Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Seattle 2

The Second Seattle Seminar (S2?) was a blast.

Jonas found a great venue, a small club in Georgetown with inside and outside areas, chain link, a stage, obstructions...even some spilled beer.

The crew was good. Three had to cancel at the last minute, but two slots were filled so 'sold-out' became 'one under capacity'. 24 bodies, if my math is correct. Nine had not attended the first Seattle seminar and I was a little worried about their ability to keep up with some of the new information. They were great people and did well, but there were elements of law and violence dynamics that I'm sure they missed.

Still: Violence. Brawling. Manhandling. Fighting to the goal. Power generation. Blindfolded defense and targeting. Environmental fighting. Ground-level brawling. Frisk fighting. And the important new information, an expansion of the self-defense law information focused on articulation. A good decision is only half the battle. A brilliant explanation to an inexperienced jury might be needed to close the deal. Making good decisions is sometimes far easier than explaining good decisions.

Then scenarios. Carjacking variations: alone, with child, with special knowledge. Active shooter. Rude people. Predators. I was assisted by two wonderful role-players, Tim Bown of Bulletman fame and Guro Amy Koeniger in her RedMan suit. Good guys, bad guys, victims and predators, they played them all with a lot of intensity.

I suspect a few people saw some new things.

Good, good day.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Scenario Training

There are different types of scenario training and there are different levels.
Like any training, scenario training must serve a purpose. The purpose has to be something that helps the student as well-- if you are setting the rules, telling the story and controlling all the parts, you can always "teach" a student that they will fail. That's for your ego. A student subjected to that only learns to never try.

Some scenarios can be for testing, and one of the best aspects of armored opponent scenario training for martial artists is that they learn a little about the huge gap between dealing with a training partner and dealing with an attacker. It's never a complete exposure, but skills degenerate so universally that all but the most self-deluded take a second to wonder about the difference between training and life.

That's learning a negative, however. Understanding that you aren't prepared is a step... but it doesn't help you to be prepared. It motivates you.

So in scenario training, you start with what you want the student to learn. You wanted the student to learn how to tap into her inner beast and let go? You can set up scenarios for that. You want to get a student over some deep personal conditioning? You can inoculate for that with scenarios. You want them to take sterile skills and apply them to a dynamic, messy environment? Scenarios were made for that.

Most often I use them to help the student develop judgment in tandem with skills. They know how to take someone down... do they have any idea when it is appropriate? They know how to defend themselves, do they know what constitutes self-defense legally? Can they explain their actions to a jury of their peers?

Can they tell when a situations is developing? Do they know when to leave? Do they recognize the point of no return? Knowledge of violence dynamics (how bad guys attack) and force law are integral parts of self-defense. Every so often, these elements have to be practiced together.

The other thing about scenario training is that you find glitches. When the student doesn't run; or uses a martial skill instead of a survival skill (fighting to win instead of fighting to escape) or plays to the scenario instead of the problem (decides not to use the mirrors or doors, ignoring truth for an image in the head) it tells you something. The same student is vulnerable to his or her own mind games and assumptions in real life. That's a glitch, and a dangerous one. The best survivors are cheaters. If you want to encourage survival skills, you have to make it safe to cheat.

It takes good role-players and a good coach. A role-player who wants to can turn everything into a fight...and the student learns that only fighting (never leaving, never talking) is what works. A role-player who can play a convincing criminal (not an unstoppable monster or a cartoon character) is solid gold.

The coach has to let the students run and not micromanage or microcritique. There are lots of ways to be right, ways to survive. the goal is for the student to learn and so, whenever possible, the student, not the instructor, should be pointing out mistakes and areas of improvement.

You also have to watch the 'weirdness creep.' Most bad things that happen are pretty basic. There aren't a lot of variations on the Monkey Dance. Armed robberies follow pretty simple patterns. Good scenarios that reflect reality will blow away beginners and teach them tons. Unfortunately, what the student does once, the crew (facilitator and role-players) will do many times. The crew starts to get bored. The crew decides to make things more interesting and challenging. the scenarios start to get a little weirder, a little less like real life...

