You Can’t Plan For a Fight

I don’t write a lot about the self-defense instructor part of my life, nor about my experiences with violence. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to play “expert,” or maybe I don’t want to open myself up to scrutiny. It could just be ego-shielding, but part of my hesitance comes from just the opposite: I don’t think I have a lot to say that hasn’t already been said more effectively by people smarter and more experienced than me.

Today, for some reason, I was remembering a conversation I had at the firehouse, and I started to feel itchy. Agitated. There’s always been something that’s bugged me, and I’m sick of thinking about how out of touch and egotistic people get when you start talking about violence. Especially people who have never been tested. Never stood toe to toe with someone who gives absolutely, positively zero craps about them.

And I don’t just mean “on the streets,” either. You step into the boxing ring or into the octagon or even onto BJJ or wrestling mats; when you look your opponent in the eye and realize he’s not your sparring partner and he will do everything in his power to knock you out…well, you gain a little perspective.


Judo, BJJ, Wrestling, etc.: Grappling skills are fighting skills.

After having competed in a charity boxing match that pitted firefighters against police officers—nope, scratch that…

After having lost in a charity boxing match that pitted me against a police officer who had 4 inches longer reach and was 35 lbs. heavier and was a much, much more experienced boxer than me (see all that ego-shielding?), I returned to the firehouse the next duty day to much less mockery than I expected. Once dinner was over and everyone was settling into their evening routines, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table talking with the one guy who had continued to talk trash to me.

He admitted that he had no desire to get into the ring. He admitted that he had absolutely no ability to fight and that sure, I’d probably be able to take him, but man, did that dude put a beating on me. And he was right. The boxer I’d been matched up with was more skilled and more patient and all around better. Period. But it wasn’t my loss or my colleague’s poking and prodding that irritated me. It was how the tone changed as soon as our officer sat down with us.

So, it’s me, the officer and the noncombatant now, and Noncombatant (NC for short) starts talking about how he used to wrestle in high school and that he hasn’t wrestled in a long time, but he’s been in a lot of fights. I try to initiate a discussion on the difference between self-defense and self-protection—how it would be far better to avoid such confrontations than to survive them—when NC starts asking very specific questions. What would you do if this? And what would you do if that? And what would you do if someone tossed the bad guy a knife? A stick? A gun? Etc., etc.

In my brief time as a self-defense instructor, I have become very accustomed to these “what-if-scenario” types of discussions, and it’s been my experience that people don’t want the real answer; they want the easy answer. They don’t want to be helped to knowledge, they want to be given the answer right-now-thank-you so they don’t have to actually think. Because thinking is hard. And thinking realistically about violence can be uncomfortable.

Either that, or they want to argue.

NC wanted to argue, but not about anything of substance.


Empty-hand defense against weapons.

I returned to my discussion regarding self-protection and how eating crow is the better option, but if you’re in a fight, you go at the threat with everything you’ve got and if he takes his eyes off you to reach for a weapon, use that opportunity of distraction to exit the confrontation or end it. Actually, what I said was, “Put your feet to use. Either get the hell out while you can, or break your foot off in his ass.”

Officer decides to chime in with “You guys both sound like idiots.”

Cool. Constructive feedback right out of the gate. With nothing to engage, I turned back to the discussion at hand, determined to convince NC that avoidance is a far superior proposition than having to go hands-on with a person who doesn’t give a damn about you. But NC had wanted an answer so he could tell me that I was wrong and to tell me just how he had handled a situation. And now that he had an audience…

You see he was in a bar once and some guys at the pool table and blah blah blah. You actually already know the story. Primate A instigates Primate B. Primate A’s friends start blathering and flinging poo. Primate B puffs up and pounds his chest. Primate A and B start fighting.

“And, yeah, I busted him up so bad that they had to call an ambulance. I took off, though, cause I didn’t want to get in trouble.” Or something to that affect.

“So, you’ve been in a real fight?” the officer asked. I wondered what he meant by “real” and “fight,” but I kept my mouth shut. I realized that my time to teach had passed. “So you know that when you’re in a fight, you don’t think. You can’t plan. It’s all well and good to say that you could do this or you should do that, but when you’re in a fight, you don’t get to choose what you do. You just do it.”

And, I suppose, there’s some truth in that, even if it is a gross oversimplification and a dangerous precept. I mean, the higher brain kind of relinquishes control to the more primal parts of our brains under survival conditions, so we’re not gonna be doing calculus while trying not to die. Because what good would it do, anyhow? If our training time isn’t sufficient or our training isn’t realistic or we’ve never tried to apply what we’ve learned under stress, then our more primal brain is going to look at this fancy, new-fangled toy that our higher brain has played with and chuck it over its shoulder without so much as a “That’s cute, new boots, but I know what I’m doing here.”

The officer and sycophantic NC, though, were already trading their war stories in which they each admitted to battery, aggravated assault, attempted murder, and assault with a deadly weapon. They were further convincing each other that you don’t need to train to face violence because your body’s just gonna do what it’s gonna do and no amount of training is going to change that.

Sad. Sad and dangerous.

I didn’t bother trying to convince them of my experience. I didn’t tell them about my training. I didn’t tell them about any of the “real” violence I’d faced on or off duty. Gun to the head? Nope. Attempted mugging? Nyet. Head injured patient who bounced my partner around the back of the medic with one arm? Nada. Drunk who decided she wanted to fight three medics in front of her kids. Not a word. Because what’s the point? My training didn’t help me deal with those situations at all, right?


First-aid and trauma care of self and others is an essential part of self-protection training.

Had I planned for any of that? No, absolutely not. But in a way, absolutely. You see, when you train self-defense (preferably self-protection), you don’t train for specifics, because, as I said, the officer was right in his own misguided, uninformed, and ignorant way. If I trained for specific scenarios, I would most assuredly never stumble across the specific scenarios I’d trained for. And I never would have been able to apply what I’ve learned to the situations I have faced. But by training concepts and ideas in addition to combative techniques, those skills become more applicable across more potential situations. And because of that training, I was able to de-escalate the guy with the gun pointed at my head and avoid the mugging and restrain the head injured patient and pin the drunk without throwing a strike.

Listen, I don’t care what you do for a living. I don’t care if you’re a cop or a firefighter or a bouncer or an architect or a construction worker or a priest. I want you to be safe. I want you to be able to protect yourself and your loved ones. I don’t care about your ego. I don’t care about how you messed that kid up on the playground when you were back in school. I don’t really care about any fight that you won at any time in your life, because you don’t need to train for the bits you’ve survived; you need to train for the possibilities in your future.

So go get good training. If you aren’t learning about de-escalation and avoidance and running the fuck away, then you aren’t learning how to protect yourself. You might be throwing punches and kicks or shooting a gun, but you aren’t learning how to protect yourself. If you aren’t training with someone who is willing to tell you that the bigger your ego, the more likely it will get you killed, you probably aren’t training with the right people. If you’re training with someone who likes to regale you with war stories about how much ass they’ve kicked, be very skeptical.

And if you’re training with someone who truly believes that you cannot plan for the fight: Run.