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The Most Important Thing to Have in a Fight

Imagine the ear-splitting snap of automatic fire cracking overhead. Incoming rounds skip off the small dirt mound you’re blessed to have nearby as cover—a piece of micro terrain just big enough to lay down behind, but not wide enough to maneuver side to side. Every time you try to peek up and over the mound, dirt rips up around you and you throw yourself back down on the ground, never able to get a clear assessment of what is happening around you.

Meanwhile, the enemy has complete freedom of movement across the battlefield.

The scariest experience I had in combat was being pinned down under enemy gunfire, unable to maneuver in any direction. Totally stuck. Out of options. This happened to me and my team on several separate occasions while on patrol in Afghanistan. It’s extremely frustrating to feel like you can’t do anything. Frustration and helplessness often go hand in hand.

Think about the last time you had to deal with a problem but couldn’t come up with a single possible solution. Maybe you were a kid taking a test in school, staring desperately at a problem on the paper, but you didn’t even know how to start. Or your car has broken down in the middle of nowhere and you’re condemned to pay whatever the local mechanic demands for repairs. Have you ever had a disease or health condition that the doctors couldn’t diagnose? In these times, we may begin to close ourselves off. We lose hope.

As long as we still have options—as long as there’s something we haven’t tried—we have hope.

Hope keeps us from shutting down or panicking under the stress of not knowing what to do. In military officer training, they teach infantry commander candidates that making any decision, even if it’s not the best, is better than freezing and making no decision. Indecision kills. Had we panicked behind that small dirt hill, racked with fear and indecision, we would have never made it home. Fortunately for our small sniper team, we had a phenomenal and quick-thinking team leader who saw us out each time. He knew that we still had a few options. Options are the ultimate thing you want to have in a self-defense scenario. Stephen K. Hayes, founder of the martial art that I teach, made a very wise decision to use the five classical elements (earth, water, fire, wind, void) as a framework for our curriculum.

What makes To-Shin Do such an effective and complete system for self-defense is its honest acknowledgement that a real fight scenarios are not simple or straightforward.

Unlike a military combatives style where every path to victory is forward, aggressive, and lethal, To-Shin Do provides multiple options for you to select based on the specific conditions present in the current moment. Do I need to take command of the situation and hold my ground? That’s taught in the Earth phase of training. Can I strategically angle away from a threat, creating distance to draw out the opponent’s weakness? That ability is taught in the Water phase. Or what if I need to “fit in” and move with the attack in a subtle yet evasive way? There’s the Wind-element in action. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything like a nail.” Not all conflict is the same. How might you modify your self-defense tactics if you have your kids with you? If you are at the gas pump and suddenly confronted by two or three aggressors? Or if your cousin becomes violent after too many beers and you need to calm him down without hurting him? These scenarios all require very different approaches.

But, It is possible for too many choices to be overwhelming. We need the right kind of options. A martial art system that requires you to memorize one hundred different kata that all have the same style of movement can actually bog down the decision-making process in the brain. That’d be like having one hundred hammers on your toolbelt. Instead of deciding which move we should do, we need to quickly make a more open, expansive decision about how we should move. We need more strategies, not more techniques.


The above graphic illustrates four key factors that work together to increase options. The factors are Freedom and Mobility, Awareness and Information, Skill and Ability, and Courage and Willpower. Notice how they overlap. Each one supports and enhances the others when they are equally balanced. If they are cultivated through intelligent and disciplined training methods, more options become available to you. If you are aware of potential threats, you can recognize them sooner when they appear, which gives you time to move to a better position. That’s Awareness supporting Mobility. If you’re in a better position, you can make better use of your skills. This is Mobility supporting Skill. And, of course, you’ll feel more confident if you’ve spent time training the needed skills. This is Skill supporting Courage.

Can you imagine other ways these four factors enhance each other? How could having more Courage enhance your Skill? How could having more Mobility give you access to more Information?

And, notice the Center. When all of these factors are developed through intelligent and disciplined training methods, we maximize our Options.

Let’s take a closer look at these four factors.


