Monday, February 04, 2008

Scenario Training: Are You Teaching Your Students to Fail?

(Photo by Brandan at

How do you prepare for an attack outside of the dojo or gym?

While training in class, we’re surrounded by friends in a controlled environment. We’re assured that we won’t be seriously harmed while practicing our techniques against one another. We take precautions, like protective gear and floor mats to help guarantee our safety. While everyone is instructed to ‘control’ their attack in order to prevent injury.

However, on the ‘street,’ its another story; there’s no safety equipment, no rules, no precautions, and our attacker’s full intention is only to harm us. This means that the self-defense techniques that we practice in the comforts of the dojo or gym may look and feel much different when we have to apply them for real.

The difference, of course, is stress. In class, we are allowed, even encouraged, to make mistakes. If a given technique doesn’t work, we may simply restart and try again. Our instructors and fellow students are hopefully supportive and give us advice to help us improve.

In a real situation, there is no second chance. You can’t count on anyone being around to help or support you. If your technique fails, you better have a back-up plan or you’re going to be in serious trouble.

The anxiety of being in this sort of situation causes an adrenal-stress reaction in the body. In order to help you survive the encounter, your body releases adrenaline into your system, causing your heart to pump faster, your lungs to take in more oxygen, your nervous system to feel less pain, your vision to narrow, and any unnecessary body functions (like digestion) to shut down.

In order to account for this type of reaction, many schools practice “scenario training;” where they try to mimic the conditions of an actual attack. The purpose of this type of training is to create a stressful situation so that the students’ can prepare for their body’s natural reactions to the environment.

The students are often further challenged by surprises during the scenario. The ‘attacker’ may suddenly produce a weapon, move in an unexpected direction, or be joined by an accomplice. The drill forces students to respond to unanticipated circumstances.

While scenario training is an excellent tool for getting people to deal with the realities of combat, it’s also the cause of the #1 training mistake that most instructors make.

The problem is that this type of training is often used too soon, before the student has a solid grasp of the way the techniques should be used.

Many instructors, in their zeal to prepare their students for the ‘real world’ neglect to first provide them with a solid foundation. The students are overloaded by the difficulty of the situation and its potential obstacles.

This is a lot like teaching someone to swim by throwing them into the deep end of a pool. Under the stress of drowning, a person might somehow learn to flail their way over to the edge of the pool, but he or she won’t really understand how to swim.

That person wouldn’t be able to win a swimming competition or save themselves if they fell out of a ship at sea. They simply wouldn’t have the skills necessary to excel at swimming.

Furthermore, this type of training could actually backfire, making the person more afraid of water than they were before the training.

Like swimming, self-defense training is best done by slowly acclimating the students to the environment. In a good swim class, students are given plenty of time to get used to the water. They are taught how to place their face in the water, how to float, and how to swim before they are ever allowed to enter the deep end of the pool.

Self-defense needs to be taught in much the same way.

First, the technique needs to be demonstrated and explained. Students should focus on learning the movement correctly and not yet bother with possible contingencies. Potential problems can be addressed after the technique has been properly learned.

Once the student can accurately perform the technique, it should be rehearsed over and over until it becomes ingrained into the muscle memory. The student must practice until he or she is able to react to an attack without thought.

Focus mitts, bagwork, shadow boxing and kata are all great training drills for improving our ability to use techniques without having to think about what we are doing. In this way, we learn to move naturally, without hesitation.

Light partner drills are also beneficial. They allow students to get used to striking or grabbing an actual person. As the student’s ability begins to improve, the partner may begin slowly increasing resistance against the attack.

It’s important to train carefully. If either partner is injured in the gym, they will be less able to defend themselves on the street. At this point, partners should only allow one another to ‘get a feel’ for the attack without having to struggle.

Next, comes the most enjoyable part of self-defense training. The instructor should now ask, “What could go wrong?”

This is where our training becomes much like a game of chess. The goal is to anticipate the ways our attacker might respond to our techniques and develop ways of countering them.

Together, the instructor and students explore the ways that their technique might be foiled. They then try to prepare for these problems and address different ways for dealing with them.

Since everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, each person needs to develop their own individual strategy for handling these issues. What works well for a short person may become a liability for a taller person. A response that makes sense for a grappler might not be a good idea for someone who prefers striking.

