Attack and Defence

One of the of the most frequent questions I am asked as an instructor is when and how to use attack and defence as effective fighting strategies. It is important to note that a fight cannot be won through a strategy of defence alone. You must attack the opponent at some point if you want to win and it is more advantageous to attack first than give this opportunity, and the upper hand, to your opponent. This is not to say that defensive strategies cannot be successful, or that offensive strategies will always be successful. For attacks and defences to be successful aspects of both are required in their applications; when attacking there must be an element of defence to avoid being countered and when defending there must be a mindset of attack to counter effectively. The most available form of defence is the ability to diffuse the confrontation or walk away from the fight altogether. You may not lose from this strategy, but you certainly won’t win. However, there are times when this approach can be the best course of action, which I will discuss later. If fighting cannot be avoided you must have a mindset of attack in every strategy to successfully defeat your opponent.

So, you’re out and about and a confrontation ensues. As a good martial artist, fighting should never be the first resort, it should be the last and you should always try to diffuse the situation first. Your opponent is set on fighting you and you soon realise that no amount of placating is going to stop them from achieving their aim. This common scenario has more variables than appears at first sight and a discussion of these reveals the best strategies to adopt.



Firstly, how big/strong/powerful/skilled does your opponent appear? This is the first factor that needs consideration. If you are going to fight them you need the best strategy to beat them based upon who they are. The number one reason why anyone wishes to fight you is their belief that they can win, and this usually comes down to them being bigger, stronger, or the belief they are more skilful than you. If they are bigger and stronger it is effective to adopt a defensive strategy and lure them into an unsuccessful attack. When their attack fails to connect they will finish in a bad position, physically and mentally, creating a gap for you to exploit with a counter attack. When using this strategy there is a physical appearance of defensiveness but a mindset of attack. Get your hands up and hold them in a position that offers your opponent an avenue for attack. They will most likely take this avenue. As soon as they move to attack, counter. Once you negate their attack, opening their defences, switch to the offensive immediately and keep attacking until the opponent is defeated, capitalising on their confusion from their failure to connect and the seed of doubt that will enter their mind.

If your opponent is evenly or lesser matched it is more effective to take the initiative and attack first. For an attack to be successful and avoid being countered it must be fast, precise, powerful and initiated covertly without warning to avoid giving away your intentions. The technique used to attack needs to be considered based upon how your opponent is positioned and where their defence lies so you can cut through their guard – and any attempted strikes – and hit the intended target. Attacking in this manner will catch your opponent off-guard and place them immediately into a defensive position. If they are still standing after your first attack smother them with further attacks, overwhelming them and maintaining their position of defence. The famous Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, referred to this strategy of smothering as ‘pressing down the pillow’ (Musahi, The Book of Five Rings, The Fire Chapter, Pressing Down the Pillow). Keeping your opponent in a position of defence through smothering will subdue their ability to attack and eventually, they will lose.



Your environment must be considered next, paying attention towards any obstacles or positions which advantage or disadvantage you. Where are you in relation to your opponent? If your back is against a wall or confined in a tight corner a defensive technique may be impossible to implement (defensive techniques usually incorporate an element of stepping backwards or to the side) leaving only offensive strategies available. Are there any tables or chairs around you or your opponent, or if outside, cars, lamp posts, curbs, walls, etc. These will either help or hinder your strategy and can be used to your advantage as well as your detriment. If there are obstacles by your opponent it is effective to attack them suddenly, pushing them into this obstacle. Similarly, if there are obstacles near you your opponent can do the same, so it is wiser to attack them first and disallow them this opportunity. You should always aim to be standing up before the fight begins. If seated when challenged, stand up swiftly but not so suddenly as to alarm your opponent and trigger them into attacking you in a vulnerable position. If you feel this cannot be achieved distract your opponent by throwing an object at him (anything at hand), creating a gap for you to stand up. Once standing (after throwing an object) you must attack the opponent having already provoked them. If you manage to stand up without provoking the opponent either defensive or offensive strategies can be used.

Repercussions must be the next consideration. By attacking first you may win the fight, but if you risk detrimental effects afterwards it is wiser to simply walk away. However, if you are unable to walk away it is important that you can justify your actions. In a situation with no witnesses and no CCTV you can attack first with little worry. However, these situations rarely occur (unless mugged or raped which I will discuss later) and there will most likely be onlookers present. Although you have tried to placate your opponent, which others have witnessed, if you attack first it will be very difficult to justify this in law, even if you knew you were about to be attacked. You will be regarded as the aggressor and may face criminal charges and prosecution. Attacking first may also cause any peers you are with to lose respect for you, especially important if in the company of work colleagues. Defensive strategies in these situations are more effective. Allowing your opponent to attack first justifies your actions in law and has the added advantage of giving you ‘hero’ status amongst your peers and onlookers, instead of being vilified. However, consideration must be taken towards the speed of your technique in these situations. If you counter as soon as you see your opponent move to attack (the most effective application of a defensive strategy) onlookers will be hard pushed to see the true situation which unfolded; only seeing your attack and not your opponent’s. Although you countered an attack, onlookers will see you hitting your opponent first if your counter is too fast. To avoid this you must allow your opponent to throw a noticeable strike, countering it after it has been thrown. This application requires a higher level of martial skill but ensures that you have the legal and moral high ground.


