Be Street Safe Practical Self-Defence Training and Advice
Be Street SafePractical Self-Defence Training and Advice

Pre-empting attacks

Preemption describes action taken between the time that an attack becomes inevitable and the attack beginning. In this discussion I am assuming that non-violent pre-emptive actions that could be taken earlier (avoiding dangerous areas, running away before the attack begins) are no longer viable. I am also assuming that the assailant presents a credible threat that justifies a full-power preemptive strike. Please bear in mind that the law in your country may affect your options. In the UK, preemption is legal in certain circumstances and without giving a warning. This is not the case everywhere.


Preempting an attack may be necessary because waiting to be hit is a poor strategy for self-defence. It can even be fatal; these are just three of many examples where the victim’s life was ended by one punch:


  • Hugh Bacalla Garth killed Raynor Manalad with a single punch outside a Sydney house party in 2014.
  • Ryan Cooper was convicted of the manslaughter of Gary Stacey in February 2016 after killing him with a single punch.
  • Brisbane teenage Cole Miller was the victim of a one-punch attack that led to his death the following day. 


While being punched will rarely be fatal, it will always put you in a worse position to escape or defend yourself. Short of death, a punch to the head can lead to a loss of consciousness, varying degrees of disorientation and blurred vision, serious acute and chronic injuries, disruption to decision-making ability and more. Receiving a blow to the groin or strike to the chest can have similar debilitating effects. In addition, the shock of being hit could induce some or all of the effects described in the Handling Fear article. nk rationally; racing pulse; tunnel vision), all of which reduce the chances of survivin

What of blocking or avoidance? Preemption would not be necessary if we could react fast enough to guarantee that any possible attack could be effectively blocked or dodged. Unfortunately this is a physiological impossibility; and this impossibility can be established without expert knowledge of human biology or anatomy. 

Scientific American reported that boxer Ricky Hatton could punch at speeds of 25 miles per hour, rising to 32 mph in one case. As a trained fighter, he can voluntarily punch at these speeds. Under the drive of the rush of stress-induced hormones, an untrained assailant can reach exactly the same speeds as the normal biological inhibitors that prevent them moving at these speeds are overridden. If we use the lower speed of 25 mph (and ignore acceleration time), and assume a strike being delivered from a distance of one metre then the punch will take less than one tenth of a second (100 milliseconds) to reach its target. 


In contrast, the fastest human reaction is the startle reflex which causes extremely rapid movement of the body in response to certain stimuli such as a an object approaching the eye at speed. The time between stimulus and reaction varies but the movement of the head takes 60 – 120 milliseconds. Given that the reflex will not start until the punch is already on its way, and probably quite close, this means that there is time for more than one punch to have been landed before you have begun to move the head, let alone execute a block of some kind.

It is clear, therefore, that we need to pre-empt an attack with action of our own to improve our chances of surviving the encounter with the minimum of damage. The pre-emptive action must be a strike. With an attack inevitable, escape impossible and waiting to block not credible then this is the only remaining form of pre-emption. 


The objective of the preemptive strike is to prevent the attack by disabling or distracting the opponent sufficiently to create the time and space needed to escape. To be clear, the strike must be designed and delivered with the clear intention of it being sufficient on its own to incapacitate the opponent and allow escape.  We cannot assume that there will be the opportunity for a second strike. That is, hitting the assailant “gently” in the hope that they will back down could, for example, induce a furious retaliation from both the original threat and perhaps other people joining in. In most circumstances this means that the pre-emptive strike must be delivered without warning and with all the power that you can muster. Critically it must be directed at a part of the assailant’s body that will remove their ability to immediately retaliate. 

There are a large number of parts of the body that can, with a single strike, leave the assailant incapacitated. However, some are significantly less useful as they are hard to target (especially when suffering the effects of stress hormones), may be protected in some way or require you to use a technique that places you in greater danger. The following is a brief overview of possible targets.

Target Comments Advantages Drawbacks
Eyes Probably the most vulnerable part of the human body. Hitting into the eye itself will almost always cause temporary or permanent blindness.

A strike in the eyes is almost guaranteed to sufficiently disable the assailant to enable escape by causing temporary blindness.


Striking the eyes, or pushing on them, is a good technique to force a release if already held (e.g., in a choke from the front) but being in this position means that preemption has failed.

Surprisingly difficult to reliably hit. The small size of the eye and shape of the skull makes landing a shot hard.


The very fast flinch reflex combined with the small size of the eye means the target can easily be missed.


If the flinch causes the assailant to drop their head down the strike has a high chance of missing completely or impacting the forehead – a poor target.


The assailant may be wearing glasses that can block the strike or cause it to slide off target.
Nose Even a relatively light impact on the nose can cause it to break and is often very painful. The eyes normally stream, impairing vision, when the nose is hit hard. 

A relatively large target in the middle of the head that, unlike the eyes, is not protected by the bones of the skull.


A well-directed strike towards the nose has a high chance of still hitting a relatively vulnerable part of the face (mouth, eyes, cheek bones) if the assailant’s flinch moves the head away.