In the end, everyone needs to have at least one or two alternative options in case their technique doesn’t’ work as planned.

In addition, combat principles such as reciprocal action, disorientation, complex torque, pressure point activation, mechanical advantage, or variable pressure can also be used to increase the effectiveness of the technique and help to ensure that it will work when needed.

By combining combat principles with a back-up plan, a redundant strategy is created. Like the brakes on an airplane; if one system fails - another is ready to take its place.

(For example; if my finger jab to the opponent’s eyes fails, I’m still in position to strike the neck, kick the groin, or initiate a take-down. Striking toward the eyes causes disorientation which makes a groin kick possible, while also throwing my opponent off balance and giving me the mechanical advantage needed to enforce a take-down. Each piece of my strategy helps to set up another possible attack.)

Once the students have properly ingrained the movement into their muscle memory and have rehearsed possible contingencies, they may begin practicing scenario training.

They might train outside or in an area designed to resemble the scene of an attack. Training partners can engage them with threatening dialog similar to the tone used by an attacker. Everything in the environment and the manner of the opponents should be staged to recreate the conditions of an actual self-defense situation.

To increase the stress level, the opponents might surprise the defender by changing their attack or pulling out practice weapons.

Armed with the well-trained techniques, the defender should now be able to adjust to the changing circumstances and face the attackers with confidence. If not, the drill should be stopped so that the technique can be relearned or so that the combat strategy can be modified.

It’s okay to return to previous training methods if the student isn’t ready for scenario training. It’s better to review basic skills than it is to have the student endure a negative experience during the drill.

“Losing,” in a scenario drill only teaches a student how to get beat up. (Something they don’t need to learn.) This is why it’s important that the student is successful at this drill. The idea is to build confidence.

The goal of this training is for the student to feel as though he or she has already successfully faced many attacks. This way, if someone really attempts to harm them outside the dojo, they will react naturally without becoming overly anxious.

Scenario training is one of the best types of self-defense drills available. However, it’s important that students are adequately prepared.

Trying to train a high-stress scenario is much like attempting to run a marathon without the proper preparation - it will most likely result in injury. (Either physical or psychological.)

Remember, too much, too soon, is never a good way to train.

I hope you find this post useful in your own training,


[Nathan] As usual, Rick makes some great points, and I completely agree with the premise that scenario-training is only for those who've honed their technique, and should be eased into, not dumped on an unprepared novice. For those of you who've never taught or trained in scenario settings or drills, a good simile is sparring. If we taught, for example, a skip-roundhouse, then spinning hook kick combination to a beginner, then made them spar with this combination, the technique would be gone, and muscle memory replaced by the untrained mush that inhabits the sinews of the novice. In other words, to paraphrase Rick, train the technique first, then the application of that technique. A general rule of instructor ethics and business smarts should be to build up, not break down the student; feed them what they're ready to eat.


Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think thru the strategy for preparing for street fights by thinking thru what we know from training from other sports....sort of pursuing my "basketball kata" thinking.

Kids get incredible pressure and adrenalin rushes when they get into big games (soccer, basketball etc)for the first time. To prepare, they train with drills in which the skills are broken down. They also scrimmage alot. I've nevver head of a coach saying that kids shouldn't play in games until they've mastered a lay-up or have the perfect tackle. Skills are learned and honed from both detail-oriented drills and their use games.

Based on this analogy, what's my conclusion on whether scenario-training early-on is misguided? This logic doesn't support reserving high pressure drills (scenario training) for advanced students.

Of course, if you throw a non-swimmer in the water, they might swallow alot. And many inexperienced athletes have found themselves humbled in many games. This removes false confidence. Does it traumatize some? Yes. But it motivates others. My bottom line: its not whether you do it, it's how.

Unknown said...

I can't speak for Rick, but I believe that we're all in agreement. The critical parts of training include:

Skills - the techniques
Attributes - conditioning, strength, etc.
Application - "dead" and "alive" drills

All are critical, but, as you say, the question of when to introduce them, and at what point is the question. And, I think, the goal is to develop the skill AND mindset through preparation. The drills ain't the real thing, but a part of getting you ready.

I guess the part that's open to interpretation is what's too soon for such training.

Great comments!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree and believe that training in the gym or dojo is completely different than real life.

The only way to know if you have what it takes is to be put in a pressure situation that is authentic.