The Truth About Surviving Violence

There’s no denying that over the course of 15 years of working the frontlines of private security that I’ve experienced some violence and made it out the other side. I’ve been punched in the head, bottled from behind, coward punched, kicked in the nuts, had my head stomped on by several people at once, stabbed with a pocket knife, headbutted in the face, spat on, bitten several times. The list goes on (and is recounted in hilarious detail in my book Bouncer Stories available on Amazon…) but it pails in comparison to my mates that have come back from warzones where any day could have been fatal, or my friends and students who endured years in abusive relationships, unsure if today their partner would go too far.

I’m fascinated by the question of why some people successfully endure absolute Hell on Earth and other people seem to check out the second the track gets a little dusty. Of course, I don’t mean to make light of violence, but it is interesting that some people manage to survive a knife in the neck and still fight back, and others don’t make it home after severing a finger tip.

From my observations, personal experiences, and hundreds of hours of conversation with people that have seen just as much or more violence than myself, I created a model I dubbed the Violence Survival Pyramid. Just like the old food pyramid, the bottom rung represents the foundational qualities that are most important for being able to survive and function well in the chaos of violence, while the top of the pyramid are the “nice to have” options that really don’t make much of a difference to your survivability.

If we start at the top, you’ll see that the least important aspect of your ability to survive violence is your knowledge of fighting techniques. Is it nice to know how to fight, on a technical level? Absolutely! Do people defend themselves every day without a second spent in a dojo or gym? Yes they do! The reality is, even those of us that have put considerable time into learning techniques will often not actually apply them when the violence is real anyway. Instead we’ll do a wild, adrenaline-fuelled approximation of the technique and the other factors below will carry us through the crazy.

What is the most humorous and infuriating about this, is that the majority of people claiming to teach self-defence are teaching nothing except techniques! It’s the single most useless bit of information you can gather, and it’s all they’re teaching! Go do a search on YouTube right now for “self defence” and see how many videos pop up that are not technique based. I’ll wait.

The second level down is experience with violence. I’ve agonised over this one, and over the years that I’ve played with various iterations of this model, experience with violence has bounced between second and third position a few times. Experience in any stressful situation is extremely useful, and knowing you’ve survived similar in the past can help you think a lot more clearly. That said, people do defend themselves adequately every day without a violent past or adventurous night job like me. It’s still important, but I just can’t rate it as more important than the next factor.

Getting to the real meat and potatoes of violence survival, the second most important thing of all is physical fitness. But but but… don’t fat guys win fights all the time? I hear you ask. Yes they do, but as a recovering fat guy myself, I can tell you that the chances of not handling that stress, let alone being able to handle an athletic movement, are very high when you’re carrying extra weight. Also remember that surviving violence isn’t just about fighting. What if you need to sprint away from a knife wielding spree-killer? What if you need to hold a door shut to stop an iced-up maniac from breaking into the bathroom you’re barricaded in? What if you need to scale a fence? What if you need to be able to talk to a 000 operator seconds after fighting for your life? What if you managed to defend yourself after a struggle, but now need to administer life-saving first aid to your child who sustained a serious injury? Want to be puffing and shaking more than necessary now?

I cannot overstate how important physical fitness is to surviving violence. A person of superior fitness with no other attribute will still survive violence more effectively than a trained and experienced person with poor fitness and complacent mindset.

Lastly, the most important factor to surviving violence is a survival mindset! This is the indignant rage that fills you when you realise that someone is trying to hurt you. This is the fury that engulfs a mother when she finds someone attempting to harm her child. This is the outright refusal to be a victim that empowers a 45kg high school girl to kick a 90kg male off her. It is the terror and animalistic ferocity that lets a 6 year old bite the face of a kidnapper and run for help. The opposite of this survival mindset is the victim mentality, and we don’t need to illustrate how tragic that can be. Remember the world doesn’t need more victims.

When I was training security professionals I used to call it the “Going Home” mindset, as in “Nobody, no how, no way is going to stop me from going home to my family tonight.” It’s that mindset that allows an officer with six gunshot wounds to return fire, call for help, and hold on to life until the ambulance arrives.

If you combine a “Going Home” mindset with superlative fitness, you will survive nearly any random act of violence. If you can add in experience in the field and some technical knowledge, well that’s a pretty good package to have.

In conclusion, here are your takeaway points if you want to increase your odds at surviving violence:

  1. Get your head straight.
  2. Get fit! Strength is important but don’t neglect cardio and agility.
  3. Familiarise yourself with violence. You don’t have to get a night job in a rough pub, but there are hundreds of hours of CCTV available on YouTube.
  4. Learn techniques from someone who can contextualise them for the reality you’re likely to be in.
  5. Have fun. None of this is worth doing if you’re not enjoying yourself.

Thanks for reading!


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