Tony Somers Interview – Josha Matthewman

Tony Somers, 5th Dan with the British Combat Association, ex-firefighter, author, renowned counsellor and pioneer of self-empowerment, was kind enough to impart some of his knowledge regarding conflict management and its surrounding areas. 

Tony, you have been involved in martial arts for many years and have studied many disciplines, such as Shotokan Karate, Combat Ju-Jitsu, and Western Boxing to name a few. Now you are moving towards scenario training at the Somers Self Defence Academy. How relevant are the techniques you learnt in those styles in what you are teaching now?

Those techniques are very relevant on so many different levels. Basic skills are vital. My friend Glenn Smith is a professional boxing coach and he spends hour after hour teaching people basic footwork. 

 Going back to my early Shotokan days, the first few grades, which took a couple of years to complete, were all about stance and posture and good techniques. I still emphasise this in my teaching today, get your stances footwork and posture right. I’ve noticed that these things are the first things to disappear when people are put under pressure and the reason for this is that they are not practiced enough, they need to become second nature and everything else will follow from these basic principles. Even in a real life situation these things are vital, you can’t get your strikes off if your stance and posture are not right.

 You need to learn the rules to break the rules but spend a lot of time learning the basics first, everyone wants to hit pads and do the more interesting things and sadly the basics are often overlooked and it shows. Even in the grappling arts it’s much easier to get a throw or complete a technique if you can break the others persons posture and maintain your own. Every style has something to offer and we are all teachers and students, I try to learn something from everyone I meet, even if it’s not to be like them. Those early days were the foundation for so many things in my life.

 The Somers Self Defence Academy is striving towards simulating real combat. In September, Gary Anderson, a very experienced bullet man will feature in your seminar. Could you briefly explain what a bullet man is, and how he will feature in your training?

 I’ve never used the bullet man before but I’ve always been interested in what it has to offer. I set up a training session with Gary who is a good friend and a really nice guy. He took me through some of the scenarios he does with the bullet man suit and to be honest I was surprised at how good it was.

 It’s hard to explain what the bullet man actually is, I guess it’s like a padded suit that can be used to recreate realistic scenarios, and you can hit him in any area without doing too much damage.

When I was in the fire service the training officers used to set up fire houses which were specially designed buildings that represented real fires. They could set up kitchen fires or bedroom fires to different levels of intensity. Although nothing is like the reality of adrenalin fuelled real fire these scenarios did get the heart pumping and were good ways of practicing for reality. Unlike a real fire there were safety procedures in place such as people standing by to step in if needed and the fires could only be set to specific temperatures (unlike a real fire). The bullet man is similar to this in that the scenarios we use will get your heart pumping but we have safety measures in place for both the bullet man and the participants. I am really looking forward to working with Gary and his suit.

 Will your seminar focus on non-physical aspects of confrontation, such as verbally de-escalating a situation, the fence, or spotting when an opponent is about to attack? Are these concepts more important than physical training in conflict management?

 The seminar we are doing will be more about the physical aspects of self defence and also fear control and mindset. However for me conflict management is really where it is at. How can I diffuse a situation? What are my communications skills like? Do I understand body language and attack rituals and the importance of awareness? Do I understand my own triggers as well as other people’s triggers? 

 Geoff Thompson developed the fence as a way of controlling the final few seconds before a fight starts and he is right, it’s a critical time in any confrontation. But I would argue that often we can go way back before that time to what actually triggered the altercation and quite often it could have been avoided with a lack of ego and the appropriate skills. I teach conflict management to NHS staff and it’s all about communication skills, building rapport and making people feel valued and respected and by doing this you drastically reduce the chances of conflict.

 How do you practice these non-physical elements in a dojo?

I talk people through different scenarios and communication models. I have a saying that it’s nice to be nice and nice people don’t tend to have conflict. Nice doesn’t mean non assertive or a push over it means quietly confident, respectful and empathic towards others. I hope I demonstrate this in the Dojo. I’ve noticed over the years that confident people don’t get bullied.

