Kenny Bryant Smith
CEO, Total Force Holdings, Inc.
Self-Defense, as we’ve established previously, is a very broad and diverse topic that, frankly, some people address better than others. Some methods of self-defense out there are more effective or more efficient than others. Some have such a heavy reliance on liability reduction that they are combat ineffective while others are so combat oriented that they would make even the most hard-nosed of judges scream excessive. The systems themselves are what they are but if taught by a highly skilled and competent instructor these problems can of course be mitigated. Some systems are commonly viewed as a sport but the right instructor can teach you how to make that system work on the street. Remember, an instructor is someone that YOU are paying for a service so you have a bit of due diligence to perform. If you rush right into training with the first guy in the Yellow Pages or on Craigslist offering self-defense training you might get a GREAT instructor or you might get a mix of trash and bovine fecal matter.
Does a black belt alone make a competent self-defense instructor?
I say “Not by itself!”
When I speak on self-defense, I could be speaking about any discipline within the self-defense realm. Maybe you want a specialist in one field. Maybe you want to work with someone who is just as confident fighting with a Glock as they are with their fists. For me personally, I train with both. There are times when I want to refine a certain skill and there are times when I want to mix it up and work how I would on the street. Regardless, I look for a few things.
The first thing I look for is beyond basic credentials. So many people look for NRA certified instructors when they go to gun schools. To be quite frank, I’ve read the NRA Instructor curriculum. It’s beyond basic. Literally ANYONE can get it. I don’t immediately throw out someone who’s an NRA instructor immediately but if they don’t have something other than just that NRA paperwork, I seriously doubt what they’re capable of. Now, let’s say this NRA instructor also has a Master ranking in a competitive shooting discipline, is a military veteran, has an extensive and verifiable training record with other instructors available, or has served for a long period of time as a law enforcement officer then we have something to work with. If you’re a basic shooter, the NRA program is great. If you’ve been shooting handguns for quite some time there is very little the NRA programs can offer you that you’re not perfectly capable of drilling on a range with another competent shooter and a shot timer. Here’s where someone says shot timers are expensive. No, they’re not. There are shot timer apps for your phone for free. I know this for a fact because I use one.
Can just anyone get one of these?
What about martial arts and combatives? First thing I look at is who backs this person’s rank? If there isn’t an organization backing what they’re doing, I assume they ordered their black belt online and printed their own certificates. Think this doesn’t happen? It absolutely does in the martial arts world, albeit not as common today as it was before the internet came to prominence for backing these things. I want to know what that organization is all about. If you get the vibe that a person gets rank or instructor certification as long as the check clears, you should probably steer clear. If the organization is so closed-minded they only allow members of their organization to compete in their tournaments and seem to frown upon their members cross training with other schools outside the organization or in other arts this probably isn’t an organization you want to be affiliated with. If you think this doesn’t happen, I assure you it does. I was a member of one organization for many years that did this. As a matter of fact, I was inducted into a martial arts hall of honors from a lesser known martial arts magazine and caught serious flak from some of the leadership of this organization for accepting the induction.
Author accepted induction into Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honor for Outstanding Dedication to the Martial Arts. Do hall of fame awards make competent instructors? NO!!!
So, this person is accredited. Their organization seems like a good one. This is where you can start training. Most martial arts schools do some form of initial trial where training is free. Some schools do one day, some do a week, some do a month. How long the trial is has no bearing to me. If the instructor makes any allusion that the system “can’t” be trained with resistance, you should immediately be suspect. If the instructor makes the allusion that the system is all someone needs for personal protection, run far away. There is no problem with someone being confident in their art but there is a huge problem if someone doesn’t understand that every system has limitations. On that note, there are some instructors out there use techniques that require a compliant training partner to pull off. If you hear of someone attempting to use “No-Touch Knock Outs” turn around and run as far away as possible as fast as you can.
Multiple black belts in different styles are a good indicator of an instructor’s level of training. An individual with a large amount of training is usually a better choice than an individual with a lesser amount. But do the belts and knowledge alone make a competent and talented TEACHER? Absolutely not!
So you’ve started training with an instructor. This is a good thing. As a long time martial artist and martial arts instructor myself, I personally believe every human alive can and will benefit from good martial arts training. Part of your due diligence must occur as you train. Watch the advanced students. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is maybe you can pick up on some details to make your own technique improve. The second reason is watch HOW they are training. As a beginner student, there is no issue with training in a vacuum. Training in a vacuum means you are practicing completely rehearsed technique, you know exactly how the attacker is going to attack you and when. This form of scripted training is commonly referred to as “one-step sparring” in many organizations and at the beginner level, there is nothing wrong with that. At the advanced level, there’s no reason for this. What excessive one-step sparring leads to is a false sense of confidence that an individual’s techniques are effective on the street and they may very well be, but there is no pressure testing of said technique. Iron Mike Tyson, though he was always a stark raving lunatic, made the statement that “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” No truer statement has ever been made. The street is not a vacuum. If the system you are training in doesn’t allow you to remove the vacuum and give your attacker autonomy in how they attack you, then you must question the effectiveness of your technique. Further, if your school allows free-sparring under such restrictive rules then you can not equate your actual street skill level to your gym skill level.
