What’s Wrong with Your Situational Awareness – Garry Smith & Marc MacYoung


Durban – The family of a combat sport and self-defence enthusiast murdered for his cellphone while walking home in oThongathi (Tongaat) are trying to piece together his last moments. They believe Tyson Morgan, 24, who was trained in ‘self-defence’ and ‘street-fighting’ techniques, might have been caught unawares by his assailants because he was listening to music on his earphones at the time of the vicious attack. Murugan, of Fairbreeze, had been out exercising and was walking home from a nearby café when he was attacked on a walkway alongside Gopalall Hurbans Road on Tuesday night. The aspiring mixed martial arts instructor and stunt choreographer was stabbed in the chest and stomach and died at the scene. His cellphone was stolen. —

 So states a news report from a South African online news feed that has been posted on social media around the world. The very sad news it contains, the loss of a clearly loved and talented young man, is story enough for most, but the fact that this man was supposed to have been trained in ‘self defence’ and ‘street-fighting’ techniques makes it more shocking. His murder in a robbery for something as everyday as his mobile phone betrays something of the society in which this crime took place. It appears that he was attacked without warning, suddenly and viciously with a knife, as he walked home on streets he knew so well whilst listening to his favourite tracks on his earphones.

This event draws gasps of fear from the public. It draws claims of, ‘if he’d only been trained in my ultimate system’ from marketers. It draws pontification about situational awareness from internet warriors. It draws groans of exasperation from violence professionals around the world. I read the article, and I will be the first to admit it is a partial and not a full report. It causes a reaction of both sadness that this man was killed at all and also in that it is seen as especially creditworthy due to his clearly documented training in self defence and street fighting skills. It comes on the same week as CRGI published an article by Kathy Jackson on Niven’s Law #17 which states, ‘No technique works if it isn’t used’.

What follows is a conversations between Marc MacYoung and myself.




M – So what’s your take on this situation in South Africa?

G-  Well, it is a very violent society and only today I watched a head cam film of a mountain bike rider being robbed at gunpoint whilst out on a cycle train, relieved of bike, wallet and phone at gunpoint. I have had friends robbed there at gunpoint too. So the murder is one more that would just have been lost in the stats had it not been for the self defence/street fighting angle, a gift to the headline writers methinks.


M- I’m prone to agree with you and yet, I think it’s interesting to see how quickly the story is being spun to protect and/or promote people’s beliefs. Here’s a slap in the face about self-defense training (self-defense expert killed). On one hand, this panders to the fear of the general public (gee, if an SD expert can be killed, what can I do?). On the other hand, now you have all these internet warriors telling people what he did wrong. The biggest assignment of blame is ‘situational awareness’ fail.

But before we get into that, what does that term even mean? Or in this case, what does it mean to you?

G- Well it is self-evident for the ever ready internet warrior who even sleeps with his/her eyes open. Walking around and not being 100% alert to danger at all times is failure and I suppose it is measured by degrees of failure. For me, I like to use the phrase situational awareness, but recognise that it cannot be ‘on’ all the time. We could not function in everyday life if we maintained the kind of hyper vigilance that 100% situational awareness demands. The brain’s circuits would burn out. So whilst it is the biggest assignment of blame being identified, it is disingenuous on the part of those who stop to think to join in this process. We all switch off, so we need to judge when to use the on/off/standby mode and I am sure we have all been caught unawares by some things, sometimes. In this case, the guy was enjoying a post training chill moment, he had elected to switch the button off. Those keyboard warriors are making judgment calls.


M- Okay, for the record, ‘every ready internet warrior…’ I was drinking coffee when I read that. I had to clean it up. And I blame you… just so you know.

As to the rest, you and I have sat across the table from one another and done damage to Yorkshire pudding and pub food, so I know something of your background. There’s a lot of subconscious knowledge floating around under that skull of yours. Something that really bothers me is how many people fall into the assumption that they know what situational awareness is (when in fact, it’s usually the urban commando on a fast track to burn out you just described). Turns out Situational Awareness is a military term that has specific connotations in that field. What I was asking is what does it mean to you? What goes into it? What are the tools and resources you need in order to have it?


