“Responding to Aggression – Part 3” by Tom Collings

“We all have a right to our own values and moral beliefs, but they must be clear, and our technical training must be consistent with those values if we are to apply it without reservation or hesitation.”


Aggression and tactical decision-making

This is the third part in a series exploring practical applications of Takemusu Aiki, the foundation for much of O-Sensei’s unique Budo. Takemusu Aiki is generally regarded as an abstract esoteric philosophy, or oversimplified as merely a term for generating unlimited techniques. My experience suggests it is a comprehensive and practical guide for responding effectively to a broad range of aggressive behaviors.

Martial arts training usually involves practicing self-defense techniques and hoping our techniques are good enough to meet any threat. Very few dojos, regardless of style, train students in threat assessment and tactical decision making. Yet, accurately assessing the nature of the threat is critical for to wise and decisive action. Accurately evaluating the threat and acting decisively is often more critical than technical skill.

What follows is the guide I have used when confronted with dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. It has helped me survive physically, emotionally, and legally. It is based on Takemusu Aiki principles, used during 26 years of dealing with convicted felons in prisons and on the streets of New York. The outline was also influenced by my detailed study of the criminal histories of several hundred parolees I have dealt with. I will also discuss the mental preparation. I have found essential for decisive action.

Exactly what is the threat ? What is my best response ?


Four Different Aggressive Threats

Facing anger and hostility

Facing the anger or hostility of someone who is not out of control but really angry is not uncommon in any of our lives. While very unpleasant, the outcome of the encounter is usually more under our control than we realize. Whether it is the wrath of a relative at home, a co-worker, or a stranger in a store or other public place, the dynamics are the same. Their motivation for directing anger at us is RELEASE of that anger, because anger is painful.

It is helpful to recognize you are facing someone in pain, who wants to get rid of that pain. If we choose to de-escalate the situation – and it is a choice – the solution is simple: we help them to release their pain. The best way I have found to do this is to just listen well. How do you feel when pissed off and the individual really listens to you – without arguing or defending them self? Yes, it takes great self control and self discipline, but that is a choice. It is also supposed to be our commitment as martial artists.

Their Motivation >>> Releasing emotion/ Expressing their emotional pain

Best Response >>> Self discipline, Self calming techniques – use of breath/centering, etc.


Greatest Challenge >>> Over Reacting – Not arguing / Attachment to our position / Too offended by anger to Listen

Theft (Robbery)

The theft of our property is infuriating, and the threats and intimidation which may accompany a robbery are frightening. Here is where accurate threat assessment is critical. Is their URGENCY to the individual’s demand for your wallet, watch, etc? Are they focused on quickly getting what they want and FLEEING ? If so, it is an indicator of low to moderate danger level. These individuals, the street junkie or career criminal want to leave as soon as possible and not get caught. Harming you is rarely their priority. They want to leave ASAP. If we comply, we are helping them maintain control of themselves and leave quickly.

You do have the legal right to resist and fight. If you choose this option the likelihood of violence is high which means the chance of injury or death to someone is high. It could be them, you, or someone with you – violence is always unpredictable. The choice in this situation is YOURS.

Be clear – if you feel a wallet, watch, iphone, etc. is worth fighting for – do it. But, do it with eyes open, taking full responsibility for the results of your actions.

Motivation >>> Material gain, desire to get property and QUICKLY FLEE

Best Response >>> Tactical Compliance:

if Confronted – Toss property toward thief as you flee in opposite direction (highly effective distraction)

if Held – at knife/gunpoint – Stay calm/help them stay calm by indicating your compliance and not resisting


Greatest Challenge >>> Over Reaction – Anger or Panic / Ego – emotional attachment to property

I have not been surprised by the negative reaction from some of my students to my recommended actions in this circumstance. But, it has served me well for 26 years working some of the worst neighborhoods in America. Many martial artists believe it is their “duty” to fight when their property or reputation is threatened. To them I say property or reputation has nothing to do with honor. Samurai choose their battles carefully.

Psychotic rage

This is an individual whose emotions are out of control and is an immediate threat to anyone unlucky enough to be the target of their rage. Whether a motorist with road rage, a homeless or hospitalized mental patient, or a mean drunk, the dynamic is the same – they are IRRATIONAL AND UNPREDICTABLE. This individual does NOT USUALLY RESPOND WELL TO VERBAL INTERVENTION and can become violent at any moment. Talking only makes you more vulnerable and escalates their rage.

