The British Krav Maga Association conducts regular surveys into violent crime. The statistics help us to understand what is happening on the streets of Britain and to tailor our training to meet those threats. What we know, from looking at hard evidence, is that a large percentage of people facing violence fail in their response at the level of dialogue, which is to say Pre-Fight. They are beaten by fear and an inability to transition from being a civilised human being to unleashing hell on their aggressors. There is a simple lesson here: it is not enough to know technique; you have to be able to execute that technique. Adrenal freeze awaits the ill prepared and the consequences of paralysis are dire.

In this article we will look at what Krav Maga instructor Will Bayley calls the Two Thresholds to Violent Action. We will build upon the Fence and attempt to give you a framework to understand and manage the transition between civilised behaviour and violent action. This is a bedrock of self defence.

Rory Miller, one of the best contemporary writers on the subject of real world violence.

Rory Miller, one of the best contemporary writers on the subject of real world violence.

Social Violence

Social Violence makes up the vast majority of violence in most people’s experience. As notable writer Rory Miller calls it, Social Violence is the Monkey Dance. It’s primate behaviour. It’s also distinctly different from Predatory Violence. Social Violence is about increasing social status by beating down or backing down another human. Predatory Violence is about taking something you want from another human. Social is typified by an approach, aggressive dialogue and posturing, escalation and probable physical conflict. Predatory is typified by victim selection, stalking and then a sudden, intensely violent blitz attack that the victim usually will not see coming.

In this article we are primarily concerned with Social Violence. To explain the theories here clearly, we’ll imagine a scene.

Stage 1: The Challenge

You are in a bar, sitting with friends. Across the room, at another table, two men are drinking. One makes eye contact with you. Unaware of the consequences, you maintain the eye contact for a little too long and then return to your conversation with your friends. Later, you get up to visit the toilet. On the way you bump into a man. You don’t realise it, but it’s the man from the table across from you. The man reacts angrily, telling you to watch where you’re going. You apologise. The man hurls some abuse at you and you walk away. The situation ends.

In this scene a challenge was laid down, whether or not you realised it. Often, in the Monkey Dance, it’s enough that you back down. Animals are evolved for conflict like this. It’s hard wired into the DNA. It’s not a survival advantage to have constant infighting that results in injury, so most animals will bark or growl and posture and one of them will back down with no injury to either party.

But what if the guy isn’t satisfied with your reaction? What if he wants violence? He’ll escalate. You can escalate too, of course, by issuing any challenge, verbal or postural.

Stage 2: Escalation

The man steps in. Distance is reduced to 18 inches or less. There may be physical contact of the chest, head to head, or aggressive shoves with the hands. It is vital at this stage to control the distance between you and your attacker. The hands must come up into The Fence. Your hands must rise to be between you and your aggressor. You should do this in a natural, conversational way, such that it does not cause escalation. However you do it, your hands should be in position to stop an attack reaching you and also to launch an attack, should you feel it necessary.

At this stage, here are some key points:

1. The vast majority of assaults in the UK begin with an overhand right punch, or Haymaker.

2. In the vast majority of fights, the person who hits first wins. This is especially true if you face multiple opponents. If you do not hit first you are facing terrible odds.

3. UK law does not prohibit ‘first-strike’ or pre-emptive striking. You ARE allowed by law to hit first if you ‘have the honest belief that you are about to be assaulted.’

Of course there are ethical considerations to hitting first. You must believe that there are no other options. You must leave your ego out of it and look for any way to de-escalate. You have a moral duty to avoid violence where possible and most cases of social violence can be avoided simply by being aware. When the eye contact challenge occurred you could have stood up and left the bar. Violence is a last resort, but if you must fight, you must go first and hard and mean to win. This is the most vital principle of Krav Maga.

The good news is that the techniques necessary to put an attacker down are simple to learn. All you need is a good stance and some strong, straight punches. But you must control the situation, and your fear, to ensure you fire first and do not freeze.

Your biggest opponent, your biggest threat comes from your own endocrine system. It’s called adrenaline. Fail to manage your own mental and physical state and you risk a dump of adrenaline hitting your blood and the dreaded adrenal freeze that will destroy years of training in a mere second.

This is where the two thresholds comes into play.

Geoff Thompson, the man who brought the Fence into modern self defence.

Threshold 1: The Adrenal Threshold.

An attacker engages you. There is dialogue. There is posturing. You spilt my drink. You cut me up on that roundabout. You were staring at me. You put up your fence and begin a counter dialogue, attempting to de-escalate the situation. You swallow your ego and apologise for whatever affront you are supposed to have caused. You offer to buy another drink. Whatever method you choose, you control your distance with a subtle but functional fence and you attempt to talk the situation down.