This is where we plan to finish up tomorrow. Sold out show. Life is good.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The thing I like about playing with good people is that you don't need to dummy it down. Some situations suck and if you pretty them up too much, or try to 'program your students for success' when they hit the suckage in real life, they are screwed. Screwed, screwed, screwed.

With good people, you can work the bad scenarios and fail and brainstorm and fail and brainstorm and eventually come up with some things that work. That kind of honest play can save your life. The candy-coated bullshit just makes you feel better, right up until you choke on it and die.

Kasey is good people and has surrounded himself with good people. Marc is extremely questionable people and has spent his entire life around questionable people... which is a perfect environment for acquiring and testing skills. I, of course, have always been an angel: kind, sweet, gentle and innocent...

The particular form of a bad day we were playing with and against was the close range knife assassination. The threat would approach, weapon out of sight, and seize with the free hand (arm, neck, collar, head, hair) while simultaneously giving a bunch of sewing-machine style thrusts to the bladder, kidneys or whatever he thought would be most satisfying. ("How many lethal blows does it take?" "How many to be lethal? Or how many to get the emotions out of your system?' "Good point.")

Coming from different backgrounds (martially: judo/jujutsu; aikido; and indonesian/kung fu. Otherwise: Jail officer/CERT, road officer/SWAT and criminal) our basic idea of what would and had kept us alive turned out to be pretty similar. It became a matter of drilling and nuances. How would a criminal vary his technique? What were the indicators of an assault?

(When you are working variations it is incredibly important and difficult to stay realistic. I think one of the reasons martial arts systems become so complicated is a form of inbreeding: You counter technique A with B, so they start working on a way around B and come up with C, which makes one vulnerable for D but E prevents that and... all of which predicates on a bad guy being trained in your system, countering based on your system and attacking with your system in the first place. The 'what if' chain usually breaks on one of the first two links. Not recognizing this, systems inbreed to inefficient complexity. But it works in-house.)

There's a variation of the knife assassination that has bothered me- the sucker thrust from the handshake. It's actually easier to deal with than the close range grip: there's more time and you have a mutual grip with the hand that is trying to immobilize you. But that's the thing. Intellectually, I know that the right thing to do is to use the handshake grip to control his thrust ( a core-fighting strategy, manipulating his shoulders/hips/spine through his hand to control his other hand). But I was pretty sure that the instinct to focus on the immediate threat would take over, and would be ineffective.

I wasn't prepared when Kasey pulled it. I was distracted, watching other people play. No effort, I pulled the handshake grip in front of the knife and the tip tapped his forearm. Then I was behind him.

The second time, the weapon wound up tied up in the elbow of the handshake hand.

Not something I'd actively trained for in years, but something I'd thought about. My instincts had changed over time and I'm trusting more subtle (still efficient, just not as obvious) techniques. More importantly, my body/hindbrain appears to be taking over just fine and learning in new ways. Not bad.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Weekend Thus Far

It's been a big weekend, and it's not over yet.
The Fan Boy moment: Taking off from PDX, it occurred to me that I was flying out to team-teach with Marc "Animal" MacYoung the guy who actually raised his hand and said, "Real life isn't exactly like that" and started a lot of people thinking. It was like going to meet a trail blazer in your field of interest...as a colleague.

Some times life demands balance, and the childish fun of the Fan Boy moment got balanced with discovering another character flaw. We were practicing defenses against close-range knife assassinations, and Marc pointed out that I wasn't treating it as a lethal threat. It wasn't because of training habit. Or lack of understanding about what kind of threat someone grabbing you and pulling you into a knife was. Or even inclination-- I have a pretty good idea what it takes for me to turn people into meat.
It was simply arrogance. A bone-deep visceral belief that I had handled so many level five and level six situations at level four* or lower that no ordinary person would require higher; That the person attacking me with lethal intent wasn't worthy of a commensurate response.

A flaw, and a potentially suicidal flaw. More work.

The training has been intense and wonderful.

One day of Conflict Communications. It went well, but in after action there are many things we could do better-- a little time management, some videos-- but most of it is simply polish and practice. The reviews were nice. It rocked. There was one negative review, and I kind of reveled in it: the people who could get the most will have the most resistance. We need to open future classes by asking who was ordered to there and talking about why that happens and how to use the dynamic.

