Am I Ready to Defend Myself? Part 2: Self-Defense

By Neal Adam, PhD
Professor, College of Science, Engineering and Technology

girl putting up her fists

At the end of August, Grand Canyon University Public Safety Officer Ryan Sand gave a presentation to our College of Science, Engineering and Technology faculty on Active Shooter awareness. The presentation covered several topics, including a procedure to follow when an active shooter alarm is given, what to do when a student is belligerent, a reminder to always be aware of exits and even a refresher on the use of a fire extinguisher. 

I was most interested in the discussion of awareness. Hanson (2015) discusses the importance of awareness in both his former occupation as a CIA spy, as well as in normal everyday situations in your neighborhood and workplace. This involves not only being aware of who is around you, but also making it obvious that you are aware. Walking with your head up (awareness and a confident appearance), looking around and even making eye contact with people can go a long way in preventing difficulty.

Fairburn (2010) has reproduced Cooper’s Colors in his article, which are a method of assessing awareness. Cooper identified four levels of awareness, and assigned a color to each of them.

White: You are relaxed and not paying attention to your surroundings.

Some examples might be a student walking down the sidewalk texting or talking on the phone, or walking or jogging with earbuds. Another example might be a professor who is lecturing, but not aware of how his students are responding, or he is turned around writing on the whiteboard. Or even sitting at a computer writing a blog! This is the condition that many of us are in, but also the condition we should avoid.

Yellow: You are still relaxed, but are noticing who and what is around you. 

This person is looking around and listening, and notices that someone coming up behind is just a skateboarder or that the person ahead has just gone through a doorway. The professor has noticed a hand raised or even a confused look on a student’s face. Because this person is practicing awareness, they are also more likely to have an erect/alert posture. People displaying these two characteristics are less likely to be attacked. These people are also more likely to notice something unusual and will easily transition to level orange.

Orange: The person at level orange has noticed something of interest or something that is unusual.

An example would be someone seeming to be in the wrong environment or someone who is watching them a little too closely. Or, an unrecognized person has entered the classroom, and the professor is uncertain whether the person is a peer-reviewer, a student’s parent or someone else.

Red: You have perceived a threat or threatening situation.

A person in condition red has noticed a stranger in the vicinity who is acting oddly or appears to be carrying something odd. Maybe a professor has noticed a stranger in the classroom, and that stranger is carrying an unidentified object or has unusual behavior.

If we are aware, we have greater opportunity of recognizing such a situation and responding appropriately to a given situation.

What to do in an Emergency

Now, suppose we are aware that a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation exists. What are the appropriate safety responses?

Officer Sand addressed this as well. Run and Hide are first on the list, if they are possible, because they are the safest thing to do. Also, contact Public Safety (if you are a GCU student, enter 602-639-8100 into your emergency contacts for the fastest response. From landline, 8-911 goes to GCU Police Communications Center. From a cell phone, 911 goes to any of several City of Phoenix dispatch locations and eventually back to GCU).

When the Run and Hide option is not available, then we need to look at further appropriate strategies. If we have practiced condition yellow, we should have a good idea as to what strategies are available to us. Being prepared to defend ourselves is a strategy that may become necessary.


A few weeks ago, several faculty members from the College of Science, Engineering and Technology participated in a workshop with Officer Sand and his GCU police and Public Safety colleagues, some of whom were Public Safety Academy recruits. Mark Wireman, DC describes his impression of the training session in his blog, “Am I Ready to Defend Myself? Part 1.”

Officer Sand taught us simple, effective strikes on striking pads, as well as on “Bob.” Bob is essentially a punching bag in the shape of a man’s head and torso. Poor Bob doesn’t have any arms, but he is fun to punch, and he doesn’t complain about excessive contact. This provides an opportunity to work on targeting on something with reasonable proportions (without the arms) and similar angles; for example, the head is smaller than the shoulders and the chin sticks out. Effective strikes and appropriate targets were emphasized in this part of the session.


Finally, we had a chance at The Red Man. In this drill, one of Officer Sand’s assistants dressed up in “the pads,” and our scenario was that he was a terrorist or some other aggressor already in the classroom. We were to enter the classroom, run at him and attack him with strikes and so on.  If an observer were watching either this or our work with Bob, he would have seen that while we were doing the drills, most of us were concentrating on doing it correctly, getting the strikes right and even not falling down on the slippery floor.

Then, one of Officer Sand’s recruits came in for his trial run at Red Man. He looked and acted really intense! I thought, “Better watch this guy – he’s got some real anger issues…”

However, according to Miller (2008), he was demonstrating a better attitude than we were. We were operating in more of a “learner” mode – that is, a bit too thoughtful and hesitant. His attitude was more in line with handling a problem and disposing of it.


Fighting Fair

In his book, Miller (2008) discusses types of violent criminals, and his description of “predators” and their mentality can at least partially be used to describe the others as well. Most normal, civilized people are at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with this type of individual because we tend to think that that will never happen to us. Also, and this is usually the case even for martial artists and MMA fighters, the tendency is to assume the other guy will play fair – that there is some universally known concept of fair, such as “you can’t kick someone when he’s down.”

That is the way WE see the world. In addition, martial artists and MMA fighters are used to an attack-assess-attack pattern. Bruce Lee recommended this strategy as well (Hyams 1982).  Fighters in a controlled situation may even break off for a mutual breather.

However, predators do not operate with these constraints. They are the predator, and you are simply a piece of meat, to be obtained in the easiest and least risky way possible. From that mindset, surprise attacks are not unfair – they are smart.

To complicate matters, many people, including martial artists, tournament fighters and police officers, tend to freeze as a result of what Miller calls the “hormone dump” when they are attacked by surprise (this is more extreme than what Dr. Wireman refers to in his blog!). This gives the predator time to cause a lot of damage, especially if he is carrying a weapon.  An additional problem most of us have is that we are just not mentally or emotionally prepared to inflict extreme damage on another person, even if they are attacking us. However, if we are aware of our tendencies and disadvantages in these areas, we have the opportunity to work to fix them.

Staying Safe

The best thing we can do is to avoid being a victim by being aware and observant, hopefully preventing a situation or at least giving ourselves the most options, including running away.  After all, Proverbs 22:3 says, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.”

The next step would be to be physically prepared in case that strategy is not successful. This could mean getting some self-defense training such as that provided by Officer Ryan Sand and his crew, which I highly recommend. It certainly means being emotionally prepared to deal with what could possibly happen if such a situation was to arise and what your response should be.

What are you willing to do?

I encourage GCU students to speak with our Department of Public Safety about taking self-defense classes or getting more information about how to stay safe on and off campus. Students can speak with Public Safety Officer Ryan Sand for more information. 

GCU is committed to creating a safe campus community for all students, faculty, staff and visitors to enjoy. To learn more about our university, visit our website or contact us using the Request More Information button at the top of the page.


  • Fairburn, Richard (2010) Cooper’s colors: a simple system for situational awareness. Retrieved Nov. 6, 2016.
  • Hanson, Jason (2015) Spy secrets that can save your life. Tarcher Perigree, Penguin Random House, New York, NY.
  • Hyams, Joe (1982) Zen in the Martial Arts. Bantam Books, New York, NY.
  • Miller, Rory (2008) Meditations on violence: A comparison of martial arts training & real world violence. YMAA Publication Center, Boston, Mass. USA.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

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