Think back. What was your first or even most recent experience with adrenaline. A near accident. A confrontation at work. A fight with your spouse. Not exactly the stuff of legend. Simply day-to-day happenings. I don’t remember my first but I remember successive ones from the past few years, some humbling and still clear as day. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve experienced freezing. I have. It was a truly humbling event. Heavy limbs. No access to all the complex dojo training with compliant attacker/committed and one-dimensional attack. Racing heart. Holding breath. Tense body. Brain freeze. It was like a universal short-circuit. But memory fades. That’s the thing about adrenaline…..and memory. We forget.  The feeling dissipates over time and we forget the misgivings, problems presented and resulting helplessness. As martial artists, after an initial letdown that our training failed us we eventually go back to doing the same things we do, justifying that it was us, that circumstances vary and this one was different, that we were caught off-guard but we won’t be next time, etc. etc. and continue on our merry way trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

I’ve also been on the other side, the giver. And, let’s make no mistake, there’s an initial sense of euphoria at dominating and punishing another functional human being for what we perceive are justifiable reasons. We want more and we’re jacked up and he deserved it, dammit. This is before the shame, guilt and anxiety of repercussion (legal, financial/fiscal, ethical, maybe even spiritual) kick in. Violence leaves a kind of putrid, shitty feeling in your mouth post-incident. It solves little, although admittedly there are times it has its place and is a necessary evil. There’s also the fear of retribution from the receiving party – revenge, punishment, pain. (And this fear can happen from both perspectives – giver and receiver) Most don’t get into the varied forms of adrenaline and make it out to be one big entity universally causing (and calling for) the same response. But the truth of the matter is that adrenaline is different for different phases of the conflict. Pre-conflict…anticipation. (Of consequence. Of price. Questioning our abilities and whether they’re enough. Size/reputation/previous experience of the other combatant). Mid-conflict adrenaline. (I’m losing. He’s too strong. It hurts. I can’t win this). Pre-post conflict adrenaline. (What if I win and he knows where I live. What if he catches my family without me. What if I’m charged or arrested. What if he beats me badly and I end up in the hospital.) Post-conflict adrenaline. (Does he know where I live. Will he try and get even. What will happen to my family if I go to jail. What if I’m not prepared if he does. What if he’s got a screw loose.) This last one’s a kicker, it feels sometimes like a horror movie in the pre-climax phase: looking out your windows after getting home, locking the doors, paranoia, mind racing with thoughts that are utterly ridiculous in scope but these are the after-effects of the dump. This isn’t factoring in the number of kicks adrenaline can give you at any point. (I think Geoff Thompson covered this thoroughly in one of his books, far more thoroughly and with more eloquence than I could)

The myth is that eventually with time and exposure, we overcome the impact of adrenaline and that’s simply not the case. It’s always prevalent. An evolutionary event of the human body under duress highly-designed to protect us, alert us and give us the necessary tools to function and survive. Those with enough and continued exposure to it in whatever capacity learn to deal with it more effectively, embrace it as part of the process and function within its parameters. It’s one of many physiological happenings that we overlook or ignore completely in martial arts training. (innate flinch responseS-plural, gross motor/fine motor movement accessibility, aerobic vs. anerobic capacity, etc, which won’t be addressed here for obvious reasons of scope)

But I’m not here to spread fear, worry or paranoia. Actually, quite the contrary. The truth of the matter is this: Violence globally is not climbing and the statistics bear this out. The vast majority of daily safety issues do not call for physical response. (And this is good and should be acknowledged) There is not someone lurking at every corner waiting to kill you. The enemy you face will not likely be a 300-pound ex-criminal that trains daily like an animal. And we live in quite possibly the safest time in recorded history. ( , for some validity) Sometimes we tend to over-analyze (non-physical) or not analyze enough (solely physical) from extreme ends of the spectrum. There’s a fine line and, physiologically, it is indeed a complex subject. Both are needed without an overabundance of either. But on the surface, violence and fear are very simple primal creatures. We need to be measured in our approach and response. While we don’t know it, many times we are to blame when something happens that needn’t. (ego, testosterone, perception and impression of loved ones/peers/onlookers, pride-and if you dig deep and are honest, you’ll admit this as I am now)

Which leads me to my next point. Does violence or the development thereof happen? Yes. That is the reality. I’ve now had two incidents in the past week-and-a-half here in Costa Rica (and a third involving a potential kidnapping at a school near my son’s this morning) and both are of the unavoidable variety which, from my experience of not being security, LE or military but an average civilian…just a guy… is rare. I’m not going to delve deeply into this and give exorbitant details as patting my own back is not the reason for this article nor do I want it to be the focus.

  1. On the train on the way to teach an English program. A clearly mentally-disturbed gentleman across from me laughing chaotically, talking to himself, extremely agitated and scaring some passengers, including an older woman who was extremely scared sitting next to him. Skills utilized to manage the situation? Shielding (bag in front in case of sudden attack), reflections (the train glass is mirrored so I can watch his movements without drawing attention or creating confrontation), once-over of his person/clothing to look for noticeable bulges, clips, open zippers for quick deployment, etc., cell alert to my wife telling her briefly about the issue but not to worry (for possible future need, should something happen), subtle deployment (in case but not to draw attention), eye-meeting to acknowledge him without maintaining “glare” (which would have been perceived as confrontational), autogenic breathing, once the women exited the train I re-located (mis-direction, better vantage point-behind, and confusion to him, not to mention taking myself out of the equation), alerting train personnel…and being calm.
  2. At our family bed-and-breakfast, 3 gentlemen arrived 2.5 hours late (1 am), intoxicated and openly doing drugs on the premises….disturbing other guests. They were asked politely to leave, money refunded in full. Skills utilized to manage the situation? Misdirection, open acknowledgement and address of ritual signs of violence in one of the gentlemen, strong body language/tone of voice, distance, autogenic breathing/conscious loosening of body in anticipation of potential conflict with angry clients, presentation of weapon at a certain point in non-aggressive manner but intimating intent if needed, distance gauging, spatial enforcement through body language/squaring up/ facial expression…and being calm.

