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Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture
Calculated Risk

There have been a couple of threads on here which have got me thinking lately, and one of the things that I have been considering is the extent to which we minimise, or indeed take, risks, consciously.

In the past I have spent time (and I know that this will be familiar with a lot of people on here), in what I though at the time was a state of 'ready alert', but which I now think, looking back, was actually a state of paranoia.  You all know the stuff - back always to the wall in case anyone gets behind you, never drinking to excess in case you get taken unawares, always using cubicles in case anyone whips your feet out from under you and smashes your teeth out on the urinal, etc., etc.

I did however, come to realise that, while these were all useful strategies, I was applying them far too widely and in situations which simply didn't warrent them.  In short, paranoia. As Al points out in another thread, too much time spent in the Orange and Red zones is not a healthy place to be.

At that point, I made a conscious decision, to loosen up a bit and start to enjoy some of the freedoms other people appear to enjoy. And it was, I have to say liberating, although undoubtedly, more risky.

Another thing: Although never my full time job, I worked on doors for around 15 years.  In fact, right up until my children were born at which point, I just couldn't do it anymore and stopped. I was just no longer willing to put myself in that much danger, on such a regular basis, anymore. So I stopped - almost overnight

Having said that, I continue to ride a motorbike around Central London, which is probably more risky than all of the other stuff put together.

Which begs a number of questions... top of which is how do we make these judgements? and secondly, what have others done/stopped doing on a conscious level to change the degree of risk you are comfortable with?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi Gavin,

Great post! For me the key always has to be that the precautions taken are proportional to the risk.

If we a take too little precautions we are vulnerable and open to the threat i.e. the “it will never happen to me” attitude. The other extreme is the precautions taken being totally over the top i.e. the person who never leaves the house.

The fear of crime can be extremely damaging to people’s lives in and of itself.

To get things proportional we first need to accurately determine the risk. It’s only when we have done that that we can determine what actions / precautions would be proportional to that risk.

For me, the British Crime Survey can be massively useful in this regard. I’ve even called the office of national statistics before, and local police stations, and they were very helpful too.

For those who have never looked at the crime statatistics, you can break things down to an amazingly detailed level. I tend to look at the national trends, the trends in my county, and my specific council borough. For me (and my students) that tends to show that the true risk of crime is far lower than it is often perceived to be. Sensible precautions are therefore appropriate, but there is no need to fear leaving the house!

Basically people should never be “code white”, and “code yellow” is a good place to be. However, constantly treating everyone around you as a potential attacker without any basis to do so (false “code oranges”) is fatiguing and mentally not healthy.

One of the sad things about the UK media and politics is that the risk of crime is often over-exaggerated to get a story or score political points. An example was the frenzy over knife crime when statistically it was at an all time low. Being aware that person may have a knife and looking for signs of that when a person has been identified as a potential threat would seem to be very sensible. Never going out without a stab vest and “carrying” because “everyone else is” (and therefore running the risk of imprisonment in the UK) would be crossing the line into paranoia. Someone working in security wearing stab-vest would be fine in my view though.

The precautions need to be proportional to the risk … and therefore I would say the key is to objectively assess the risk. Get it wrong one way and there could be serious problems. Get it wrong the other way and the quality of life is going to be badly affected.

One of the self-protection instructors courses I have done had everyone do a personal risk assessment and that was a very useful process (found a couple of things to correct - and they were easy to correct). Assesses the risk and then take proportional measures.

I wear a seatbelt every time I drive the car … but I never wear a crash helmet :-)

All the best,


michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture


Good point. I've seen lots of people who constantly see danger lurking around every corner, beneath the bed, with every disagreement they have and in every room of the house.  Never mind that they live in a very safe community, lead upper-middle class lifestyles, don't do drugs, nor have friends involved in criminal activities. Not saying these folks aren't at risk, but compared to some who do live in dangerous neighborhoods, or work security, the risk is small.

Personally, it's a place- person thing for me. I'm always aware of my surroundings but some draw more attention than others.  For instance when I'm setting on my front porch drinking a cup of tea then I don't worry so much about the threat of danger. Unless of course my dog nudges my tea mug, then things get risky. Likewise when I walking around the small town I live in the same applies. However, I work in a large city and when I'm on the job, or else find myself in a bad part of town, or a city like Chicago, Detroit, New York, etc, then my senses grow more attuned to danger.  The same thing applies to people. If I'm talking to someone I know, or else who is pleasant and friendly then my threat indicator is clicking on low.  However it a person approaches me with one hand not visable, in an aggressive manner, or on the street with a "Yo, my man, lets talk,"  (or something similar) then my senses go on high alert. Also, when I'm out with my family my risk awareness is higher than normal.

