Blog Rewind: The importance of recognition over situational awareness

By: Joshua Gideon

Way back in November of 2013 I wrote a blog article entitled, “Even the Pros get Amushed.” ( In that article I identified the shortfalls of awareness and stressed the need for counter ambush training.  I pointed out that in the real world, when the proverbial rubber meets the road, even the Pros who have significantly more training and practice could still be ambushed. With that background knowledge, I would like to now shift your attention to what is commonly referred to as “situational awareness.” For a few moments, let’s dig a bit into some of the shortfalls of typical awareness training and allow me to propose a different approach that has been proven to work in the real world.

To begin, we have to acknowledge that at the simplest level there are two distinct types of attacks. One is the attack we see coming and the other is the attack we didn’t see coming (aka. Ambush). Simple, right? As I have said before, I promote teaching a counter-ambush method as the first course for any defensive firearms students. My logic behind that is if you haven’t been trained to recognize attacks well in advance, or you are distracted and caught unaware, you are most likely going to be ambushed. I want to train you to survive that worst-case ambush scenario first. Once that knowledge and skill set is developed, you can then move to learning how to recognize threats and attacks.

I use the word recognize very deliberately. I am afraid too many traditional instructors speak of “Situational Awareness” and follow it with catchy phrases like, “Keep your head on a swivel” but never really spend time breaking down what you should be doing. We sure spend a lot of time on the philosophy behind it but not a lot of time on the application of it. If you are always supposed to be in condition “Oh no something bad may happen to me!” how can you possibly “take time to smell the roses?” Or is that just something we as Jedi Masters must sacrifice? I would like to propose a different approach that focuses on recognizing threats and pre-attack indicators and turning them on and off at appropriate times.

Recent scientific research has proven that humans are not able to “multi-task” as we once believed. ( In fact, when we try to do this we are typically more error prone and tend to take longer to complete tasks. The reality is that humans are capable of switch-tasking not multi-tasking. In other words, we can only do one thing at a time. Switch-Taskers are able to pause during a task, work on another task, and return to the previous task without starting over. Some of us are indeed better than others, but it is important to note that what we once thought happened as an endless glowing bulb is actually interrupted by our brain turning on and off the light switch. When it comes to complex recognition skills, our brain must do the same thing as it transitions from engaging your lovely significant other in meaningful conversation in a restaurant to evaluating the threat of the guy that just walked in the door of the restaurant. The main point is that with our current scientific understanding of human brain, we can’t possibly be multi-tasking our threat awareness.

The term “situational awareness” has been misused and misapplied by Instructors in the firearms and martial arts industry so often that it may be a lost cause to try to correct its original intended meaning. Awareness is a constant on thing (you even have some awareness in your sleep). Think of awareness as having multiple sensors all working together to feed information to a computer which sorts the information until it recognizes a pattern. Just because the sensors are on doesn’t mean the computer is always recognizing what they all mean when they are being received or after they are put together. Furthermore, sometimes the computer gets distracted or deliberately ignores some of the sensors. Even then when it does recognize it may chose not to act. Or in the event of a startle response reflex, it may respond before it fully recognizes all the data it has been given. Isn’t our brain an amazing thing?

In one way, the recognition of a threat or attack is indeed situational and a product of portions of awareness. Unfortunately I don’t believe the term is complete and will ever be understood for its original intended purpose. If these decisions were up to me, I would squash the term “Situational Awareness” and replace it with “Threat Awareness” and define it as “The conscious effort of observation and recognition of threats that may lead to an attack.”

If we can keep the term “Threat Awareness” as defined and in context, we can begin looking into what can keep us from ambush situations. Simply we can look beyond the ambush and develop our skills to observe and recognize Pre-Attack Indicators, identify Overt & Covert threat displays, recognize violent crime as it is developing in front of you, etc. These are real skills we need that could help us to avoid conflict altogether.

The professionals such as the Secret Service and Dignitary protection agents do not use Jedi mind tricks to keep the worlds dignitaries and VIP’s safe. That industry does it through the application of threat and attack recognition skills combined with the acceptance and preparedness for the worst-case ambush situation. Instead of relying on catchy phrases or misunderstood objectives of certain words, lets focus on learning the pieces of Threat Awareness so that we might have the skills to detect and hopefully deter an attack. The fight you avoid is a fight you won.

If you want to develop your recognition skills so you can intercept an attack before it becomes an ambush, I recommend starting by creating a basic risk assessment of your typical day. Follow that up by putting Threat Mitigation strategies in place to lower the risk. Next, get training to give you the skills to identify threats, pre-attack indicators and other queues that an attacker may use against you. Add to that some skill development in Counter Surveillance and Surveillance Detection as well as how to blend into your environment (grey man), and you will be well prepared to cut off many attacks before they even occur.

Thank you for reading my blog! If you want to learn more, check out my Amazon Author Page here: You can purchase my books in Paperback and Digital Formal. Check out my book “Praying Safe” today!