I had the absolute privilege and honour this past week to work with members from LYNX Commando, a special operations law enforcement unit from the Slovak Republic. They flew out to my studio in Johannesburg to certify in my Weaponize-Your-Body program for law enforcement.
As part of the 20-hour certification process, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching. I made the point during many discussions, that beyond simply having a process of teaching technique and tactics, one equally requires a philosophy of training. Here the philosophy of training, underpins the success of what is taught.
Adaptability: The Key Defining Characteristic of a Successful Warrior
No matter if you are someone simply taking classes in ‘self-defense,’ or you are part of a special operations unit learning to deploy your unarmed combatives skills in the field — the bottom line for both, is that you spend time on this training so that you can deploy those skills when needed.
While learning techniques and tactics are important, I will argue that the greatest asset anyone can develop is the ability to be adaptable. Without question, no matter how much you train, or how many scenarios you run, you will always be confronted by unknowns. And while you might have a toolbox of techniques and tactics to draw from, you will be required to deploy the appropriate tools and or tactics in the unfolding experience you are faced with. In most instances, time wont be on your side, and how quickly you can adapt and react, can and will be the difference between success or failure.
More Might Equal Death
My position is this: when it comes to survival, it isn’t so much about how much you know, but rather, how well you are able to take what you know and adapt it to ever changing contexts. In other words, knowing isn’t enough, applying is. Further, knowing more, doesn’t necessarily mean more success. In fact, the more you know, might be the very thing that gets you killed.
Let me explain via an example. In the world of ‘martial arts’ it isn’t uncommon for people to jump around from one instructor to the next, and from one style to another. It isn’t uncommon for martial artists to train in several different approaches. A common sense view of this suggests that knowing more, must be a good thing (collecting more and more certificates, seems to be a hobby for some too).
But is it?
The truth is, not only do most instructors over complicate things, going to learn several different styles/programs compounds this over-complication even further. Now rather than having a few interchangeable, high percentage tools that can get most jobs done, you have dozens and dozens of options, each competing for relevance.
Crucially: one ought not forget, that in the heat of a real fight, where your life hangs in the balance, you are going to not only have to recall these techniques, and the most appropriate ones, but in addition apply them with success. All of this needs to happen under immense pressure, stress, fear, etc.
Everyone Is Pretty Much Training Wrong To Achieve Fight Performance
Back to adaptability. Being adaptable is in one respect the ability to draw from an uncomplicated, streamlined technical base. How to teach this core foundational approach is important. But more important than simplifying the tool box for the operator or self-defense student, is having an approach to teaching that will ultimately guide success in the use of those tools.
Many self-preservation/martial arts/combat sports instructors believe that their only goal is to offer systematic training to achieve fight performance via pressure testing. This takes on various forms, from sparring, live rolling, to pressure testing in scenarios. The goal of course is to see, and ensure, that the student can deploy the techniques and tactics they had previously learned against an uncooperative, resisting opponent. This is true, but it is also where it gets interesting.
In talking to the operators I just spent the week with, they mentioned that there are always ‘those guys’ who when asked to spar, and or work through a scenario that want to go full out. Of course, there’s the recognition of the ego here, but also, an outmoded attitude that unless you are going full out (i.e., going hard all of the time) you are not ‘learning’ how to fight. Reflecting on this, I asked, what kind of embodied experience does someone engaging with a training experience in that way bring to that moment? One can assume that in part there’s aggression, getting mad, elevated physiological changes, increased heart rate, etc.
Refocusing this for example to the field of operations, where action leads to consequences such as life and death — what is the consequences to everyone in the team when one person may be exhibiting this kind of embodied presence? In other words, would this kind of embodied action be a strength or a liability in actual operations? Most would agree, and these operators did too, that having someone pumped up like that, angry etc, is a liability to the team. Rather than being an asset, it is that kind of embodied state that will get others in the team killed.
Secondly to this, if someone is always going all out in training, naturally anyone going up against them will prime themselves to do the same, or simply find a way to survive. The person going all out, might think they are getting better, but in fact, all they are doing is reinforcing the things that work for them in that environment. This may not seem like an issue on the surface, but in my experience, this often leads that very same person to lose when faced with a situation they are unfamiliar with.
Going all out, smashing everyone in front of you in training might work in that environment, but may simply be ill equipped, or the complete wrong approach for a different environment. For example, when talking to these operators, being calm, focused, and present are prized attributes in operations.