I often think that many of the current philosophies towards self-defense are at extreme ends of the scale. You have those who stress enlightenment via martial arts but have no skills whatsoever and then there are the others who always see danger, go armed every moment of the day and are constantly seeing everyone as a potential threat. I guess its one reason why I've very selective about the people I workout with. Funny thing though, just yesterday a friend and I were having a cup of coffee in a local bookstore. My friend is also a long time fighter whose boxed semi-pro and as we were leaving this young man, dressed in black leather started eyeing us very intently, and may I add with some hostility too. Who the young man I was, I don't know. My friend and I both made brief eye contact then looked away so as to not provoke the young man, who was around the 27-30 age brackett.  Later, after thinking about it, I found the whole situation  very funny. Not to sound egotistical, but in this young man's case, he was looking for a fight/danger and almost found one.

Mike R

Al Peasland
Al Peasland's picture

Great thread guys - love this sort of topic

I may have mentioned this in another thread, but for me, one of the important parts of Awareness and measuring your personal security levels with the perceived levels of threat is Balance.

Balance is a huge part of all of our martial arts training - even when ground fighting and yet, all too often, we forget to keep that balance when we step out onto the street and start to target harden ourselves.

Balancing your awareness so that you look for Good as well as Bad, Safe as well as Dangerous, Friendly as well as Hostile, is an important part of personal security.

It helps reduce the potential for paranoia; It helps you target harden by offering you lots of positive solutions to any security risk (safe places to run to, people to ask for help, etc); And it also allows you to enjoy the fun stuff in the world around you as well as avoid the bad.

I can totally relate to Gavin's original post when he talks about, always sitting with your back to the wall and using the Urinal, etc.

I used to be terrible for this - especially when I was running nightclub doors full time.

I would always make sure I was at the head of the crowd when we ate out, so that I could choose the best seat on the table. I would always (and still do) use a cubicle instead of a urinal (although have stopped using the cubicles in the ladies since the Police warned me about that) laugh

I would always sit at the back of cinemas and always did a recce around any pub before I settled with my friends in our chosen location.

To be perfectly honest, alot of this I still do, and because I've done it for so long, it's no longer paranoia on my part - it's just Normal. But I can see how others who don't know me so well would still consider it paranoid!

However, what I found when I started to practice a more balanced approach to awareness was that I identified far more Good compared to the Bad!

Yes, I still spotted all the dangers but I started to notice alot more good stuff. And it's quite surprising just how much fun and good stuff there is in the world in comparisson to the nasty.

This then allows you to relax more and have more fun, whilst still keeping a measured and balanced level of awareness.


I still take risks - not sure how I judge what risks to take and which ones not to though.

For example, walking around the NEC in Birmingham at the annual bike show and seeing how many people had limps, wheel chairs, sticks, etc - encouraged me to sell my motorbike.

At the same time, I was still training in animal days and generally putting my good looks wink

on the line every session with some of the toughest guys I've ever trained with.

So, as my American friends might say - Go Figure!cool

We all deal with an acceptable level of risk - every single day. I guess our experience and our skill levels is what determines the level of risk we perceive it to be. Driving is a fantastic example at how, the more experienced we get, the more risks we may be prepared to take (the faster we drive, etc)

Not sure my ramblings have answered any questions - but was nice to get it off my chest


Stay Safe Everyone




Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

Some good points in there.

I do however, think the driving analogy is actually a good example of the opposite.

Rather than the more experienced drivers being prepared to take more risks (drive faster, etc), it seems to me that the opposite is true.  The more experienced you get, the more risks you perceive and the less ready you are to use things like excessive speed.  It appears to be the inexperienced drivers who are least likely to perceive the risks and so are most likely to drive dangerously.

Is that it? 

Does our extended involvement with violence and danger simply serve to highlight all the violence and danger out there?  If so, Al's point about balance is all the more pertinent.

p.s. Al, paranoid states are always perceived as 'normal' by the paranoid... smiley

Al Peasland
Al Peasland's picture

Hey Gavin -

"p.s. Al, paranoid states are always perceived as 'normal' by the paranoid..."


ha ha - I like that one :-)


What I mean't be the driving analogy was to consider your very first days learning to drive a car.

How intensely focused we are on the task in hand - just keeping the car straight - sitting on the edge of our seat - eyes wide open at the road ahead.

As we start to get to grips with the skills of driving - we star tto sit back, a little more relaxed, a little more confident and possibly cocky. Potentially taking more risks.

