Saturday, June 14, 2014

"High Utility" Firearms Drill Training

Anyone who has been around tactical community for any length of time, be it as an operator, trainer, and/or leader, is likely familiar with the Viking Tactics (VTAC) 1-5 Drill.  Sergeant Major (ret) Kyle Lamb, US Army Special Operations combat veteran, author of “Green Eyes & Black Rifles: The Warrior’s Guide to the Combat Carbine”, and president and founder of Viking Tactics breaks down the essentials of the VTAC 1-5 drill in this video.

In this article, I will refer to this version of the VTAC 1-5 drill as the basic/base drill.

Industry innovators such as Travis Haley underscore that there is a difference between rote drill training, and understanding/developing drills at a “deeper level”.  Travis Haley, US Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance combat veteran, former CEO of Magpul Industries Corporation, and president and founder of Haley Strategic Partners, LLC demonstrates an advanced application of the VTAC 1-5 drill in this video. 

The purpose of this article is to highlight that trainers/operators/practitioners need to understand drill training at a deeper level in order to ensure a “best fit” approach to training using the drills which facilitate optimal skill development within the constraints of financial budgets and time. At the time of this article, I have over 15 years of experience as a trainer in the tactical community.  Although the core curriculum I use is CSAT based, I do use and teach the VTAC 1-5 Drill as one of the training platforms for myself and my fellow students/operators.

Three fundamental truths that I believe trainers/operators/leaders need to accept when looking more deeply into drill training are:

·         No single drill will provide repetition of all the various skills sets required in any given operational environment;
·         Some of the various skill sets needed for the operational environment are trained in direct opposition to each other; and
·         Optimal learning does not occur unless trainers/operators/practitioners understand the inherent assumptions contained within a drill’s practice method.

To illustrate these points, let’s again use the base VTAC 1-5 Drill as an example.  In the first video, we see the drill executed (15 rounds total on 3 targets) in under 3 seconds.  Training the drill using this method allows practice of many critical technical & tactical skills to include: optimizing the manner in which the weapon is “welded” to the body, optimizing the manner in which the shooter traverses from target to target, & optimizing the manipulation of the trigger.  However, in order to optimize the cadence of the drill, shooters maintain their finger-to-trigger contact while traversing target to target.  When the actions needed to perform the drill at the cadence demonstrated are extrapolated into the application environment, an operator moving a weapon from one threat to another with his/her finger on the trigger (potentially across innocent/friendly persons) would be violating most tactical SOP’s.  What SOP’s you ask? Most shooters who learn the “4 Firearm Safety Rules” learn that their finger is to be “off the trigger until their muzzle is on the target”; cases such as Medina v. City of Chicago show that our legal system considers the placement of the finger on the trigger when not shooting to be “willful and wanton” conduct.  And since we perform in the manner that we practice, practicing with our finger on the trigger will increase the likelihood that we will perform that way in the operational environment.

Does that mean that we should drop this version of the VTAC 1-5 drill from our training curriculum? Absolutely not! It simply means that trainers/operators/practitioners should understand that when they practice the drill in this manner, they are training the optimization of aspects such as weapon “weld”, traversing from target to target, manipulation of the trigger, etc.

It is incumbent upon trainers and leaders to develop utility in their training drills that are consistent with their application environments. These “higher utility/application oriented” drill variants should be added into the curriculum.  The variants should include the physical skills performance expectations that we seek during application: for instance, if we expect the shooter’s finger to be out of the trigger during movement from one target to the next, we have to incorporate that into the drill’s “language/expectations”.  If we expect a follow through sight picture on targets that have been engaged, we likewise have to set that into the drill’s “language/expectations”.

In this final video, we look at a "utility/application oriented" variation of the VTAC 1-5 drill.  In this version, some of the individual skills being trained include finger off the trigger while traversing from target to target, follow through sight picture prior to traversing from target to target, and a speed load during the drill execution (intentionally set up by using a partially filled magazine).  Since we wanted to incorporate the rifle reload skill, we set the drill distance up along the method described in the previous video by Travis Haley.  This is because of the tactical preference to reload the rifle at longer distances while tending to transition to the pistol at closer distances.  Even under 10 seconds total time, the trigger manipulation in the drill is less than optimal when compared to the base drill.  So while this variation builds utility, for a shooter to improve trigger manipulation skills, the original VTAC 1-5 drill should be used.  So here we see two inherent opposite methods needed to train two necessary skills for the operational environment: optimal trigger manipulation when engaging and finger off the trigger when traversing, as examples.