Now, to be honest, if it seemed that cut-and-dried and smoothe, it wasn’t. End result on both? No violence necessary. Zero injuries. Zero lawsuits. Zero hospital bills. Zero remorse. Now both are extremely different in scope, for analysis sake. One a mentally unstable person, lots of witnesses, lighted, moving vehicle, cramped space, public location, possible assistance available. The other multiple people, darkness, open space, family present, under the influence of both drugs and alcohol, no assistance available, location known and return possible. Both dealing with irrational people but for very different reasons and in need of entirely different responses. And none of these skills were ever truly delved into in a martial arts class. This is not to say there aren’t some exceptional martial arts styles, systems and instructors out there that can be your guide to staying safe. There are. You just have to look for them as most aren’t likely listed in your neighborhood yellow pages. No, what I’m saying is that most of the skills you have at your disposable when it hits the fan are within you…innate. Now. Since birth. From experience. And it can be cultivated with a combination of people that know about this stuff and researching things on your own and trusting your own instincts. Be informed. Don’t buy the misinformation so readily available. Consider whether the knowledge you’re getting is subjective or objective. Are you going to trust your and your family’s safety from solely someone else’s experience? It is one element but consider the context and its viability with the content. There are a lot of good, knowledgeable, well-versed and educated people in this industry, regardless of all the “that’ll get you killed” crowd. Search them out. Self-defense is no shrinking violet and most of these ladies and gentlemen are accessible and more than willing to help you out. They’ll often start the conversation with “Now, I don’t know everything and simply don’t have all the answers….”





Seems like an eye blink ago when I was sixteen. This thing called time has over taken me. A mere moment ago I was young kid living in New York City. I was young teenager enjoying the seventies in the Big Apple and all that it offered. How can you even begin to explain to the young people of today that they really missed out on some the greatest music that ever will be? Or what a disco experience was like? How does one describe the smell of the old Bowery along with CBGB’s and the grit? When I visit Forty Second Street today, it looks like Disneyland to me, Lion King Reigns supreme. Gone are the porn shops and Kung-Fu stores that sold posters of Bruce Lee. Union Square Park is so gentrified I feel like I am in a foreign country.
Martial Arts in the City were a very different thing back then. You knew peoples provenance. If your lineage was not traceable you were put on notice. A few guys from an infamous dojo on the lower East Side would have fun “visiting” people who seemed suspect in their so called “credentials”. Tournaments pitted “East Coast versus West Coast”, “Karate versus Kung-Fu”, and Aaron Banks put on the greatest martial art extravaganza on the planet. There was still some semblance of stylistic “purity” back then, in that you could tell a Goju-Ryu man from a Tae Kwon Do man. Shotokan was clearly distinguishable from various Kung-Fu. No such thing as what is now called “MMA” back then. Although when we had style versus style disputes in a tenement hallway or South Bronx rooftop, things became a bit dicey to say the least.
When it came to the street of course it was all about survival. We had guys who would show us “Jail House” boxing, and we would always have fun with the brothers “slap boxing” in the street. Improvised weapons ruled the day. Cheap, simple and efficient were the guiding ideology. None of us knew anything about “FMA” back then. We had seen some Iaido and Kendo but not much else. Some guys knew a bit about native weapon fighting from family, like some guys we knew from the islands. I had experienced a bit of Magyar Gypsy knife while visiting Hungary. But nothing was fancy or full of heavy “theory”. Pointy end goes in this way was the operative theme.
Quick deployment and concealability, and the ability to ambush someone dominated our approach. An icepick in a paper bag was unseen but felt when thrust forward. A cheap fish weight attached to a dog collar hit like a black jack. A box cutter and screw driver were subway specials – and I don’t mean the sandwich version.

Cheap, accessible and disposable made sense to us. None of us could afford a nice knife, although some guys would carry a Case pocket knife. We knew about the “throw away”. We learned that from many of the underworld types – gangsters, gang members and guys we knew from the “joint”. No glamor in shanking a dude multiple times with an ice pick. No movie fantasy about guts spilling open from a box cutter slash through a thin t-shirt on a hot summer day. When the stuff hit the proverbial fan it was on.
Today I see a lot of what I call “fancy stuff”. Expensive exotic looking curved knives from faraway places are sold all over the internet. Beautiful folders and fixed blades that while costly and nice eye candy, you would be hard pressed to throw away if ever used. I see knife “templates” that while fun to practice, are too complicated to perform under unpredictable circumstances and duress. By and large I don’t see deployment taught and the need for a truly predatory mind set. Some guys are making money selling workshops teaching the fancy fluff and stuff. While I don’t begrudge them in trying to earn a living, it would be nice if they could interject an occasional “real” method or principle in what they propagate.
But I get it. People say they want to learn “self-defense”. But in my experience when you attempt to teach that, people get appalled. They blanch and change color right before your eyes. They say things like “wait that is too intense for me, can you tone it down” or “I don’t know if I could ever do that to somebody”. But teach them a form of religion disguised as martial arts, or a form of rolling around the mat like dogs in heat, and they sign up in droves. Some families have made a great deal of money brain washing the masses on the efficacy of their invincible legendary methods. And yes, maybe on some beach in Brazil, mano a mano with mucho machisimo, it has validity, but in crowded bar, or moving crowded subway car, I don’t know. If you are in the street when you are being ambushed by multiple predators, probably armed and in low light conditions, it ain’t a Jackie Chan movie. And a huge obese aging pony tailed Aikido Guy who never gets a scratch in the movies when fighting the bad guys, is not coming to your rescue. And what if the defender is unarmed? Are people by and large still so gullible? The first mistake of a defender is that he was caught unarmed. And if he is armed, he needs to be trained and willing to use his covert weapon of choice.
The combat mindset should be an important principle to inculcate. Does not matter what you know if you are not willing or unable to make it so. Keep it simple. Learn blunt impact and edged weapon methods with an eye toward ultimate survival. Become familiar with firearms. It never ceases to amaze me how so many martial art “experts” I know who are teaching public workshops and classes know nothing about firearms. They self same Guros also make lame excuses about this ignorance. But yet they often teach gun disarms! In my simple logic how can you defend yourself against something if you don’t know how to use it and how it functions (and hence its strengths and weaknesses)? This is also my logic when I see martial art “experts” teaching students how to defend themselves against a blunt impact weapon or a knife. And of course if you don’t understand the mind set of true predator, it puts you in a moral and ethical conundrum. The predator has no “compassion” or “empathy” as a so called “normal” person would be conditioned to have. So that passive “just re-direct and control” “non-Violent” approach is gonna get ya killed. Doesn’t anyone see the lack of logic in the term “non-violent” martial arts? Self-protection will be anything but non-violent.
Train hard. Use your common sense if you can. Become well rounded in your approach. Keep it simple. Don’t buy into the fancy stuff. And if you do, have fun with it but don’t confuse it for authentic self-protection. If you train in a so called martial-art for the exercise benefits, that’s wonderful. But try to comprehend that authentic martial arts for real world survival is not about just the workout. If you live in a gun culture please at least become familiar with what that means. You don’t need to be an expert shooter by any means. But at least have a cursory knowledge for your own benefit.



