Defensive vs Protective:
A Matter of Mindset

The word mindset is often bandied about in combative training, though it doesn’t seem to be easily defined nor well applied in practice. We prefer the term combative intent. While most people who use the term mindset seem to be referring to a “correct” mindset, inherently the word itself is basically neutral: one can either a positive mindset or a negative mindset. Combative intent, however, implies the will or volition to carry out a combative action. Nevertheless, whether using the word mindset or intent, a rose by another name is just as sweet... The problem is not in the term itself, but in understanding what it means. And the meaning and learning the appropriate use of mindset can literally be a matter of life-or-death. In all training for real combat, the ultimate aim is to train the most effective combative intent (or mindset) possible. What that intent should be often is not clear. And a lack of clear combative intent is reflected in and by combative performance (and behavior).

And common misconception that relates directly to the lack of clarity in combative intent is seen in the common lack of a clear understanding the distinction between “defensive: and “protective.” In common use, there doesn’t appear to be much difference between “defend” and “protect,” however, in hoplological terms when speaking about combat and combative intent (mindset) there is a substantial distinction.

A common dictionary will likely provide definitions something along the following:

Defense: - “the capability or means of resisting an attack”
Protect: - “to shield from danger, injury...”

While similar, their effect on intent in training and engaging in combat is very different. And that distinction in intent is an important factor, one that literally can effect a life-or-death outcome.

Taking a closer look at the two terms and clarifying their differences, we can begin to see how they relate to differences in combative intent.

“Defense” essentially is an end in itself. An individual who is training for “defense” is literally training “to resist an attack.” Defense tends to be more reactive than pre-emptive, i.e., the defender waits for the attack and then resists it. Even in a preparatory mode, “to prepare a defense” essentially means to set up some kind of measures that will help to resist an attack when it occurs rather than stopping an attack before it occurs. Defensive preparations can range from building the walls of a castle to learning self-defense techniques to resist an attack. These all are essentially reactive in nature. For example, consider the actions that come to mind in defensive situations such as when an assailant throws a punch, thrusts with a knife, shoots a firearm, etc.: we can block and/or avoid the punch or knife thrust, find cover or concealment from the shooter, and so on. These are defensive actions. As defensive actions, none of them deal directly with the attacker’s ability to make or continue his attack. Defense as an end in itself, has the goal of keeping oneself from being harmed. If one has a successful defense, one has resisted the attacks, but has anything been done to prevent further attacks from that individual?


In training for combat, and more specifically, in training the mind for combat against an adversary with deadly intent, a defensive mindset should not be an aim. Particularly in any kind of lethal combat, the aim is not merely to survive, but to dominate... to win. In lethal combat, the only way to win is to overwhelm and defeat the adversary Defending against the adversary’s attack does not achieve that aim. Furthermore, to train for defense is to train a mindset that is at counter-purpose to defeating an enemy with lethal intent. Indeed, initiative—a word closely tied to intent, is a particularly important word in combative action. In reference to combat, the definition of “initiative” that applies is “the power or opportunity to act first.” Having the initiative is such a tremendous advantage, that it can be the key to success in combat.


As stated above, protection is a different matter from defense. Protection consists of those methods, actions, and/or materials and actions that “shield from danger or injury.” In this combat context, protection is a means rather than an end; protection can occur as part of an attack on the adversary. Armor, for example, is a material form of protection. While protective armor can be used inappropriately as defense, armor is best used as a means of protection while attacking. Historically, this is the basis of battlefield protective devices such as shields, helmets, breastplates, flak jackets, ballistic protection, and so on. Armor is not meant to be a device behind which one hides defensively.

This use of armor has been well understood and utilized on battlefields from early on. The battlefield shields and armor of most cultures were designed for protection AND mobility; mobility being absolutely necessary to carry out an attack. Indeed, on the battlefield the shield was used not only for protection against injury, but as a weapon itself. In the shield work of most cultures that utilized them, the shield is used in conjunction with a weapon to dominate and defeat the adversary. In other words, protection—armor, shields, knee and elbow pads, eyepro, etc.—is best used as a part of a dynamic offense, not as passive defense.

Defensive Response to an overhead knife strike

Likewise, protective “methods and actions” should be means of carrying the fight to the enemy. Unfortunately, too often such an action is used defensively rather than as a means of protection during an attack. Consider, for example, a “simple” defense against an overhead knife strike. Typically, the defender is taught to evade and block the strike, usually followed by grabbing the striking arm and execute some type of joint-lock that serves to further control the weapon and weapon hand of the attacker (see figs. 1-3). The principle behind this common seen type of “selfdefense” technique might be called “attack the weapon.” These types of techniques can be seen over and over again in self-defense manuals, both military and civilian. Interestingly, the concept of directly counter-attacking the attacker seems to be only rarely addressed.

As with protective materials (armor, shields, etc.) protective actions also should be considered as means rather than ends. In dealing with an assault upon oneself, protection should be merely part of the means of offensively taking out the assaulter. In the accompanying video clip we have an attacker (Hunter CS Armstrong of the ICS) using a overhead strike with a baseball bat. Here, a very different response is seen from the “defense” against the knife. The Marine being attacked (SSgt Jason Rossman an Instructor Trainer at the Marine Corps’ Martial Arts Center of Excellence - MACE) counters the attack by directly attacking the attacker, striking his throat. If he bothers with the attacker’s weapon or striking arm at all, it’s in a secondary “protective” manner that does not interfere with his directly taking care of the attacker.

While we tend to focus on the actual physical techniques in these types of combative actions, the far more important aspect is the intent, or mindset. The defensive mindset seeks only to to “resist the attack,” not necessarily to defeat the attacker: defense as an end in itself. However, in the case of protection, it is merely a small part of the overall combative intent to defeat the attacker. It is not that protection per se is superior to defense; it is simply that well trained combative intent is a better mindset than defense.

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Hunter B. Armstrong, Director ~ The International Hoplology Society
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