If that’s the case, then it makes no sense to allow someone to train for the real experience, but in a complete opposite kind of way, such as with aggression, ego, etc to what will be needed in reality.
A Philosophy of Teaching for Performance in a Fight
Coming back to adaptability once more. In order to be adaptable requires innovative thinking and action. In other words, the ability to come up with a new method, idea, or action. In this case, when reflection on the fight, in the very moment of the fight action itself. Remember in a fight, the fight is happening right here, right now. Decisions are therefore made, right here, right now. How you have trained in the past, will determine if you are able to make the right decisions and execute the right actions in the very moment of the fight when needed.
But to be innovative, requires creativity.
Here I mean creativity in the sense of the ability to use imagination (both in mind and body), that ultimately translates into action. But here is the crux of the matter. In order to be creative, one must be allowed to make mistakes, even encouraged too. This flies in the face of conventional approaches to success, where failure = bad.
Coming back to the example of that guy who always wants to go full out in sparring, or in scenario training. He is doing so to succeed. He doesn’t want to fail. This is further bolstered by his ego, and what he has been told about losing (which = bad). It could be because the person training him tells him making mistakes won’t be tolerated. This can even be hinged further to cultural dynamics. For example, and especially when it comes to men living in overly patriarchal societies, showing any kind of weakness, which is simply another label for failure, is frowned upon. In other words, men are tough, stoic, and don’t cry. All of this primes many men with how they engage with experiences, especially and in what I am most interested in the martial kind. This way of thinking as described above, reinforces a mindset of training hard, all out, all of the time, as the only way to achieve ultimate success for that future fight.
I however, take a complete opposing view. Coming back to what I have noted. As a coach, I want those I teach to develop technical capabilities of course — but I am more concerned with how well they are able to be adaptable with what I teach them — especially in scenarios or situations they find themselves in that they have never encountered.
In order for them to be able to do this, as I noted earlier, they need to develop the capacity for innovation in action. In order for that to happen, they must have had the opportunity to have trained in such a way that invokes creativity. And the only way creative action is going to happen is if they are allowed to try different things, putting imagination into unfolding action (both body and mind), without the stigma of messing up, or the consequences of failing by being seriously hurt.
This then comes to the crux of teaching and learning to ‘fight’ from my perspective. In order to achieve this, everyone has to be on the same page. Firstly, everyone training together has to see each other as assets, not commodities to be mined for their own benefit. Without the person opposite you to train with, you don’t have the opportunity to improve your game to begin with. The relationship between yourself, and those you train with is sanctum.
Secondly, everyone has to realise, that while we all want to achieve success in training, so we can do the same in a real fight, making a mistake mustn’t result in paying an unreasonably high price. In other words, if you come out and only want to go 100% all out all of the time against me, there’s no opportunity for me to try something new, or even draw from new material we may have just covered in training — simply because I am going to be way to concerned about getting hurt. The same will be for you. So what’s the outcome? We both end up stifling our games, we hold each other back, and we become very good as, “One trick Ponies”.
The goal for the student, regardless if they there to develop a combat sports fight game, a self-defense game, or unarmed combatives game for operators, is the ability to take what they have learned and deploy it in all possible terrains they may encounter. The ability to do so, doesn’t magically appear in the moment when execution is needed, but rather is seeded several steps back, starting in the training environment.
One of the things I pushed all week long while working with these special force police operators is that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. I wasn’t concerned with how fast they could do something, or how hard, but rather, as their opponent fought back, they were able to choose, and apply the appropriate counter or offensive measure to be in the winning position. If they failed, which happened, they didn’t end up paying the severe price of being permanently injured for the rest of the session or the entire week. In other words, they could come right back and try again.
There’s another side to all of this as well. One of the reasons so many people quit combat sports is because of the whole machismo, meathead, all out mentality (especially in the striking based arts). I come from the school of hard knocks. It taught me to be tough, sure, but not much else. Teaching and training from creative action, leading to innovation and adaptability, has made me a far better ‘fighter’ than I ever was in my 20’s.
However, and I realise, that I have written here is the toughest way to coach. It takes a lot of in-training management, keeping people on the same page, maturity, but the outcome is quit phenomenal. I spent 5-days with these operators on the mat. Everyone from the outside commented that they couldn’t believe how far they came in just 5-days. I put it down to how they were taught, and the philosophy of training that underpinned it.