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To Stay Safe, Martial Artists Must Adapt to Societal Changes

The world is a very different place now than it was just a few months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives and drastically changed the way we interact with other people.

For those of us who are concerned with self-defense, it has also created some very special challenges. If we want to continue to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe during this uncertain time, we need to understand those challenges and adapt accordingly.

Masks and Their Effect on "Reading" People

Self-defense — or perhaps more appropriately, personal protection — begins with awareness and a commitment to avoid potential threats whenever possible. If we see something that is cause for concern or just doesn't look right, our best course of action is to trust our instincts and remove ourselves from that situation before things get physical.

The key to good situational awareness is the ability to recognize specific behavioral patterns that suggest someone is up to no good. Often called "pre-incident indicators," these include synchronized or predatory movement, grooming actions, furtive glancing, weight shifting, preparatory actions (like hiking up one's pants or clenching one's fists), "hidden hands" and other suspicious behaviors.

Up until a few months ago, added to this list would have been a person wearing a mask to conceal his or her face. Such an act would have been a huge red flag and an immediate cause for concern. Now, however, it's not only common but also considered a good thing — unless our concern is personal defense.

As we all know, communication involves much more than words — especially when we're interacting face to face. In casual conversation, facial expressions typically support or amplify the meaning of the words a person speaks. When these elements naturally complement each other, we perceive the person as being honest and do not regard him or her as a threat to our safety. Conversely, when someone's spoken words seem nonthreatening but the person's facial expressions tell a different story, it's interpreted as a sign of deception — and potentially a sign of trouble.

When we speak to people face to face, we are constantly assessing the congruity of their spoken message and their body language, particularly their facial expressions. If their faces are covered, we are denied a lot of very important information that we normally use to evaluate people and their intentions. In simple terms, we can't "read" people as well as we used to. The loss of that tool leaves us increasingly vulnerable to potential threats.


Before the pandemic, one of a criminal's greatest fears was that he could be identified by witnesses or through security or cellphone video. Being seen could mean getting caught and ultimately being prosecuted.

Unfortunately, the widespread acceptance of wearing masks gives criminals and anyone else determined to misbehave in public a "free pass." No matter where we may stand on the debate over the medical benefits of masks, they still provide publicly sanctioned anonymity that allows the bad guys to operate without fear of being identified.

Widespread Anxiety

In addition to the specific pre-incident indicators mentioned above, general nervousness and anxiety are also potential signs that someone might be up to no good. Before the pandemic, a person behaving anxiously probably would have stood out from the crowd. In the current climate, though, everyone is stressed and, whether they realize it or not, behaving somewhat differently from the way they did under the old norm. When the baseline behavior of the masses shifts far enough to replicate what used to be suspicious behavior, assessing potential threats becomes a lot more challenging.

Widespread anxiousness and frustration also mean that people are more likely to act irrationally. In the self-defense world, we often think of "attackers" as people with conscious and deliberate criminal intent. From a practical standpoint, however, it doesn't matter why someone throws a punch or tries to stab you with a steak knife; the attack is still just as dangerous.

As we've seen countless times in the news, frustrated, anxious people who are having trouble coping with the current situation are losing control and resorting to violence. That poses an increasing danger to us all. We must be prepared not only to react to sudden and unexpected violent threats but also to be sensitive to others' anxiety and do our best to de-escalate conflicts long before they become volatile.


Desperation is a very significant factor in the current world situation. For "established" criminals who were already preying on people before the pandemic, the stay-at-home movement and the closure of many businesses mean there are fewer potential targets out and about in public. That makes them even more determined to ply their trade.

For panhandlers and others who rely on the public for noncriminal financial support, again, the presence of fewer people means access to fewer resources. That tends to make them more aggressive and may force them to "up their game" from low-key panhandling to active violent crime and robbery. As unemployment numbers grow, this dynamic has the potential to become even more prevalent and serious.

The "Other" Benefit of Social Distancing

Interestingly, not all the behavioral effects of the pandemic are bad. From a self-defense perspective, we know that distance equals safety. Attackers typically try to "test our boundaries" and maneuver as close as possible before launching an assault. Our job is to prevent that by using verbal skills and boundary-setting tactics to maintain a safe distance.

Under normal circumstances, that can be a challenge, but in the COVID-19 world, social distancing helps do that for us. If people do try to get too close to us these days, it's actually easier for us to call them out verbally than it might have been months ago. Ostensibly, we're doing it for medical reasons, but if it gives us a tool to stay safe from other potential dangers, we should use it to our advantage. Distance — social or otherwise — is our friend.

As we struggle to cope with the far-reaching effects of the pandemic and define the ever-elusive "new normal," we need to adapt. To keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, we must analyze the changes taking place in our society and rethink our behavior so we can adapt all our personal-protection skills to fit.

Michael Janich was Black Belt's 2010 Weapons Instructor of the Year. For more information, visit

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