Multiple Opponents

It is common to face multiple opponents once a confrontation begins and this too will determine strategy. Do the opponent’s peers look ready to back him up? If not, beating your opponent will most likely dissuade their peers from joining in, presenting options for defensive or offensive strategies. If they do look ready to back him up do not wait for an attack, attack first. Does the opponent look like the most threatening member of the group? If so, attack them first. Once their peers see their strongest member fall they will lose their nerve, leaving room for you to leave the situation unharmed by them. If they still have their nerve at least you have taken out their strongest member. Move on to the next threatening target and continue your attacks until you can safely leave the situation. If another member of the group looks more threatening than the opponent who is initiating the fight, attack this person first. It is common for strong members of the group to wait in the background, allowing the weaker members to start the fight and joining in to end it at a time advantageous for them (when you are busy dealing with the weaker member). It is easy to spot these people. They are quiet and attempt to keep a low profile but have an unavoidable presence and will have their eyes fixed on you. Take them out suddenly without warning. This will surprise them, making it very difficult for them to recover. Once the strongest member of the group has been taken out the others will be shocked, having exposed their plan and beaten the strongest member, allowing you to exit the situation or take advantage of their diminished fighting spirit through further attacks against the rest of the group.

A defensive appearance against a group is a bad idea. Groups that go out looking for a fight have a pack mentality, preying on opponents who appear weak. If you adopt a defensive appearance against these groups they will use this opportunity to surround you and go in for the kill. You must attack suddenly and unexpectedly against a group to give yourself an edge and take advantage of the situation. Aggressive groups do not expect to be attacked, causing confusion and developing mental gaps to exploit. Never deal with one member of the group for too long. This will give other members the opportunity to attack. Instead, move from one member to the other with single or double hits, remaining in constant motion and being difficult to pin down. Use positioning and movement to avoid being surrounded. Aim to concentrate the group in one position by herding the group together or throwing members into each other.

The need for self-preservation far outweighs the possible legal/social repercussions from attacking the group. Group attacks are extremely dangerous and can easily result in serious injury or at worst, death. It is better to escape with your life and face criminal charges than to lose it. Also, these groups are often known to the authorities as aggressors and attacking them can be justified in law more easily than attacking a single person due to the greater risks they pose.



Triggers are preliminary signals that indicate opportune moments to attack. These triggers are different for everyone and can include, but are not limited to:

  • Invitations to fight
  • Aggressive verbal outbursts
  • Invasion of your space
  • Intentful stares
  • Aggressive body posturing
  • Pointing in your face
  • Waving hands around aggressively
  • Rolling up sleeves
  • Taking shirt/jacket off
  • Putting drink to one side

This is a small list of triggers I have witnessed and encountered. However, although there are a multitude of different triggers to be found, one element remains the same; they signal the moment just before the opponent is ready to attack. It is at this moment that your attack is most effective, just before the opponent has mustered enough spirit to attack first. At this point the opponent is still distracted by their thoughts/anger/ego and will not have positioned themselves into a good fighting stance, leaving them open for attack. As soon as you see a trigger attack suddenly without warning. You will catch your opponent off guard and quickly gain the advantage.

Triggers are extremely useful tools for the martial artist to use as attack signals. However, they must not be misconstrued. It is not so much the motion of the trigger but the intent behind it that is important. Intent is a feeling and a state of mind. In the moment before the fight is about to happen a noticeable change of atmosphere occurs and a gut feeling usually presents itself. Anyone who has been in a fight knows this feeling and it should be present before an attack based upon a trigger is initiated. For instance, there are scenarios where people are loud, boisterous, physically playful and invade your space. However, the intention to fight may not be present in their actions, making it a miscalculation to attack. If you attacked every person who stared at you, pointed at you or called you an offensive name you would be fighting all the time, a dangerous and damaging path to take.

A good martial artist knows when to attack. He exhausts all his avenues to avoid conflict but attacks first at the very moment that conflict cannot be avoided. It is common to see an opponent verbally threatening you at a distance, where you are safe from any physical harm. They may even be pointing, making fists and waving their arms about aggressively. However, if they are too far away this tells you that they have not yet summoned enough confidence to actually attack you. The trigger would be the moment they look as though they are going to walk in to attack you. At this point all avenues to avoid conflict have been exhausted and you should walk in to attack your opponent first and take advantage of the situation.



As mentioned earlier there are situations where you may be attacked when alone and these are most common with muggers and rapists. The very nature of their crimes demand privacy and a space where they can easily control you. Although this situation presents the ideal environment for you to attack first the actual situation may not; depending on whether you spot them or not before their attack. If you do spot them, attack first to take advantage of the situation. If you fail to spot them and they attack first the only strategy available is a defensive one and not a very well planned one at that. In this situation you need to summon more fighting spirit, ferocity and intent than your attacker and have no mercy, for these attackers are willing to go to more extreme lengths than the average street fighter and wish to cause you serious, or at worst deadly harm. You must have the mindset that you are fighting for your life against these opponents and have the will to be more ferocious than them.


Concluding Thoughts

As a martial artist you need to be adaptable and able to make defensive and offensive strategies work under a variety of conditions, situations and scenarios. Because the nature of real fighting is so unpredictable you may often find yourself in a position or situation which is not ideal and find yourself having to employ a strategy you would not normally favour. This, however, is the sign of a true martial artist. A true martial artist has no preferences or fixed patterns/techniques. They assess the opponent, environment and conditions within a moment; determine the most effective strategy, irrespective of whether they favour it or not; and apply it confidently without hesitation; using everything at their disposal to their advantage and controlling the situation in their favour.

You must have a mindset of attack whether the strategy is defensive or offensive. If you have a defensive mindset, walk away. You will not win fights with a defensive mindset and may end up seriously hurt. Appearing defensive is a physical display, a strategy designed to prompt your opponent to commit to an unsuccessful attack. Mentally you are in attacking mode during defensive strategies, just as you are in offensive strategies, but this defensive appearance quickly turns into an offensive one once you have countered. When attacking give nothing away. Act casually and confidently before the attack. When you identify the trigger explode into action suddenly and unexpectedly, surprising the opponent and taking the upper hand. These are the principles which should be followed in attack and defence and trained so as to become second nature.

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