What about multiple black belts in different teaching methods or schools of the same art? This is a VERY good sign that the instructor understand the art and different methods of teaching the same art.
What about a hard copy of an Instructor’s Appointment, Certification, or License? This is also a very good sign of a competent instructor, as many organizations have some form of instructor’s course but this isn’t always the case.
If the system you’re training in teaches knife or firearm disarming, this is ripe for debunking. I’ve trained in the martial arts since January of 1993. I have seen some very good disarming techniques. I’ve also seen some disarming techniques so absolutely horrible that I’ve just walked off the mat after paying good money for that training. If kicking weapons out of someone’s hand is ever taught, advocated, or allowed to be practiced, turn around and run fast and far. Again, many instructors here apply the vacuum training method. At no point in time should “You didn’t attack them right” ever come out of an instructor’s mouth unless a specific attack is clearly specified. Under no circumstances should the attacker stop their attack, it should be a fluid motion even if done slowly because in the real world knife attacks, punches, or any other kind of attack stops and hangs in the air for you to perform your technique on the attacker.
What about instructor certification in multiple disciplines? This by itself is the sign of someone who is dedicated to the practices of training and learning how to train others.
Having identified a few negatives, now we’ll look at how you know you have a good instructor. I will hit a few counterpoints to these positives, some of which are MAJOR negatives but typically a good instructor is as easy to figure out as a bad one.
Your instructor should welcome questions on techniques. Some of my mentors in the martial arts world are the type that encourage questions at any time. As human beings, we learn visually and through auditory communication. If you have a question, and you ask politely, there is no good reason for an instructor to either refuse to answer or dismiss that question. Even people who teach this stuff for a living have to be willing to admit “I don’t know” when that is the case. I’ve had to do that in classes and while it’s not enjoyable to do so, it’s honestly like taking a solid kick in the manhood when you are teaching and get a question you don’t know the answer to, the absolute worst thing an instructor can do is dismiss the question or pull a bogus answer out of their backside. The exception to this is the “What if….” questions. ANY technique can be “what if”-’ed to death. If an instructor answers your “what if” with showing an alternate technique or by saying “We’ll get to that later,” as long as they actually do get to it later this is not a bad thing. It shows a true understanding of the limitation of the technique which is very good.
An instructor should be able to state what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. If they can’t specifically define what they are doing and why this can indicate a less than complete mastery of the technique they are teaching. If you get to be the student that quite literally questions everything, the instructor is rightly going to get annoyed. There is a difference between asking a legitimate question and being facetious. If you ask a legit question of “What exactly are we doing here?” or “Why are we doing that part, right there?” this is a good question. I would say that although I would answer it in an open class format, it’s probably best asked when you are told to practice the technique so the instructor can work with you and your training partner in closer quarters and maybe you see that detail with their explanation. This may be addressed by the instructor calling the class to a halt and explaining it in detail to the class. If the instructor sees a question of this sort asked in a respectful manner as disrespectful, this can be a real red flag. Their answer may be “Because this technique is taught this way.” to a “why” question, and while that snub may come off as rude, some techniques truly are taught certain ways to build certain skills. While that would be a better answer, everyone has a bad day. As long as they don’t make a habit of the “Because we do it this way.” mentality that’s not a red flag by itself. However, “What exactly are we doing….” type of questions should always be answered truly and completely, especially if in a more private setting like during partner practice.
A good instructor understands the difference between sport and street. Some martial arts like Brazliian Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Taekwondo, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and Boxing to name a few are as much sports as they are fighting arts. If your instructor ONLY teaches the sport aspect and never explains techniques that might be against the rules in a tournament then I suspect their validity as a true self-defense instructor. Granted, sport martial art training is better than no training but there is a distinct difference between the mat or ring and the street. If your instructor bills themselves as a self-defense teacher and ONLY teaches the sport, then you may want to look into additional or maybe even a different instructor. Remember, if your intent is to practice and learn self-defense skills then you’re looking for true self-defense training and this is not always found in sport training. I would say continue your current training and seek out seminars and other short term training programs to supplement what you’re already doing.
In the self-defense world, there are a GREAT many instructors out there. IF you are interested in training, it is your job to find a good instructor. A decent system taught by a talented instructor will make very skilled students. An awesome system taught by a mediocre instructor will make students that are merely mediocre. A solid system taught by an awesome instructor will make truly awesome students that would be a fearsome foe for most any adversary.
Until next time,
Stay Safe, Stay Frosty, and Stay Dangerous
CEO, Total Force Holdings Inc.