12. Give them context. I had a former student that told me he could never ever put a knife into somebody under any circumstance. I told him I could change his mind in less than one minute. He laughed. I asked to visualize, really clear and detailed imagery, a just- released violent criminal. Inhumane. Non-empathetic. Vile. No regard for human sanctity and precious human life. (Not evil incarnate, inhuman or a mindless killing machine as this takes away the humanity and if it can bleed, it can be destroyed.) He was coming home from a long day at work, the only thing on his mind seeing his beautiful wife and cute kids. He walks in to see his kids unconscious and bleeding on the floor. His wife has her mouth muffled by a hand and this guy is on top of her ripping her clothes off. There’s a knife laying on the dresser and there’s one thing standing between her and your kids’ lives…you. He will not stop and there are no police coming to help you. She’s looking at you with horrified eyes and the life slowly leaving them. Could you put a knife in somebody? (Now I know this is extreme, unlikely to happen for the vast vast majority and a horrible vision to have to picture but it goes toward context and the ability and moral/ethicaljustification within that context and to achieve scenario-specific goals…remember, the vast majority of us are deeply hardwired for resistance to taking human life….and this is a good thing, rendering a lot of what we learn in “martial arts” and “self-defense” moot…semantics are simply not semantics pertaining to violence) I saw his body language change during the process…red face, clenched fists, body rocking, smile vanished and a look of glaring intensity. He said “yes, under those circumstances I’d be able, without doubt.” It turned out to be about 90 seconds but you get my point. That’s context. Visceral imagery. We don’t train to stab a guy at the bar that accidentally (or not, for that matter) dumps a beer on us. We too often teach universal or general in a specific. Poor conditioning. (hardwiring is already there so this is not hardwiring, it’s conditioning…we’re altering the hardwiring)

13. Mantras reinforced to develop proper mindset. Here are a few examples that I use: “When all else has failed and there is no other solution than a physical response, I will be brutal, unforgiving and unempathetic in my attack until the threat has subsided. I will dominate with incredible speed and power, both of mind and body.” “I will learn to function with adrenaline dump and will overcome my fear and use adrenaline as power.” “I will do whatever it takes to survive, thrive and live for my loved ones.”

14. Learn targeting, not sequencing. Don’t have a specific response for a given attack. Train yourself to always see targets. They are ALWAYS available from ANY position. Ones that do damage, that create shock and awe, that give psychological trauma, that cause injury and inflict brutal…not later that evening.

15. Don’t (even unintentionally) put weapons in their hands and have them dismantle an unarmed fighter. A. It’s illegal and you’ve just taught them unbeknownst to them (and often unbeknownst to the blank instructor) to escalate the level of force exponentially given the circumstances. B. You’ve gone against the average person’s innate resistance to utilizing this type of violence on another human being. C. You’ve messed with their context and unconsciously given them a skillset most are simply unable to process, especially without that specific context.

