Psychology of Confrontation – Part I The assumed attack.

Psychology of Confrontation – Part I The assumed attack.

“Psychology of confrontation” Chapél (2006), (“PoC”) is a very large subject and one that will take more than two articles to convey.  However I will make a good start here. This subject covers every aspect of human conflict. I will limit this article to the interactions between two people, one of whom is intent on inflicting violence on the other. Even this very simple start has its problems. The subject of interpersonal violence is a massive one and applying psychology to it makes it even bigger! The ways in which two people interact are also numerous. Let us consider for a moment the different ways that you may be attacked.   These can be broken down into two very basic categories.

1 The surprise attack and

2 The anticipated attack.

Both of these will bring with them their own specific psychological differences and the type of responses that anyone is capable of applying. Due to the nature of the description the surprise attack means exactly that! It’s a surprise! This will illicit from the victim a startle reflex in some manner. Whereas the anticipated attack will not, due to the fact that a verbal or posture warning will pre-empt an attack.

Within the martial arts we have a continuing battle to justify the techniques and conflict scenarios that we teach to students. There are as many different ways to teach a technique, as there are different arts. Some arts teach principles and others teach scenario-based syllabi.  We have arts whose teachings are based on traditional techniques handed down through time and arts that work more on a stimulus basis, however the last type is few and far between.

In American Kenpo, the self-defence moves are based around conflict scenarios, with the addition of principles and theories. At the higher levels I also introduce stimulus based trained responses. All of this helps the practitioner to analyse the techniques in some depth. The hardest area of all is that of effectiveness of your technique and the reactions that could, with reasonable efficiency, be predicted from your attacker.    In the most part, you can be logical in your thought process, but the application of logic is only as good as the foundation that you base your ideas and thought processes on.   There is a saying within the field of human endeavour “practice makes perfect”.  This in itself is a reasonable saying with good sound logic! The more you practice the better you internalise the moves and the greater the understanding you will have.  All sounds very plausible right? So what if you are taught a move, leave the school, go and practice what you have been taught again and again, until you know it without thought and then return to the school only to discover that you remembered the moves slightly differently then you were originally taught and for the past few months you have been practising incorrectly!  Sort of blows holes in the old saying!  It would be better to say, “ Perfect practice makes perfect”.   The trouble is how do you know what is perfect! Teachers in the arts base their understanding on their own experiences, or that of their instructors, once these thought processes become engrained its almost impossible to accept that there may be knowledge and information out there that could help expand your techniques and understanding. The best you can really do is to apply a sound logical thought process to your art. The next real question should be where do we start?

So lets start with assumptions! You have two basic choices.

  1. Assume that each move that you make will have a very limited affect on your attacker and they will move in an un-predictable way; or
  2. Assume that every move you make is most effective and your attacker reacts to each move within a degree of predictability. The techniques that you use are at their most effective.

Each of the above assumptions brings its own problems and the psychology required to analyse each of these is different, we have to delve into the mind of both participants in this violent encounter.

In assumption 1 it can be read as saying “your moves are ineffective, so you need to have a lot of techniques ready” – this is making an assumption that your moves fail in some degree. You therefore need back up after back up. Consider the psychology of the student at this point, you are in some way teaching them based on a premise of failure!   On the other hand you are teaching them a large amount of techniques and skill to defend themselves against a huge amount of changing variables. Which one is the most efficient? Teach a student to have the mindset of a warrior? Or the ability to be over skilled? Well the answer is both together and if you agree with this, then mindset and psychology should be part of your teaching and training the mind should be more important than technique.

In the second statement above, there are no variables and you are making the assumption that every move you make works and the attacker will then react in a way that can be predicted. This in itself brings its own very specific problems, namely, if your technique hits the correct target with the right amount of force, then you need to have knowledge of the body’s reactions, the psychological impact and the physiological effects that will occur. The only real problem here is that you are teaching a process that does not allow for variables.

To enable a sound-learning platform, lets take the second statement and look at this in the context of an attack. The first thing to clear up here is that I am starting from the point of the attack and not the lead up to the attack, so all of the fight foreplay has happened and you find yourself faced with a guy that for what ever reason has decided to attack you! This is not a surprise attack. There are a couple of real important points here.

  1. The person being the aggressor, that has decided to hit you, has no clue, unless you have told him, that you are a trained fighter. He has made an assumption that you know nothing and feels he has the ability and the advantage to take you on!
  2. The likely target that has been chosen is your head.

These two points also give a clue to the psychology of the attacker.