One day, seven hours on the mat, teaching in series with new friend Kasey and Marc. Kasey is the complete package- traditional martial artist, history with competitive martial sports, enforcement and tactical officer. And a hell of a nice guy, who surrounds himself with extraordinary people. We played their basics (so long since I have been in a traditional dojo environment, it felt like coming home after being away for years, wonderful and a little weird) then the visitors (us) worked our stuff, our priorities.

Later today, a short class with the SWAT operators.

Commo, brawling, tactics... hard to get a better three days. Good friends, good new friends and a solid kick-off to the new business...

Sore, tired happy. Three things that often come together.

* Level four: Physical control-- pain compliance, locks, takedowns and control moves.
Level Five: Serious physical control-- Impact and impact weapons.
Level six: Deadly force.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Studying Problems

Sleep deprived, sipping a Velvet Hammer in PDX, getting ready for another wonderful experience...

Minnesota. We'll be teaching the new communications program. We've each done some test-runs separately and one together, but those were rehearsals. This is opening night.

Everyone has default ways to solve problems. If you only have a hammer, as the saying goes, you try to solve all problems by pounding. The scientific method is one of the most efficient:

Ask the question.
Study the situation until you get a feel for some possible answers. (This stage is intuitive.)
Design an experiment to disprove your guess
Repeat as necessary

Martial arts, self-defense, de-escalation... a lot of the high-risk practical stuff work from a different paradigm: What worked before? If it didn't get you killed, don't change anything unless you have no choice. That's a decent paradigm when the stakes are high. It also works well with the way our natural instincts run-- what our bodies tend to do when scared hasn't changed much since the days of cave bears.

It tends to corrupt quickly if not tested, however. People remember what their great-granddaddy did, but maybe don't remember why. Or even if that was a one-time freak occurrence and he had a better way that worked often enough he never told stories about it.

So even in modern police stuff-- patrol, DTs and communications, the current high-speed programs are collections of stuff that worked. Experiences. And there is no way to know how many times those same tactics failed, because there may be no one to tell that story. Or the weight of tradition may be so great that disagreements are treated as heresies instead of potentially life-saving innovations.

I realized that the way I've been teaching lately, as well as designing training, is to spend a lot of time on that second step of the scientific method. Studying the problem. And it has had huge payoffs. Just recognizing the difference between social and asocial violence makes articulating force decisions easier, and also prevents costly mistakes in self-defense.

My primary teaching has shifted from telling students what to do to having them look at the situation they need to fix. An efficient answer is almost always inherent in the question/problem, if you understand the question. If you don't the best solution or technique has a random chance of working entirely dependent on you stumbling across the right problem.

It turns out that this was the big break-through in Conflict Communications. It's not a list of techniques that we have used to talk people down. There's an element of that and we won't toss out practical experience... but the whole system is based far more on analyzing what went wrong. Realizing that failed de-escalations followed very similar, very predictable patterns. Then taking a look at what and who those patterns served.

In that was the key. Not just to calming people down but to recognizing that there are different dynamics to the calming, that they have a pattern and are predictable. If you understand that, you don't need to memorize techniques because you have principles. With principles, you can improvise. With enough practice to ingrain the principles, you can improvise on the fly.

Good stuff.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Done Been

I find myself spending time with a new demographic, and I'm not sure what to make of it.
For most of my life, I had few friends and those friendships were based on a shared intensity. We didn't always do the same kind of thing (I was cautioned early to keep as many friends as possible who didn't deal with the world of crime) but whatever they did it was intense. Usually dangerous. it allowed us to share a frame of reference that was rare with my other circles, largely people I met at the behest of my wife.

One circle seemed more real, more alive than the other. You can guess which.

Lately, though, a big percentage of the people I am connecting with are former bad guys. Some former good guys, too... but that word 'former' is popping up a lot.

They all talk about a moment when they realize that they will die if something doesn't change. In words it is so pale to say that. I've never felt that waking up in my own puke with another friend in the ground or locked up... but I have felt it in a short second when my tactics were failing and I was outmatched in strength. The taste of mortality doesn't really make it into such weak words: "I will die if something doesn't change." Maybe it's something you can never read or hear, but have to taste.

