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  • Writer's pictureJessica Howard

15 Ways to Develop Street Awareness for Self-Defense

In martial arts we train our bodies to respond to an act of aggression, confrontation or attack. But what is equally important is having the right mindset. Some of that comes through training. By repeating drills in which we respond to realistic attacks, we learn how to pay attention and to calm our minds when panicked.

Most of us don’t have the opportunity to master a martial art; however, depending on where you live (I’m in NYC) and other factors, you may have more familiarity or experience with street violence, giving you an edge on keeping that violence at bay. The rest of us could use some work on our street-smarts. By practicing street awareness skills, we prepare ourselves to be safer in so-called transitional spaces, such as streets, parking lots, stairwells, trains and buses. Here’s a list of 15 things that I do to stay safe:

1. Before I go out, I think about whether I can run in the clothes and shoes I’m wearing. Fashion is important to a lot of people, but I wouldn’t put fashion above my ability to move and my safety.

2. I secure any valuables (jewelry, wallet, and tech gadgets) that I need to carry on my person in a safe place and not to take them out if at all possible, while walking around or sitting in the train. Why invite someone to steal them?

3. I take the safe route: the well-lit path, the road more traveled. I avoid traveling alone late at night and early morning if I can. If I can’t, I do everything possible to heighten my sense of awareness as the probability of danger rises.

4. I heighten my awareness by minimizing my distractions. Whenever I notice my focus is on anything other than the task of traveling, I remind myself—here is an opportunity for someone to attack me. Listening to music, talking on the phone or the person next to you, texting, reviewing mental to-do lists, or worrying about some problem, can all mess with our attention. If you tend to be focused on anything besides your surroundings, it’s not a bad idea to start focusing on one thing at a time. Sometimes, we can start to take a simple travel route for granted. We may start to get comfortable because nothing bad has happened before, or we assume that because most people mean well, we won’t be attacked.

5. For you subway riders: just because everyone else on the train is glued to their phone, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea! If I have to pull out my phone in the train, every time the train stops or the door opens, I look up. If anyone makes a move or a sound that is out of the ordinary, I put it away. That text or video game is just not worth it. If you do have your headphones in, at least keep one out and keep the volume down. You need your ears as well as your eyes. And why not just try sitting and enjoying the ride?

6. I make sure I’m not carrying what I don’t need. I see people all the time weighed down by stuff. To be fair, until the pandemic happened, every school kid I know carried way too many books in their bags. But as an adult, I’m sure there is stuff you are carrying that you don’t need. If you’ve got to carry something heavy, make sure you can take it off quickly and you don’t keep your valuables (like your phone) in it.

7. Be aware of traveling while intoxicated. For example, if you’re drunk, it’s easy to be unaware, overconfident, and have a slowed response time. Also, if you look intoxicated, that can make you a target. I aim to walk with intention and keep alert to sudden changes in my field of vision.

8. I hold my keys in my hand so that I can enter my building quickly and make sure that no one is behind me. (Also, if you’ve got your keys on a key ring, it makes a pretty good weapon to swing at an aggressor.)

9. I make a mental note of the distance between myself and passersby. Is there anyone walking behind me? I look around every so often. I try to think of where someone might hide—in between parked cars, doorways, or entrances to construction sites.

10. Similarly, there are a number of incidents in which people have been pushed off subway platforms. An awareness of the space between me, the tracks, and other people, is crucial to keeping myself safe in this instance. I imagine how it would be easy to get pushed off the platform from where and how I’m standing. I try to always hang out in front of a wall or a column, to make pushing me off a bit harder. This can also go for curbs and other traffic areas.

11. I keep my hands up whenever I feel someone is too close. If I have to pass close to someone, or if I’m sitting down and they come close to me, I might play with my hair or rub my nose to make it look casual, but my hands are up near my face. It just takes too long to block if they are down.

12. I make a note along my route of open stores or other places, where I could run for shelter; and of exits, when I am in an enclosed area.

13. I think about, and look out for, objects that can be used as makeshift shields, such as my backpack, a flat piece of wood, or even a trash bag; and objects that can be used as makeshift weapons (a stick, rock, or umbrella)–and I make sure it’s something I feel comfortable wielding! I don’t advocate carrying a weapon I don’t practice how to use, especially knives or pepper spray.

14. This is one of my favorite tips that I learned from my teacher. Think about this: if I were an attacker, who would I target, and why? Now, how do I act differently from that person, so that I do not become a victim? Remember that predators generally go for the easy prey.

15. This might be the most important tip I can give you: trust your intuition. You know how Spiderman has his “Spidey-sense” that tells him when there is trouble? Our intuition is our Spidey-sense. When you are walking down a street and something gives you goosebumps, or just makes you feel that something isn’t quite right? …Definitely do not ignore that. It’s not you just being paranoid. Sometimes we try to rationalize away something that we can’t explain but the body feels. It’s better to listen to your body and then decide later if you were over-reacting, than to ignore it and suddenly be attacked. If you think someone is following you, don’t be afraid to turn around and yell at them to get lost.

There is no one magic way to keep yourself safe. There are lots of different scenarios. And being aware is only half the battle. If you are attacked or someone is threatening, then there is the matter of how you will respond. I think of examples of attacks I see on the news. What if the person passing me were to suddenly get in my face and start threatening me, take a swing at my head, pull a knife, or try to tackle me? I think of how I might respond in a way that would keep me safe. Can I create distance from them? What would I say? Would I yell? Could I run?

These are all things that we practice in self-defense training. How you train is going to determine how you well you will be able to respond in an emergency. Whether you are thinking of taking a self-defense course or are already training in martial arts, I hope you find these tips helpful and don’t stop your learning here. If you make a habit of practicing them, it will develop your awareness and the mindset to help you protect yourself--and at best, to avoid confrontations before they happen!

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