Self-defense: The 5 Stages of a Confrontation

I am a lifetime marital artist and former combat instructor in Special Forces. I have developed, written and taught combat and self defense courses around the world to more than 100,000 students and instructors. Even after more than 35 years of experience in martial arts training and combat survival experiences, every time I enter an unknown environment, I always question myself on “What if…”

No matter how experienced you are in the martial arts or how confident you feel in defending yourself, awareness is a far more powerful weapon than any other skills you practice in the training hall. Don’t be an easy prey. Watch for signs that signal danger during the following stages of interacting with a potential assailant.

Stage#1: Approaching

Approaching is the first sign of potential danger. An assailant may walk toward you casually, follow you from behind or jump out of nowhere. This is the time for you to prepare for avoiding the assailant or running away.

Remember: Don’t Run Away from Danger; Run to Safety. You don’t need to beat or defeat an assailant – there are no winners in self-defense. Your only goal is to escape safely.


Stage#2: Closing

If you feel even slightly uncomfortable about a person approaching you, do not allow the assailant to get closer than 5-6 feet. If necessary, give a stern verbal warning such as “Stop there” or “Don’t come any closer.”

Stage#3: Trapping

An assailant intent on harming you, will ignore a verbal warning and continue toward you. At this point, there is no doubt about the assailant’s intent and this is your cue to flee immediately and without hesitation. Be aware that if you begin to flee, an assailant may try to drive you to a confined area.

Stage#4: Attack

When physically attacked, there are a number of things to keep in mind that might mean the difference between life and death. The most important lesson that I learned in military combat is the power of the mind. Stay calm and alert. Don’t Panic. An experienced assailant will use your mind against you, taking advantage of your panicked state to control the situation. Take a deep breath. Stand tall. Get ready for anything that may happen. Stay away from the wall or corner. Even better is to place him in front of the wall.

The second lesson is that everybody makes mistakes. Look for mistakes or weak spots. Even the most overwhelming assailant, no matter how indestructible he appears, can make a mistake and have one or two weak spots. That’s when you will find an opening to break though. Use his weak spots for striking or exploiting, use yours for luring.

The third lesson is that every physical confrontation is fluid and the changing nature of the conflict will create a number of opportunities for you to escape or counterattack. A physical assault has a goal. An assailant wants something from you, whether to injure, rape, rob or kill. Until he obtains his objective he will continuously progress toward his goal. This means that the situation will continue to change as the assailant progresses toward his goal. So never give up no matter what and find your niche.


Think ahead: Sometimes waiting can be better than acting immediately if you think the changing situation will give you a better option. Try to figure out what the attacker needs to victimize or dominate you (i.e. Space to attack, a free hand to assault you) and don’t let him have it.

 Example: You are pinned on your side (lateral cobra twist) by a rapist and cannot escape, don’t panic. A rapist cannot achieve his goal from this position. At some point, he will have to change position. When he loosens his grip, shifts his weight or tries to gain a better position for his legs, his momentary distraction provides you a chance to escape or counterattack.

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The fourth lesson is don’t dwell on your mistakes. Move on. Quickly. We all make mistakes but they are just a part of the whole process. Keep your sight on the entire spectrum, which is your survival. If a technique is not working as expected it, don’t fight it. Change your plan, look for a better opening, move in the opposite direction or use a distraction technique.


The final lesson that I learned through experience is that you need to have a plan. Before you enter any unfamiliar circumstance, take a moment to size up the environment and to practice an Emergency Mental Rehearsal. Know how to protect your body. Know where to strike. Be familiar with the exits and environmental weapons you can use. Know where to look for help.

In any violent situation, you just never know what is going to happen and where the situation will take you. You never know when you have to get extremely violent and when to choose life and death decision. By mentally rehearsing how far you are willing to go in defending yourself and what types of defensive tactics are available to you in a given environment, you gain a powerful added weapon: a plan of defense.


Stage#5: Aftermath

In the aftermath of an attack, such as a mugging or assault, the assailant may decide to kill the victim. Do not let down your guard until you have escaped to safety or the assailant has completely left the area.

Practicing self-defense scenarios, both in your mind (visualization) and with a partner, is essential. Rehearsing situations helps you think through how you might handle a potential threat.

Like this article? Learn over 100 practical, effective self-defense techniques from author Sang H. Kim. Watch the Junsado Fundamentals, Standing and Ground Combat video now.