Strategy is more important in self defense than techniques and training methods, yet also one of the most neglected components for practitioners. Strategy ideally begins long before a physical encounter, and the most expert use is to win without fighting.
A chapter on strategy in The Art of War is titled The Sheathed Sword, with quotes like these:
To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take your enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good...thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
Fighting is dangerous and destructive. Great strategists like Sun Tzu knew this, thus preferred not to fight if at all possible. The goal of self defense is not to win a fight. It is to survive and prosper without injury or damage.
Smart self defense strategy begins with avoidance, awareness, and prevention. If you avoid dangerous people and places, you'll never be attacked. If you're aware of your surroundings, you'll see an attack coming. And if you know how to prevent attacks through distance, position, and de-escalation, it will be extremely difficult for you to become a victim. These are the most important aspects of self defense strategy. For a detailed breakdown of these components, see my page on prevention.
In case prevention is not enough, you need a strategic plan. Trusting yourself to respond when appropriate may very well fail. Many predators will attempt to keep you using socially acceptable forms of communication (polite and verbal), up until they nail you out of what seems like nowhere. But it's never "out of nowhere". You should determine for yourself what is "close enough", how you're going to maintain that distance and position (physically and verbally), and what you're going to do if it's breached. Having a plan and various triggers for execution will help ensure you don't allow an attacker to get too close and take you out before you can see it coming.
Your plan should include when to run and when not to run, in addition to when to give an attacker what he wants. If you only train physically resisting a gun threat, for example, and you don't plan for when that's appropriate and when it's not, you could find yourself making a very stupid move that gets you killed.
Your strategy should include conditioned responses, as mentioned in our sections on techniques and training methods. And these responses can and should be strategic. What are you going to do if someone throws a punch at you from close range, but it's dark and you're not sure exactly how the punch is coming in? What if it's a slash with a knife instead? You can leave that to chance, but if you do your response is more likely to fail. No "fight" is going to follow a script of your design, unfortunately, but having strategic default responses to various types of attacks and situations will allow you to act without having to think first.
Fights are messy, and although physical self defense isn't necessarily a fight as the term is commonly used, it also is. Physical self defense will seem very fast, very hard, and very chaotic. And it probably will be! An initial default response will help you start on the winning side, but you need to be able to continue from there, and you don't know how it will progress, no matter how good you are. There are too many unknown unknowns. (This is why realistic, alive training is essential.) Strategy here can't be technically specific, but you should have some direction. Are you a small woman unlikely to take out an opponent with strikes or joint manipulations? Maybe your strategy should be to get in, avoid damage, get the back, and choke your opponent unconscious. Consider that your general strategy may be different depending on the size, number of opponents, and use and availability of weapons.
Against more than one opponent your strategy may need to shift from taking them out to getting yourself out. How will the techniques you use change with that strategy? What do you need to be looking for? How can you get there? These are the questions you need to have answered before the situations occur.
In FSD we use a single contact strategy for offense and defense called the Covered Blast. This strategy maximizes your options and chances of success while minimizing your opponent's. For armed attacks and defense, we use a 4 Step Matrix for training and fighting, which follows the principles of the Covered Blast.
See this post for more information on integrating the strategy of the Covered Blast and 4 Step Matrix into your practice.
If you do have to physically defend yourself, what are you going to do after it's over? Are you going to call the police? What if someone else does? What are you going to say if and when the police show up? Can you articulate a legal case for self defense? (See our section on self defense law for more information.) Should you attempt to do so? Or should you keep your mouth shut and call a lawyer? How are you going to explain that to the police without looking guilty?
Having a plan before hand is the only way to ensure you do and say what you should instead of leaving it to chance in the heat of the moment. Your strategy for prevention, initial response, follow-up, and the aftermath should be a fundamental element of your self-defense preparations.