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Spotting an Adversary’s Tell

by Lawrence A. Kane, April 27, 2009

Lawrence A. Kane supervises employees who provide security and oversee fan safety during college and professional football games at a Pac-10 stadium near Seattle, Washington. This job has given him a unique opportunity to appreciate violence in all forms. Along with his crew, he has witnessed, interceded in, stopped, or prevented hundreds of fights. He has also worked closely with the campus police and state patrol officers who are assigned to the stadium. Here is what he says about aggressive behavior as well as the escalation process that precedes violence in crowd control situations.

In more than twenty years of working stadium security I have witnessed, interceded in, stopped, or prevented well over 300 fights. Yet in all that time I have only been sucker-punched once. I didn’t like it much, but obviously I’ve managed to avoid repeating that mistake by taking it upon myself to pay close attention and learn from the behavior that precedes violence.

While it often seems that way to victims, violence really doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is always some type of escalation process beforehand. While it may be a long, drawn out confrontation that builds up to the point of attack, it could just as easily appear to be a sudden ambush. In such situations, the escalation may have taken place within the mind of the aggressor. An astute observer can identify and react to cues, such as an adversary’s adrenal twitch, that precedes his attack. Unfortunately if you do not spot these indicators, or tells in common self-defense parlance, you are bound to get hurt.

Spotting an adversary’s tell directly requires that you notice very small physical movements, such as signals of the other guy’s intent to attack. These indicators are often subtle, and easy to miss, particularly when you are distracted or mentally unfocused. For example, the tell might be a slight drop of the shoulder, a tensing of the neck, a flaring of the nostrils, or even a puckering of the lips. On the other hand, changes in an opponent’s energy are much easier to spot then any specific physical sign. Any change of energy should be treated as a danger signal. Here are some examples that you can recognize and act on during a confrontation:

  • A person who was standing still moves slightly. A weight shift is far subtler than a step, but this change is a possible preparation for attack.
  • There is a change in the rate, tone, pitch, or volume of a person’s voice. An overt example is when someone who is shouting becomes suddenly quiet or, conversely, one who has been quiet suddenly raises his voice.
  • A person who was looking at you suddenly looks away or, conversely, a person who was looking away suddenly makes eye contact.
  • There is a sudden change in the person’s breathing. Untrained adversaries will begin to breathe shallow and fast in the upper chest while trained opponents will breathe slow and deep from their abdomen.
  • A person develops a sudden pallor or flushing of his face (adrenaline-induced vasoconstriction).
  • There is a change in the person’s posture. Untrained adversaries tend to “puff up,” opening their chest and arching their spine. Trained opponents tend to close down their chest, straighten their spine, and lower their center of gravity.

Regrettably, most people are not mentally prepared for sudden violence. Even when sucker-punched, most victims report seeing the blow just before it lands. Those who fail to recognize these signs or wait too long to take action on them can be needlessly hurt or even killed. It does not matter why you are being attacked, simply that you are in danger. Do not deny what is happening, recognize the change of energy that constitutes your adversary’s tell, and respond appropriately to defend yourself. Worry about making sense of the encounter once it is over and you are safe.

Since 1970, Lawrence Kane has studied and taught traditional Asian martial arts, medieval European combat, and modern close-quarter weapon techniques. Working stadium security part-time over 26 years he was involved in hundreds of violent altercations, but got paid to watch football. A world-renown judicious use-of-force expert, he was once interviewed in English by a reporter from a Swiss magazine for an article that was published in French, and finds that oddly amusing. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA. Lawrence lives in Seattle, WA.



COMMENTS

I found that this article supports theories I have always held.

The ability to "read" body language during a confrontation that will usally have chaos happening all around it can be the difference in the quality of life you live after the encounter.

I found this to be true in the streets of NYC.



We have a saying in my old neiborhood
"You don't get scars on your face going to church"
Tony Velez – May 5, 2009, 10:19 am
This was a great article. The key for me was the need to stay focused--externally. The individual "tells" are very helpful. Keep alert, stay alive!
James Clingan – May 20, 2009, 6:13 pm
Sgt. Rory Miller wrote in his book, Meditations On Violence, that the processional order of "confrontation" ideally works in such an array as Avoid > Run > De-escalate > Fight > Die. This article tends to support his writings.
Nguyen Ai – May 24, 2009, 8:29 pm



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