The realization and the decision aren't easy, but they aren't enough, either. You actually have to change. Move away from what and who you know, give up something you were good at (and that means a lot in places where good and bad is measured by breathing) and move to a world where you don't know the rules. Basic rules. How do you get angry like a civilized person? When force is not allowed (and you choose to follow that silly, arbitrary, civilized rule) what do you use instead? How do people negotiate when there are no guns involved?

At the VPPG the other day we were talking about students and instructors who romanticize this life. In the fullness of their pristine manhood they choose to believe that they are in full command of themselves and would dispatch that assassin with one of the "ten best techniques as taught to elite military units across the world" or make that swaggering bravo back down with the steely glance they taught in the "Fear No Man!" pamphlet.

I pencilled a note to write about this, about the differences between the wannabes and the ones who have already done been and don't wannabe no more. Not sure what else to write, except:

Thanks. To those of you who got out and kept breathing so you could share a little-- thanks. Just thanks.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I love the sky. A week ago, flying out of JFK there was a rainbow, except it wan't a bow. Short and straight, a blur of striated colors hanging in the air. I wonder if, before the advent of flying machines, any human anywhere had ever seen such a thing. Or seen the rays of golden light striking the sea in exactly such a way, or flew between layers of cloud, catching the sunshine just at that angle with glowing white above and below, flying at such a speed to extend the sunset for hours.

Today, there was a brief blue hole in the distance. Shattering turquoise blue with so many different clouds visible on the sides and above. Some rolling cumulus, some jagged, the filmy cirrus probably far beyond the blue hole but looking like part of the cosmic architecture of it. Beautiful and unreal. Need to start carrying my camera. Without a picture all that I can say is that in a painting it would have looked too dramatic, intense and beautiful to be real.

And one phenomenon I have only seen here and only at this time of year: If you are driving eastbound on a highway at exactly the right time of day after a hard rain, the cars kick up spray, and each car and truck appears to be floating on an individual rainbow.

Were someone to come forward from a hundred years in the past and see that one thing, they would be certain that they walked among the gods.

Guest post on Kenton Sefcik's blog.

Looks like San Francisco, Montreal and Rochester (two repeats) in September.
Conflict Communications in Minnesota in nine days.
A level two (environmental fighting and force law scenarios) in Seattle in three weeks. Three slots left.
A Women's Self-Defense event with Kimberly Kelly at John Darby's club July 10.
Boston August eighth.

The book broke 10k sales, which I guess is a big thing for a niche market.

Kris Wilder has an idea for a video. I'm in if it happens.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Epic Stalk

The tale must be told...

Somehow, over the course of Tread Lightly/Toby Cowern's survival class I somehow shifted from "Extra guy planning on swimming and laying on warm rocks all weekend" to some kind of assistant. Which was very cool. It gave me more time to hang with some extraordinary people and a chance to talk far into the night.

The last night, the students had been dispersed to their separate sleeping accommodations. One had made a swamp bed and was literally sleeping on a latticework of branches and leaves suspended over the river. Several were sleeping on the beach, heated by fires they had buried. Toby and I were sipping coffee by the fire at the main camp.

"I should go mess with them," he said. "They expect it." Several students were returning and had harrowing tales of winter courses (Toby's specialty is cold weather survival, which skill he hones in Sweden) where misplaced bits of gear would disappear on Toby's incessant nightly patrols.

I was neutral. People often lose more sleep worrying about being messed with than they do over being messed with. On the other hand, we had checked in and at least observed each student each night, just to be safe. So we decided to check things out.

It was pitch dark. I turned on a light and kept it in my pocket, intermittently covering and uncovering the glow to imitate a firefly. We followed trails, quietly. One student was sleeping quietly in a stripped down shelter. We could hear four talking by a fire through the trees. That's when we got the idea. I got the idea, rather. Toby is far too intelligent. It occurred to me that it would be fun to stalk into camp through the trees.

We had no camouflage. Toby had a white bandage on one hand and his big glowing wrist watch on the other. I was wearing beige pants that had faded to near white. And a bald spot that I'm sure reflects in the moonlight. All against the darkness of a temperate deciduous forest. What the hell.