Mobility means physical maneuverability and mental flexibility. Not pinned down or stuck in place. Like the Queen on a chessboard—complete freedom of movement. I can go where I need to go in order to gain advantage or escape to safety.

Physical Maneuverability

Those experiences of being pinned down in a ditch under incoming machine gun fire have greatly influenced how I train today, especially in relation to grappling or ground-fighting. I try to avoid complex or technical restraints that require me to commit myself to staying engaged or tied-up in a fight longer than absolutely necessary. This is especially important in a situation where the fight has even a small possibility of turning into a multiple attackers scenario.

You may have seen videos online of one guy putting his opponent in an effective arm bar on the ground, only to have someone from the crowd walk up and football punt the would-be victor in the head. I need to be able to disengage just as readily as I can engage.

Pins or restraints, including joint locks or even chokes can be very useful tools. They can be used to detain an aggressor who wishes to harm innocent people nearby. But these restraining techniques need to be used with caution if I am even a little bit concerned that others may want to join in the fight against me. It only takes a second for a bystander to go from recording the fight on their phone to throwing punches. If restraining someone on the ground is necessary, I strive to gain a position where I can both see 360° around me and safely disengage at any time.

Mental Flexibility

Through intelligent and diligent training, you can break free of engrained habitual reactions that reduce your adaptability. Through immersive exposure and practice using these different strategies and attitudes, we become bigger, less confined, and capable of making many new choices.

We’re back to Maslow’s hammer here. If I habitually respond to threats by shrinking away and getting small, then I won’t have the ability to boldly hold my ground, or shield another from danger. If my immediate reaction is to explode in a rage when agitated, I won’t be able to strategically reposition, implement a tactical pause, or take note of things in my surroundings that can be used to my advantage. What habits or beliefs about yourself are holding you back? Would you be freer if you were able to let those go?

We have to train in and become familiar with each of the To-Shin Do elemental states of mind, because they are all the best “right answer” depending on the situation. None greater than the other. Each one a perfectly valid option to accomplish your goal of getting home safely.


Awareness overlaps strongly with Mobility. They complement one another. If I am unaware, I may inadvertently position myself where there are few avenues of escape. If I lack effective positioning, I may limit my fields of view of the surrounding area. Maintaining mobility can help me obtain a big-picture view, giving me access to more information. With more information, I can make better, more informed decisions. In Afghanistan, one of our major strategies in clearing the Taliban from the city of Marjah was to spread out and establish many small outposts instead of a few major installations. This reduced the enemy’s ability to move undetected throughout the battlespace. Simultaneously, it increased our visibility and awareness of the area. This proved to be a very effective strategy against that specific enemy. Another component of Awareness and Information is an understanding of my attacker’s capabilities and likely courses of action. I need to carefully study and stay relevant with modern threats. I should be aware that my opponent may decide to pull a knife or other concealable weapon if he realizes that the fight isn’t going in his favor. If he pulls a blade from his pocket while I am caught in a position on my back trying to secure an armbar, (lack of mobility) I may not be able to avoid being stabbed a few times as I try to escape.

These are not concerns in a sport system where a set of rules has been agreed upon for both the safety of the contestants and cooperation across a large organization. But these are possibilities that ought to be accounted for if we claim to teach real self-defense.

Our training drills should occasionally include surprises that disrupt our expectations and increase our awareness of what is possible in a conflict. I remember an exercise in which one of my teachers would casually walk around the dojo while all the students practiced an unarmed technique. He would randomly pass behind someone and tuck a training knife into their belt. The next time that student attacked their training partner, it would be with the knife instead of a fist. This kind of drill helps students learn to expect the unexpected. Some people in Japanese martial arts circles like to use the phrase banpen fugyo, “ten-thousand changes, no surprises.”


This category includes techniques, tactics, equipment, or resources available to us in any given moment.

Obviously, if I do not know any effective restraints that allow me to stay upright and maintain awareness and mobility, I will not have that option. If I do not know how to use a firearm, brandishing one in a fight would be a liability. If I’ve never studied First Aid I won’t be able to render assistance to an injured person. I need to study and train in these methods so that they are available to me.