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16. No tapping or submission training. It is self-defeatist. If a student perpetually learns to tap when things start to hurt or as a “safeword” you are conditioning them to fail. Teach them to read body language so they know when they’re hurting someone, facial reaction. I once had a friend who had been training with some law enforcement friends on the weekends. They did BJJ and every time (he was a big guy so it took some effort on their part) he said they’d end the wrestling match with a rear naked choke and told him that there was no counter…once that was on, it’s over. He asked if I had any solutions. I told him, “tap.” He said, “Well, yes, then I’m done and the fight’s over. What can I do to counter once I’m caught?” “Tap.” “You’re not getting it, D, I need a counter.” I told him “I’m giving you one, you’re just not listening. Tap. They release instinctively, it’s how they’re trained. They’ve done it hundreds of times and, by now, it can’t be overrun. Tap. And when they release, attack them like a hungry f*$#ing tiger.” The lights went on. “But that’s dirty.” “I know, you’re right, it is. Do you want the counter or not.” “But we’re friends!” “Not during a real fight you’re not. You wanted a counter, take it or leave it. It will put you on top, they won’t be expecting it and the appalling shock of you not playing by their rules will put them on their heels while you get the first few shots in. That’ll change the bloody dynamic of the game. Permanently. They’ll never make that mistake again even while on the job. It’ll help you in the immediacy, them in the long-term. Everybody wins.” “Jesus, Darren, it’s just grappling with beers on the weekend!” “Yeah, well, that’s the difference, I look at it from a different mindset, I try and be a  problem-solver. You had a problem , I gave you a way to solve it. It’s not pretty, it’s not nice but, dammit, it sure is effective, isn’t it?” Tools like visualization allow the student to go through the steps needed to end the scenario, whether it be verbal, physical, intuitive, psychological, tactical or what have you. Have them do it successfully in their mind’s eye. Then have them do it with ugly success. Then imperfectly and with flaw. Then have them develop a plan b or a perpetually-adaptive method when their first avenue doesn’t work as planned. They aren’t given one-size-fits-all solutions, they’re given tools to adapt to the changing playing field. It will forever help them, in life or in the fire. Until what point to continue the assault? Until the threat ceases to be a threat if all else has failed and the physical is all that’s left. No gloating, no admiring your shots, no yelling in victory, no stopping. No re-dos. Dear God, if you want to get Darren mad, ask for a re-do. “That didn’t look good, stop and let me try that again.” Billy, keep attacking Jimmy, please. Learn to thrive in the unpredictability of chaos. It’s human to be hit, to err, to screw up and have something look ugly. (Remember, if I do anything that looks absolutely beautiful, it’s by accident, not intent) Teach them to become focused, pragmatic and goal-oriented. Means to an end. Make your training your reality: a. Growl. Learn to become feral. Let the inner animal loose every so often so you know what he or she looks like and can recognize him or her when he/she’s needed. b. Train biting, pinching, scratching, twisting, tearing, ripping, clawing. Then practice counter-biting, counter-pinching, counter-scratching, counter-twisting, countertearing, counter-ripping, counter-clawing. c. Learn the physiology of that animal. What does he look like now that you recognize him? How do you access that state change on a dime when needed? What are the things that matter to you? Your trigger points? What’s worth fighting for and what is not? This is the definition of flipping/flicking the switch. It’s often paid reference to but very rarely explained. Plan before when it’s okay for him/her to come out and play ahead of time…during is too late. Again, the whats are usually what are stressed, not nearly enough of the hows, whens and whys. Eyes roll back in head, immense power runs through your body, a viciousness takes hold, something snaps. Look in the mirror and see what he looks like. Get a visual, auditory (what does he/she sound like? things he/she says? tone and intensity?), kinesthetic and tactile processing in place. Practice brings it to the fore, then returning back to the you that your loved ones see every day. Practice seeing how fast you can access Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll. Again, use context. What matters to you? Who’s important? What would have to be done to them or you to pull Mr. Hyde out of the closet? Remember, he’s not you, he’s a part of you that only comes out when absolutely needed, not when your wife nags you or the kids are misbehaving. It’s okay to have him, it doesn’t make you an awful person as he has a voice, a rare one, but a powerful one nonetheless.

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Context is bloody king. Remember, it’s not the system, the belts, the techniques but the will to utilize the tools necessary if and when needed. Mindset. The mind is by far the most dangerous weapon we possess.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and I’m often reticent to share openly information like this as it is both controversial and can be misused, from someone who understands and moreso from someone who doesn’t. I have been pushed by some close confidants to put it out there as, who better than someone who uses the methods responsibly and with care to explain it with caution as opposed to someone egregious and negligent. High praise, let’s see what comes of it.


As neurology and neuro-linguistics develop, there has proven to be a direct correlation to the words one chooses to how the brain and body are conditioned, including and especially as it pertains to self-defense. A block of its own volition signifies a reactionary move which means the practitioner is forever behind the eight ball of real aggression. Words are not just words. They represent the images, sounds, feelings (both tactile and kinesthetic) and internal feedback of how we process meaning and, therefore, how we act based on that meaning. I have never been a big believer in quick solutions to evolutionary problems as they pertain to a wide variety of things – making money, being happy, having success – as these are all tangible things that are person-dependent. But for combatives or self-defense, my experience is they make a world of difference in the beginner mind. My intent here is to inform, give some different and progressive methodologies to conscientious and open-minded instructors to help keep their students safe. Just some examples of how this connection can be averted into a different entity in the mind of process:

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1. Block becomes destroy (example: “I defended against the punch with a high-rising block” becomes “I destroyed the punch with my elbow)”

2. Fighting becomes terminating violence (A match or duel with a unknown outcome and no definitive answer for duration of conflict, expectation of victory, pain tolerance and threshold caveats and factoring in potential loss and doubt in the mind becomes a method to overwhelm the threat by any means necessary until the threat has ceased) If you see me “squaring off” outside of an attribute drill (which is what sparring is, it’s not actual violence) I’ve already let things get out of hand.

3. Defend becomes hard counter/pre-emptive action (transfers the power back to the one on the receiving end and in a proactive manner)

4. Joint-locking or joint manipulation (I’m not a big believer in either but it’s an example) becomes joint-breaking or hyperextension (a “lock” has no end – either you let go when he submits and start the dance from square one again, he/she becomes accustomed to the pain and resists or you hold indefinitely until tomorrow morning when one of you breaks mentally. A joint-break or hyperextension signifies damage, damage that cannot be undone without medical assistance and recovery time.

5. Entry becomes overwhelming forward pressure/explosion

6. Trap becomes limb destruction or disruption

7. “You did that wrong, do it again” can be “What better and more efficient way do you think you could’ve done that to get the result desired?”

8. Instead of yelling, cultivate their problem-solving ability

9. Reverse engineer modern problems with potential and highest-percentage outcomes.

10. Challenge their intellect and give them the avenue to solve the problems with their own analysis without spoon-feeding them.

11. Push them. “I’ve seen you hit harder, did that bomb have emotional intent or are you just going through the motions?” Every strike needs emotional intent. What matters most to you that you want to return to. The audacity of this person to try and take that away from you or you from them.”

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  1. Lineage dating all the way back to 1650 China is great but don’t flaunt it like protective shield as you’re only as good as what you’re personally capable of. I live in the 21st century and your forefathers aren’t reflective of what you can do as an individual now. Carry their values with you but be in the here and now.

