5 self defense drills for building super-human awareness.

One question I get asked the most is, “How can I learn better awareness skills?” Like anything, the answer is practice. But how do you practice awareness specifically for self defense? 

While it’s easy to look around you, practicing awareness for self defense entails some specific goals:

  1. Recognize people and events that are out of context for your situation or location.
  2. Put your brain and body into action mode without feeling paranoid.
  3. Assess your own habits, how they put you at risk, and how to change them.

In this article, we’ll take a look at five awareness drills you can learn quickly, and put into practice immediately. Ready? Let’s get started.

Drill 1: The “what would I do if” drill

This is one of the best self defense drills. You can do it literally anywhere, at any time. Whether you’re walking down the street or waiting at the doctor’s office, you can practice awareness. It can even be combined with many of the following drills. Here’s how it works.

A busy street like this one offers an opportunity to practice self defense drill 1.
Pick a person you see while walking. What would you do if they attacked you?
Photo by Dávid Ďurčo on Unsplash

Wherever you are, pick out a person. Be specific. In other words, pick the man in the suit walking toward you on the sidewalk. Or, pick the woman sitting in the car across the street. Don’t forget about the people behind you either. They’re fair game for this exercise.

You’re picking your attacker. Ask yourself, if they did “X,” what would I do? Be specific. For example:

If the man crossing the street in the blue sweatshirt suddenly grabbed me by the hair as he passes, what would I do?

Play out the scenario in your head, and play it out thoroughly. How would you fight back? What targets would you hit, and how? What if they didn’t work? Who could you call on for help? Where could you run to escape or find safety?

Once you finish, wait a while and pick someone else. Run this drill in your head several times per day. Don’t always make it easy on yourself. It’s tempting to play out the scenario by hitting someone once and running away. But that’s not always real life.

What if in the middle of fighting off the hair pull, he pulled a knife? Picking harder scenarios will force you to be honest with yourself about skills you still need to learn.

Now, the chances of picking a person, imagining an attack, and it actually happening are slim to none. I always tell students, if that happens, immediately go buy a lottery ticket because you’re on a roll.

But “picking an attacker” isn’t the point of this drill. When you practice this drill on a regular basis, looking for your next attacker forces you to scan your surroundings. And you aren’t only looking for people, but also escape routes and safety zones. 

You’re also teaching your brain something important: action. By playing out scenarios where something bad happens and you go into action, you’re more likely to act and less likely to freeze if anything were to ever happen for real.

Drill 2: The “car check” drill

This second drill is one you can do any time you enter and leave a parking lot. What if you don’t drive? Well, with a little modification, you can do this drill in any parking area- even if you’re just walking through it.

There are two parts to this drill. Part one is when you enter the parking lot, and part two is (unsurprisingly) when you leave.

Practice the parking lot awareness drill every time you park and return to your car.
The parking lot drill is great practice for noticing details and changes.
Photo by Ruffa Jane Reyes on Unsplash

As you enter the parking area and approach your parking space, take a look at the cars parked around you. Take note of their make and model, color, distinguishing features, who is in them, and as you get out of your car notice which ones are running and which are off.

If you’re heading into a store, you can also note the cars you pass on your walk toward the door.

Then, as you come back to your car make a mental note of which things have changed. Is there a new car, one that wasn’t there when you parked? Is someone sitting in a car that was empty? Is a car running that wasn’t turned on when you passed it before?

Doing this drill helps you remember details. There is a lot of information to process as you walk through a parking lot. You’re looking at types, colors, people, actions- and then you’re working to not only remember those, but notice changes.

I mentioned earlier you can do this drill even if you don’t drive. Maybe you take a bus to the grocery store. From the bus stop, you have to walk through the parking lot to enter the store. You can still do this drill.

Be creative. What other variations of this awareness drill can you think of?

Drill 3: The “body language” drill

If someone asked for my secret self defense tip, this would be it: learn how to read body language.

Actually, you already know how to read body language. Our brains constantly pick up on nuances like facial expression, posture, eye movement, and more- most people just aren’t aware of it. The goal of this drill is to become more aware of those little things.

This is a fun self defense drill when you’re stuck in a check-out line or at a restaurant. You need a little time to observe people and see how your instinct plays out. But the drill can also be done walking down the street, maybe as part of drill #1 above.