Skills and abilities are naturally developed through training, offering more options as one learns more skills. A beginner in the martial arts may only know how to block a big wide hook punch, perform a strike with their palm or knee, and maybe break free from a wrist grab. So naturally, if that beginner was to get into a fight you would expect them to use lots of knee and palm strikes. A person with a decade or two of consistent training will have many more tools available to them, including gentle or evasive techniques that eliminate the threat without damaging the other person. The longer one trains, the more options they will have to resolve the conflict. This brings us to a very important consideration—one that doesn’t even need to be addressed in a sporting arena where victory is clearly outlined by the rules of the game. We need to constantly keep our goal in mind. What is the goal of self-defense? How do we define success? Once we have a clear objective, we can ensure that our drills and exercises support that goal.

The training hall can pose a danger if we form a habit of thinking we have only “won” if the other person taps out.

So, how do you define winning? Can you win without the other guy having to lose? Of course. I could apologize, allowing him to save face in front of his friends. I could offer to buy him a drink. Personal security expert Nick Hughes tells of a time when he complimented a would-be attacker’s shirt. “Hey man, where’d you get that shirt? My brother loves that band!” It totally took the fight right out of the other guy. These skills are invaluable, but how often do we actually practice them in training?

If your definition of winning is to get home safely, you will have far more options available to you than if your goal is to defeat the other guy in physical combat.

If you are in a physical fight, use the most efficient and effective methods to get to safety. Avoid being hooked into your adversary’s game. People say things like, “never box a boxer” and “don’t try to wrestle a wrestler.” And while that is good advice, it may not be so simple.

Quite often we mirror the attacker or get caught in what I like to call an “arm wrestling” mentality. This is when we try to beat the other guy at his own game. If someone throws a punch, I feel like I have to return with punches. If he grabs hold of me, I grab back. This strong reaction comes from a place of scarcity within the mind. I don’t want the opponent to have something that I don’t have. It might give him an advantage. If he has a grab, I must need a grab too!


It’s a big lie.


Constantly remind yourself that you do not have to play their game. You did not sign up for this fight and so long as you operate within the confines of the law there is no referee to penalize you for flipping the script.

I frequently practice techniques that would disqualify me from a contest fight, such as clawing the eyes, striking the groin, or finger breaks to reposition myself so that I can achieve a higher degree of mobility and visibility. I remember An-shu Rumiko Hayes once throwing me by my earlobe. An-shu Stephen K. Hayes once shared a memory of his teacher driving a thumbnail up into his mouth and tearing into his gums as a counterattack. (They used to train a bit rougher back in the 1970s in Japan.) If someone captures you in a headlock, bite their side and strike to the crotch and see if that doesn’t open up some doors for you.

But you have to practice these methods.

My experience has shown me that you will fight how you have trained. The Greek poet Archilochus said, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” Under stress you will default to whatever actions you have spent the most time drilling in training.

Many people pay lip-service to these kinds of “dirty” fighting techniques, claiming that in a “real” fight they would utilize them, but I’m not convinced.

I don’t believe that under real survival stress you will remember to do something that you have never put the time into practicing. This includes verbal self-defense. Talking your way out of a fight using dissuasive language, or apologizing and volunteering to leave the scene of a potential fight. These are often the most effective self-defense tools to help you to completely avoid a physical confrontation, or at least buy you some time to reposition to a more ideal location. An-shu Stephen K. Hayes has a line that he often shares in seminars, “Oh man I’m so sorry, you’re like the third person I’ve ticked off today. Why don’t I just go to my truck and get outta your way.”

This line is brilliant on so many subtle levels. He apologizes to hopefully calm the aggressor. There’s a teeny hint of humor to potentially lighten the tension. There’s an implication that he’s sort of bumbling and incompetent, suggesting that he’s not even worth “teaching a lesson to.” Even the usage of the word “truck” is full of connotation. Trucks are a working man’s vehicle, implying that he doesn’t possess much of value to waste the effort. But trucks are also a working man’s vehicle, suggesting that maybe this guy could be a little tougher than he looks, so think twice before throwing the first punch. One may also subconsciously understand that a truck is more likely to contain a firearm than a sedan. The funny thing is, Stephen Hayes doesn’t drive a truck. So it’s even helping him to escape. If the attacker changes his mind, he’ll be fruitlessly searching the parking lot for a guy with a white beard in a pickup truck.

