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Real Life Stories – Adam Shadbolt

July 17, 2012

Well. I’m back. Twelve months on the other side of the planet has come to an inevitable end, and I have returned to the green and pleasant shores of England. I expected more culture shock, to find those quaint English people odd after so long doing things the Chinese way, but in fact I’ve been taken aback by, well, how normal it all is.

It’s like I never left; I actually have to concentrate to remember the last twelve months happened at all. My brain’s decided that the past year was so different, so out of sync with what it knows about life that it’s just switched it off, stored it away in a cupboard at the back and hung a ‘does not compute’ sign on the door.

As a result, I have very little this week in the way of interesting personal anecdotes or wit & wisdom to share with you, so am relying on somebody else to do it for me. Enter Adam Shadbolt, an old Taijutsu student of mine and a story he has given me for this blog:

“A group of us were walking home from a fireworks display when we approached a group of drunk young men. We hung back to avoid them, slowing down a lot and not wanting to try and cross the busy road we were on.

Gradually the group disbanded, and all that were left were two men who were distracted by playing with the shiny traffic cone they had liberated from its roadside habitat. Given the improved odds, we tried to walk past, only for one of our group to be accosted by one of the men. The following conversation took place:

Cone man 1: “You G, mate?” (positioning himself in our way)

Friend: “G?” (stepping back slightly)

Cone man 1: “You gansta mate?”

Friend: “No I’m not-“

Cone man 1: “What are you then?”

Friend: “I’m a nice guy.”

Cone man 1: “’cause if you thought you were G we’d have a problem”

Friend: “It’s a good thing I don’t then.”

This is the last thing that is said before Cone Man 1 punches my friend in the face. He falls to the floor; Cone Man 2 promptly turns and hits my other friend across the jaw. He also falls to the ground, but cracks his head and falls unconscious. The two men casually wander off. While the conversation was going on I froze up and found myself unable to act in any way until the two men had gone”

Not very much fun for the poor lads involved, but a very common way to be introduced to random acts of violence. Well, apparently random, but not really. Any time you enter into a dialogue with a drunk stranger who is clearly posturing and trying to intimidate you, you are tempting fate. Trying to be clever will make things worse. This guy may have intended to hit you all along, but you just gave him a reason.

That being said, it’s an easy mistake to make and one I also made many years ago, which played out almost identically to this and ended almost identically. Random acts of violence are, almost always, not.

But what I found interesting about this story was the last sentence: ‘I froze’.

The freeze. Everybody, no matter how tough or experienced, has encountered a freeze at some point in their career of violence. It’s unavoidable, but learning to manage it can mean the difference between life and death.

For those of us who don’t live in the professional world of violence (on either side of the law), the freeze plays out pretty much as described by Adam in the passage above. A strange sense of calmness, an inability to react or respond to what is happening, sometimes a lack of comprehension until it’s all over (usually only seconds after it began).

So why? Why do our bodies, which are normally so well designed to keep us alive, do this to us? Well, fear is not an emotion, or a choice, it’s a hard wired response to a perceived threat. It lives very deep in the brain, has been with us since long before we climbed down from the trees, is not under our control and is very, very good at keeping us alive.

In ‘How Not to Get Hit’ I delve in to how, and why, panic and fear work in greater detail but here, I want to focus on one thing – and that’s your heartbeat. You see, once you do enter in to a highly stressed state, causing an adrenal response, your heartbeat skyrockets from 70 beats per minute (bpm) to 220 bpm in half a second. This is a big deal, and comes with certain side-effects:

At 185-220 bpm, most people will go into a state of “hypervigilance,” also commonly known as the “deer in the headlights” or “brain fart mode.” It is not uncommon for a person to continue doing things that are not effective (known as a feedback loop) or to show irrational behavior such as leaving cover. This is also the state in which people find themselves in when they describe that they cannot move, yell, or scream. Once a person is caught in a state of hypervigilance, it is a downward spiral that is very tough to get out of. Once caught in a state of hypervigilance information on the threat is reduced to the brain, which leads to increased reaction time.

Darren Laur, ‘The Anatomy of Fear and How it Relates to Survival Skills Training’ (Article, 2002)

Ah clever you, well spotted – this doesn’t explain why Adam froze in the passage above, does it? To better understand that, you need to think back to my return to England and how hard it is for me to remember I’ve spent a year living, basically, on an alien world.

You are not in control of your brain, your brain is in control of you. And when something as alien as extreme violence takes place, which is so far removed from your every day experience, your brain can, simply, deny its happening. It’ll sit back, fold its’ arms, shake its head and the scene will play out like you’re watching it in a movie, right up until you get hit.

The way out? Training. In class, make role-plays as hyper real as you can; act out posturing and simulate surprise attacks. Repeat, gradually insert defences and physical responses, and practise them until they bore you silly. Then practice them some more. It’s no good relying on your conscious brain to make a decision to protect you in a high-stress situation – you need to bury that learning deep down, make it muscle memory, re-train your instinct. Only then might you act if the freeze sets in.

If you want your story to appear in this blog, email it to

Don’t forget How Not to Get Hit is now available in all good bookstores, and

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One Comment
  1. Adam Shadbolt permalink

    your first mistake was not knocking out the fool who asked if you were a gangsta before the sentence was out of his mouth…when in doubt ,knock em out! if you think someone is about to do violence to you then you should act first and crush all opposition. learn to box buddy! this peaceful message brought to you by the canadian(but british born ) Adam Shadbolt…no pussies allowed

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