Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Professional Approach

A Professional Approach

This discussion is about consciously adopting a particular mental approach towards one’s combatives training. The study of Eastern martial arts is seemingly steeped in paradox; most teachers cite some variant of the phrase that they ‘teach how to fight so that students will not have to fight’. Combative sciences seem intrinsically paradoxical to the uninitiated – full of seeming contradictions, not the least of which is the fact that martial arts (and all Combative sciences) developed as a means to protect life, but require the practitioner to develop the mindset and skill set to take life (should that be needed to protect life). However if we view combatives from their historical origins, then the real paradox may be the general approach towards their study by a great number of contemporary practitioners and instructors. Prior to the advent of gunpowder, TASERs, etc, these combative sciences provided the tools, techniques, and strategies to repel invaders, protect families, and maintain order. The paradox is that today, the vast majority of practitioners have a recreational approach to these sciences. Today individuals are training for fun, fitness, competitive sport, and a variety of other reasons. Parents even enroll their children in programs hoping that 2-3 hours a week of training will improve their child’s concentration, self-esteem, and promote ‘self-actualization’ (somehow counterbalancing the influence of the remaining 165-166 hours in the week).

While all these are potential benefits that can be realized through any quality training program, the Midwest Academy’s perspective is that these are only secondary or tertiary benefits of training. These lower order benefits of training can only be realized if the primary paradigm adopted by practitioner and teacher is a ‘professional’ one. A professional paradigm, in our opinion, has nothing to do with one’s method of earning a living; it does not require that one wears a uniform or carries a weapon under a governmental authority. It is simply the opposite paradigm of ‘avocation’; an avocation is usually something that one does for enjoyment such as a hobby. A professional paradigm requires that one makes a commitment to mastery through daily incremental skill improvement of fundamental core skills. In combatives training, it requires the understanding, acceptance, and adoption of the reason that these skills sets have been developed, honed, and handed down; without that understanding, it is difficult for a practitioner to differentiate between skills rooted in “gamesmanship” and those that are “utility oriented”. A professional approach is fundamentally process oriented; its core process is the refinement of fundamentals. Conversely, one approaches an avocation casually and often for enjoyment without regard to improvement. It is not that the professional paradigm is not enjoyable, however; it simply is that the purpose of practice is not for enjoyment. The professional paradigm emphasizes that the purpose of practice is the development of a process that creates utility; however, the Midwest Academy believes that those who adopt the professional paradigm have a process that ultimately leads to more enjoyment than the paradigm of avocation.

It seems contradictory to offer that something taken seriously can be more ‘fun’ than something taken lightly, but our experience indicates that in the practice of combatives science, this is indeed the case. I have been training military, law enforcement, and civilians in armed and unarmed combatives since 1988 – nearly 25 years at the time of this writing. In that time and through my experiences, it has become my opinion that one of the greatest impediments to building a useful skill set is ‘burn out’. While there is little standardization within the martial arts, I offer, as an example, this study because it corroborates my general experience in combatives training; an article titled Martial Arts in 1976 relates that 95% of all students beginning martial arts training drop out within 3-5 years and do so without being ranked as yudansha (‘black belt’) (Kroll, 1976). It is not my purpose to discuss the accuracy of that statement, but, in general my experience suggests that the majority of people who begin to study a combatives science generally stop practicing it with the time frame of a few months to a few years.

‘Burn out’ is often quick to set in as a result of repetitive training. Most trainers that earn their income by training become ‘entertainers’ of sorts in an honest, but ill-fated attempt to mitigate the ‘burn out’ factor in their students; the variations and strategies that many of these trainers advocate as a result of ‘entertaining’ their students tend to become complex, unsound, and are often founded in “gamesmanship”. The ‘burn out’ gets worse for the student who has neither mastered the fundamentals, nor can consistently apply the ‘entertainment-based-advanced’ skills; as a result of poor performance, the student spends less and less time practicing which, in turn, degrades any existing skills resulting in even poorer performance and increasing ‘burn out’; this cycle repeats itself until the student ultimately quits. Therefore it is our position that while it may appear as though repetitive training promotes ‘burn out’, the real catalyst for quitting is a lack of progress in developing skills that have utility; experience shows us that the repetitive training of skills which do have high utility produces positive results including a proper skill set, mindset, confidence and enjoyment of the process.