This seemingly simple phrase conveys quite a lot, but you have to practice it often, An-shu Hayes reminds us. It has to sound completely convincing and natural when you say it or will not carry the same effect. This leads us to the final category in our model:


You can know the greatest fighting technique in the world, but if you aren’t prepared to use it, it has little value in a fight. Are you mentally and emotionally prepared to do what it takes to win? Are you capable of damaging a human being who means to hurt you? It’s not an easy decision for many mature, healthy, well-adjusted people. We all want to be courageous and we want to feel empowered, but are we ready to hold the line in the face of real danger? This category is possibly the most intertwined with the other three. If you have awareness of the surrounding area, freedom to move as needed, ample resources and the ability to use them, then you’re probably feeling quite confident. Start removing those components, and your confidence will likely fall. This is where empowering training experiences and consistent positive reinforcement are key. We begin every To-Shin Do class by reciting “I believe in myself, I am confident, I can accomplish my goals!” Say that 10,000 times and tell me it doesn’t change how you feel about yourself.

I once asked An-shu Rumiko Hayes what her mindset was when she readied herself to defend against an incoming attack. She said very matter-of-factly, “I’m going to win.” That’s willpower! Training exercises need to give students the experience of success over challenges that increase in difficulty over time. In his book “On Combat” Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman says that one of the teaching principles of his law enforcement and military training program is to “try and never send a loser off your training site.” If we apply this to martial arts, it means we should strive to challenge our students and push them out of their comfort zones, but not put them through an exercise that is so difficult that they completely fail. And if they do fail, we give them another attempt. We don’t want them going home as a failure. Students need to learn that they are capable of succeeding. We can help someone build their confidence and self-esteem by guiding them through a series of successes. Gradually over time, through consistent training the student will develop authentic ability and confidence through supportive and encouraging training. Push someone too hard too soon and they will simply quit training, feeling as though they have failed, their confidence diminished.

Authentic self-esteem can grant someone the option of peacefully avoiding a fight because they do not need to prove their toughness or their worthiness. It takes courage to “give the other guy a win,” and avoid being hooked into a fight by the ego.

And finally, we need to develop a solid understanding that we are valued and worthy of protecting. We will cultivate a willpower that allows us to stand up for ourselves when another tries to harm, diminish, or take advantage of us. People are depending on us to get home safely and we have the right and the responsibility to do what it takes to make that happen if someone decides that they wish to hurt us.

You are worth it!



In our advanced classes at the dojo we practice an exercise called randori, capturing chaos.” In randori one defender is in the middle, surrounded by attackers. At first, they attack one at a time with random attacks, but for senior practitioners, multiple attackers may team up against the defender simultaneously. Attackers are encouraged to act out many different personality types and fighting styles. One may verbally accost the defender, while another just walks straight up and starts swinging. One may close in quickly for a tackle, while another may be quite cagey, keeping at a distance until they find the perfect opportunity. Some have weapons, while others are unarmed. Some might even walk up, grab the attacker’s jacket, point a finger in their face while yelling a few words, then release his grip and walk off. Some might even just reach out to shake your hand with a smile. Then punch you. All four of the above factors we have talked about are put to use in randori. The defender has to quickly discern the incoming attack, maneuver to a safe position, defend and counterattack, and have the courage and mental flexibility to try new things. Randori is a workshop. We discover what works for us and what doesn’t. Not only do we develop our fighting skills, we develop our fighting intuition. This is the ultimate exercise in adaptability and responsiveness. Creativity is key. Choices must be made in the moment—more like feeling the attacks than watching them. There isn’t enough time to sort through a mental catalogue of memorized techniques. You just have to flow with whatever happens.

Bruce Lee said it quite well. “The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement.”

As you obtain more options, this becomes easier.

Discover more options. Discover To-Shin Do.

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