One thing that is often conflated in self-defense is the skills training itself and the expected context of performance. When we train in combatives we need to spend a great deal of time developing skills that can be performed when we need them, whether that is your grappling, striking, or edged weapons training it doesn’t change. When we train skills through various drills we are knowingly training our skill sets, however, we are unknowingly creating what I call “training scars”.
Training scars are habits we unknowingly develop that will often become extremely relevant when we attempt to use our skills in a critical incident. A famous story of a dangerous training scar comes from decades ago when police officers still used revolvers as duty weapons. The officers were required to train and qualify on their revolvers at the shooting range during their regular sustainment training. Everyone who has ever been to the shooting range knows the worst part is cleaning up brass (spent casings) at the end of the training. These police officers were no different, so to save themselves some time they would empty their revolvers into their hands and place the empty casings in their pockets, then reload their weapon. No doubt this saved hours of back breaking labor… but it had an unexpected effect. After one deadly force encounter a fatally wounded officer was found with spent casings in his pocket!
What had happened was this officer had spent years training to reload by placing shell casings in his pocket. He was unknowingly preparing himself for this fatal day. In the midst of a hail of gunfire with lives hanging in the balance he placed spent casings in his pocket instead of allowing them to simply fall to the ground as he had been trained in the academy. A seemingly innocuous habit turned out to be what got him killed.
When I see people post self-defense videos on social media I realize they are attempting to impress people, but what I look for is how their training is creating habits that may make for an unpleasant surprise down the road. Most of the self defense gurus I see are actually harming their students through subtle reinforcement of performance axioms.
A common mistake I see over and over is in Krav Maga training, where an attacker rushes the defender who performs some sort of defense and then delivers a simulated strike to the attacker’s groin. The attacker has internalized the gospel of Krav Maga and falls to the ground holding his groin. The efficacy of the groin strike is axiomatic in Krav Maga; however, the best research shows us that strikes that induce pain are not reliable in critical incidents as the Sympathetic Nervous System inures us to much of that pain in the moment.
So now our Krav Maga practitioner trains for years adhering to the gospel, that axiom that a groin strike stops an attacker. Now the day comes to use their skills, they kick the groin, and nothing happens! Has this practitioner ever simulated combat where their strikes fail? Where the attacker becomes more enraged, prosecuting the attack with ever more determination and force? Playing games in the gym can get you killed.
These kind of scars permeate other systems as well. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students routinely drill self-defense techniques to finish with an arm bar, after the attacker submits by tapping the defender, the drill is reset. Another enormous training scar is created. I have fought through broken bones and joints before, I felt no pain. Certainly, a sufficiently angry meth head can survive a hyper extended elbow. The arm bar is a valuable tool but what do you do once you have broken the arm? Have you even drilled to break an arm or only seek the tap? What does the break sound like, or feel like? What do you do after the arm breaks?
The lesson here is that we must train in context, what does our environment look like? The floor? Walls? How does the attacker behave? What happens if our primary attack fails, what do I do now? How do I continue to protect myself and stop this violent assault?
Drilling is the mother of skill, it’s also the mother of bad habit. Train smart.