‘Burn out’ is a failure of the training process by trainers/instructors not investing the appropriate time and energy in their students to develop a professional approach to their practice. Unfortunately, many instructors/trainers themselves do not have this approach to their own practice; it should come as no surprise that their students would be lacking in the same area. A professional approach or professional paradigm commits to mastery through daily incremental skill improvement of fundamental core skills – this means that rather than increasing the complexity of applied skills as a way to create greater value in a combatives skill set, the professional’s approach is to increase the complexity of the environment in which fundamental skills are applied. Rather than practicing a specific skill in a specific environment until the student “gets it right”, the professional’s approach is to develop a specific skill in a specific environment and then increase the complexity of the applied environment until the skill fails. The failure point provides a place for a deeper analysis of the fundamental skill; it gets re-worked until it is useful, or proves it has no utility and is dropped from the venue of training tasks. One note on this idea: a quality trainer/instructor and a quality system have already been and are continually in the vetting process. The basic level student should not have to “re-invent the wheel” from day one; if so, that student is not learning fundamental principles, but rather teaching him/herself through trial and error.

Therefore we can assess that a professional paradigm for combatives training includes the following elements:

A commitment to mastery of fundamentals – as discussed, mastery does not occur in a static environment. Fundamentals include principles, strategies, theories, and tactics as well as specific technical movements. Once fundamental are mastered, the complexity of the environment should be increased until a new failure point is discovered; this failure point provides a nexus for further study of the fundamentals where they are re-worked, modified, or honed until the failure point is bridged. For this reason, we believe that amateurs train until they ‘get it right’ whereas professionals train until they ‘get it wrong’; once it is ‘wrong’, the real learning begins.

Emphasizes an eclectic approach that is based in utility of process that create desired outcomes – in short, no fundamentals that consistently produce utility in environments of continually increasing complexity are omitted from training, and no fundamentals that only create utility in specific or controlled environments are retained in the training process. A process based eclectic approach is not really a system of, “if it works, train it; if it doesn’t, drop it.” It is closer to, “if it always works, keep training it and vetting it; if it does not work or works occasionally, stop training it.”

Embraces disruptive technologies/strategies that cause environmental asymmetries and modifies existing fundamentals or innovates new ones that are useful for managing new threat environments while still providing utility for previous threat environments. Small changes in technologies/strategies are continually occurring in the area of combatives, however, disruptive technologies are ‘game changers’; the advent of the firearm is an example of a disruptive technology in the area of combatives. However, even today many martial arts students are training in processes that assume an environment where the firearm does not exist. However, since it does exist, and there is no definitive “non-gamesmanship” way of knowing if an adversary has a firearm on their person or not during initial contact, to train fundamental strategies that do not account for the potential of a firearm ultimately places the practitioner at an even greater disadvantage should the presence of a firearm create an asymmetrical environment for that practitioner.

Concurrent development of skill set and mindset – a professional paradigm does not assume that proper mindset will develop correctly as a result of well intentioned training. Mindset must be as consciously developed as skill set; mindset must be as systematically developed as skill set; mindset must create as much utility as skill set. The fundamental mindset to develop in combatives is a “combat mindset”. Paul Howe defines combat mindset as, “The ability for one person to go into harm’s way against overwhelming odds and focus on a task at hand – to solve one problem at a time” (Howe, Combat Mindset, 2012).

The adoption of the professional paradigm ultimately generates the greatest value to the practitioner by removing the paradox of “gamesmanship” and “avocation” from a science that originated, developed, and has been continually honed for as long as man has existed simply for its utility.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Natural Point of Aim

Natural Point of Aim

Throughout my years in law enforcement special operations, I have had privilege of numerous opportunities to train under the tutelage of Paul Howe, a retired US Army MSG (Master Sergeant); he is a 20 year veteran with 10 years within Tier 1 Special Operations including time spent as a Team Leader & Senior Trainer within Delta Force. Now the founder/owner of CSAT (Combat Shooting & Tactics) in Nacogdoches, TX, Paul teaches military, law enforcement, and civilians using a unique methodology – one that has been built effectively on his years of operational/combat experience and distilled for simple efficiency through his years of teaching experience. The author of numerous professional articles and books including “Leadership &Training for the Fight” &“The Tactical Trainer”, Paul’s professional background also includes time as a sworn law enforcement officer as well as an academic master’s degree. His professional reputation has a pseudo-celebrity like air that precedes him due, in part, to the success of the Mark Bowden book turned Hollywood Film, “Blackhawk Down”.

I first met Paul in 2004 following a tour in Iraq. While prepping for the GWOT, I had attended some DOD funded CQB & vehicle combatives training taught by military contract training groups. Coming from a CQB-oriented background, I found that most of these contract groups with whom I had contact with spent a majority of their class in explanations or demonstrations as to ‘why they were better than you’ – as true or untrue as that may have been, each case varied, neither the explanations nor demonstrations focused on improving the student’s skills. During my first 30 minutes with Paul, when he had not used the word “I” continuously in the classroom portion of the course, I knew that this experience would be different from other contract trainers with whom I had worked with.

