Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The big question in all of this survival training—what training methods exist that will get you through an initial assault? Is there a training system that works, out of the box, in the first encounter?

There are assumptions built into that. Responding to a back-up call is different than being jumped. Just a few seconds can make a big difference in adrenaline control. Going into a situation gives you some perspective and time to evaluate what is happening. Even a second, even if most of the evaluation is subconscious. Being assaulted, you don’t know what’s going on. It’s not just that fighting multiple attackers is different than fighting a single attacker or that armed and unarmed attacks may change what you were trained to do… it’s that you can’t tell, that fast and that close what you are dealing with.

The stuff works. That’s not the issue. I’ve known people who have fired accurately under stress. I’ve used the ‘impossible’ small joint locks in real encounters. But not the first time. People have spent a lot of thought polishing the body mechanics. There is tons of physical stuff out there that works. But if you debrief enough people you will hear again and again, “I knew exactly what to do. But for some reason, I couldn’t make myself do it.”

The failures aren’t physical, they’re psychological.

Ken Murray, in “Training at the Speed of Life” using Air Force data estimates that your skills don’t even kick in until your third to fifth combat mission. The first three, if you survive, it was luck.

That’s chilling. It implies that all of the nifty skills aren’t going to be there on your first trip through the looking glass.

Force professionals have an advantage. A rookie can model veterans. You hang with the guys who have been doing it awhile, hear the stories, get some tips. It settles into your brain that it is ugly but survivable. You can do this. With luck (I don’t think it was conscious, but looking back we tried to do this) with luck, your first Use of Force will be with an experienced partner who can keep his cool and knows what to do.

None of that exists for a civilian self-defense student. There’s no, “The first time you are attacked, you’ll be with Shelly. She’s been being attacked for years and can show you the ropes…”

For most, if they get any serious violence in their lives, it will only be once. There’s no wading pool for assault.

You can be really good at something and there’s a transition when it comes to the next level.

You can be really good at forms, very pretty, and the first time you point-spar, things go to shit. In some cases. You can be really good at point sparring, but your skills go out the window the first time playing at contact. And if the contact was a surprise, point-sparrers tend to freeze, totally vulnerable. If you get used to some contact, the first hard contact has the same effect. And, if you’ve only played striking or only played grappling, the first time you deal with someone who does both… square one.

This is really consistent. Part of drinking the koolaid is believing whatever level you are working at has it all covered and transitioning to a higher level won’t affect you. Whatever you need to say so that you can sleep at night.

The next level, of course, are scenarios. I think they are critical. You must work judgment in tandem with skills. Have to learn to see the problem as global rather than a matter of just physical attack and physical counter. You have to practice adaptability and fighting in realistic environments. You have to train with all of your force options available. You have to learn to realistically assess what you are facing.

You have to… if you want anything to work.

Caveat—and that is why it is so critical to work scenarios with really, really good people. Bad scenario training can screw up everything on that long list of stuff you need.

And, yes, the first time people do scenarios, no matter how well they have done training at any other level, they look like rank beginners. (The exceptions I can think of all had pretty extensive experience in the real thing.) Super shooters or martial arts champions. Side note on the ‘super shooters’: First scenario, it wasn’t that it was bad, but they weren’t doing nearly what they were capable of or what they had trained to do. One comment during the break, that I was going to tell Jeff (their primary instructor that they choked) and they went through the second scenario like precision machines. It was beautiful to watch… but why not the first time?

So, scenario training is important… but my gut tells me it won’t transition to the first real encounter. Not just my gut. One friend was in a shooting post-scenario training. 15 closing to five feet, multiple officers with weapons out, seven hits of thirteen rounds, only two that could generously be called center mass.

Operant conditioning is the one thing that we know works, and it is the best option to get you through that initial assault. But it can’t be complicated. You probably can OC a string of responses and as long as the stimulus is predictable, or the stream of stimulus stays on the script, you’ll probably be okay. But if the stimulus doesn’t stay on the script, you will unconsciously try to and that leads to catastrophic failure, like trying to gun your way through a yellow light in icy conditions.

The other thing about operant conditioning is that it works at the speed of nerve and adrenaline works at the speed of blood. So you can get one good action in before your skills degrade.

If that first 3-5 are luck, OC might be able to buy you some time and turn the tables enough that the bad guy is in a similar situation. It might buy some seconds to create some better luck/

My best guess right now is OC training for the initial assault and chaos play (primarily jujutsu randori). The first to buy time, the second so that sudden motion, multiple hits, grabbing, falling unbalancing, slamming into objects (all the things that make a fight a fight) aren’t novel.


Derek said...

Great post as usual Rory, I teach Wing Chun, and for some reason a great many Wing Chun people really, really believe that doing our Form will be more than enough if the Day turns Cloudy, I usually pass your advise unaltered and accredited down the line, most still do not get it and think that i must be a bit crazy to doubt.

Simo said...

A related and less well known anecdote regarding conditioning came to mind. Pavlov and his famous salivating dogs had an incident in the lab with major flood in Leningrad in 1924. The dogs almost drowned in their cages, some did, most were rescued at the final moment. This highly stressful near death experience apparently caused the dogs to unlearn their conditioning: no more salivating when the bell rang.

So, I'm guessing that besides training not necessarily much helping the first time, plenty of it could be flushed out the toilet the first time, even the conditioned stuff which is probably the most well ingrained part of the training. Have you encountered anything that would support this idea in practice?

(The anecdote is from James H. Austins marvellous book Zen and the Brain which has plenty of interesting and potentially relevant stuff about extreme experiences and also the effects of long term training.)

Kasey said...

Great Blog!

Anonymous said...

The Logic of Violence class does a great job of bringing home to students just what sorts and types of violence are realistic to expect - and not - for any given individual. Which provides a nice, efficient structure for training, and understanding why you're training, and what for. E.g., as a 5'2" middle-aged woman, it's perfectly okay for me to train boxing or karate. Fun, good exercise, etc. But I know that it will never be relevant in the sorts of real violence situations that I am possibly going to encounter. If I want to be as prepared as possible for the sorts of real violence that would intersect me in my life, I need to do other things.

pax said...

Thought provoking as always, Rory.

Working from the firearms end of things, I see even more wishful thinking in my crowd: just having the gun is enough. It's a magic talisman. We don't need training, we don't need to think about the dynamics of an encounter, and we sure don't need empty hand skills (that's what the gun is for, natch). Just watch YouTube videos and read gun rags, that's all the training you need. Three seconds, three shots, three feet, how hard is that? Hanging out on a self defense forum gives you all the info you need. And on, and on, and on.

But any real thought leads one to realize that criminals attack when the odds are in their favor, and that there are no guarantees. And that's an uncomfortable place to be.

Anonymous said...

I hear two things from crooks I've dealt with immediately after violence events. The first, when you ask them why they kept driving, running over a herd of baby ducks and two nuns was, "I was scared.' This makes them very dangerous, but linear (straight ahead) in their actions and very limited in their ability to adapt to changes in their environment. The adrenaline makes them 'loop' in their perception-action process - whatever action they took when they became adrenalized is what they stick with unto death. The second thing." This makes them even more dangerous than the #1 guy because they not only do not fear pain or death, they welcome it.

Are one of these two personality 'set points' the key to right out of the box, first time-every time success in a confrontation?

Do thugs and cops share a similar mind-set? And if so, what sets them apart?

Anonymous said...

Maybe unwaivering mindset towards an inflexible purpose? A very strong, base internal drive guiding what the idividual sees as the obvious naural actions.

Not sure, I'm not either ...its just a though that flashed across my screen.

Good post.

-Billy G.

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