G- Oh wow, as a well-known pudding burner of this parish I guess I am on the spot now. Well, to me, what I call Situational Awareness is that complex set of things that exist in the back of our minds, let me digress slightly. I recently read a book by one of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, Bedlam. Without spoiling it for you, the plot revolves around a guy trapped in a virtual world that consists of actual representations of numerous computer games. There are many different formats of games from good old Pacman to Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty and hundreds more. Each game has multiple levels and multiple possibilities for each and every action, and whenever he is killed he respawns to start again, Groundhog Day. He knows everything around him is code, not reality, and he wants to get back, to escape to the real life he had before and that he remembers so well, in Scotland as it happens. Thing is, in order to do so he needs to learn the rules of each game/world he encounters in order to survive. They are all very different, but there are some key concepts he discovers that apply across the board. His understanding of the worlds he experiences becomes rapidly more sophisticated as he progresses through them and ultimately….. Well, let’s not spoil it.


The thing is, our ‘Situational Awareness’ as I understand it, are those complex programmes within our brains that allow us to navigate everyday life using a myriad of rules and conventions as we go. Our brain processed billions of pieces of data a second and the old grey supercomputer – I keep mine under that thick old skull of mine – monitors all this data. I suppose it is like a view from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, everything is fine until something isn’t, captain. When there is a trip in the circuits caused by some of the data not being ‘right’, a noise downstairs in the middle of the night when we are in bed. (Not you and I of course; more coffee spat out?) Then the situational awareness software kicks in and we begin to up our monitoring of what is around us. So for me it is like a backup safety system we all have built in, like a sat nav in a car and like a sat nav if the programming is ok it will do a job, but you get what you pay for and it depends how you use it, if you even remember it is there.



A) About the burnt pudding, I warned you what would happen if my wife got a camera in her hand.
B) My sci-fi geek self says ‘sounds like a cool book.’
C) I wasn’t drinking coffee that time.
D) I think you just hit on something REALLY important that is commonly overlooked about this subject.

That is before you can tell what is abnormal, you need to know what normal is – for a particular situation. And that is where most people who natter on about situational awareness join the lemming hiking club or are speaking from the wrong orifice.

When is a bump from downstairs ‘normal’? Well, when the wife and family are home, during the middle of the day. When you have workmen in your place. When you stop and think about it, we unconsciously have a long list of normal. But we don’t pay attention to them. We take them for granted. The problem is we often don’t catch on to what is specifically not normal – much less wrong – with a situation fast enough because we don’t have a conscious understanding of the environment, its rules and protocols.

Take for example walking through a door. Simple, right? Have you ever thought about what the protocol is about two people – especially strangers – trying to get through the same door? Ordinarily, it’s just simple timing. You pass through the door at different times. Where it gets interesting is when you realize you and another person are both going to arrive at the same time. When you see this, overwhelmingly, there’s a change of speed of one or both parties. Some might slow down so the other can pass through first, others speed up so they get through first. This timing game is so ingrained that we don’t even think about it, we just do it. That’s normal.

What’s not exactly ‘normal,’ but not unknown, is when someone gets real competitive and almost runs to the door to get there first. If you can avoid becoming a competitive wanker, that person just goes first. You maintain your speed and he ‘wins’ by dashing through. If you find yourself racing for the door and you can snap out of the pudpuller mindset and slow down, again the person will jet through first.
To me what is a serious danger signal is when someone isn’t just on an intercept course (hiding it as heading to the door), but the person adjusts his speed to arrive at the same time. You speed up, he speeds up. You slow down, the same. It’s not getting through the door that is the goal, it’s timing it so he can get close to you. But unless you know about the typical timing (and competitive racing) you’re going to be thinking something isn’t right, but you don’t know what is wrong. As such a person is likely to walk right into a mugging.