The first classes that I attended with Paul in 2004 were the tactical pistol operator (TPO) and tactical rifle operator (TRO) classes. I noted that Paul emphasized proper kinesiology and bio-mechanics with a firearm inorder to develop what he called a “natural point of aim”; a skeletally supported point of aim requiring no ‘muscling’ of the weapon.  The use of these proper bio-mechanics resulted in the weapon naturally returning to this position (the natural point of aim), on target, following recoil. The manner in which he explained the mechanics of the natural point of aim were reminiscent of my most influential martial arts teachers’ explanations of the kinesiology of various techniques. Paul also emphasized that the correct mechanics produced accuracy and the repetitive practice of these correct mechanics resulted in the smooth application of them – that smoothness was speed. Here again was a parallel explanation with my martial arts teachers.

Since that time, I have attended numerous classes with Paul including classes on mindset, leadership, and tactics. I can say that the student-centric, self-paced progressive teaching methods I encountered in my first TPO & TRO classes were not an anomaly, but rather the standard in Paul’s method of CSAT. Since that time I have had the privilege to receive instructor certification as a CSAT Shoothouse, Tactical Pistol, and Tactical Rifle instructor. This past September, I was given the opportunity by the Academy to travel to CSAT in TX; I was again inspired by Paul’s quiet professionalism, his ability to demonstrate combat effective techniques at a moment’s notice, but, more significantly, as a student-instructor, I learned a deeper lesson in creating “a natural point of aim”. While calibrating the student-instructors during the week previous to us teaching, Paul kept reminding us to “get our minds right & our hearts pure”. After the training day I would reflect on that phrase as I cleaned weapons, gear, ate, and did PT – I probably heard that phrase everyday at CSAT. I began to realize that phrase described the ‘bio-mechanics’ that differentiate good teachers from great teachers. When your mind(set) is “right” and your heart (intentions) are “pure”, your “natural point of aim” as a teacher will be student-centric. This “natural point of aim” allows for the highest quality of transference of the curriculum between students and teachers. It also allows teachers to learn from the teaching process. I also realized that in 2004, while I was not able to articulate the difference between Paul’s training and that of other contract instructors whom I had trained with, this phrase described the essential difference. Paul has committed himself to developing a ”natural point of aim” not just as a combat platform, but as platform from where to teach, lead, and mentor others.

As the days in 2012 wane, the Midwest Academy’s Leadership Development Group (LDG), our teacher core, begins to plan the direction for 2013. The LDG symbol that was adopted earlier in 2012 was the triangle; it was symbolic of stability, mutual support, and forward progression. But as I examine it again, the triangle also seems to indicate a natural point of aim and I would encourage each member of the Academy’s LDG to commit to “getting their minds right & hearts pure” – a disciplined conscious journey rather than a static destination.

To further research CSAT, visit
“A person who has mastered an art reveals it in their every action” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo from “Hagakure” –

Tactically Applied Basics

Tactically Applied Basics

In the various training and application venues that I have had the opportunity to be a part of be it in the martial arts, military, and/or law enforcement special operations, I have regularly heard the terms ‘techniques’ and ‘tactics’ used interchangeably by many instructors, students, and leaders. At the Midwest Academy, which is based in Seizan Ryu (“West Mountain School”) training and teaching methodology, ‘techniques’ and ‘tactics’ are related, but not synonymous terms.

For simplicity of this discussion, we can use the following definitions:

Techniques – are how one does something;
Tactics – are why one does something.

Both techniques and tactics have a base ‘mechanical’ component to their study; at a basic level, the technical mechanics of empty handed combatives are focused in kinesiology. For example, some base mechanics of a proper forefist strike include making a fist, centering one’s weight, applying the power of the rotation of the body to drive the power of the strike, etc.

The base level of tactical mechanics is rooted in knowing the “rules of one’s game”; for example, exponents who train for grappling centric venues may develop tactics focused on keeping one’s center of gravity rearward (see Picture 1). Both these grappling players are more difficult to “take down” due to their low centers of gravity, but extremely vulnerable to being struck or flanked by multiple aggressors. Their tactics have the extreme vulnerability to being struck because in the rules of their ‘game’, striking is not allowed; and multiple aggressors do not exist in most gaming venues. Different ‘games’ have different assumptions to them; these assumptions drive the different mechanics that leverage the ‘rules of the game’. The result is the ‘tactics’ of that game.