I took point and the first yards were easy. After that, we realized that two were looking across the fire directly at us. There was enough cover to be noisy and to push around and give tell-tale wobble, but not enough to block vision.

It turned into a slow, measured belly crawl. No profile. One hand creeps forward, slowly moving twigs, if necessary, to the side. Then the other hand. Then the toes press forward, one, two, three, four times to catch up with hands. Eyes stay down, since reflections from eyes and teeth are the shiniest and trigger a very primitive part of the brain.

Toby stayed off my right flank. A former Royal Marine, he was ready to give covering fire had it been that kind of stalk. He matched me silence for silence and slow advance for slow advance.

One stretch of crawl was fingertip and toes for almost a body length without chest, belly or thighs touching to cross a dry stick too big to move. At one point I chewed a big jewelweed down so that my body wouldn't keep it swaying.

Twice, the people at the fire started and played lights over us, looking for the 'raccoons' that had made the leaves rustle. We held still, not looking. Weird that, had this been a different environment and not a game, not looking would have been the best survival strategy and yet would have made us helpless if it failed.

We continued. Torturous twisty crawl under a net of dry twigs on a fallen branch. It was almost completely open right there, no plant cover to speak of, just the twigs, silver and barkless when two of the people at the fire decided to go for a walk. They headed this way, passing no more than two yards to my left. I couldn't look, it would give away the eyes. I wondered, if one stopped to urinate if I would have the discipline to stay still just for a game. Sure.

They passed on. We waited a long time, expecting the two to return, but they had gone to their own camps. We continued the crawl. The last stretch was eight feet of dry leaves with no cover whatsoever. I motioned Toby ahead. These were his students.

The student had his back to us and was laying on his side, occasionally throwing wood in the fire, staring at the embers. Toby inched forward, slowly, until he was just behind the prey's head. Then he motioned me forward. That was pushing our luck, but it was too good a challenge to resist. At one point the target did hear me rustle the leaves and quickly looked around. His head almost slammed into Toby's...and he never saw a thing.

When I was in position we counted off by fingers and Toby grabbed his neck as I grabbed his legs...

It was a good stalk.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

No Passing Grade

One of the long talks last week was about testing versus training.
A group of four people who only knew me from writing hired me for three days of private lessons.  They weren't sure what they would get.  Possibly a complete waste of time. Possibly new skills or new insights.  Possibly to be tested to the edge of the envelope.

That needed a talk.  Most of us have done the grueling physical tests.  Most have worked out in extreme pain or through injury.  Everyone has been tested or at least feel that they've been tested... but in this field there is something wrong with that paradigm.  It is not the way this particular world works.

Psychologically and physically, everyone breaks.  There is no passing grade for a survival test, whether it is assault survival or combat or wilderness survival or natural disaster.  No matter what you have in terms of skill, will and equipment there is a level that will overwhelm you.

There is no such thing as a 'survival level of proficiency'.  Not in a world with a 100% mortality rate.

There is no test so grueling that passing it means you are unbreakable.  You are profoundly breakable.  All a test can tell you is if you have reached your limit.  You can only really learn by failing.  Passing, whatever that is, only means that this test on this day didn't break you.

And if you do break, if you find that edge of exhaustion where you can't force yourself to move or the psychological precipice where meekly submitting and obeying seem like good options... the edge you have found becomes invalid the second you find it.  And how it becomes invalid is hard to predict.  Some find the inspiration to be a little tougher the next time, some find it easier and safer to give up a little earlier.  Some become afraid to ever be tested again.

If all you can really learn is that you will break; if the best you can get is to understand that some days you are the bug and the situation is a windshield on a gut level (I hope no one is so delusional that they don't at least acknowledge this intellectually), how valuable is that insight, really?

Most will never approach the edge in their normal lives.  Of those few that do, it seems knowing and trying to expand that limit only really helps those who are going into situations again and again with others needing to rely on them and thus needing to predict a teammate's breaking strain.

