Insights and Training Tips from Tactical Arts


Insights from the Tactical Arts Academy
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Understanding Situational Awareness


Physical skills are only part of the skills that you need for self defense. You must have cognitive skills too.  One of the most important cognitive skills you can cultivate for self defense is situational awareness.

What is Situational Awareness?

Simply put, situational awareness is knowing what is happening around you.  It is knowing your environment and what events are occurring nearby.  In terms of self defense, situational awareness includes knowing what is happening, and knowing what, if anything, you should do about it. To do this, you must derive meaning from the circumstances in which you find yourself.

Situational awareness is your perception of the environment and nearby events together with your assessment of how your actions will affect your immediate and near future. To make this assessment, you must first pay attention to details in your environment that may affect you.  After observing those relevant details, you must then determine if there is anything to be learned from that information.  You will use that information to predict what could happen next. In doing so, you must consider whether or not there is a threat to your safety. You can then decide what to do to assure a safe outcome for you.

States of Readiness

A common framework for understanding situational awareness is using defined states of readiness.  There are several models that use this method. They all can be used to help you channel your awareness and actions based on your circumstances.  The following method is used by the N.R.A. to teach situational awareness.  It incorporates four states of readiness - unaware, aware, alert, and alarm. Each state can be associated with certain circumstances and can help you determine what actions (if any) you should take.  Here are the four states with examples:

Unaware - When you are at home, with the doors locked, you can let your guard down. You can take a nap, drink a beer, and listen to music with your headphones. This would be the unaware state, and in those circumstances, it would likely be ok.  However, if you are walking down a busy street while drinking a beer with your headphones on, or napping in the park, you are likely to have problems. You could be selected as an easy target and become a victim of a mugging.

Aware - This is the state you should be in when you leave the house and go about your day.  This is a relaxed state, but in it, you are observant.  You take mental notes of the people and things around you. You have not seen anything to alert you that there is a threat, but you are paying attention to your environment in case there are any indications that you should become more focused on any potential threats. You cannot be daydreaming or talking on the phone to maintain this state, you must be paying attention to your surroundings.

Alert - In the alert state, you may have recognized that conditions are favorable for something bad to happen. You are not only aware, but you are paying a little extra attention to something that looks like it could be a potential threat. You may have seen someone cross the street and start walking towards you. You may notice someone in the parking lot looking over their shoulder, then looking at you. In the alert state, you would immediately start making plans of action based on what the potential threat may do. If the situation escalates, then you already have a plan and can therefore act more quickly.

Alarm - When you are in the alarm state, you have determined that the potential threat you noticed earlier is indeed a real threat, and you may have to act immediately.  If you noticed the potential threat in the alert state, you will already have a plan of action. You will simply be looking for the cue to take action. For example, you may have seen someone walking in your direction and decided that if they approach you aggressively, you will yell, “Stop!” and put your hands up before they get within 10 feet of you. You may have planned that if they keep coming you will create distance and move to their flank.

These four states are on a continuum of attention and perceived danger.  In the unaware state, you are not paying attention to your surroundings because you feel there is no threat whatsoever. You are completely relaxed. At the the other end of the spectrum, in the alarm state, you are focused on a real threat to your safety, and the intensity of your focus is at it’s highest.

Using Situational Awareness

When analyzing the people and events that you see in your environment, consciously put yourself in the appropriate state of readiness. Your evaluation of the environment and the potential threats within will tell you which state you should choose. You may start with one state, then quickly move up or down to the next. If you learn to control the state that you are in, then you will be able to have a quicker understanding of your immediate options in any situation.  If you do not have that control, then you may fall into a state of panic, and panic is not a state of readiness.

Situational awareness can reduce the stress of a violent encounter by removing surprise. Situational awareness can give you a little time to think. By recognizing the nature of the threat and the factors involved, you can at least begin understanding what threats confront you before the actual attack hits. Even if your awareness it only gives you a few seconds before an attack, you may at least have enough time to mentally brace yourself for what is coming. This mental preparation can reduce the freezing response and panic that comes from being caught off guard. This is important because it will give you a better chance of taking the action that you feel is the best choice.

Knowing the state you are in helps you determine what to do next. The value of identifying the state you are in, or need to be in, is that you can quickly see, plan, and act on what you see. If you can classify your situation into any of the four states, then you will immediately have direction for your next action.  You may need to defend yourself right away, look for more information, or perhaps you can simply resume what you were doing before. Your initial actions are based on your current state.

Situational awareness allows you to be ready to apply your physical skills. Moving from the unaware state to aware, alert, then alarm is like moving up a ladder. The higher up the ladder you are, the closer you are to taking action. When you see what is going on around you, notice there is a potential threat, then identify it is becoming a real threat, and start making a plan of what to do, you are getting ready to take physical action.  Having the information you gathered and evaluated through your situational awareness, you will already have an idea of what it is you must do.

This is valuable because you will have already moved through the observe, orient, and maybe the decide stages of the O.O.D.A. loop.  The O.O.D.A. loop is a theoretical model of what cognitive processes you must complete for you to react to anything.  Once you have seen what is happening around you (observe), determined whether or not you need to do anything (orient), then decided what you need to do about it (decide), then you can apply your solution (act).  This action may be move, disengage, negotiate, strike, block, shoot, etc. - your self defense skills.

Here are a few examples of situations wherein your awareness could help you determine what to do next.

1. You get out of your car to fill it up with gas when someone that you do not know, walks up to you.
2. You are in the parking lot of a busy restaurant and bar.  A person who appears to be drunk and looking for a fight gets kicked out and is walking in your direction.
3. You walk up to an ATM and someone nearby glances over both shoulders, then starts to approach you.
4. You are in a convenience store, the front door opens. You look over and see someone entering while covering his face.
5. You see someone in the mall pull out a gun.

Though the severity of the potential threat may vary in each of these circumstances above, using situational awareness could help you navigate each one.

Final Words

Use situational awareness as your first line of defense. It’s your radar. Once you see something getting closer to you, pay more attention. See if you need to do anything about it. Situational awareness can help you see potential threats and take steps to avoid or prepare for them before they become immediate threats.

Monitor your state of readiness.  Make sure it is appropriate for the circumstances.  Being unaware while walking downtown at night is not appropriate. Expecting sudden attacks from every shadow in your home is probably not appropriate either. Find the right balance of awareness so you can both stay safe and be functional in your everyday life.

Situational awareness does not guarantee you will not be caught off guard. Nobody can be vigilant 100% of the time. A determined criminal can wait until he has the best opportunity to catch you. However, situational awaress can make it harder for someone to catch you off guard.

Situational awareness is developed through training. It is not cultivated by simply reading about it or willing it to happen. Situational awareness is developed though practical application.


If you are interested in learning more about situational awareness and self defense, consider joining the Tactical Arts Academy Self Defense Program. Training includes managing dangerous situations through scenario training and practical drills. We can help you learn to protect yourself and enjoy making yourself better.

Click the button below to learn more about the program and sign up for a free visit. You’ll learn more about Tactical Arts, you’ll have the opportunity to watch our classes in action, and you’ll discover if our training is right for you.



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