At some point, adrenaline may rise in you. You may become increasingly and rapidly more fearful. You may feel control slipping away. Adrenal freeze comes during times of inaction. If you don’t take action when you feel yourself becoming extremely adrenalised, you risk freezing and taking no action. Such paralysis can and does result in attack, defeat, hospitalisation and death.

The point at which you cannot effectively speak and think about responses or arguments, the point at which the adrenaline or the ‘fear’ becomes too much, this is the first threshold, the Adrenal Threshold. Past this point, you should do the following:

1. Stop engaging in dialogue. Stop listening to the dialogue. Continuing to engage will occupy your already overloaded higher cortex and risks shutting you down. Attackers know this experientially. It’s a common strategy. Disengage from it. Shut it out. You tried de-escalation and it didn’t work. Anything else the attacker has to say is irrelevant.

2. Revert to the Broken Record drill, a drill taught to British Krav Maga practitioners at P1 level. This means maintaining a fence, using the hands to firmly push away the aggressor and backing up the movements with a loud “BACK AWAY”. This instruction is repeated as many times as necessary, or until the second threshold is reached.

It is important to understand that the Back Away drill, or Broken Record drill is a mainstay of self defence training. By learning a set pattern of behaviour – fence, pushing, loud verbals, pre-emptive striking – we have something to fall back on when we are under intense stress. There is no need for thought. We train it in over many months of scenarios and role plays. It should be second nature. When the fear hits, fall back on the familiar. Train hard, fight easy. And no matter what nonsense is coming out of the aggressor’s mouth, the response is the same. Back away! A few warnings and then a pre-emptive shot that ends the situation.

Threshold 2: Threat Recognition.

The Second Threshold is set by threat recognition. It is the point at which you launch your pre-emptive strike. To restate, it is the moment at which you escalate to violence, pre-emptively using violence to stop your attacker. Morally and legally, you must only do this when you have the honest belief that you are about to be assaulted and a failure to act will result in you, or another party, being attacked, hurt or killed.

You cross the second threshold, simply, when the threat reaches the point where if you do not act immediately, you risk attack, harm and injury. There are many things that would take you over this threshold and these are things best learned under an instructor, with visual and experiential practice, but some of them are listed here for example:

  • Attacker shows signs of imminent attack – forward movement increased to chest bumping or head contact. Language diminishing to single syllables – “Yeah? Yeah?”
  • A second attacker is moving to your flank.
  • A hand disappears into a pocket – think weapon. In the UK, a knife. In the US, potentially a firearm.

Whatever the trigger, the Second Threshold is your Go point. You should be trained and prepared to take this step. If you doubt your confidence and ability to do this, the best thing you can do is engage in training. The very core of Krav Maga training, its very methodology, is simple technique, aggressive forward movement, and overwhelming combative attack. Your Krav Maga instructor will be able to guide you through this process, teach you an effective fence and give you the practice you need to make these methodologies work for you.

To summarise:

  • You should always be aware. Awareness makes it possible, often, to see a situation an hour before it occurs. Violence professionals such as security personnel and Door Supervisors will tell you that they can see the potential for violence in a person a long time before it bubbles to the surface. A good professional will confront it and stop it before this happens.
  • If awareness does not keep you from attack, you should, where the level of threat and your own fear level make it appropriate, attempt to de-escalate.
  • If your fear level is too high, do not engage in dialogue or reason. You are already in conflict. Fall back on the Krav Maga drills. They will give you a place of familiarity from which to engage and transition to violence.
  • When the threat level is such that you believe an assault is imminent and unavoidable, you should initiate the attack.
  • Your attack should be sudden, committed and overwhelming.
  • The same elements that trigger the Second Threshold – the signs that an attack is coming – are the same elements that form your moral and legal justification for use of force. Learn them well – they are critical to any training in self defence.
  • Seek out good training from a credible instructor. Ensure that your practice includes not just techniques, but the process of threat escalation and adrenalisation.
  • You can’t learn to swim without going in the water. A good instructor will train you through this process in a professional, constructive and safe manner.
  • Si vis pacem, para bellum. The better prepared you are for violence, the less likely the need to use it. The animals of our society can sense fear and also strength of will.

Finally, from Rory Miller:

“It is better to avoid than to run, better to run than to de-escalate, better to de-escalate than to fight, better to fight than to die.”


Will Bayley, BKMA Graduate Instructor, Krav Maga Swindon, Krav Maga North Bristol, Bristol University Krav Maga Society

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