Do you really need experience to teach self-defense? (an excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book on Orientation:

There is no guideline, no certification, and no list of criteria that makes one a “qualified instructor”, other than having relevant, good information and having the ability to share that information systematically, over and over, to different types of people successfully. Outside of that, the information quality and type changes based upon the experience level of the teacher. How that person processed that stress and experience and then is able to transfer it into useable information to people from different walks of life and different approaches to learning is really what makes the quality part of the instruction.

Among instructors, there are way more people without experience than with. Of those that have it, some have a one-time event or maybe two. Some, like myself, have prolonged exposure: a childhood of extreme violence in the home and throughout adolescence, a violent teenage life on the streets of Murdertown, USA (Youngstown, OH) in the late 80’s and early 90’s, followed by 5 years day-in-and-day-out in the dangers of prison, and then rounding out with years of high-level training in both civilian and closed LE formats. Others, have multiple tours in very hot theaters and war zones overseas with day-in-and-day-out stresses of the threat of death and people dying around them, or years and years of no-knock raids on violent fugitives. Those who have both the years of exposure and experience find that it is usually mixed with one or two serious events that they are able to take and turn them into an amazing presentation to help others prepare, like Jared Reston and his awesome OIS Debrief (which I have attended and highly recommend).

I teach from experience. I have shared just about all I care to about my past. I am someone who grew up in a deep criminal family, with lots of violence, and ended up doing 5 years in prison for EXTREME acts of violence…if you think that you know everything I’ve ever done, or that I’m going to tell all, you are naive at best. If you think that I could do those things yet since other things are not documented then nothing else happened, then you are in the wrong business because you understand zilch about what’s out there and who you may be dealing with. I do not want my legacy painted with stories of my misspent youth. My views on the training industry are colored by my years of experience in the criminal world, with many of my family, friends and enemies of the past having been extremely violent criminals, killers and otherwise dangerous people. (And for you semantics loving kids out there, no that isn’t me saying I know it by association, I myself was a very dangerous person that committed extremely violent acts). That experience makes my bullshit radar go off about too much of the “self-defense” being taught out there. Many of you have zero idea what you are up against, yet you have all the answers despite never having been tested.

Stories aside, my material on the subject stands on its own merit and always has. If you choose not to believe me I don’t care and I have no time for you. This is especially true if you have never read my book, attended a class or lecture, or listened to any of the hundreds of hours of audio I have out there for free. I have no concerns about putting my views out there because I earned those views with blood and tragedy, and I put the work in to make them consumable to good people. People who have that same level of exposure will recognize it immediately. You can’t fake the funk on that level.

So what is experience?

What is “experience”? Of course, having been in real fights with weapons is direct experience. But the guy who’s been a cop for 20 years, even though he never shot anyone, he has relevant experience, too. He’s pulled the gun and aimed it at a human. He’s been through the quick decision processes, the chemical dump, the distractions, the exclusions, all of the shit associated with deadly situations that happen quickly, he’s seen it repeatedly for years. That’s experience. Can he tell you about the aftermath of shooting someone? Maybe only by proxy of seeing his buddies deal with it. Still experience but not direct. Get it? It’s the repeated exposure, the repeated conditions for decision making and stress management under consequential threat, these are the things that create a database of information for analysis. If the individual is good at analyzing the information and then packaging it for the consumption of others, then he may be able to teach you something that the guy who never got into a confrontation could never tell you about. It’s just a fact.

This is differentiated from the average person who has never been a cop, or military, or a violent criminal and has maybe one mugging or home invasion. This doesn’t mean you are now “experienced” and can teach people about the ins-and-outs of fighting criminals. There is an element of deep-seated thought processes that only takes hold after prolonged or repeated exposure, an element of understanding. It leads to a level of preparation and problem solving that you just can’t get to in any other way. Not even loads of force-on-force training will get you there (although you will certainly be closer).