2. I am not stuck in the past. I don’t live my life as a reincarnation of a 500-year old Buddhist monk so when I see a North American pretending he/she is from Eastern Asia it turns me off very quickly These are often the same people who criticize Asian people for wanting to be more Western. Pot calling kettle black.

3.  I don’t chant mantras from books from generations back like Confucious. If they can help me in my current state be a better husband, father, son and friend..then fantastic…but I am not Musashi nor do I idolize or pray at the altar of Bruce Lee, though I accept they both had great contributions to this industry.

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4. I am tired of those who tell me that, because I’m pragmatic, functional and modern with my approach to violence, personal preservation, safety, self-defence and combatives that I have less of a philosophy than traditionalists. In fact, from many I’ve met I have a much stronger one. Many I’ve met have no idea when they should and shouldn’t use countervailing force. What constitutes a “self-defence” scenario and what doesn’t. What verbal diffusion is. (If you don’t practice it you WILL NOT use it, contrary to what you tell me) How to be situationally aware because it’s unnecessary due to all the mystical lineage-giving powers you possess. What your superpowered chi can do to other human beings who oppose you. (HINT. It’s not throwing someone across the room with a no-touch knockout.) What adrenaline does to you and the cost using violence forces one to pay.

5. I am tired of those who hide behind a belt and believe that it means they can rest on their laurels just because it’s colored. Authenticity, blood, sweat and tears are worth the effort but many believe they’re color of belt is the equivalent of their level of being able to defend themselves and I’m afraid the correlation isn’t that direct.

6.Though you believe you’ve been “training for 40 years and know the system like the back of your hand”, if you’ve stopped training for 15 and aren’t teaching you are NO LONGER training. You’ve stopped, thus the “time put in” factor is not quite the same as the rest of us who continue rain or shine.

7. I don’t believe you can give people life skills from a book. Combat is chaotic. Situation awareness is organic and subjective. Violence is sudden. Human physiology is complex. Books give knowledge but some things need to be experienced.

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8. When you tell me that “I remember when I was 40..great age…very inexperienced” you are being condescending. Especially when you tell me you’ve taught for 5 years of your “40 years of experience” and I’ve taught for 15, including to military, police, security and prison personnel.

9. I grow weary of traditionalists who act like they’re superior because they put their left pinky finger at a 37.8 degree angle in their vaunted cat stance (which should be taught as a stance with a 73-27 weight distribution, by the way). Secret techniques that can subtly screw the reality-based and MMA community that nobody has to prove because of the lethality involved. Superiority without proof, other than that my master’s master’s master told him it’d work…therefore….it works. Tradition has it’s place and it’s important to know where we’ve come from but don’t hide behind it. What happened in 1300 feudal Japan is not necessary applicable to June 14, 2014.

10. You are also wrong when you tell me there is no such thing as reality-based self-defence or combatives or combat martial arts as they’re all reality-based and combative. I’m sorry but they may all have been at one point but they are no longer all. Kicks to the head on ice or in the rain, rolling around on the ground waiting 10 minutes for that submission to open, punching with your hands on your hips, training barefoot, one-punch-one-kill…in most circumstances not applicable for the modern streets with the modern criminal with modern tactics.

11. I also grow weary of those who claim that we (you and I) should freely exchange techniques and I should openly share with you what I know at no fee because a) that’s the way the old masters would’ve done it (I’m sure my family would think differently of my working for free) and b) you’ve taken two seminar certification courses in the same art so you’re a qualified instructor. Please.

©copyright, all rights reserved 2013 Mandirigma FMA Academy


Sounds poetically beautiful, no? Like a spring rain? But all have a very functional use with regards to anticipating violence before it arrives. Since these are relatively simple and take a very short period to hardwire into the system, I’ll (try and) make this entry brief.

SILHOUETTES: When it’s dark, have you ever had trouble in the middle of the night making out images, for obvious reasons? Especially when the lights first go off, if you look right at the object/person it’s almost impossible to see anything. A trick I use is to “tune out” my vision and look at the whole  broad picture instead of trying hard to focus on the one image. Just by looking a couple of feet to the left or right, the image in the center comes more clearly into focus. Not clear, mind you, but clear enough that you can make it out and perceive enough about space/distance between, limbs and potential targets…if needed. It’s a neat drill to do and enhances one’s sensory perception.

In ancient Japan, apparently it was often taught that, when fighting an opponent in the dark, you should always lower your body so as to see the silhouette of the opponent against the night sky or moon. This is another example of changing your perception to give yourself a chance at staying safe in difficult circumstances and not being caught off-guard.

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REFLECTIONS: When in public places especially, I often take a glance at passing storefront windows, mirrors in restrooms, security mirrors in convenience stores and reflections of people in objects such as hand-dryers, sunglasses, television sets and my cellphone just as a quick drill to enhance my sitatutional awareness. To be aware of my surroundings and the people within it. To see if anyone is potentially singling me out. Once again, it’s never within the context of active paranoia; it’s just a precaution and takes literally a second or two before moving on.

Often in sudden violent situations, attacks or kidnappings the people may have had a better chance to prepare for something potentially coming around the corner if they had paid a little attention to those around them. Who’s watching you? Who’s following you? Has that car been on your tail for many blocks now and even turns when I turn (rearview and side mirrors/reflections)? Is it something to be concerned with? Or is it just coincidence? More often than not it is indeed coincidence but I find it’s good practice for me to get into. Making yourself a hard target. Projecting awareness. Creating a non-victim mentality.

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THE SUN: Sun Tzu, in his treatise “The Art of War”, stated that an army should always face the sun when higher up or on higher ground than the opponent. By doing this they’re in the light, thus preventing them from falling prey to a surprise attack and putting them in a position of advantage, both through this strategy and having the advantage of greater position. Great tactics! While this is true in various terrains (brush, forest, mountains) for greater tactical position and the prevention of an ambush attack from hidden foe during times of war, it’s not always applicable for modern individual self-defence.