Picture 1
Assumptions, either explicit or implicit, are the basis of what we term as ‘game training’. Games can have some value; for example, many young people have played the board game Monopoly and learned some rudiments of finance from it. But not all who have learned its winning game strategy have gone on to become financial powerhouses in the ‘real world’. While the game can teach some aspects of wise financial leverage, and even though real money in the real world has some crossover to the game strategy, the removal of assumptions and controls in the real world creates an environment where real money and the game of Monopoly are divergent enough that their strategies of success are not identical.

Understanding that, the importance of knowing what “game” one is preparing for as a student of combatives becomes obvious. Seizan Ryu teaching philosophy states that purpose (the ‘Why’) of one’s training dictates the process (the ‘How’) of one’s training; defining the ‘why’ one trains is critical for increasing the probability of success in application. As a Seizan Ryu practitioner and teacher, the “game” that the system’s tactics are focused on is the “application environment”. The “application environment” in the Seizan Ryu system means any venue devoid of ‘game based rules’. The term “application environment” is used since any ‘non-game application’ occurs in this environment. The “application environment” is devoid of assumptions such as a single unarmed opponent, for example, and its unpredictability eliminates the ability to ‘peak’ one’s training to a specific date. As a result, the tactics have to be applicable across spectrums (environments such as open areas, buildings, homes, etc) and platforms (practitioner’s use of empty hand, edged/impact weapons, firearms, etc) with little to no deviation in mechanics. “Game” training can be used to hone a specific subset of one’s skills or develop a specific type of conditioning; these are force multipliers when combined with sound tactics, however, they are not substitutes for sound tactics. Sound tactics are a result of vetting one’s training in the “application environment”.

The Seizan Ryu Tactically Applied Basics module was developed to expand the awareness of martial arts practitioners regardless of their discipline and provide them with a base level of knowledge with which to vet their current training practices. Most training methods, be it martial arts, defensive tactics, or even firearms courses, have some basic inherent assumptions that allow students to improve technically; however, when not removed, these assumptions prevent growth tactically. This module was the result of attempting to bridge the gap between training methods that focus exclusively on techniques and to provide a format to address students’ needs to becoming tacticians. Bridging this gap is the only reliable method to increase the probability of success in the “application environment”.

As an example for this discussion, I have chosen to address one of the most basic assumptions in most training methods. In order to facilitate repetitive training (ultimately the most efficient way to develop one’s technical skill), the practitioner is pre-positioned in a manner that allows for efficient contact/execution of the technique being taught (see Picture 2). This position, however, is generally not “held” in the “application environment”.

Picture 2
The Seizan Ryu Tactically Applied Basics module addresses the following training gaps:

• In the chaos associated with the fluid dynamics of the “application environment”, the ‘position of familiar execution’ (the relationship that most techniques are initiated from with the threat and defender directly facing each other – Picture 2) is rarely ‘held’ and requires the practitioner to have the ability to recognize or create it. The tactics of recognizing or creating this relationship require the mastery of their own fundamental mechanics.

• Since the urban environment is largely made up of structures, the application environment necessitates that one understand the geometric angles created by structures and the effect of those angles on threat identification, contact, and break-contact tactics. The science of geometric angles is most highly perfected by special operations personnel in the study of CQB (Close Quarter Battle); the extrapolated principles require an understanding of effective range of weapons (be they projectile, edged/impact, or hands/feet), action/reaction related to the OODA loop, and distance-time-angle relationships.

• Strategic advantage is gained through flanking an adversary; few combatives train initiation via flanking since the majority of training consists of defensive maneuvers against straight line attacks (see Picture 2). The result is that most practitioners tend to be less familiar with tactics related to establishing a flanked position initially since they do not get repetitions on the tactic.

What Previous Participants Have Said

• “I found the verbal instruction combined with the demonstrations helpful for someone like myself (completely new to jujutsu) and I did not feel like a complete buffoon in the class.”

• “The concept of repositioning prior to striking and aligning the strike prior to letting the weapon leave the workspace is very powerful. I have extrapolated this into drills I use every day.”

• “It was useful to see how the skills we are learning are applied to a tactical environment. This gives me a better picture of what I can be working towards and with better picture of who this works…it was useful to see how the OODA loop applies.”

• “I enjoyed the 5% offset for the strikes and realize that there is a need to train on it. It is not something I’ve trained on extensively and I think it’s absolutely necessary to master.”

• “The constant attention to ‘aligning’ on the target was most useful. The phrase ‘address the attacker, address the weapon’ was a concise mantra for the training…from a teaching standpoint, reading about the OODA loop was helpful, but seeing it applied throughout the training brought more clarity. As an instructor, it helped me see the shortcomings of in how I teach.”

November 2012 Tactically Applied Basics Flyer