Their Motivation >>> Explosive release of emotion / Delusion / Hallucination

Best Response >>> Non Verbal – Create space/distance / If they pursue run or fight

TAKEMUSU AIKI >>> EARTH (retreat with STABILITY) / Prepared to be FIRE (POWER and INTENSITY)

Greatest Challenge >>> Under-reaction, Not immediately creating space / Drawn into verbal exchange with irrational individual

The violent predator

This is the worst case scenario, a truly violent individual who uses robbery, kidnapping or home invasion as a pretext for violence. The purpose is to inflict pain or death. These are the worst of the worst. Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, they make up about 1% of the criminal population. They are the violent muggers, sadistic rapists and serial killers.

The dynamics of this aggression are unique – it is generally premeditated, well planned, and often LACKS THE “TAKE AND FLEE” URGENCY of the common thief. Predators often have a calm cool demeanor and are well practiced in violence.

The hallmark of the worst predators is “Herding Behavior,” similar to wolves or lions in the wild. These predators attempt to move their prey (pull/push/drag victim) to a less public – more remote location, more conducive to violent behavior. By doing so they give up their most powerful tactical advantage – the element of surprise. If you recognize the severity of the threat you now “own” the element of surprise. You get to choose the SPOT and MOMENT for your explosive action. The predator must react to you, placing him at a distinct disadvantage – even if he is holding a weapon.

Their Motivation >>> Thrill of preplanned violence/domination/inflicting pain

Best Response >>> Choose your moment/spot to Explode with DECISIVE ACTION / Distraction and Escape / or Attack


Greatest Challenge >>> Under-reaction, Mistaking predator for a common thief
Not recognizing herding behavior
Reacting to your fear with denial (gravity of the situation)
Not releasing your primitive “animal instincts”
(most lethal martial art technique or “jaws and claws”)

Questions which strengthen decisive action

the-thinkerMost of us have a deep rooted inhibition against harming other human beings. We all have a right to our own values and moral beliefs, but they must be clear, and our technical training must be consistent with those values if we are to apply it without reservation or hesitation. A high stress moment of crisis is not a good time for soul searching. In that moment, their must be no confusion.

Now is the time for soul searching, personal exploration and clarifying what you truly believe regarding violence and non-violence. It will free you to act decisively which in some cases may be refusing to fight, or fighting for your life with abandon. Whatever actions we take will be decisive, powerful, and free from guilt later on as long as they are consistent with our personal moral values.

First, let’s dispel two common myths and illusions:

Myth #1: Aikido is a non-violent art, therefore no injury will result from using it.

Reality: If you choose to apply Aikido, Tai Chi or any other art practiced in a gentle manner during training you must be prepared for the consequences of the recipient fracturing their skull, neck or back when they fall. Your peaceful intension does not guarantee someone will survive a fall. People on the receiving end of aikido have, in fact, been crippled or killed. The results of any decision to resist or fight is always unpredictable, as all combat is unpredictable.

Myth #2: I am not big enough, strong enough or skillful enough to inflict serious injury on a violent criminal, so it is better not to try.

Reality: Every human being, especially an adult, can inflict devastating injury on another individual regardless of size. Feeling impotent does not remove your responsibility for decisive action if your life or the life of another person is at stake.

* Case History – Westbury, NY – Small women escapes after biting off finger of a predator holding a knife to her throat during attempted car jacking.

* Case History – Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY – Man attacked by large knife wielding predator escapes after blinding attacker with handful of dirt.

The decision to resist or fight has profound consequences and should not be taken lightly. Ask yourself these questions NOW while you have the luxury of time, and the solitude required for deep reflection, because a technique, no matter how well practiced, will not be applied powerfully and decisively if it violates our deeply held values:

Am I willing to fight – and accept the consequences of combat if…

Insulted? …Challenged?… Provoked? …

Am I willing to use martial arts to protect… my wallet?… my car?… my Home?…

I am willing to use maximum force – which could end in injury or death if confronted with…

Robbery?… Burglary / Home Invasion?… Rape?… Car jacking?…

Am I willing to use whatever force is required – including Lethal Force – to survive or prevent a violent assault…
against me?… against a friend/loved one?… a stranger?…

If the situation is beyond my martial arts skills – am I willing to use my most primitive and violent instincts……

lethal martial arts techniques?… “jaws and claws”?… (survival is not always pretty)

This exercise has no right or wrong answers. The “right” answer is that which is honest and true for you.

As a wise fellow once said “Know Thy Self”. This is especially true when facing danger. Know well what you are willing to fight for, then fight with abandon, fight without hesitation or any reservation. But, choose your battles carefully. That is what best defines a true “Warrior”.