By constantly returning to the basic drills, extrapolating the current needs of the operational environment, and incorporating them into utility-oriented drills, we build a feedback loop that deepens our understanding and continually builds our skills.

Read more about building utility.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Emotional Resilience & Mental Toughness

"Nana korobi ya oki" (Fall seven times, rise eight).
In the nearly three decades that I have been a student of the Warrior’s Path, I have had the opportunity to explore various disciplines of Warrior training: as a combat veteran of the United States Army, as a member of law enforcement’s elite special operations teams, and –at a core level – as a life time martial arts student, practitioner, and teacher.

Warrior training has many tangible and obvious value adding benefits that relate to self-defense, physical health/fitness, mental acuity, etc.  However, these are what may be described as the “surface level” benefits of the discipline.  While the training must be focused on these obvious aspects, much of the deeper value is hidden from the uninitiated eye.  

The reality is that most student's of Warrior training, even most soldiers, will never actually see "combat".  Most law enforcement special operations team members will never be in direct action operations.  And most martial arts practitioners will never have to call upon their skills to defend themselves.  As a real-world illustration of this point, our dojo, the Midwest Academy, is located in the greater metropolitan area of Chicago, Illinois.  2012 FBI Crime statistics show that the city alone logged 12,272 aggravated assaults (instances of people trying to kill someone) and 500 homicides (instances where people succeeded in killing someone).  Despite these staggering statistics which earned Chicago the moniker of “murder capital of the nation”, when expressed as a percentage of the total population of the Chicago area, the homicide rate is about 7.1%.  That reinforces the idea that the significant majority of the population, over 90%, will never be directly affected by violence.  Since most people intuitively know that to be true, the obvious question becomes why one would expend the time and effort required of Warrior training.

Are there significant tangible value adding benefits that an individual develops through Warrior training other than personal protection? I certainly believe so.  In fact, the privilege of assisting others in developing these less obvious benefits of Warrior training was a critical influencing factor leading to the inception of the Academy.

This article briefly touches on what, I believe, are two of the most valuable personal attributes that Warrior training develops in those who integrate the training into their lives.  Those attributes can be described collectively as emotional resilience and mental toughness

Inferences to the tenacity developed by fostering emotional resilience and mental toughness can be traced to Judeo-Christian writings in the Old Testament of the Bible which states, “For the just man falleth seven times, and rises again” (Proverbs 24:16, King James Bible); to the teachings of Bodhidharma, founder of Buddhism, who taught followers to, “Fall seven times, rise eight times” (Bodhidharma); and are even described in the modern warrior ethos of our US Special Operations Forces when they commit that, “If knocked down, I will get back up, every time” (Navy SEAL ethos).  The point here is that we, as humans, learned a long time ago that emotional resilience and mental toughness were high value attributes to have/develop; and we know that they still are today.

While the Warrior’s Path requires us to be committed to the development of solutions to life and death problems, the “test” for most on the Path does not appear on the battlefield, but rather presents itself through the various challenges and hardships of life – the loss of one’s health, the loss of one's job, the illness of a loved one, the constraints of time, money, energy and the effects on one’s goals and life direction are but a few examples.  Less emotionally resilient individuals, quite often, fall into cycles of anger, hopelessness, and despair when facing these challenges.  Many individuals lose momentum and give up hope for a better future, dreams of success, and direction for a better life; instead they live a quality of life that is in proportion with their commitment to “getting back up”.  While getting knocked down is less than enjoyable, "staying down" is commensurate with living in fear, with failure as a companion, and drowning in a sense of defeat. Staying down does not require courage or faith; getting back up requires both. In short, while staying down is unpleasant, for the individual who has not developed emotional resilience and mental toughness, it is easier than getting back up and getting back to the challenge with a "can-do" attitude!

Emotional resilience and mental toughness, developed through Warrior training, allow an individual to “embrace the suck”; to get up, to lean back into the challenge with either a more refined strategy for success, or with the sheer force of determination to push through, or – more often – a combination of both.  The attributes of emotional resilience and mental toughness are not intellectual.  They are visceral.  They are a glint in the eye, a feeling in the gut.  An individual cannot “pump up their psyche” in an sustainable way.  Emotional resilience and mental toughness are attributes that are similar to strength, flexibility, or endurance – qualities built slowly and purposely over the course of time.  Good Warrior training programs have a level of emotional and mental challenge designed to push the practitioner outside of his/her comfort zone; to challenge them to push through discouragement, fatigue, boredom, etc.  The deliberate adversity designed into Warrior training is the “work load” though which the “muscles” of emotional resilience and mental toughness are developed.  It is the grounds upon which the trainee/student learns to exercise their courage and faith - the prerequisites for forging emotional resilience and mental toughness. 

