My question: how can I prepare myself to avoid the "deer-in-the-headlights" phenomenon if I am ever attacked in real life?

The background: I took a self-defense seminar today at my dojang and learned some valuable skills, mostly about distance and using my voice, but also some basic escape moves. The problem is that we practiced the moves in a safe place and the "attackers" were all men that I trust and have sparred against. None of the positions made me at all uncomfortable.

I know that in a real situation, I would have a ton of adrenaline dumping into my system. I also know that my normal reaction to that much adrenaline is to close-up, shut-up, and tremble--all extremely counterproductive. How do I avoid that?

  • The best answers here are by Slugster and Dave Liepmann. The answer is mostly to increase the amount of resistance / non-compliance of your opponent. The standard "canned" responses taught in self-defense classes are nearly useless. The moment you try it in real life, you'll realize you haven't prepared for it at all. Deep down, you know it won't work. That includes black belts in karate or TKD, etc. They haven't trained for a situation where the guy grabs you, tackles you to the ground and beats on you relentlessly until you've actually overcome him. Apr 11, 2016 at 9:44
  • I used to go to a class where, periodically, someone would just get in your face with swearing, pushing, abuse and all that - thus giving you a chance to respond to it without having expected it. If you wanna be able to handle being "ambushed" by an aggressive other party - train for that. Aug 24, 2017 at 11:36

4 Answers 4


There's basically 3 things going on with the freeze.

The "easiest" hurdle (easiest to adjust your training to) is addressing practical issues of terrain, location, being out of position. Most training is done in a clear, well lit space, free of obstacles. After you get basic proficiency, your training should include adding things which put you under greater disadvantage and stress - these don't have to be exactly 1:1 to real situations, but you need to play with adapting techniques and experimenting in the moment.

The emotional hurdle often involves facing aggression. Folks like Richard Dmitri have exercises where you deal with intense emotional aggression as something to train and deal with. My friends who have gone through military training point to a lot of boot camp yelling being this kind of thing too. The people who need this kind of training the most are usually the folks who have either been fortunate enough to never face real aggression, or else suffered various forms of abuse. So the tough part is finding the balance between "you're toughening up against it" and "wow, that left me feeling like shit".

The third part is the actual just freezing of the mind and trying to catch up to what's happening. Rory Miller's Facing Violence goes into some of it, and his experience is the #1 key thing is to get yourself to do one, physical concrete thing, to break the freeze. This is actually where things like traditional arts' methods of slapping your thigh or chest before going into action work well as a training tool - you bring yourself into your body awareness and it's a simple action that doesn't eat up too much time.


It's a bit of a dirty secret really - most people who teach self defence classes know that what they're teaching will be mostly ineffective due to:

  • the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome that you mentioned
  • 99% of those students are not going to actively practice what they were just taught therefore if they ever manage to apply it effectively it will be pure luck

Some schools/people will use this knowledge simply to make profit, the others will still teach the courses because they know that even one person "saved" is better than nothing at all.

In my experience the only way to overcome that situational paralysis is to train. Then train some more. Then practice the techniques on an unyielding opponent. Then train some more. It's a psychological reaction (also here), the only way to beat it is to understand it and train it out.

Situational paralysis is common, especially in lower ranked or beginner students. Another manifestation of it is situational panic - where the student just panics and strikes out like a crazy person, not really sure what they're doing. Afterwards they have no real memory of what they did.

The only way to get rid of either behavior is to train to the point that you don't need to consciously remember the technique, and to actually experience having to use the techniques. When you train be aware that you're not just training the body, you are also training the mind and eliminating the negative responses. As you execute the techniques you need to be visualizing exactly what you are doing with it; after a while this visualization will become an automatic habit and you won't have to do it deliberately.

  • Other than surviving actual unexpected physical altercations, I good variety of training and sparring against a broad range of physical types and skill levels is one's best option for preparing for real-life self-defense.
    – Zen_Hydra
    Apr 11, 2016 at 15:32

One way to reliably experience using martial arts skills during an adrenaline dump is to compete in a full-contact ruleset. A judo tournament, knockdown karate tournament, and scheduled kickboxing match, would each fit the bill.

Some "reality-based self-defense" schools advocate situational training, such as practicing in everyday clothes and in everyday environments, or with extended cursing and yelling intended to elicit emotional responses and discomfort. I don't find these give me an adrenaline dump, nor help me think through my actual responses, nor practice technique effectively.

  • 1
    I agree 100% with the tournament angle. Not only does the excitement of the moment get you used to an adrenaline dump, but it also makes you aware of the crash afterwards (and sometimes having to fight/compete through it).
    – Zen_Hydra
    Apr 11, 2016 at 15:29

With enough experience in sparring against opponents of other disciplines, sizes, and experience levels, one can learn to read the body language of intent. With enough experience in training, one's body just does what it needs to without having to think about what it's doing. Specific self-defense scenarios may be mental traps, but knowing that you can reliably punch, kick, parry, and grapple through trained response and muscle memory is invaluable.

Situational awareness is one of the absolute necessities of surviving a conflict, whether in the back-alley or the battlefield. Practice noting all of the exits when you enter a new place. Make a mental game of assessing the threat level of people you observe by their posture and carriage. With experience, you might be surprised by how well you can guess the training and experience of an individual based on the way they casually move. Being able to avoid or escape a physical conflict is much better than having to survive one, and situational awareness is key to such avoidance.

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