That’s the kind of stuff that I think is missing from most people’s definition of ‘situational awareness.’ Be aware! OF WHAT?!?  Awareness without knowledge is paranoia.


G- Exactly right. That way lies madness, burnout, the works. A really great way to test the rules is to deliberately break them. Sociology and Psychology text books are full of examples of people doing just that, often with very funny results. However, back to your example, the video of the cyclist being robbed in South Africa was on the BBC Website today. Here it is.

As you can see, it is a bit like your door analogy, there is a point where the robber begins moving quickly to a point of interception, but until he ‘becomes’ robber he is just a guy moving, maybe strangely, on the trail. I cannot judge; I do not know the trail or how people behave around there. Were this on one of my cycle rides, I would expect certain people, dog walkers, other cyclists, walkers to be in the area and how they would normally behave – here I understand the rules, the way we do things round here, the culture. In the clip, I cannot understand why he does not spin round and head off quickly, but then I know it is a robbery before I watch the clip.


Here is another thing. Reading the headline is what draws us to the story. It stimulates an expectation and feeds the imagination, priming the reader by whetting the appetite. So ‘Martial arts expert killed by muggers’ sets the agenda and is like chucking the shark bait into the water for our urban commando chums. They cannot get the cam cream on quick enough.


M- Allowing for the prepping of the viewer. Which by the way, I think is a real important point for people who #1 think Situational Awareness is so easy and #2 are so insufferably smug about having it (My SA is so good because I know this is a video of a mugging). There’s a couple of other things going here on too. I’m currently wrestling with breaking down and identifying the component parts of what constitutes situational awareness. I think a giant, gaping hole in most people’s idea is what I’ve started calling environmental knowledge. There’s more, but this is a good starting point.

First off, South Africa is a flat out dangerous place. Knowledge of that fact has to be factored in. While danger can be anywhere, in some places it’s more likely. With that in mind fringe areas are more likely to be where crimes happen. Riding on a bike trail may be a great relaxing hobby for you, but along with that needs to be awareness that you are entering into an area where robberies and attacks are a strong possibility. Okay great, but what is normal for that environment? How do people normally behave on trails? You know how things are done in Merry Olde, but while the rules might not be the same in South Africa, odds are good the robbers’ behaviors didn’t meet the local standards either.

Second, it wasn’t just a guy jumps out of the bushes and runs in an intercept course. There’s a bunch of other ‘OH HELL NO!’ signs. Let’s say it was someone who needed help. What is normal behavior from enlisting the aid from a stranger? I can pretty well guarantee you it isn’t silently, running hunched over to intercept where the person is going to be. No, that behavior is much more common for someone who wants to surprise you with unexpected proximity.

Usually people who want help are yelling, trying to attract your attention by making noise as the come directly towards you. The other thing is often people running up to you for help aren’t carrying things in their hands. Notice the stilted way the guy was running to keep his gun ready for deployment. Not a good sign when someone comes legging up to you.

Someone silently legging it in a hunched down position is pretty indicative that they don’t want to be seen. Now whether this is not being seen by someone chasing them for something (who’d you piss off, pal?) or they don’t want you to see them – that depends. Someone running from an animal runs completely differently. They don’t try to hide, they just do the flat foot floogey. Joggers run in a completely different manner – and are usually dressed differently.

Also notice how, when the cyclist stopped (and sat there like a cow awaiting slaughter) the robber changed direction to close the distance. If there was ever a time to get the hell out of dodge, that was it – even with the gun being pointed at him. Most criminals are lousy shots and it’s really easy for them to miss while you’re hightailing it out of there. What’s more important however, is even if the victim was shot once while fleeing, he had a much better chance of survival than if the guy had decided to empty the clip into him at point blank range. Which is always a possibility with a robbery.

