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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Pre-emptive Striking and Verbal De-escalation


I have many colleagues that have at one point said, “If xyz person ever hit me, I will beat the crap out of him.” It was always something along those lines. If we look back in our earlier years, a lot of us would remember our parents saying “Only unless they (the bully) hit you then you should retaliate.” Even in the context of the karate dojo or in any kind of martial arts gym, these ideas are prevalent. If he hits me, I will simply escalate it and hit him the same way. At times, I must admit that even l feel this way when practising in the dojo with clumsy partners, or with participants that have fragile egos. But I never let it get the better of me because I know this tit for tat concept could get you killed in the real world outside of the dojo.

I believe if a physical threat is imminent, you need to take initiative and attack first. I know, it does sound like I am contradicting the words of Master Funakoshi when he said, “There is no first strike in karate.”  Before you stop reading, allow me to give my explanation. What would you do if you were in a party and a much bigger, stronger looking individual came within inches of your face, threatening to break your nose for whatever reason? Now before I tell you what you should do, I will tell you what most people would most likely do (judging from my experiences and witnessing of several altercations). Many males especially, are afraid of backing down and looking bad, but yet they still need to be the “fair and better, wiser man” (once again, think MMA restriction rules and boxing rules).  There is always the pressure of making that possibly fatal decision whether to strike now, now or now, am I not right? And if I do strike first, I would look like an unfair wimp if I hit his groin or if I hit him when I did not announce to the whole world what my intentions were. Many make the mistake of standing their ground and engaging the enemy at close range in small talk with the hope that their enemy would hit them first so they can have an excuse to hit back, or that the enemy would give in to the small talk and name calling as a way out of the situation.

But here is where the problem arises. In the case of the bigger/stronger bully, if you adopted the typical average high school methods, you would effectively be at his mercy before you even have a chance to counterattack or to escape. So here is what you should do. If the individual is approaching you in an aggressive manner (you will know, trust me), you should establish a safe distance, or “maai” as the Japanese would say. More often than not, verbal confrontation precedes physical violence especially in the younger male age groups. Most of the time, violence could have been avoided if one party just took the initiative to back down and exit. Establishing a safe distance (cautiously and naturally) will buy you valuable seconds to “negotiate” or “plan” your exit or attack. Use verbal de-escalation while you are doing this. Say lines such as “Alright man just relax”, “I don’t want any problems “, “Listen, let me get you a drink”, “Let’s just calm down, there is no need for this”. When you do this, you are actually practising the 5th rule of the dojo Kun: “Refrain from violent behaviour.”  These lines not only serve as a de-escalation tactic, they also serve as a strategic compliment to your attack plan should you need to execute one. Either way, it gives your potential attacker something to think about and for short intervals, takes away fractions of his focus. This will enable you to be more successful in landing strikes when and if the time comes.

While you are moving away, be prepared to strike and run for your life. Most dojos and fighting halls teach this for sport duels and kumite drills, but they do not teach it for reality outside the dojo. There is a difference in my approach and with other self defence experts (check out Kelly McCann’s videos).  DO NOT get into a kamae stance (fighting stance) or a fancy boxing stance and try to mimic your gym protocol in this scenario.

You can keep your hands in a bodyguard type position; both are cupped over your groin. This enables you to shoot out an edge-of-hand strike beneath your enemy’s line of vision with the hand on top.  It allows you to tuck your chin down and use your shoulders as possible protection. It is sort of similar to the beginning ready stance in the Tekki Shodan kata. The other hand position is the “folded arms” position. However, do not entangle your hands like most people do. Simply have one arm on top the other. This is also a very natural position in which you can fire your knife hand strike or even elbow strike at close range. My favourite one is the position where you merely hold two hands up as if someone is threatening you with a weapon, only hold them closer to your face and narrow the gap between the two hands with your palms facing the enemy. This will enable you to look falsely timid, but in reality it will enable you to protect your face against any surprises and also launch your palm heel strikes to his nose/chin or to execute your elbow strikes accordingly.

These hand positions are not for duelling. They are meant to be compliments for your escape plan and for your pre-emptive attack plan. Also, when you get into these traditional boxing stances, you will find that it angers the enemy more, and you tend to lose the element of surprise because he now knows you have knowledge of fighting. It is this kind of thing that leads to the introduction of guns, knives and bottles to the confrontation. You have to assume that these guys are not honourable and that they will do anything to hurt you fair or foul. Remember, while establishing your distance, use one of these hand positions naturally and make good use of verbal de-escalation.  While establishing distance, remember you are trying to GET OUT and NOT DUEL.

If you escape or dissolve the situation with words, then perfect. I always follow Geoff Thompson’s rule, “Men who step away from you and make a lot of threatening noises are posturing - they don’t usually want to fight. Men who close the distance and try to get within touching range usually do want to fight, even if, as they approach, they say they don’t.”  But now I will address what happens if the bully continues to come at you, although you are moving away from him. The answer is actually quite simple: if he prevents you from escaping after you have tried your best to calmly de-escalate the situation, you must attack viciously like a lion until he is injured or you believe you are safe. Strike first and strike hard if you decide to. Do not wait for him to hit you. People have been seriously injured or killed because they waited for the enemy to hit them first. Ladies and gentlemen, this principle is like war. Battles between empires have been won and lost due to pre-emptive measures by the enemy or lack thereof.

If he prevents you from finding an exit, you must hit and damage him by any means necessary considering the given situation. You need to cause injury, whether you bite him, break his nose, scrape his shin, deploy a knife hand strike to his neck, kick him in his groin, and if the situation is critical, gouge his eyes with your thumbs, or simply apply rapid elbow strikes to the sides of his face. Make sure to move into a battery of combinations and feel free, if the situation warrants, to pick up everyday objects like bottles, sticks or umbrellas and use them to your advantage. This attitude of violent intent will almost surely defeat the stronger aggressor.  The great thing about pre-emptive striking is that it does not matter how big or strong the opponent is, a broken nose is a broken nose. A strike to any of the vulnerable areas will at least buy you a few critical seconds to either cause more injury or to escape. It is like a serve in tennis; if you are playing against Federer, a powerful, well-placed first serve from you will most likely stack the odds in your favour of winning the point. And that “point” in self-defence could mean the difference between life and death. In the end, please understand once again that your goal in self-defence is not to score a wazari or to show off your insane karate skills, but rather to survive. If you have gotten out alive, you have been successful. That is all that matters.

Before I move on to adrenaline control, there may be people who are still not convinced with the pre-emptive striking points above due to fear of legal action. Self-defence laws vary according to state/province/country. However, there is one thing they all have in common: that is whether you hit first or you hit last, you will still have to defend yourself in court after the attack. When it comes to serious, potential life and death scenarios, I know I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. 

Part Two (to appear in future editions) addresses the adrenaline effect.