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11s Comments

  1. Excellent. I was led here by the Bambi v Godzilla style photo which looks to me as though we are coming in halfway to an unfortunate outcome. I can’t think of anything I would add to Collings Sensei’s list. Your response to the checklist, though, may change over time depending on your own attitude, strength and skill.

  2. Dear Tom,

    Thank you for the helpful advice in terms of breaking down the different forms of aggressive attacks. It makes a lot of sense. Being in control of one’s own emotions and assessing the attacker is key in acting appropriately. Great advice and insights.



  3. excellent article and so very true, no amount of training can prepare us for all situations, my relation was a black belt but died when he slipped on a patch of wet mud, the technique he used was ,in my opinion, stupidly taught and dangerous, the knife went into his heart, R I P.

  4. Great article!

    Not sure what was your intention with the choice of the picture but I personally find the woman on the right the one being “aggressive”… The group on the left is pretty calm: hands in the pockets and the one talking has his left arm in a defensive/peaceful position, like to calm down the situation.


  5. Thank you for this excellent article, it’s very timely after a young woman friend was mugged and I became frustrated listening to how the thief used both hands to hold the bag she had around her neck / shoulder and tug violently three times till the strap broke and he ran away, at which point she chased him, screaming for help, which no one among the spectators provided.

    I immediately said, but with both his hands occupied you could easily have just broken his nose (I didn’t even consider that this might be too violent, it just seemed natural to me that one would respond with force if someone was perpetrating such an act on one’s person) and without listening to me at all or looking at the movement I was showing her she blurted “but I was so surprised, next time it will be different” but I don’t think it will be different. I think you need to have practiced the movements over time… I have been attacked and knocked the person back without even thinking, I found myself perplexed and apologizing for making the person bleed with no such intention but when someone goes to hit me in the eye, that is what happens to them, it’s really out of my conscious control because there is not time for decision making, the decision was made long ago when I practiced the responses over and over throughout the years of training.

    Looking back it is humorous that the person trying to hit me immediately started whining about being hit backwards once their attempt was not successful! This article makes me think more deeply about the dynamics of such interactions. Violence is one of the inherent potentials of humans, but trained out of a good number of us as kids. I was bullied as a kid and wouldn’t have had the courage to fight back for all the tea in China, but now it’s second nature, without anger or hostility. It just is what it is.

    Having said which, I felt something behind me the other day and half turned to notice a young guy on roller blades an arm’s reach away, skating by sideways and looking at me (on a deserted city street)… he skated on by… that is the profile of a mugger on these south American streets but in this case his approach was thwarted when I sensed him. No need for more response than that, which is ideal of course. But… that leaves him on the prowl for someone more vulnerable, which may be the other reason that those who can respond should… the attacker then does not have the same ease of motion and attack onto the next person if they experience distress or injury in trying to perpetrate on someone whom they can’t victimize very easily.

    Another such experience when my (problematic) ex-husband tried to become violent toward me, without taking it seriously I responded. He never tried it again. I don’t think it’s that he thought he absolutely couldn’t win (much bigger than me and a 20 yr special forces veteran), it’s just that he realized it would be a real fight, what I laughingly refer to as “a fight to the death” and he wasn’t up for it. So I never had to deal with that from him. I think if I’d been intimidated, it would have been an entirely different story. Within three months after I started Aikido at the age of 17 (I’m now 56) in Santa Cruz with Linda Holiday, my walk and attitude changed (long before I had any techniques down), and I would profoundly hope my daughters will train all their lives, as well as my son.

  6. “My relation was a black belt but died when he slipped on a patch of wet mud, the technique he used was ,in my opinion, stupidly taught and dangerous, the knife went into his heart,”

    All martial arts practitioners — engrave these above words and this described encounter on your brain now, to give yourself lots of time to reflect on exactly when and how you would, if ever, apply your techniques in response to a potentially deadly threat. The likely answer, for me anyway, is almost certainly never; except in an immediate active, direct threat to yourself or a loved one where there is no available avoidance. In response to a certain death if no action is taken, then I suppose one is committed to a full-out (trained and practiced) response with no second guessing, once the decision has been made.

  7. The photo could also illustrate a woman turning on a perceived threat and demanding loudly and authoritatively that they stop following her, stop bothering her, attracting the attention of anyone within hearing range. This is a tactic often recommended by instructors in women’s defence. Part of the tactic is to project a no-nonsense demand loudly, aggressively and with extreme confidence.

  8. Be aware that in most cases there is no time to choose your battle. Years in the dojo can equip you deal with “the street”. In the issues I have had to deal with I have had a guardian angel…..

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