The actual formula for developing these attributes is quite simple.  Get started (in a high quality program).  Lean into the challenge. Embrace the suck. If/when knocked down, get back up, every time.  And take quitting off the table of options.

 "Nana korobi ya oki" (Fall seven times, rise eight).

Sunday, May 4, 2014

No Contract Training

No Contract Training is just one of the unique characteristics of the Midwest Academy experience.  Many people who visit a martial arts school or gym to get information or to try out a training session spend much of their time being bombarded by a “sales pitch” from the business’ staff.

While it is na├»ve to miss the fact that martial arts schools and gyms need to make a profit in order to keep operating, you also shouldn’t ignore that the reason most schools and gyms encourage a student to sign up for programs such as 3, 6, 12, & 24 months, for example, is because they know that the average student/trainee will lose interest in a just few weeks’ time.  The training contract is there to ensure future cash-flow for the business (this is the same business model that most health clubs operate on).

At the Midwest Academy, we have a different approach to student selection and retention.  We screen and assess our prospective students during their initial conversations and visits with us; we admit those who pass screening as probationary students (probationary students train tuition-free as our guests) for a short period of time until such time as an assigned mentor recommends them for regular student status (recommendations for regular student status are made on a combination of attitude, attendance, and demonstrated skill progress). At that time they are given the option to take on regular student status at the Academy.  In our experience, this selection process eliminates the need for training contracts by ensuring a best-fit approach between students and the Academy.   

No contract training means that students with poor attitudes (which we rarely encounter due to our selection process) or students failing to perform (again, another rarity since all Academy students are highly self-motivated) can be removed from the Academy Student Roster at any time for cause.  Additionally, a student can opt to stop training at any time of their choosing (students who drop on request may return, however, they must reapply through the Academy’s screening process).

By operating the Midwest Academy in this manner, we maintain our focus exclusively on the quality of training that we provide as opposed to writing student training contracts, tracking contract renewals, etc…less time in the office and more time on the training floor is value adding for Academy students.  Our confidence in the Academy is confirmed by the near zero lack-of-interest-related-attrition rate at the Academy (that means almost no one has ever quit because they just aren’t into training anymore) – Academy students can leave if ever their interest wanes, but they don’t because their interest doesn’t.  And you won’t want to quit due to boredom, stagnation, or a general lack of direction in your training either at the Midwest Academy!

Contact us for more information at   

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Truth About "Self-Defense" Workshops…

I have been training people in physical skills since I was 15 years old – at the time of this writing, that’s 25 years of teaching experience.  Some of the people whom I am privileged to teach are professionals who require physical skills as part of their profession – military and/or law enforcement personnel generally.  Others are physical skills/martial arts students who have a professional approach towards their own training.

This month, The Midwest Academy provided a 120 minute “Women’s Self-Defense Workshop” at a fundraising event; we wish to pass along some of the general lessons learned from that workshop. While conducting research into current “Women’s Self-Defense workshops”, we looked at many of the already existing training platforms and discovered they generally had the following aspects in common:
  • They advocate that a woman strike an assailant’s “eyes, throat, & groin”;
  • They advocate the use of elbows, knees, & head butting; and
  • They presume a single male attacker as the only assailant.
In order to validate the workshop training, many of these programs dress the mock assailant in a padded suit and basically allow him one attack after which time he remains stationary and the student uses him as a “punching bag”.  A significant number of these programs also have some "gimmick" that the course is based upon - for example, the 'high heeled shoe' as a weapon.

This is excellent marketing in that it allows people to leave with a sense that they have some solutions with which to defend themselves, but is that really the case?  From an anatomical perspective, while these are "soft targets", the “eyes, throat, & groin” are the most instinctively & reflexively guarded parts of the human anatomy.  In addition, in order to directly strike these targets, the defender places herself directly in front of the attacker - a position that the Academy refers to as “work-space to work-space alignment” – in this alignment, the defender has no advantages and the position is most favorable to the larger, stronger, & more aggressive person.  In addition, the defender’s eyes, throat, & groin are as equally vulnerable as the attacker’s.  Finally, as if that’s not enough, the strategy advocated by these programs requires the defender to be at a distance close enough to perform an elbow strike, knee strike, or head butt (which, if incorrectly performed, can cause the defender to lose consciousness).  And while those anatomical weapons are formidable by all accounts, even trained fighters do not stand and strike at that distance while in that position (work-space to work-space alignment).  The formulaic approach clearly has marketing advantages, however, it likewise lacks integrity with regard to the welfare of the student.   