How many things does this apply to?  Violence in all its forms.  Disaster survival.  Maybe things as subtle and common as peer pressure.  100% mortality.  Everyone dies.  No such thing as a passing grade.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010


There are things you have to phrase differently to reach different people.
What is the goal in a fight? To get out in one piece is a laudable goal, but that can mean a lot of different things depending on the situation, the strategy or the presumptions of the individual... and it is not always possible.

Some people lock on to winning. That's fine. But some definitions of a win are more useful than others. My definition is both flexible and rigid-- whatever it takes to get the job done and be healthy. Sometime those aren't very compatible, but there it is. That 'whatever' (and the job description) make the flexibility.

But there are things that aren't in there, things that never affect my definition of the win. I don't care if anyone knows. (Including the threat. He just needs to be in cuffs. I don't care if he knows how it happened or who did it. It would be counterproductive in the long run to punk him out.) I don't care if I get the statistic. The job got done. No injury. Move on to the next one.
I don't care how it looked.

Emotional state is irrelevant as well. I've been scared of course. Rarely angry. But emotion has never been a source of energy or motivation for me. I got a paycheck. It was a job. To require motivation beyond that would be starting to make things personal, and that's where mistakes happen.

When the little stuff gets in the way, when it isn't enough to put cuffs on the threat or knock him into the wall but you want to dominate him as well* you tend to lose some efficiency, holding on a little too long or extending a fist a little slow to make sure he sees it, sees you.

It's a hard glitch to explain to a student, especially since it is slightly more common in people who are driven to win. But it is a glitch. You bring it out. That's your job as an instructor.

So you explain to this student the difference between domination and aggression; and maybe you explain to another student about touching their emotional core to access permission to take someone down... and a third student needs to be calmed away from the emotional core because they fight stupid when they get emotional.

You wind up telling three people three contradictory things, but in the end it is all about maximizing efficiency. Mental, emotional, physical and the links between those three forged into a tight, efficient and flexible unit. Creating a winner.

*Sometimes domination IS the goal. If you do it right, you don't have to use force. the question is always is this serving the job? Or my feelings?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Survival and Survival

After three+ days of private lessons and brawling with the Rochester Crew (Official Motto: "It's your move.") Spent another four days in Sonyea State Forest on a survival course led by Toby Cowern of Tread Lightly (who I will link if he ever gets his own damn website.)

Struck, maybe slammed by the similarities in what we teach and how we teach it. I shouldn't be, I've known since I butchered my first deer that survival was survival. Toby teaches the mindset and skills for one set of problems, I teach for a slightly different set. But the mindsets are very similar. As they should be. The only big difference is the immediacy of time in my world, but both scenarios hang on a common thread: If you don't do something, you will die. (And if you do the wrong thing, you will die quicker.)

So Toby teaches that the first thing you must do is acknowledge the situation for what it is. You ARE lost. This IS a survival situation... and Peyton Quinn teaches that the first rule of surviving an assault is: Do not deny it is happening.

Because this is where we see people die. Peyton with victims freezing in denial, Toby with people who had the equipment and didn't want to break the seal on their emergency kit.

Toby teaches that if your primary problem is in the future, it may be a motivator but it is not a survival issue. I remind students that survival fighting is on the lowest level of Maslow's hierarchy, and most in our society have no experience with the two lowest levels at all.

Toby teaches Stop and Think as his first two steps to recovery. I borrow from Gordon Graham and apply it to violence and tactical operations: If there is no immediate threat, you have discretionary time. Use it. Think. Plan. (And this is the biggest difference in mindsets- in a wilderness survival situation, discretionary time is common. In an assault it is a precious gift.)

Toby says, "As mammals, we're crap. We shouldn't be at the top of the food chain, except for our brains." He then adds that your brain will be your biggest help or it will hurt you a lot. Sound familiar?

The essence of survival when you are lost is to attract attention. One of the best tactics in survival fighting is to attract witnesses...

So who said these, do you think? The wilderness survival instructor or the guy who deals with thug stuff?

"Deal with the immediate threat first."

"Make your plan and then act on it. Do not change the plan unless you get new and relevant information."

"Will is more important than skill is more important than equipment."

"Do things as efficiently as possible with the minimum movement."

"Be prepared to do whatever it takes."

Survival is survival. To an extent.