When approached by a stranger, while it’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge or think of sporadically, I, for one, like to have the sun at my back. It’s bright, distracting and hard on the eyes and I’d far sooner have it in a potential attacker’s face than my own. It gives off glare and causes one to squint when they’re looking at a potential attack point or vulnerability. It’s a small but sometimes brilliant (intentional witty sun reference) tactic that may only give a couple of seconds respite or reaction time, as we say: sometimes a couple of seconds are all that’s needed to make the difference, even if that difference is escaping or calling out for help.

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Just some areas to think about that have nothing yet everything to do with modern self-defence. Another tact to improve your non-violent conflict resolution and situational awareness. Remember, fighting isn’t a daily regular occurance. Staying safe is.

©copyright, all rights reserved 2013 Mandirigma FMA Academy


PART TWO: Car safety.  While I defined defensive driving as any precautions relating to movement of your car, car safety was defined as those precautions pertaining to the stopped vehicle. Car safety pertains, quite simply, to when the car is stopped; preparation in case of potential scenario, your own body language, awareness of potential hazards around your car. Examples?

I advocate locking your doors BEFORE you put your seatbelt on. This is a mistake that seemingly the majority of us make. If our seatbelt is on and someone opens your car door with the idea of kidnapping you, stealing your car or otherwise perpetuate an assault, you are now direly limited in your movements. (striking with power, accessing your tactical folder at your pocket or other defence weapon, moving to face your opponent, etc.

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As mentioned, keep your personal effects out of sight. In CR often motorcycles approach a car on the passenger side and see a purse/wallet/cellphone/sunglasses that they’d be interested in breaking the window for with or without you in the car. Why give them the temptation? Keep these things under the passenger seat, inside the glovebox, in the trunk…wherever they cannot be seen easily by a potential thief.

When getting in your car, whether at home or at a different location (mall, movie, restaurant) make a quick check of the area. Visually sweep the backseat, under the car, the vehicles next to and around yours. It only takes a brief few invaluable seconds when you’ve trained yourself properly to peruse these places and it may save a lifetime of trouble. Is that a minivan/van parked next to you? Many kidnappings and hostage-taking scenarios have started this way by strategically parking next to someone perceived as a victim.

Scams? Spam left on the windshield to draw you out of the car while three guys wait by a near vehicle ready to hijack your car. (Always drive away first as you can always look at the paper at a different location and if it’s a legitimate product deal there’s no harm done) The flat tire ploy of someone in need of “assistance” on the side of the road while buddies wait in the bushes on the opposite side. (If you’re determined to help and it looks like someone legitimately in need, you can always, with your doors locked and window open a crack, offer to call for help for them on your cellphone)

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Though this is just a small discussion of literally hundreds of scenarios, skills and precautions to take, I hope it creates even a little awareness in a few of you. Then this entire article that should be common sense and basic was worth the review. Stay safe.

©copyright, all rights reserved 2013 Mandirigma FMA Academy


PART ONE: I’d like to talk about a topic that to me is even more important than physical strategies (as most of us are in our cars every day interacting with other human beings), only because we are far more apt to have conflict through this means daily: defensive driving and car safety. Aren’t they one in the same? Not at all. One, defensive driving, covers the actual movement of the car-traffic, reading the body language of other drivers, common sense with spatial awareness as it pertains to others, driving with a defensive mentality to ensure getting to a locale in one piece. I’m going to be discussing both in a two-part article.

Defensive driving.  While travelling at highway speeds, I recommend at least a full car length of distance (at least) between you and the car in front of you. This allows for enough reaction time to stop suddenly, if needed. Here in Costa Rica, I realize that this gives other drivers the lane over the idea that a car length is ample space for him to fit his Chrysler so be aware of that potential possibility as well. This distance both gives your reflexes enough time to react to rapidly-changing stimulus and is easier on the brakes of your vehicle if you’re somewhat lax in your vehicle maintenance. The last thing you need is to have brake failure because you’re constantly riding the brake/clutch.

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Stopped? At least enough space on either side to drive around the car in front of you in case of road rage or a perceived sleight from the person ahead is always a smart idea. I know at least one friend who, at a stop light, stopped inches away from the vehicle ahead, which may or may not have been the trigger point for the following aggression of him getting out and trying to smash the driver’s side window in. On a side note, nobody said you had to get out of the car if another driver shows signs of road rage (giving the finger, shaking a fist, swearing after rolling down a window, getting out of his/her car). The best thing to do, although for us men it often tends to challenge our “pride” is to stay moving in your vehicle while calling law enforcement or 911. As a tactic you can even, if followed, lead them directly to the station after alerting them you’re coming. (Let someone else do the work for you who’s paid to deal with that sort of engagement) Maybe not macho, but prudent and sometimes even pretending to be on your cellphone will scare off someone inclined to escalating a scenario. Plus, you never know when someone’s packing a pistol.

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Constantly checking your rearview mirror for both knowledge of the coming actions of drivers behind you and, if your intuition dictates, paying attention to potential vehicles following you for long periods of time. Lock your doors while travelling in urban areas. Too many times I hear of the same story-“I was waiting at a red light and some guy out of nowhere jumps in my car and orders me to drive him to such-and-such location.” (One true story in Canada even involved one of these guys putting a needle to the driver’s neck claiming he had AIDS-infected blood in the syringe, which really gets one’s attention, needless to say) Always use your peripheral vision. I see so many drivers with tunnel vision that never pay attention to anything other than what’s directly in front of them. That’s strong awareness but unfortunately only strong to 25% of the directional potential problems. (And eliminates any possibility of being aware of a potential motorcyclist coming up from the side and seeing that purse or camera sitting innocently on the passenger seat waiting to be taken after a quickly smashed window) While this article discusses only a fraction of the potential elements of safe driving, it gives a glimpse of some simple task that can be done to contribute to avoiding potential danger. We’ll discuss car safety in our next installment. Until then, stay safe.