One major separating factor in any skilled trade, be it carpentry or painting cars or fighting in violence, is the ability to fix problems as they arise, on the fly, and continue toward the objective. Anyone can learn the plan, the move, the technique, the fast draw…whatever. But knowing what to do when the draw is stuffed, or you don’t get the chance to work the original plan, or the universe didn’t align everyone just right so you can do the move you practiced so much, that’s where it changes. Most people “think” they can adjust for this, until they do it and realize what a technical skillset it is to be able to maneuver through problems effectively. And this is only one of the many effects that prolonged exposure has on the tradesman.

In almost every other technical trade, it is widely known that an individual is not fit to be a leader or teacher unless he can manage the projects with the experience necessary to avoid problems, but to also be able to expertly guide the team or students through them when they are unavoidable or happen accidentally. Yet, in the violence business we are so quick to give a pass around this all important step because it is a rare set of skills and experience to possess it seems.

I think the main problem here is that too many of the instructors who do not have the experience need to justify their existence and relevance, so they attack the notion that experience is required to teach it. That’s my opinion and the also the opinion of many other very experienced associates of mine. Everyone lacks experience somewhere. Just be careful if you lack experience everywhere.

Being great or excellent at a skill can give you valid things to teach. First, you most likely put in the time and have mastered some skills related to the topic of violence: shooting, combatives, and mental toughness. You now understand the processes of skill development, conditioning, technique development and understanding that only come from long-term exposure and practice. So, there are teachable pockets of understanding there in both the micro-skills/skill sets and the process of skill mastery. So, yes, individuals that have never been in a fight but can shoot or box or grapple with great performance can also teach within the lane of skill mastery and micro-skill development with validity. But don’t pass it off as violence experience. By all means parade the skills you’ve earned, and your ability to teach those skills to others, but don’t get mad when someone points out the importance of experience when it comes to fighting.

In the case of a long-time veteran of military, law enforcement, or criminal violence exposure and experience, there is an added depth of understanding that is now transferable by proxy to students that you can not get from training or practice. It doesn’t always have to look exactly like what you are talking about today. For example, if you did a good amount of fighting with a rifle, and some in-close fighting at that, it’s not that much of a stretch to transfer that experience into developing fight readiness with a pistol. You understand the nuances of gear quality, retention, safety, accountability, skill development, movement, opponent behavior patterns, concealment, etc. But more importantly you deeply understand the fighting part, as well as the fight-with-a-tool part. Until you have been tasked with projecting that skill and violence into another human, then you do not understand the fight part. The fight part is huge; much bigger than you think.

I will add here how incredibly disrespectful it is when someone without experience tries to “check” or “call out” someone who has it. People who have been mentally and physically tested to the extreme have accumulated knowledge–about fighting, about the world, about themselves–that can’t be gained any other way. They have also proven to themselves that they have what it takes to make it, to prevail. I know it’s easy for people to talk shit about Navy SEALS and convicts alike, as well as any other experienced subset of people, but if you haven’t endured the worst of what human existence can throw at you, then you are talking shit to someone who literally understands YOUR limitations better than you do. They can see your insecurities and vulnerabilities like shining beacons in the night, and it’s quite annoying to have to listen to your untested mouth.

Until you have passed through BUDS training successfully, and deployed into high-casualty missions with a small team, or you have spent years kicking in doors on violent fugitives, and fighting suspects in dark alleys by yourself, or you have awoken every single day in the most dangerous place in the U.S. for years on end, locked inside with the most dangerous people in our population, and spent months on end locked in “the hole” (a small metal cell not much larger than a human-sized box), then you shouldn’t be running your mouth about what that person has or hasn’t done, or can or can’t do. I can promise you that you are hiding behind the law, behind the fact that it’s illegal to break your face. Not that I ever condone violence for vengeance, but I just have a feeling that you would be silenced quickly were you not a protected species.

“But, but, firearms instructors aren’t experienced either!!”

Ah yes, the infamous rebuttal comes forth: “99.9% of firearms classes are taught by people who have never been in a gunfight”. First, this was not an appropriate answer to my assertion that the majority of knife defense systems and methods were developed by people with no knife defense experience. The correct comparison would be “how much of what is taught in gunfighting systems or methods was developed by people who have direct experience with gunfights.”