People rarely wear any clothing over the nose, meaning it is nearly always unprotected.


Can be struck with the fist, open hand, palm heel, ridge of the hand, etc., providing options to reduce the risk of damage to the hand.

May be difficult against an assailant who is much taller.


Usually needs to be a straight punch which is more likely to be seen “on its way” (giving more time for the flinch reflex to move the target out of range). Straight punches also typically have a higher chance of being accidentally blocked by the assailant’s arms if they are holding them up ready to attack.
Throat Requires very little force to cause extreme distress, particularly a strike to the Adam’s Apple. Can be fatal even at relatively low power.

Highly effective and nearly always disabling.


There are no muscles protecting the front of the throat so it will work against an assailant regardless of size


Can be struck with the fist, open hand, palm heel, ridge of the hand, etc., providing options to reduce the risk of damage to the hand.


The front and side of the throat are both viable targets allowing the attack to be delivered from different angles.

Especially during colder weather may be covered by one or more layers of clothing, often thick or stiff (e.g., a zipped up winter jacket) that makes targeting hard and may prevent or limit damage.


The “fight” hormones will often cause the assailant to lower their chin protecting their throat from attack.


If the attack just misses it may cause very little damage – e.g., by striking the shoulder.


As for the nose, only a straight line attack is likely to hit the front of the throat although a hook into the side of the throat can also be effective.
Whole head / face  

Relatively easy to target in comparison to specific parts of the head / face (e.g., nose or eyes).


Rarely protected with clothing other than the top of the head (i.e., a hat).


Can be struck with the fist, open hand, palm heel, ridge of the hand, etc., providing options to reduce the risk of damage to the hand.


Straight and circular attacks from multiple angles can be used. That is, some part of the head will be available to be struck regardless of body positioning.

Much of the head is a very hard target and can damage the striking hand.


It's the most obvious target.


Very large target and easy to hit as the flinch reflex doesn’t move the torso significantly.


Easy to target even with a large height difference.

Often protected with heavy clothing, especially in the winter.


May not be debilitating unless the strike is very strong or hits a vulnerable spot (e.g., solar plexus, below the ribs)
Groin Don't assume this is only effective against men. Women find an impact to the groin painful.

Can be immediately disabling.


Will cause the assailant to flinch away and possibly abandon the attack (if only momentarily) to protect the groin.

Can be difficult to hit with the hand and even if possible can move your head into a vulnerable position and / or expose the back of the neck.


Often protected with multiple layers of clothing and can be hard to target accurately. 
Lower body All areas below the groin including thighs, shins, etc.

A powerful strike to the leg can incapacitate the assailant and is very effective at allowing escape.


Low blows may be delivered without being seen increasing the chances of striking home.


Can be delivered if at a significant height disadvantage, for example, from a seated position.


Excellent target for a kick but see disadvantages.

If standing, a hand strike to the lower body requires a very close range which means either moving in close or that pre-emption has failed (i.e., you should have preempted before the assailant got that close).


While a good target for a kick, kicking is never preferred unless you are a kicking expert. It requires a leg to be lifted from the ground, reducing stability and is vulnerable to being caught or deflected.

As I am working from the assumption that we will be suffering from “hormone overload” at the moment that the preemptive strike is delivered, we need to choose a single technique to use and train it repeatedly. Having a “toolbox” of techniques will force us to make a decision which will slow down our action. This single technique needs to:

  • Have a reasonable probability of disabling the assailant
  • Work against assailants regardless of their height, build, strength, sex, etc.
  • Be simple and not require fine motor control or pinpoint targeting
  • Have a good chance of working even if not delivered perfectly
  • Not be sensitive to our or the assailant’s exact body position
  • Not put us in a more dangerous position should the strike fail
  • Limit the damage it causes us

Based on this, a strike with a soft part of the hand – open hand, heel of the palm – to the assailant’s face is likely to be the best option for most people. The direction of this strike may vary although a circular attack is likely to have a higher probability of landing due to the tunnel vision effect of stress hormones. Power generation may also be easier for the untrained than a straight strike.


Next we need to consider the psychological difficulties in striking first. Worrying that you have misjudged the situation, fear of the consequences of striking, disbelief at the situation that you have found yourself in, etc., can trigger the Freeze Response preventing action being taken. This response, which I covered in some detailed in the Handling Fear article, evolved as a last ditch attempt to avoid death when neither flight or fight would work. It can be so severe that it can prevent people taking action even in the face of obviously fatal danger. We therefore need some techniques to ensure that we do not freeze and that we do act preemptively when needed. The pre-requisite steps of training to understand that the pre-emptive strike is legal, etc., was covered in the Handling Fear article.


Having prepared ourselves psychologically to not freeze, we need to train ourselves to deliver the preemptive strike effectively. One of the big challenges is that it is often very obvious that someone is about to deliver a strike, especially if they aren’t experienced in doing so. This “telegraphing”, which may include subtle shifting of body weight, positioning or staring at the intended target, will be sub-consciously detected by the assailant and may cause them to launch their attack before you can pre-empt.

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