 Before MMA and the UFC there was Animal Day with Geoff Thompson. Do you feel this enhanced your training and do you consider it necessary to go to those fringes of reality in order to become truly competent in self-defence?

 The animal days definitely enhanced my training in that they helped me to overcome my fear of confrontation. They were very physical days and I was always scared but then again I was scared in lots of areas of my life. Scared that I couldn’t defend my kids, scared that my wife might leave me, scared that I would lose my job or my house, scared to speak out and say what I really believed for fear of being laughed at.

 The animal days helped me to face my fears head on and learn to live with them and to a large extent to control them. I still have them from time to time but to a much lesser extent. Animal days were a very physical medium in which to face and overcome my fears but I don’t think that everyone has to choose this way of doing things, it worked for me but it might not work for everyone. Self defence is a massive area which covers conflict management and much more I truly believe that if we could raise the levels of peoples self confidence we would have a far better society. Insecure people often get bullied or become bullies so by working on our self worth we could go a long way towards eliminating a lot of the problems in our society.

 During your 17 years as a firefighter, what was your experience of controlling adrenal response? Was it similar to that of confrontation, and do the two cross over?

 Being a fire fighter is slightly different because you have a role or a job to do and you are expected to do that role, for example running into a burning building while everyone else is running out.

The adrenalin is still there but the fact that you are in a role helps you to go forward, the training is also vital there were times especially early on in my career (I have mentioned this in my book Fighter Rescuer Healer) that because I was so scared I operated on auto pilot but because the training was so good my auto pilot was good enough. It’s the same with self defence, some people call it muscle memory but you will react in the same way that you have trained under pressure.

So good training is vital as well as exposure to pressure situations, which also goes back to my answer to your first question, master the basics.

 What first led you to pursue fear control and what elements of controlling fear transcend into your normal life?

 Fear has been with me for as long as I care to remember and it’s held me back in so many ways but like I have already said I got so sick of it that I decided to fight back. I still experience fear but I refuse to let it hold me back anymore in fact I now like the challenges that fear brings and if I feel scared I know I am on the right track. Fear will keep you small in its attempts to keep you safe. I realized that most of my fears came from my parents so that meant that they didn’t belong to me and I refuse to have other people’s fears, I’ve got enough of my own. I love helping people to overcome their fears and reach their full potential, it’s very rewarding.

 You founded the Self Empowerment Academy and have been heavily involved in counselling in a diverse number of areas. How important do you consider mastering your own ego and temperament in avoiding conflict?

 I would say controlling our own ego is the biggest part of self defence. When I was younger if someone looked at me I assumed that they thought they were better than me and so then I wanted to fight them. When I realized it was me who thought I was an idiot or a twat and not them I realized that I had to work on myself. The ego will try and protect you but if you learn to like and even love yourself then there is very little to protect.

 You have worked closely with the NHS and firefighting services teaching conflict resolution.  With your experiences of real fear and real conflict, do you believe people can utilise the techniques learned in such classes while under adrenal stress?

 Again it’s down to practice and training. Of course it’s harder under stress but I believe it’s better to have some type of a plan rather than no plan. I know in the NHS where they have introduced improved levels of communication amongst staff, incidents of conflict have been reduced. 

 The Liverpool Echo recently reported that a paramedic was sacked for pre-emptively attacking an aggressive drunk male, who was behaving threateningly towards his elderly patient. Do you think that NHS staff should be taught to pre-emptively strike if under threat?

 Every human being has the right to defend themselves and that includes using a pre emptive strike. The law states that if the attacker is aggressive and moving forward and you fear for your safety you can pre-emptively strike the first blow in self defence. Your defence must be necessary and proportionate to make it reasonable but you are allowed to defend yourself in any walk of life.

The European Human Rights Act Article 3 talks about a right to life.

 I don’t know what happened with the paramedic you mentioned but it sounds strange to me that he got sacked because you are allowed to defend yourself and others but maybe there was more to the story, I’m always a bit dubious about our media coverage.

 Tony’s new seminar takes place on 27th September. Find out more at