©copyright, all rights reserved 2013 Mandirigma FMA Academy


We all feel it. We all experience it under moments of great duress and confrontation. Military. Law enforcement. Experienced martial artists. Security. Bar fighters. Prize fighters. To a man..or woman. It is inherent and those who will tell you they do not nor never have are one of two things: with mental/social disorder or lying. While some have ways of containing or managing it, we ALL feel it. And know what? It’s normal. Stop feeling incomplete or insufficient and embrace the fact that it’s evolved from thousands of years of evolution and there’s nothing that can be done to completely avoid it.

While we have introduced various concepts on how to cope with it and add it as an element of your training, this is more an article to deal with our invulnerability as martial artists. (and therefore, as people). The belief, both in the community and, in some cases, in some in their own minds, that we are invulnerable or untouchable still abounds in modern society. People poke, take shots or test, trying to prove that we are human when all they need to do with the grounded of us…is ask! Do we get hit? Yes. Can we dodge or avoid all strikes? No. Do we prepare to sometimes “win ugly” in a way different than Hollywood will have you believe? Absolutely. Are we always prepared for every potential scenario possible to be faced? No, I’m afraid it’s damn-near impossible..although we try and, therefore, cover as many bases as we can. Do we feel fear like the rest of humanity? See paragraph one for reference point.

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We train for flaw. We train for perceived physiological drawbacks of the human involuntary system. We train to limit damage. This is the reality of reality. Many martial arts instructors won’t train with their students, barking orders from the sidelines and continuously putting themselves in situations that adheres to the strengths of their abilities to give themselves an air of invincibility in front of their students. (a form of hypnotism) They preach mysticism and quote truths from 500 years ago (which, by the way, are often not relevant to modern day laws, attackers, terrains or garb)

Instead of showing students my “perfection” and immediately making them feel they could never achieve a level that’s unattainable, I find it both humbling and honest to show them (usually involuntarily) flaw at times. I train with my students. I test myself alongside my students. I show them the techniques against resistance. It, counterintuitively to what many believe, does not show them my weakness but instead gives them a confidence that to err is human and that, if I am not perfect maybe they don’t have to be either. Achievability. It gives them strength. And, more often than not, they respect me more for the fact that, more times than not, I can pull these things off with resistance yet achieve it without perfection. And, more importantly, that because of its relatively simplicity it could be accomplished by them as well.

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Many times new students are so hard on themselves when they make mistakes, don’t do the drill or “sequence” as fluently as their instructor or get cut/hit/kicked. Real dynamic scenarios with interactive resistance allow the student (yes, of course going slower with limited resistance in the beginning for learning is appropriate and required!) to feel a greater confidence and understanding of how things are supposed to work and greater belief in their own ability. I once had a student who was a brown belt in another style and we were doing a grappling drill with resistance. It was his first time doing anything with resistance, even though he had been training for years. He admitted to me, honestly and self-deprecatingly, that he was a little concerned and nervous. I assuaged his fears and told him he would do fine. (And I knew this to be true) After the drill was complete, he approached me with a look on his face of sheer enjoyment and self-accomplishment. Though I’m paraphrasing, his response was something along the lines of “fantastic, exhilarating, never done that before!” Remember, every breakthrough shatters self-imposed myths and barriers of fear, breaks new ground. We did breathing exercises, scenario-training, close-quarter tactics (a range beginner students often innately have great fear of) His tools were in the toolbox but he just hadn’t taken them out for a testdrive yet to pressure-test them. (As a sidenote, this student-who had taken only 5 or so classes at this point-was attacked by a patient at the mental hospital where he worked and disarmed the staff-wielding chap-an accomplishment I am still to this day very proud of him for)

I feel fear as well. I have been in situations in which I have been afraid. (both in the self-defence world and in my day-to-day and in which I have both thrived and let fear get the best of me, remember-to err is human and we are most certainly not machines. Even the Terminator himself has come on hard humbling human times lately) Initially, I was distraught after these occurrances but, upon further thought, I realized that although I was determined that it would never happen again that way, that at times we are vulnerable and adrenaline is a protective mechanism the body uses to temporarily make us more impervious to pain, stronger, faster. We learn to accept it, embrace the attributes it provides us and limit it’s negative impact (freezing, inability to act, tunnel vision, trembling, decision-making, etc.) using tools to bring our heartbeat down, calm our nerves and clear our mind. The internal resistance was provided by the myth that it should’ve worked out like it did in the club.

My firm belief is, those that don’t have stories to tell you of their own personal fear (or at least confirming their existence if too proud to admit openly) are not telling the truth. And I have never trusted people without flaws or weaknesses. The forever smiling and surface-euphoric. Everyone has them (flaws). Whether or not they choose to admit it is a flaw unto itself…pride. I prefer to be honest, open and able to relate to my students. Not try and uphold shrouded mysticisms of generations-old chains of unreachable perfection. It IS possible to be grounded, approachable and questioned while still maintaining the ethics and standards of a conceptual system. (And, remember, that’s all any system really is once stripped away to its bare bones) Honesty cultivates self-expression. The ability to develop self-expression creates trust. Trust breeds unlimited potential for learning, which often opens the door to a greater willingness to overcome fears. Didn’t that get wrapped up nicely.

©copyright, all rights reserved 2011 Mandirigma FMA Academy


I remember a few years back there was this big back and forth discussion/debate between an ex-student and his former instructor. The crux of it centered on what hand/side of the body to lead with when in a confrontation. They both had a list of why each was a superior method of defense. The old debate of “lead with the strong side” versus power hand in reserve went back and forth like a veritable game of nunchaku ping pong. This debate went on for page after page on various martial art forums, each having a staunch group of supporters who chimed in with their respective “expert” views. And while both points of contention had a plus and minus column ratio, it seemed to me to miss the whole point of authentic personal protection.