A third goof was the victim remained focused only on the running guy. If you see a guy running out in the bush, it behooves you to look around and see what he’s running from. Gosh, it turns out there were two other guys running too. And all of them heading at the cyclist.

These are simple elements that had the rider known – but mostly starting with what is normal for a situation – he wouldn’t have just been left standing there while the robbers got up close to him and robbed him.

Now he’s lucky they were only there to rob him. But I’m going to plant a seed now. It was his behavior during the robbery that kept him from getting killed. They were there for the goods, let them have them and they’ll leave you once they’ve achieved their goals. The gun scared the cyclist enough that he didn’t do anything stupid. Yes, he was unarmed and unaware. Yes, he rode into an ambush. Yes, he stayed there while the robbery developed, but then – given these conditions – he didn’t do anything to add to the stupidity collection.

G- Agreed without doubt. There are times when I get that hair starting to bristle on the back of the neck feeling, I am fine tuned to the environment I live in and the environments I move between. If I move out of my known environments I try to learn very quickly as much as I can about the ones I am now in and the one I may be going to. So our point of entry was a guy on his home turf and it looks like he was hit without warning in an environment he was, it seems, quite comfortable in. In fact we can assume, (danger signs flashing here), that he was very comfortable being immersed in the world of martial arts, self defence and street fighting as he was. A bit like Al Pacino’s character at the end of the classic Carlito’s Way.


The second of our entries from South Africa tonight gave us more of a visual element – and yes, the alarm bells should have been ringing, but they either did not ring loud enough or were heard and ignored. We could guess all night. The thing is that these little incidents will be repeated a million times and then some, despite the speed with which the news of them spreads, because whilst we think the lessons are clear, there are others seeing the same things with different filters. Our own beliefs and expectations prime us to see the stories we expect to see. Those who over-analyse situational awareness and attribute it some kind of superpower status will remain trapped, victims of their own perceptions. For me, the emphasis should be on working out what is normal and being able to spot the abnormal, and understanding how these two coexist all around us.


M- Exactly, but I’m going to throw another log on the fire with that idea. We can speculate that the bicyclist fell into the situation because he didn’t expect it to happen. He just assumed safety in his activities and as such, wasn’t able to shift mental gears fast enough or to recognize the approaching danger.

Where I have serious problems is with what the so-called self-defense expert and trained street fighter was doing. There’s a common problem I’ve noticed among people who think they know some kind of self-defense or ultimate fighting system, and that is over confidence. This to the point of doing a whole bunch of stupid mistakes while thinking their awesome badassery from training in some system means they can pull it out of the fire. This is NOT a good attitude to have after you’ve pulled a string of stupids.

In many cases – especially with that growing attitude – it’s getting to the point of having no training is better than having limited training that encourages you to think you can knock bullets out of the air with your dick. If you Google MMA fighter shot and killed, you get entirely too many hits. Read the stories and you find out that often the guy put himself into a situation where someone with no training would have turned and run.

So let’s talk about overconfidence and what you said about beliefs and expectations.


G- As usual you are right on the button, it is something that really worries me about the whole martial arts, self defence and MMA scene, the fact that somewhere along the way the whole thing gets conflated to street fighting. One of the basic claims on most practitioners marketing is around gaining confidence, cool, but in what way. If by practicing Ju Jitsu, like I do for instance, you learn new skills, interact with new and interesting people, develop a shared interest etc etc, this can all lead to an increased personal confidence. Without said training, a normal level of awareness and self-presentation should be there instead of some potentially dangerous overconfidence. The problem with the new dick swinger is that it is mostly based on a whole host of now internalised half-truths, unrealistic techniques and film set fantasies, one dangerous cocktail.