The answer to that is, “a whole hell of a lot more than the knife defense systems or methods.” As I point out frequently, if you are in the right places in the firearms community, the systems and methods that are being taught are boiled down and refined by people who have enough experience in the world of actual gunfighting to be able to call bullshit on something. There are not many people out there knife fighting for a profession, but there are a hell of a lot of people out there in the business of professionally carrying and using a gun in multiple fields, and those people are very active and involved in helping to share and refine the information that comes back from the field to help shape the equipment choices, weapon and gear design, and the techniques, tactics and procedures of good guys in all fields.

If you are in the right circles with trainers and teachers who are staying up to date with information about what is coming back from the field, both overseas and on the streets here, then you are learning the systems and methods that have been born from real experience. However, the caveat here is that just because someone teaches SWAT, or is a SWAT cop doesn’t mean they are in the loop, and it is well known that many agencies fall victim to institutional inbreeding when it comes to instruction on techniques, tactics and procedures. It is also well known that military service does not guarantee one has the experience of small arms fighting, either. That’s not the “experience” I am talking about.

The experience I am talking about comes from the massive amount of people in the firearms community that have been in enough armed confrontations and shootings to be able to call bullshit on something being taught AND they are cooperating across divisions to refine the information. Two key elements must be together. The “knife defense” subset of the industry lacks this self-policing element, because there aren’t really people out there “knife fighting” for real as a job. But, there are guys out there carrying guns and using them everyday, and working to refine what works and what doesn’t in everything from equipment choices to gun handling to room clearing techniques (which DOES apply to the civilian in home defense and unfamiliar structure movement like malls, theaters, etc.). That information is coming from real work with deadly risks. It is incredibly difficult to get away with bullshit in the firearms training world, if you put yourself out there enough, because of these people. No other field of self-defense, knife defense included, can boast anything even close to that level of experience saturation. It’s self-policing to a great extent, and it is also continually refining the information being shared and taught.

The key element that will separate the two, IF we were to compare a great instructor who has no fight experience to one that does, is the mindset and understanding that leads to information synthesis. Orientation is the basis for all decision making, and experience is a gigantic part of that orientation. Fighting, especially deadly fighting, is all about fast decision making. Therefore, experience makes a huge difference in the mindset. Experience is the single most bolstering factor to genuine confidence, which is priceless in deadly situations. It goes back to that knowing how to fix it when things go wrong, and knowing how to follow through with the plan, or develop a new one, when you are punched in the face. It increases one’s ability to accurately read incoming information, and then synthesize that information with information they already have and trust, to come up with the best decisions possible. It’s just how it works. 

But, again, if you are not learning from people who have that real confrontation experience, and not just one person or one type of experience, but many experienced people from different fields, you are not getting a full picture. There is too much to learn from those who have been there, how they see things and how they think differently than those who have not encountered it. It’s just a fact. I practice what I preach, and even though I have had extensive repeated and prolonged exposure to criminal (and institutional) violence, I seek out people who have seen different parts of it. I want to hear what they think about it. How did they handle it the first time? Was it similar or different to my own reactions? Did they have the nightmares, too? Why or why not? How do those professionals approach structures and rooms, and why? What went into the development of their techniques and procedures that comes from a mistake or a real fight and how did they develop it? What does it mean for me? For my students? What would it mean for the accountant who’s never been in a fight, who comes to me for answers about defending himself with lethal force? This is the kind of shit people who have never fought can’t give you. They have no idea even how they will react, let alone helping you try to prepare how you will react. Think about this deeply.

If you are training “A LOT” and the “majority” of people you train with do not fit into that category, then yes in my opinion you are absolutely hanging out in the wrong end of the pool, so to speak. Meaning, you should seek out people who have direct experience in the stresses of deadly situations much more often than you have so far, so you may absorb some of those crucial viewpoints that ONLY come from having been there and done it. No, it doesn’t just come from LE or mil, you should find as many different people from different fields of experience within the topic as possible.

(Editors note: in the section following this, I go in depth about “information synthesis” and examine the differences between synthesized information, memorized information, and practiced information. Look for my upcoming book on Orientation in 2019)

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