The Truth…

Almost all of our attendees were likely surprised during the workshop introduction where we simply stated that they would not leave the workshop with any applicable skills.  This is not a reflection on our curriculum, teaching ability, nor any such factor – the statement is based on an understanding of how humans create utility with regard to physical skills – utility is the ability of the skill performer to effectively perform the skill in the environment and under the conditions for which the skill is designed.  Utility is the process of moving from a knowledge set – knowing what to do given a set of stimuli – to a skill set – doing what you know given a set of stimuli.  It is often described as the path from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence - we have previously made the skill building analogy with how one learns to drive a car.  How long does that take? There are a number of factors some of which include: the existing skills of the learner, the complexity of the skill being learned, the methodology being used to teach the skill, the frequency in which the skill is practiced, & the intensity of the training. 

The two points, however, to always keep in mind when learning a physical skill are:

·         No physical skill can be internalized (unconscious competence) in 2 hours, 2 weeks, 2 months, or probably even 2 years; and
·         There is a direct relationship between practice and skill development – the more you practice (assuming correct practice), the better you will get.

Anyone that tells you otherwise is doing you a disservice.

It is not the Academy's position that there is truly a difference between “men’s self defense” and “women’s self defense”; there may be a case for beginning the training process at different points as, based on empirical data, men & women tend to be attacked for different reasons/purposes and thus are attacked differently.  Most attacks on women are initiated with some type of control as most women are attacked by attackers that wish to control them.  Most attacks on men are initiated with some type of strike or weapon since the objective is to remove their ability to resist the attack.  However, eventually, regardless of gender, a quality training program must address all categories of attacks.

Therefore during this workshop we focused on a principle based solution that achieved the following objectives:

  • Moved the attackers control further away from the attacker’s body core (thereby weakening him) and closer to the defender’s body core (thereby creating a relative leverage advantage in favor of the defender);
  • Forced the attacker to maintain the control with “limb strength” while allowing the defender to release the control with “core strength” (creating a relative strength advantage in favor of the defender);
  • Moved the defender into a “flank” position on the attacker making it more difficult for the attacker to continue attacking and easier for the defender to strike, control, or escape (creating both a relative position & speed advantage for the defender).

 We used a few variations of the same attack, but the above principles and movements are basic solutions to almost any control from any position.

A final thought on the 120 minute workshop was that by using a principle based approach, students were leveraging Hick’s Law to their advantage.  Hick’s Law states that the greater the number of options, the greater the reaction time needed to employ any of them.  Since students essentially learned one principle, their reactions will eventually be very efficient.  We say “eventually” since it still requires practice to internalize the mechanics of this principle.

The Midwest Academy's goal in providing workshops is to educate the public on the role of awareness in personal protection. With regard to physical skills, it is our objective to provide a realistic overview of what a usable skill set is as well as to provide the foundation to recognize what utility-oriented training looks like.  

For information on this or other programs offered by The Midwest Academy, please visit our website.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Pad/Focus Mitt Drill Challenge – "Tactical" Striking

In December 2012, I was one of a few expert guests on a radio talk show discussing “tactical training”.  The show’s host asked for a definition of “tactical training” (the show’s topic related to firearms training specifically and thus the answer provided was in terms of firearm’s mechanics and application - however the concept applies more generally to all types of armed and unarmed combat sciences); while the answer I provided of applying the basics which were mastered in a ‘flat’ environment (without all the dynamics of the environment of application) in the ‘application’ environment may not have understood by the show’s host, it was agreed upon my fellow guest “tactical firearm’s training” experts.  I found myself at a slight loss as to why the show's host, the president of a firearms training company himself, did not understand what, to me, was a simple response - however as I thought more about it, I began to realize that fundamentals practiced outside the "application environment" are conducive for repetition, but not for building problem solving skills.  I also realized that most training is repetition oriented, but not problem solving in nature - so even long standing experts may not have a good understanding of problem solving if all they have focused their training core on is repetitions. And ultimately "tactics" are about problem solving tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving problem sets.

For the past several years, the Midwest Academy has taken our TAB (Tactically Applied Basics) Module on the road to various training venues – the training gap that the program addresses is simple, but extremely relevant to the “application environment” and thus what makes it a “tactical” program.  That said, before we present you with our challenge to add to your training regimen, let us offer you a succinct look at the “why’s” involved:

"The Why's"

Most combatives (armed, unarmed, & even firearm-based) are taught in straight line relationships.  Some of the reasons for that are:
  •  It is easy to manage a group of students when everyone is lined up the same way; 
  •  It also allows for a safe training environment; and 
  •  It maximizes a training space.  