This young man's body language tells observers he is annoyed.
What do subtle clues tell you about a person? Reading body language is an important self defense skill.
Photo by Mikail Duran on Unsplash

Wherever you are, look around you. Can you read someone’s body language? Can you tell who’s tired, irritated, or frustrated? Who is happy, excited, or nervous? What little clues do you see that give it away?

Can you predict who will be rude or short with the cashier, bank teller, or waitress? What about guessing who will be talkative and engaging? Again, what subtle clues did you pick up on?

Something else you can look for is who is protective of their personal space? Who is negligent of theirs? What actions are they making that give it away? Does how they treat their personal space have any correlation to how they interact with others around them?

Sometimes you’ll just have a gut feeling about a person. Our instincts are usually right. If you get one of those feelings about someone, can you put your finger on why you feel that way? 

Reading people is an important skill. Often, criminals will try to lure you into a position where you have the disadvantage. They can do this with several ploys. But most criminals, even if they’re skilled, will still have “tells” that give away their true intention. After all, they’re still people.

Drill 4: My “best victim” drill

OK, here’s a fun little self defense drill – in a slightly demented kind of way. If you were a criminal, who would you pick as your best victim, and why?

As you go through your day, take a few minutes and imagine yourself as a criminal. That’s hard for many of us to do, but the more you do it the easier it becomes. And that’s important.

Distracted people on a sidewalk can become easy targets for criminals.
Who is an easy target? Looking from the perspective of a criminal can help you learn why certain habits are dangerous.
Photo by Matt Quinn on Unsplash

If you wanted to commit a crime, who would your best victim be? And why would you pick them? 

Remember, criminals are predators. And like any predator, they look for targets with certain characteristics. Think of a lion hunting. Does a lion go after the biggest, hardest, target? Not at all!

A lion looks for an easy victim. Distracted, caught by itself, perhaps weak or injured. A human predator is no different. Criminals look for the exact same thing. They want a target that’s easy to get close to and seems unlikely to put up any significant resistance. 

For this drill, It’s important you don’t just pick a person out, but understand why you could attack them easily. What could you tell them that would make them less of a target?

Now, be honest with yourself. Do you do any of the things you would tell them to avoid? Sometimes it’s hard to see bad habits in our own actions. It’s often easier to see others make a mistake, and then decide how we can avoid making the same one. 

Seeing the world through the eyes of a “criminal” helps you make discoveries about your habits you may not notice otherwise.

Drill 5: The “Where would I choose” drill

This final drill can be done on its own, and it also works great when practiced alongside drill #4. It can be practiced whether or not anyone else is around. In fact, you could even do this self defense drill at home, or sitting in the parking lot waiting on your spouse to finish shopping.

The “where would I choose” drill relates directly to fringe areas. If you aren’t familiar with the term, you’ll need to read up on fringe areas before doing this drill. 

As you go about your daily routine, pick out the best area to attack someone. An alternative would be picking the worst place. For either situation, make sure you describe to yourself why it would or wouldn’t be an ideal area.

An abandoned building isn't automatically a crime area- criminals need targets and time.
A fringe area gives criminals access to targets, and time.
Photo by Lewis Roberts on Unsplash

Even if you’re stuck at home, you can think about areas you frequently pass through. Which ones would make good or bad target zones? 

What would make a bad area good, or a good area bad? In other words, if you’re sitting in a parking lot and there aren’t any people around, is it a good target zone if you were a criminal? What time of day or change of circumstance might make it a better area for a criminal?

Remember, for a fringe area to be a good target zone, it must present targets and time. 

Think a little more deeply than only whether or not it’s a potential crime area. What would make it a good place for you as a criminal, but bad for your intended victim? How might your target get away from you? What could you do to prevent that?

Like with drill #4, sometimes it’s hard to look at ourselves and pick out ways we could improve. But looking at a situation through the eyes of someone else- in this case a criminal- allows us to take a different view of our own habits.


If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how you can practice self defense on your own, these five drills are a great start. The best self defense skill is awareness. That means not only awareness of your surroundings, but awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses as well.

Most of these drills are discussed in our women’s self defense classes, but they aren’t women’s self defense drills. They’re useful for anyone who wants to improve their own safety. It’s often hard to spot our own bad habits, so a couple of these drills allow us to study the actions of others through the eyes of a criminal, and then apply what we learn to our own actions.

By practicing these five drills on a regular basis, you’ll automatically increase your own awareness, prep your brain for action, learn your weak points, and find what you can do to improve them– resulting in keeping yourself safer.

Now it’s your turn. Leave a comment below telling us what insights you discover.

Featured image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *