Situational Awareness for Self Defense

Mental maps for effective self defence

The brain’s ability to recognize and understand anything is a result of having a mental map or blueprint relevant to that experience. Psychologists call these maps, “schemas.”
Schema’s consist of our accumulated knowledge, experience, beliefs and habits.  They are activated when we recognize cues and patterns associated to them.
A good mechanic can detect what’s wrong with a car by the clunks, squeaks and rattles it makes. Paramedics can diagnose unseen injuries by the patient’s symptoms. Hunters can track an animal for miles based on broken twigs, displaced soil and other clues invisible to the untrained eye. They have the mental maps that enable them to do this.

Detecting and diagnosing potential threats

In his book, “Vital Lies, Simple Truths” psychologist Daniel Goleman describes how schemas work.
“The process that organizes information and makes sense of experience are ‘schemas,’ the building blocks of cognition. Schemas embody the rules and categories that order raw experience into coherent meaning. All knowledge and experience is packaged in schemas. Schemas are…the intelligence that guides information as it flows through the mind.” Daniel Goleman
Schemas allow us to make sense of the world and influence what we recognize, understand, notice and ignore. They allow us to interpret patterns, predict outcomes and respond in appropriate ways to what happens in our lives.

The four components of a Schema

Schema’s develop naturally over time and accumulate to make us the people are.  They consist:
1.  Knowledge
2.  Experience
3.  Beliefs
4.  Habits

The Three A’s

Effectively protecting yourself requires an accurate mental map about self defence situations. Assessing your own schemas can be challenging.
We tend to resist, ignore and even defend anything that challenges our existing position on the world. Schema enhancement is impossible without an open mind and curiosity about how world actually works.
In order to evaluate your own mental maps, and determine where they can be improved, consider the Three A’s:


Accurate mental maps are essential to effective self defence. You establish and refine them by learning about violent and predatory situations; how, where and when they happen and who the are perpetrators. This involves learning to recognize pre-assault patterns and developing an inventory of skills and strategies to resolve confrontations.
Check out my other post on the 3 Principles of self defence for more information on this.
We build experience by using what we have learned. The longer and more deliberately you study self defence, obviously the more knowledgeable you will become.  It is important however to take in new information with a grain of salt.  It could be accurate and useful or it could be total bullsh*t. Make sure you do your research and find a reputable self defence school.
Hopefully your experience in the area of self defence isn’t limited to the School of Close Calls and Hard Knocks. The truth is that violent situations happen so infrequently to most of us, that we can not rely on exposure to them for experience.  Experience can be “manufactured” through mental imagery and scenario training.
Beliefs dramatically affect your perceptions and behaviour. Do your beliefs empower or disempower you when it comes to protecting yourself? Are they realistic and functional or based on fantasy and misinformation? Evaluate your beliefs about your rights and ability to defend yourself.  If they don’t contribute to your skill, resilience and ability to respond, then it’s time to change them!


When you lack knowledge or experience in an area, your mental maps about it don’t exist. Absent self defence maps result in people being naïve or in denial about their personal safety.  They are more likely to place themselves in risky situations and be oblivious to signs of danger. If someone with an absent map encounters a confrontation, they are more likely to panic, freeze or react ineffectively.


Situational Awareness for Self Defense
Does your self defence training look like this?
An assumed map occurs when a map associated to an experience is flawed or inaccurate.  It’s like having a map of Central London but you are in Zone 4! A map that is wrong for your needs won’t get you anywhere fast.
Assumed self defence maps are more prevalent than you might think. Even trained martial artists often hold an unrealistic perception of what a “real fight” is like. The misguided belief that their competition fighting ability is their primary weapon to keep them safe on the street is an inaccurate map of reality.
They often confuse their preparation to the chaos of violent encounters with their sparring practice. They confuse complex martial art techniques with the what will actually work of the real world.
Studying self defence is about developing and refining accurate mental maps of violence. We must build an accurate mental database of knowledge, experience, beliefs and habits about self defence situations and our power to respond effectively to them.

What can you do about absent or assumed mental maps?

How can you use this information about schemas? Here are some examples of activities and exercises that will improve your awareness and the accuracy of your mental maps for self defence:
  • Accept Full Responsibility for your Safety: Unless you take full responsibility for your safety and make it a priority, you are less likely to detect and recognize violent cues. You are more likely to be selected as a target.  Especially at the beginning, developing accurate mental maps about self defence will take deliberate observation and study.
  • Identify situations in your own life requiring a higher level of vigilance: You can’t be on “full red alert” all of the time, nor do you have to be. Think more yellow or orange depending on your location. Identify times and situations in your own life where a higher degree of vigilance is merited. When out jogging alone, commuting to and from work and so on
  • Build and refine your self defence maps by continuous learning: If personal safety is important to you, read books and articles about it, take self defence courses or even better, join a regular class. Make an effort to periodically review what you know and continuously build on what you’ve learned.
  • Analyze the news: Analyze news events to familiarize yourself with criminal patterns and factors associated to violent crimes. Apply the questions who, what, when, where, why and how to these incidents and use your acquired knowledge to stay out of the news yourself!
  • Practice observations skills: Pre-determine specific things to look for as you go about your day-to-day activities. For example, when going shopping make a “game” of spotting as a particular item or characteristic of a person.  Next time look for something else. Consider the fact that “playing” awareness games makes you appear more observant to a predator who may be evaluating you as a potential target.
  • Establish self defence habits: If you knew you were going to be attacked the next time you left home you’d turn into a recluse. The truth of the matter is that you never know when you may be targeted as a potential victim. Maybe never. Assaults happen at all times of the day and in all types of setting and situations. I was assaulted a few years ago when I worked for the NHS, out of the blue my stressed out Manager threw a large, heavy box file at my head whilst I was on the phone to a patient! She caught me completely off guard and just proves that these things can happen anywhere.
The most effective self defence strategies are those that you build into your day-to-day behaviour. They become unconscious habits by repetition and consistency.
In How to Develop Awareness for Self Protection Part 3, I’ll be discussing the concept of attention.
In the meantime, if you have any comments or opinions you’d like to share, please feel free to jump into the conversation by adding your comments below…
About the Author:
Daughter of a 2-9 British Army Commando and Combatives Instructor, Kelina Cowell grew up on a military base in Dortmund, Germany. Inspired by training with her father from an early age, she continued her combative journey into Krav Maga, Submission Wrestling, Filipino Martial Arts, Pencak Silat and Muay Thai. She searches for the truth in personal protection, simply keeping what can really work on the street and the discarding the “Hollywood” techniques that don’t.
Kelina Cowell is the Founder and Chief Instructor of Apolaki Combat Systems:
  • Apolaki Krav Maga & Dirty Boxing – a unique blend of traditional Krav Maga, with elements of Filipino martial arts, Pencak Silat, Muay Thai and Submission Wrestling. Complete with it’s own 5 Level syllabus and gradings.
  • Apolaki Dirty Boxing – A more in-depth training into Filipino boxing, Western Boxing, Muay Thai and Pencak Silat. Complete with it’s own 5 Level syllabus and gradings.
  • Apolaki SPD: Self Protection for Dwarfs – Co-founded with her student Eugene Grant who was born with Achondroplasia (a form of short-limbed dwarfism). An adapted form of Apolaki Krav Maga suitable for dwarf body types.