (it never hurts to learn more; we all do) and/or carry a weapon on you. Look at your country's restrictions and find an appropriate weapon to carry on hand. Whether it be pepper spray, a knife, a gun, a kubotan, etc., if you are walking by yourself (or even in a group), it can certainly work in your favour and give you more confidence (which will make you appear less like a victim). My boyfriend is a fencer and always carries a knife on him. Even though he doesn't know many empty-hand techniques, he certainly knows what he is doing (I am the black belt and I feel safer with him). I have also carried a kubotan or knife in my hand when in a deserted area (usually on campus) and/or when I see people ahead.

Mostly, I try to avoid questionable places and questionable people. There was a saying at my old school: "The best self-defense is not to be there." I feel that I have avoided many potential situations. However, regretfully, there have been times where I was in areas that I probably shouldn't have been. When that happens, you need to go with your instincts and try to get out of the area and/or situation as quickly as possible. Ultimately, keep your wits about you and pay attention to your environment. That is your best friend.

I hope that helped.

Good luck.


Does this help? Geoff's seminars are legendary in the UK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6OJnZG3joA

As others point out this is not a stack exchange good answer. Please google "geoff thompson the fence" for information on Geoff's ideas on keeping a good distance from potential attackers. The materials been disseminated widely so should be easy to find.

  • 2
    -1 as this is a terrible answer. It is just a link to some block called Geoff. We have no idea who he is, what he does, or what the video is about. Note that links are subject to rot so are no good without an explanation. So, no it does not help I am afraid. This could be a good answer but it needs expending. Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 8:07
  • I've read the book "Watch My Back", you are right it contains several tricks for avoiding threats and fighting opponents IRL, he used when he was a bouncer. Maybe when I go thru it again I'll write an answer.
    – Reno
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 10:32
  • Even though the video was pretty badly done, at least it made me aware of a technique that could quite literally keep a safe distance (control space).
    – Jeremy
    Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 2:25

I would suggest that you look ahead of you so that you can detect potential threats before they get close to you, it is then much easier to keep your distance. Let them think that you don't see them, don't look directly at them, don't talk to them, don't walk toward them. Be like the wind.


Keep a lookout for threats and thugs. Try to avoid some places if possible. Plan out routes to avoid them and escape if possible. Also remember that a person who might be drunk might be dangerous, but he can't really think straight, so use strategy and tactic. Plan ahead. Only fight them if necessary.


"How do I maintain martial awareness of a person's movement and intent when that person is very physically close (conversation distance, or passing on the street) to me?" perhaps the concept of "martial awareness of a person's movement and intent.." may in itself create an almost insurmountable hurdle for you...it may make you become 'TOO READY TO BE STEADY' by that I mean your mental state or 'attitude' may be getting in your way. It may in fact be blocking your sensitivity to such things. Engaging in sensitivity drills would most certainly be of assistance here. One of the best is environmental sensitivity. PUT ON A BLIND FOLD and learn!!!! Get other practitioners to assist you by approaching you from any and all directions. at first, loudly, then at talking level, then softly softly. They can remain silent vocally but give little 'noise' signals of their impending proximity. As you gain more environmental sensitivity you get them to apply stealth mode. single person at first...then 2 people...3 people...etc...etc. It becomes a case of learning how to feel what's going on. Sometimes our eyes and thus our mind can become stumbling blocks to our overall awareness. It's as simple as A - B - C...AWARENESS - BALANCE - CONTROL Peace Mad Merlin.

  • 1
    -1, Jedi training only works in the Star Wars universe... Commented Nov 4, 2013 at 12:37
  • 1
    Ahh the Jedi great place to start, they have excellent courses in constructive sarcasm, perhaps you could learn some. Peace Mad Merlin
    – Mad Merlin
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 4:09

Must be able to modify your position and make sure you do it fast enough (not telegraph it). Usually the people are right handed so move laterally to their respective part to make sure that he is not being able to align himself with you to hit you, because he's planning to give you the best shot of his arsenal. But if you bypass the strong side of him then he mast re-arrange in a way he can hit you better.

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