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Department of Defense: The Best Way to Contend With Combat Is to Use Your Head —and Protect Your Head!

Protect Your Head
Photos by Ines Piquet
Black Belt Plus

When violence happens, it’s explosive and often catches you off-guard. However, there are some simple tactics you can use to survive the initial onslaught. Practicing these things daily as part of your lifestyle will go a long way toward mitigating the threat. Making them part of your martial arts training while honing your situational awareness is even better.

In a shocking moment of violence, the dump of adrenaline can feel like a wild force surging through your body. Your immediate challenge is to regain control of yourself and your role in the altercation. When someone is determined to harm you and possibly take your life, doing that can be quite a challenge — imminent danger is an incredibly strong force to confront.

First, you must have the will to survive. That means deciding ahead of time that no matter what, you won’t quit. You’ll fight back and, as they say, do whatever it takes to win.

Second, you must seek to control your inhalation and exhalation. Respiration is the only function of the autonomic nervous system that you can alter consciously. Normally, when adrenaline surges through the body, breathing becomes shallow and rapid. It does this to ensure that muscles are supplied with oxygen so you’re able to fight or flee.

Inhaling slowly and deeply into your diaphragm counteracts that. It helps neutralize the fight-or-flight response so you can stay present and in control. That enables you to make the best decision in the moment. Yes, that decision could involve running away, but it might entail defending yourself and then counterattacking. Either way, your brain will have the oxygen it needs to focus. This is one reason it’s often said that the mind and breath work together — where one goes, the other follows. It’s also the reason meditation lessons often focus on breathing.

A third essential is to find your center, aka the hara or tan tien. Asian traditions teach that it lies 2 inches below the navel and about 2 inches inside the body. To increase your calm under duress, direct your awareness to this point. Envision a gravitational pull down to your center as if it were a magnetic anchor. This will help you stay anchored inside yourself in the eye of the storm — no matter what chaos unfolds around you.

When you practice this type of focused concentration in daily life, it becomes second nature, which means it’s more likely to be there in times of turmoil.

Protect Your Head

“The abdominal and waist region coordinate all parts of the body and act as the center or generator. Therefore, you can promote the ability to control the body’s actions and master your will more easily.”

— Bruce Lee, The Art of Expressing the Human Body

Self-defense and combat share many similarities. Both are unpredictable. Both feature a battlefield that’s always moving, requiring you to be fluid and “switched on.” In combat, special operations forces learn to pause, breathe and assess the situation rapidly using what’s been called “battlefield patience,” and that can benefit martial artists like you, as well. When under fire, both groups must be able to hold onto the details without neglecting the big picture. For example, military personnel must be able to look through the sights of a rifle while maintaining situational awareness that encompasses the rest of their unit as well as the enemy. This enables them to see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done to survive.

For martial artists, being present and able to rapidly make decisions is equally important for survival.

“Whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who will survive.”

— Sun Tzu, Art of War

For military members and martial artists alike, one of the best ways to promote situational awareness is to use the OODA loop, the initials of which stand for observe, orient, decide and act. It was created by U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, who devised the concept while analyzing air combat. The OODA loop can guide you from stimulus to response over and over again. It teaches that in any violent encounter, the following steps must happen in rapid succession.

Observe: Scan your environment. Look 360 degrees around you and engage your brain. Have you been in a similar scenario or perhaps read about one? How did it play out? Could there be multiple attackers?

Keep your powers of perception open. What new information is presenting itself? What opportunities exist?

Take a mental snapshot of the space, then home in on the smaller details. What is your peripheral vision revealing? What’s happening right next to you? What’s coming from 10 feet away? Your mental snapshot and subsequent assessment are crucial for your survival.

Orient: You must position your body according to the threat. What kind of fight is about to begin? Is the space open or enclosed? Can you escape? Do you have your hands raised in a nonaggressive gesture to de-escalate the situation? Are they ready to defend yourself if need be?

“Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.”

— Col. John Boyd

Decide: You must determine what the optimal course of action is. Should you keep your distance? Staying out of arm’s reach of a potential attacker is usually best. Using that mental snapshot, find a space you might be able to escape into. Leave immediately if you can.

If you cannot escape and the situation is escalating, you’ll need to make the decision to defend yourself.

Act: Do it with intention, whether it involves fight or flight. If you’re being hit, you likely have no choice but to defend yourself. Just don’t stop defending yourself until the hits stop — they usually don’t stop after just one. Use your adrenaline to counterattack with all your strength. Be open to changing your plan of action and, if necessary, reorienting yourself.

“Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

— Viktor E. Frankl

Keep in mind that in a violent encounter, rapid cycling through the OODA loop is normal. The four steps might seem to happen simultaneously. During this time, adrenaline will adversely affect your fine-motor skills, so have simple but effective gross-motor movements you can rely on.

If you’re being attacked at close quarters, you must protect your vital areas immediately with your forearms. Think of it as framing your head, face and throat with your limbs. Place your hands on the crown of your head. The heels of your palms should be just above your hairline. Keep your chin down and look through the gap that exists between your forearms. Make sure that gap is big enough to allow you to see the strikes coming in but not so big that an attacker’s fist can penetrate.

With your arms bent at a 90-degree angle and your hands braced against your head, your limbs can absorb an incredible amount of force. The arrangement of nerves in your forearms means you’re unlikely to feel much pain on impact. Even if you do, it’s better to feel blows on your forearms than to let your brain pay the price. If your command-and-control center is compromised, the defensive options described in this article will be severely limited.

Protect Your Head

Katherine de Boda is an Arizona-based martial artist and writer.

This article originally appeared in a 2021 edition of Black Belt Magazine.

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