Agreed - as we become more profficient still, and possibly after one or two minor bumps along the way, we start to mellow and understand the risks better and so probably end up where you suggested which is to take less risks, drive at a more sensible and appropriate pace


And perhaps this is it.... the full circle

From switched on Novice (but with little experience to appreciate what to actually switch on to!!)

onto the cocky Boy Racer - no appreciation or little regard for the consequences - but with more skill in order to take more risks

finally onto the more experienced and sensible driver - aware of their limits, aware of the risks, and applying a more measured and appropriate course of action in any given situation!


winkjust more food for thought


Right, I'm off to double check the bolts on al lthe doors and windows - put my baseball bat by my bed and rig up the cctv - paranoid????? don't know what you mean  laugh

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Gavin Mulholland wrote:
Does our extended involvement with violence and danger simply serve to highlight all the violence and danger out there?  If so, Al's point about balance is all the more pertinent.

Great point and I think that’s very true. Perhaps the other side of the same issue is that our perception of the risk of violence was way greater than most peoples already, and that’s what drew us to practise the martial arts in the first place? Whether that heightened perception is “justified” or not will obviously depend upon the individual’s background and personal experience.

The person who is paranoid about violence in the first instance (with “justification” or not), and who joins a group that fully immerses themselves in “street violence”, and who then has their paranoia fuelled by the likeminded people in that group, is unlikely to benefit from that experience.

As Gavin says, I also think Al’s point about balance is very important.

Maybe one of the big positives about the other sides of martial practise (fitness, personal challenge, sport, personal development, health etc) is that it can provide that balance to the effectively dealing with violence side?

In the interests of “balance” (no pun intended) it is maybe worth mentioning that those don’t effectively address violence are being just as one-sided as those who look at nothing else. Balance is balance; it should not be used as a justification for one extreme when compared to the other. I think that sometimes happens in the martial arts.

All the best,


Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

Good point - I've never really thought of a completely rosie view of the world as paranoid before but I guess it probably is...or at least it is equally misguided - probably...

Very much like the full circle comments.

JWT's picture

Hi all,

In my late teens and early 20s I came very close to starting a few situations (and did end up in others) by being over vigilant, giving off a 'ready for violence' vibe and adopting body language that I probably though showed confidence but to others came across as a 'challenge'.

These days I'm far more relaxed.  In fact I often get surprised by meeting people in the high street or supermarket.  It's not because I'm not aware of them, I just take in the general body language of the people around me and make judgements.  If their movements aren't triggering a warning vibe, I don't focus on them so much.  I have a range of more casual body positions with fences I adopt to protect from sucker attacks if I have to pass someone closely that I'm less comfortable with.

Like Iain I use the BCS and other studies extensively.  When I lecture on self protection I talk about how low the risk of being a victim of violent crime actually is (*though it's still too high for my liking across england/wales at 13.3% for 16-24 yr old males).  I'd describe motor biking or crossing the road as more dangerous though.

I don't think it's harmful to go so far with your safety drills as Al does.  So long as he's not alienating his friends or raising his blood pressure! :)  I personally don't go that far, but I do have my own protocols (and peculiarities) that I do routinely.  I guess the point is that they should be unobtrusive and not prevent you from enjoying your life. Balance.


PASmith's picture

Also part of balance is the balance of cost vs benefit

Al's example of stopping riding a motorbike but still doing animals days for example.

Riding a motorbike is riskier than driving a car but only provides marginal benefits. Driving a car achieves the same ends (by and large).

Whereas doing animal days with Geoff T imparts massive benefits that would be hard to achieve any other way.

So a seemingly costly behaviour (letting other people hit you for fun) can still work out as worthwhile to do.

Each "behaviour" should probably be looked at on its own merits and balance of cost/benefit.

Me doing some of the behaviours described by Al and Gavin (back to the wall, checking locations out, etc) would be excessively costly for me as I'm just not at that much risk of attack. I make sure I'm aware and have a brief look round the pub but that's as much as I need to do. If, however, I worked the doors and regularly had encounters with people I might meet elsewhere I'd probably need to do such things.

Stuart Ashen
Stuart Ashen's picture

Hi guys,

I wonder how many people who train and lurk here are actually at any real risk for 99% of our time. Of course it can happen and, we hope, our training prepares us to escape before it all kicks off etc. I have to admit that I enjoy my training for as many other reasons as I do for SP and SD. Not had a real fight since I left school, and nothing since I retired from playing rugby. Long may it continue.

My risks are health issues from a stressful job (training definatly helps here), falling off a mountain (I am often in Iains back yard on the fells) and crashing my car on the journey up from Kent! My awareness is usually OK, but I am rarely out when the pubs empty and most of the time it really would be paranoid of me to keep checking reflections in shop windows etc. If I were Gavin I would stay 'liberated'. You have the experience to know when to turn on the antennae.