When the now ‘trained’ martial artist steps out of the dojo, sensei is not there to hold his hand and tell the bad guy when and how to attack. There is no transition from the interesting and challenging arena of the mat to the hard school of the pavement arena. Your black belt does not make you a street fighter, nothing like. Your self defence class is not real. It is a class, remember? You go up against the real deal and it can hurt like hell even if you win – and odds are you will not. The apprenticeship for this shit does not exist. And get this, most of your trainers and coaches have never been in a real fight themselves and if they have, it will be very few indeed. I try to explain this to everybody I work with because having spent time in the world of pain I know that overconfidence will get you hurt, sometimes badly, because believing you can fight after a few classes or many will take you one step closer to choosing fighting as your strategy. Worse still, your cool new invisible protection, remember the emperor’s new clothes, will mean you can chill and relax and miss the obvious threat. You may be dead before you get chance to get your dick out.


So what do our dojo warriors do to bridge the gulf between mat and street, can they even do this?


M- That apprenticeship is something I’ve been wrestling with and talking with people about lately. I’m trying to get my mind around something really big. Like it’s an elephant in the room but most people talking about this subject really seem unable to see it. They’re not pretending, they honestly don’t see it.

There’s a huge disconnect that I largely suspect comes from our belief that ‘Only stupid people do violence.’ And if a stupid person can do it, I can do it better. I’ve heard it postulated that this might come from moving away from blue collar to white collar employment. Working in blue collar jobs, there was the assumption of apprenticeship, journeyman, etc. There was the acceptance of – not necessarily on the job training – but ‘Okay, you’re out of high school, but you still have to do supervised time with someone who knows what they’re doing so you can learn all the things you didn’t learn in school and how to apply them on the job.’ In a number of serious professions this is still the case. You get a doctor who interns and does residency at hospital to learn how to function on the stress and strain of live fire medicine. You have recruits spending time with Field Training Officers so they can watch, learn model behavior and learn to think on their feet. (Okay, how do you handle a 350 pound naked broad higher than a kite who wants to have sex with you right then and there?) Medics and EMTs too. You ride along with an experienced partner until you learn how to keep it together. Most importantly, how to function under adrenaline in a crisis.

This is totally missing from most self-defense training – even adrenal stress training. People think they can step right outside the dojo or training hall and think they can swing into action like a pro.


G- I find the idea of the 350 pound naked lady wanting me quite frightening, so stop that please…. Having practiced martial arts for some years, I started as a sceptic and am proud to still be one. I love the art of it and its practical application. In theory it is all you need, BUT, and like the 350 pound lady, it’s a big but, (boom boom), I suppose I served my apprenticeship on the street corners and in particular the football terraces and their surrounding areas learning by watching for years before I was ready to enter the fray. Then there was a clear career path for the football gang member and I followed it, until I became the fully fledged leader, time served, building a reputation and a name along the way. This gives me a foundation to measure the so called ‘reality based stuff’ against, and much of it comes up short. As for many of the techniques and the art side of things, well, we do not need to go there. Thing is the fighting bit is only a small part of it. It is the rest of the rules of violence that are really complicated and take the most time to learn. Would I regard myself as a pro now? Not really, more nearing the end of a damn long apprenticeship and learning all the time.


M- Well, see that’s part of the problem here. If the reports are correct of the guy wearing head phones as he walked that’s a stepping on your dick, complete amateur mistake to make. But how much of him deciding he could get away with it stemmed from his MMA induced belief that he was some kind of Billy Bad Ass Streetfighter because he knew ____ (Fill in the blank). It’s not just the paper calling him that, but what are the odds that’s a truly promoted attitude in the gym? That because you train here you can kick ass?

Well, except a robber is NOT there to fight you. It’s a completely different brand of violence. And the fastest way I know how to get killed is to try to fight someone with a weapon. Yet that is what these training fantasies … I mean programs, teach and encourage people to do. They take a very specialized flavor of violence and sell it as covering ALL kinds of violence. Hey, because it works in the gym against my friends who don’t want to hurt me or me them, it should work in the street, right? Right?

