Although situational awareness is central to the concept of self-defence and personal protection, it's something that many martial arts schools don't ever touch upon. The truth is, environments and circumstances vary greatly and we need to understand that when we're out of and away from our usual routines and environments, we could be more vulnerable than we think.
I have lived, trained and travelled in many different parts of the world, and let me assure you, things are often not quite what they seem. I spent a good deal of time in South East Asia (particularly in Indonesia) back between 1975 and 1982, and in that time I learned things that I would never have learned at home here in Australia. If you got into a fight here, it could often mean little more than a black eye, a bloodied nose and a bruised ego; in South East Asia a fight could lead to a knife in the back or a machete through the neck, two or three weeks after the initial dust-up.
My understanding of how locals can overreact to a situation saved me one time in Bali (of all places), where after being accosted by a Javanese drug dealer and leaving him lying winded on the ground, I was marched to the local police station. The whole thing was sorted with the police in 15 minutes, but the problem occurred later that evening when I returned to my hotel. Listening to my intuition, I decided not to enter the hotel via the front lane that led to the foyer, but instead went the longer way around, via the beach entrance. As an afterthought, I then walked through the hotel grounds to peep over the front wall and into the lane down which I usually walked - and sure enough, hiding in the bushes were a dozen guys, each armed with a machete or a knife. I crept back to my room, grabbed my belongings and left for another hotel, danger averted (for the time being). This is the kind of thing that can catch out the unwary, and leave you dead in the gutter.
On another occasion, after helping the local police arrest some particularly nasty Javanese criminals, myself and my two friends (also training partners) were returning to our homes after a long and hard day, when one of them, Dewa Rai, asked if we wanted join him at his house for a late meal. We decided not to as we were tired and it was getting late, so we each went our separate ways. As it turned out, friends of the criminals arrested that day were waiting in Dewa Rai's yard as he returned home; they decapitated him in a brutal act of revenge for what we'd done to their associates. Sometimes we live or die by the roll of the dice, and so it was for me that particular evening.
These and other lessons made me realise very early on that in many parts of the world, life is cheap and there are people who do not fully appreciate the concept of consequence. We cannot afford to think that everyone has the same set of values or plays by the same set of rules as we do; the world is wide and parts of it, and many of its inhabitants, can be extremely dangerous.
At other times, it's our own sense of familiarity with our environment that can bring us undone. It's when we are completely ‘switched off' that we are the most vulnerable. Just last week, I was leaving my Geelong school and heading to my car. One of my students, a pretty blonde girl, happened to be walking out at the same time; she said goodbye and headed off down the street. Her timing wasn't the best, however, as three guys came waling out of the alleyway that runs alongside my school and she unintentionally fell into step with them. I watched for a moment and realised she seemed completely unaware of the potentially precarious situation in which she had put herself. I called out and asked her to come back. The group of guys looked back, disappointed, as she walked back to me. I quietly said my goodnight once again and told her to cross the road, where the lighting was better and she would not be surrounded by potential threats.
Perhaps nothing would have eventuated; perhaps the strangers were totally innocent and could be trusted to behave in a gentlemanly manner - but why take the risk? I am not going to swim in waters where crocodiles live unless I absolutely have to. Situational awareness may be the most important consideration when it comes to self-defence. When I see young girls walking the streets at night with their headphones on, oblivious to all that's unfolding around them, I cringe!
Now, I'm not advocating that we live our lives in a state of paranoia, but I do advocate we keep our senses tuned to what is happening around us. Keep your eyes open; keep your ears attuned; be aware of your environment and the other beings that inhabit it. Not all people are our enemies, true enough, but the predators of this world rely on us to live as if everyone is our friend. Don't give them that advantage.
John B Will is head of BJJ Australia and teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, shootfighting and self-defence solutions around the world. Check out his regular blog at www.bjj-australia.blogspot.com