Lets now look at the thought process of the attacker. Again I have moved on from the preamble, I am at the point where the decision has been made. What I really want to look at here is the innate non-cognitive thought process, not the conscious thought! That’s already been done. He forms his fists, raises his hands and punches towards your head. If he knows nothing it may be a swing. If he knows a little it could be direct. If he is well trained then a distraction may come first. Whatever the training, the attack’s on its way!  Unless the attacker knows your level of training, and for this section I will assume he does not, he is already expecting consequences to his actions. The first is contact, his mind knows what is coming, and it will have already prepared his body to receive force. He will also have perceived exactly where the target is in space and time. Most of the intake for the senses will be received via the eyes. Just like a lazer guided missile it is locked on target. Due to bilateral symmetry, at this point being in an autonomic process he will have two fists formed. From the initial contact a second strike may well have also been pre-programmed into his attack. As the fist makes contact with a head the sanatoma sensory system will relay information to the brain and automatically make adjustments to muscles that are backing up his force.   In several surveys carried out among door staff it was found that the right punch was the initial choice of weapon in the majority of street encounters. It also showed a nearly perfect choice of target was the head. So why a right fist and why the head? To answer these questions we have to look at how the brain and the body are wired. Suffice to say here that the head is always the focal point, its what we use in the majority of our communication skills – it’s the mind that is the attacker, not the body. The body is just the tool used by the mind to perform its required actions. The mind is therefore the core root of the problem; it’s where the computer is stored.


If we analyze this very small section of the attack and consider alternatives to this action we may well discover some very interesting points. What would happen if all of a sudden there were stimuli so great that it stopped the mind’s work right at that point where he was swinging? Would the mind have the ability to make adjustments? Or would it have to reset itself, just like our computers need to be rebooted due to an overload?  What would happen if the defender were very skilled, had already perceived that the attack was on its way and was waiting for the trap to be sprung? Yes they could make a pre-emptive strike. It has been scientifically proven that action beats reaction! But don’t forget that the reaction is against an unperceived attack. There are recorded cases of slowed time…ok it’s not slowed time but actual increased perception and sensory recognition on the part of the brain. This usually happens when a critical situation is occurring and the body is in autonomic mode. This mode occurs when the heart rate is at 115 to 145 beats per minute and the situation is critical. At this point it has been documented that movement that is usually not recognised is seen with pure clarity. Bullets can be seen, muscle contractions, the smallest movements are detected. This is not some super human ability; this is the basic body function that is engaged to protect the organism. While in this state the body is also capable of movement at great speeds, faster than any conscious movement, almost as fast as a startle reflex. For an untrained person there is the other side of the coin to consider. Loss of gross motor skills, freezing, tunnel vision, auditory shut down and a host of other physiological reactions. Coming back to my point, if you have trained correctly there is no reason why you should not be capable of moving fast enough to interrupt your attackers movement as long as the attack is not a surprise, you must also have correct trained programmed responses ingrained into your mind and body. If this is the case and you meet his swinging punch, somewhere in between the start of the movement and contact with your face you will have managed to interrupt the innate thought process that is occurring within their mind. Their arm will be stopped prior to the perceived contact point.   At this precise moment in time the attacker’s mind will suddenly have had a different stimulus occur, they will have to reboot, create a work around and then throw another punch with the other hand. This reboot is like an eternity in the middle of a violent encounter and will give you more than enough time to beat his action. The biggest problem is that this state of mind, is the hardest area to train and that is why the Psychology of Confrontation is so important. There is also the fact that if you are well versed in this type of critical event you will be able to send indicators to your attacker that will tell them that you are being submissive rather than confrontational. Again this sets their mind down a false path of perception; this is perhaps the most valuable of tools. Training via different mediums using the mind is of great importance, using mental imagery training, adrenal control breathing and stimulus based responses will go a long way to giving you the edge.

It is obviously the case that within any violent encounter the reactions of your attacker to being hit will be highly variable, however if you constantly analyse this interaction and develop a good understanding of the psychology and physiology of the human mind and body, you will be gaining very valuable tools. These tools are not often covered within the majority of schools; I intend to start to look at a few of these interactions and responses in more detail within my next article along with looking at a surprise attack and the bodies reactions.

To contact the author please call 0560 3319 558 or visit


Chapél R, (2006) Personal seminar teaching notes.


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  1. #1 by Neal Martin on September 9, 2012 - 16:47

    Good article Kevin. The Combative Psychology side of things is where it’s at for me these days. I find the whole subject fascinating and very useful in self protection terms. Look forward to the next article.

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