No, that is a dangerous misconception. Social fighting between friends over disputes is entirely different than facing a mugger and that’s totally different than handling a mob. It sure as hell doesn’t prepare you to be a bouncer, cop or military. But that is what is being sold to people by these programs. It’s not just a lack of an internship, it’s they aren’t even being told there’s holes in their training. They’re being told this prepares them for anything and everything. That is a dangerous lie.


G- So where we came in was situational awareness and the blame game being played by the internet commando community. The same community that will also buy the myths and the fast track to pro systems, no apprenticeship necessary, that proliferate out there. YouTube is full of the most awful examples and with no reality to ground them the fantasists gobble them up and swallow them whole. Unfortunately we can expect the sad situation we started with to be repeated many times over until people realise the technical bit about fighting is only a small proportion of a much bigger and much more complex whole. I spent part of today reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. (It is in our CRGI bookstore.) It is a huge volume that will take me days to get through, weeks and longer to think about, and that is only part of the supplementary process. When the training session stops and it’s time for home, then it is time to learn lots of the stuff your sensei never told you. In the words of a Jayne County and the Electric Chairs song, ‘Things your mother never told you, you have to find out for yourself’. To all those reading this conversation, autodidactism is probably already a habit. It needs to be along with observation and a whole lot more skills you will not learn outside the dojo. Any final comments, Marc?


M- Well, I think it’s important that people realize how much of what they are being trained in is market driven, not how violence happens driven. It’s people who walk into a school with money in their hand and say ‘teach me about self-defense.’ Then when someone legitimately tries to convey how complicated and situationally dependent the subject is, those people say ‘That’s not self-defense. I want to learn REAL self-defense.’ When you ask them what they think that means, they basically tell you about winning a high school fight on steroids. Add to that, especially in the MMA, streetfighting and ‘reality based self-defense’ crowds, the attitude is that learning about legal use of force is for pussies. As for stuff you can do to avoid having to use force? Pfffft who’s got time for that panty waist stuff. Real men can whip it out and beat Godzilla to death with their mighty penis… that’s what they want to learn how to do.

Thing is you and I both know from personal experience that the buildup and the aftermath are all part of the whole process. And how if you screw the pooch in the pre-incident part, you’re going to be sitting in a cell whining about going to prison for defending yourself. That’s IF you don’t end up dead like our master streetfighter did. I just finished writing a book titled, In the Name of Self-Defense: What It Costs, When It’s Worth It. It is a thesis on violence, self-defense and the aftermath – and I don’t teach one physical technique in the whole thing. It covers the sort of things that most self-defense instructors have no clue about. Like what are the limits of self defense, what lines – if you cross them – take it out of self defense, that there are different types of violence,  how what works in one type is a disaster in another, how to talk to cops after something happens and how to convince your own lawyer that what you did was self-defense.

This is a huge topic way beyond just what style you know. There’s a lot of skull sweat and knowledge that goes into this subject. That’s something that I hope we helped readers understand with just this one conversation.


G- Me too, I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of that either and I think the readers will benefit hugely. Well, that is all from us folks so hope you enjoyed our chat as much as we did. If you are stuck for a gift for your favourite keyboard commando look no further, here it is. He can get his mom to sew it on his combat jacket sleeve.  😉


M- I need to order a case of these. I can hand them out like candy. Or throw them like shuriken. (That’s ninja throwing stars for you all you non-ninja masters.)   😀


  1. Les Lacey

    I spend a lot of time now wanting to know and understand by using a little check list Check your sources before they get you killed.
    Check your inputs before they get you killed.
    Check your ego before it gets you killed.
    Will it work on someone who doesn’t know me?
    Will it work on someone who doesn’t like me?
    Will it work on someone who isn’t trying to make me look good?
    Thank you for your guidance Marc & Garry

  2. Les Lacey

    Hint, anybody who talks about ‘situational awareness’ without providing nuts and bolts and confirmable environmental knowledge is full of shit. Marc MacYoung

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