These straight line relationships are what we at the Midwest Academy define as “0% basics” – they are flat – there are no deviation dynamics such as lateral movement, elevation changes, changes in distance, etc.,  between the threat and the defender.  The practice of “0% basics” is useful for the development and refining of mechanics that are fundamental to whatever specific combative technique one is studying.  For example, in a fistic strike, the fundamentals likely should include the shift of the weight forward and down combined with the alignment of the hip, shoulder, elbow, and weapon surface to the target’s contact point.  For a firearm, fundamental practice may include establishing a natural point of aim, proper grip, proper sight alignment, and correct trigger press.  Both of these examples are the combat science equivalent of learning to drive in the store parking lot after the store has closed and everyone has gone home.  It is a needed building block that facilitates fundamental skill development, however until one takes the vehicle to the “application environment”, the skills needed for driving on a highway with merging and lane changing remains an elusive theory.

"0% Basics" or 'flat' fundamentals
The TAB module draws from the teaching perspectives of the MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) and SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) environments, both of which initially focus on understanding the geometric angles created by various doorways, room designs, building architecture, etc, and using that knowledge as a force multiplier in the action-reaction model (OODA Loop); in the case of the TAB Module, it is applied to the “tool kit” of the unarmed combatant (the base layer of the layered offense theory below).  

This approach is dovetailed from the layered offense training theory advocated by CSAT Founder and SOFD/D (“Delta Force”) MSG Paul Howe (ret) which I first learned as a young soldier and later refined under MSG Howe’s instruction; the layered offense training theory states that the system of fighting with a rifle, pistol, edged/impact weapon, or empty hand should be fairly uniform such that transitions in either direction are seamless, adjustments from force option to force option are minimal, and training for each force option is complimentary to the others.  Using this as the base development perspective for the presentation of the TAB Module allowed myself and the other Midwest Academy instructors to leverage our military and law enforcement special operations backgrounds not to “bring Special Ops to the training floor”, but rather to take the “training floor into the application environment”.  The rationale for developing the TAB Module is based on our collective experience which confirms that the action-reaction model, which integrates distance, angle, initiative, etc, works against the defender unless the defender learns how to maximize the geometry of the urban environment.

A"corner fed doorway" - the black ring that has been added shows the area that the waiting attacker can immediately control placing the defender at reactive disadvantage if he does not understand how to maximize geometric angles.

 This topic is both too broad and too deep to present in this type of a format, however, if you have read this far, I think you get the point of the “why’s”, so on to the “how’s”:

"The How's"

Being introduced to the geometry of the application environment removes some of the “neatness” associated traditional “0% basics” in the “flat” environment.  As combat athletes, we normally train these basics on a fixed position target (such as a heavy bag) or with a partner (such as with pad drills); in either case, we know we are performing the basic, so we tend to pre-align in a manner that puts us “center on” the target.  Once you have a solid understanding of your basics at this level (we suggest at least conscious competence), we encourage you to take the following challenge:

Instead of beginning “center on” your target, place the target where you would have moved to evade the basic you are working on (see above diagram).  In general, the targets would be outside the left and right planes of your shoulders.  From here you will find that many of you will get tuned into the skill set of smoothly shifting weight since you are required to initiate lateral movement to put yourself “center on” the target prior to executing your basic.  There are two basic methods of shifting and stepping that you will learn by doing these “5% adjustments”:
  • Method 1 – the target is on the outside of the direction of rotation of the lead leg (for example, defender is left foot lead and the target is to the outside of the defenders left shoulder) – the defender will need to un-weight the lead leg, move it laterally to the outside (and forward if distance requires) with the rear leg moving laterally to the inside; or
  • Method 2 – the target is on the inside of the direction of rotation of the lead leg (for example, defender is left foot forward and the target is to the outside of the defenders right shoulder) – the defender will need to un-weight the rear leg, move it laterally to the outside (and forward if distance requires) with the lead leg moving laterally to the inside. 

Writing is not always conducive to describing human motion, however, students at the Midwest Academy and other students that have been introduced to the TAB Module incorporate these types of “fundamental” evolutions to their practice with results that increase their agility, adaptability, and the ultimate utility of their skill sets.  If you train simply to "get in shape" with no regard for the application of combatives, the added lateral movement will give you a level of conditioning that few other training drills can provide.  Finally, the understanding you gain by doing these drills will also decrease training/application injuries and increase the sustainability of your training by reducing "over extension" and working "outside your work-space" inefficiencies. 

We invite you to add these drills to your practice and let us know what you think.  If you have any questions on how to incorporate this into your own training or wish to learn more about ours, please contact us at (630) 836-3600 or through our website.