Real self-defense has no “get ready, get set go” option. An attack in real life is by and large an ambush. Of course variations in this theme exist as in a house party or bar situation where you can escalate or de-escalate as the situation merits. But these alternate scenarios are more what I term “fighting” versus true personal protection/self-defense. In an ambush it is a “mugging”. An unexpected attack is usually done in low light conditions, more than one aggressor and the antagonists armed. There is no time and or ability to ask the attackers for a “time-out” so you can position your body to more effectively deal with the attack! Strong side, weak side any side at all is just not going to matter. You need to be able to explode from where you are at any given moment. You have to train yourself to be able to go from zero to sixty in an eye blink. You need to be able to shift in mind set from being semi sleepy, and full of food after a nice dinner and movie with the spouse to being jumped by street vermin.

Be like Shrapnel my friend. You need to literally “explode” from where ever you happen to be in relation to your enemy. No time for posturing, no time for posing. No time outs no second guessing on what the situation may entail. What is required is awareness, decisiveness, aggressiveness, speed, coolness, ruthlessness and surprise to quote the good Colonel as to his principles of self-defense.   You need to be able to swarm real quickly. All your training should have prepared you for this moment of truth. No time to “think” about what to do. An effective training program should have inculcated in you a right combat mind set. The color codes of threat escalation.  The OODA Loop. The idea and difference between fight, flight and freeze.

Real personal protection is not sparring, nor is it fencing or rolling on the ground looking for some form of BJJ/MMA “victory”.  If you have not prepared for what the human predator is capable of, please don’t delude yourself. The predator does not process nor think like the more “civilized” person does. A FOP (fresh out of prison) predator has no empathic filter to negotiate in a moment of violence. I remember a story that happened years ago in the Big Apple.  A young Korean guy, who had several Tae Kwon Do schools in the area, took his dog out for a walk on a hot humid Manhattan night.  He decided to grab a beer at a local bar and tied the dogs leash to a fence while he went to grab the brew. Another guy had a similar idea and ties his dog to the fence as well. As luck would have it, the two dogs went at it and got  all tangled up. When the dog owners attempted to separate the warring pooches, a bit of jocularity between the two dog owners turned into the Puerto Rican fireplug owner saying the Korean guys pussy dog started it all etc. etc. What the Tae Kwon Do did not do was to verbally de-escalate and walk away. Ego, pride and the sure knowledge of his long and hard earned TKD skills prevented him from leaving or losing “face”. One thing lead to another and the stout Puerto Rican ended of shanking to death the Korean martial art “expert”. Dead. Done. Game over. No example of swarming shrapnel here. Things can escalate so quickly that one of the first things you need to ask yourself is “Is it a life and death situation, and is it worth dying over’?

Now I know a lot of people reading this would say that “He just did not meet a REAL Tae Kwon Do master”, and so on. And some may take offense that I mentioned the ethnic backgrounds of these guys. Hey, it could have been the other way around right? No. This is the truth of the scenario. The stout Puerto Rican had recently been released from prison. His martial art was “Shank-Ryu”, not McDojo Tae Kwon Do. And while I mention this incident as an aside to the main concept espoused, the TKD guy did everything wrong. Now he is dead and the other guy was put back in prison. I don’t know what happened to the dogs. Had the TKD guy understood Jungle Warfare and the predatory nature of true survival, he might still be here. But I’m sure his students miss him, and the shiny trophies at the Dojang will continue to collect dust.

I saw the other day a really wonderful video of a traditional Japanese Shotokan teacher helping the viewers understand the true meaning of “dojo” and general Japanese martial art dojo etiquette. Clip your toes nails and finger nails. Stand at attention when Sensei is talking, and how to use the term “Osu”. And on and on….very good information to know in a traditional Japanese dojo. But how many of his students know anything about true to life principles of self-protection?   How many of them have learned how to attempt to survive a vicious unprovoked attack by a true predator? Etiquette and having a nice clean gi is great. A sense of moral justice and respect is a wonderful side benefit in training in a traditional dojo. But true self-defense it is not. All the kata, bunkai and kumite in the world is not going to prepare you to deal with Shank-Ryu. Yes I know many traditionally trained martial artists would staunchly argue with me on these points, and proceed to tell me countless stories of some 17th Century famous Okinawan master defeating a dozen armed bandits in a quiet Okinawan hamlet.  And I know the bar the tooth Fairy and fat santa hang out at.

But take heart dear reader. My intention here is not to bash or trash all traditional martial (recreational) arts. I love them all. I enjoy the bonding and comradery developed through randori, kumite or the wonderful flow of Escrima or Aikido. Most so called martial arts are not even stress tested. Any art will “work” in the safety of the school if there is cooperation. But being able to explode on the predator is generally not taught.

The peace and love taught in some styles of so-called martial “arts” will get you killed. You want religion, go to church. Having a smiling bearded mystic as your spiritual guide is very cool. But he is not going to step in front of that shank for you. In my observation a vast majority of people who go to a “martial art school” want nothing to do with training in a more combative arts program. When I have asked people what they want to learn when I teach a workshop some will inevitably say “self-defense”. But then when I get all gutter fighting on them, they change color and say it’s too intense or that it’s to visceral for them! But do more of an Aikido, T’ai Chi Ch’uan approach and all ears are perked up and big beautiful smiles are seen upon their faces. Oh well. Perhaps I need to be teaching Zumba or a Pilates class, or even better some type of Ka-Robics kick boxing stuff!

Some closing thoughts here. I know I rambled on a bit in different areas. So be it. It was my free flowing stream of consciousness in action! But don’t be fooled. If you claim to be about teaching “self-defense” then do just that. Don’t put up a sign saying “non-violent” self-defense (what a contradiction in terms!). Teach your people the laws of the land. Pre and post conflict. Teach verbal de-escalation methods. Teach real blunt impact and edged weapon work. Learn how firearms work. No excuse here. You may not “like” guns or even be afraid of them, but America especially is a gun nation. And above all learn how a hand grenade operates. Be like shrapnel my friend…..

copyright, 02/10/2017, John Kovacs

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