PADDED ASSAILANT TRAINING:
ARE YOU HELPING
OR HURTING YOUR STUDENTS?
Black Belt Magazine
Picture this: While strolling back from your favorite pub, a knife-wielding
thug demands your dough, then slashes.
Or this: You - a woman - are asleep when a convicted rapist jumps
on you and duct tapes your mouth, intent on pounding your face.
When reality bites, you want to be ready...
Welcome to simulations training. Not real thugs, these “attackers” are
specially trained mock assailants outfitted in 50 pounds of protective
gear allowing for full force strikes to the head, neck, groin and
torso. In just a few days of training students' skills are becoming
instinctive, cooking into their muscle memory.
Once considered a novelty, scenario-based padded assailant training
is rapidly becoming the wave of the future filling a much needed
gap in martial arts curriculum. From dojos to law enforcement, trainers
are strapping on armor looking toward this adrenal-stress model
as the magic pill of self defense. Magic it is: When utilized effectively
this state-dependent learning imprints combat ready skills into
one's neural-network, and can transform even mild mannered men and
women into dangerous, tough minded fighters.
The concept is simple: By training under the pressure of a "real" attack
one becomes accustomed to the rush of emotions and physical symptoms
brought on via adrenaline dumps - rapid heart rate, shakes, sweats,
dry mouth - and is subsequently better prepared; in the event of
an actual attack the body registers "been there, done that" and
can call up these newly patterned skills without freezing, panicking
or succumbing to shock. Without adrenal-stress conditioning even
competent martial artists may find themselves flailing, losing motor
control or missing targets unable, in this emotionally charged state,
to access their normally excellent techniques.
Perhaps most significantly adrenal-stress training develops the
internal preparedness - the presence of mind and readiness of heart
- that enables one to enter, engage, make lightning fast decisions
and ultimately survive. But all such programs are not created equal.
Every model of training boasts "realism" and "effectiveness." But
are they? Instead of preparing students for an actual attack, ironically,
many students are suffering at the hands of realistic training.
Inadequate armor, poor instruction, unrealistic simulations, and
the failure to understand both the complexities of the craft and
the intense nature of this training can just as easily train students
out of effective skills leaving them less prepared to survive a
real world confrontation. You don't just - voila! - don some armor
and simulate a "go off."
To sustain an effective adrenaline-state program you must have
clearly delineated goals and incorporate these four elements: (1)
Good "muggercraft" to get maximum technique and fighting
spirit out of students; (2) Instructor teamwork (this is not a one
man job); (3) A graduated step-by-step infrastructure and; (4) A
skillful teaching environment that provides the know-how to manage
fear and harness the power of emotions.
What follows is a closer look at the essential components for running
a program that will help, not hurt your students, and give you a
Muggercraft: Doing The Dirty Deed
The responsibility of triggering a genuine stress reaction, then
patterning in the correct response rests largely with padded assailant,
the bad guy, the "mugger." Unlike sparring, a mutual contest,
the concept here is asymmetric training - a term first coined by
Mark Morris, a pioneer in these methods and designer of the armor
featured here. Rather than testing or trying to defeat the fighter,
your goal is to train the student to react effectively. Your actions
in the role of bad guy should be student centered and reflect: "What
is this student's next step? What do I need to draw out of, strengthen
or challenge with this student / group?"
Essential to this task is a convincing portrayal of threat and
danger. This requires characterization, complete with motive - the
scenario. Your goal is to prepare students for circumstances they
are most likely to face, so make your characters relevant using
the set ups, body language and words they will likely encounter
- is he a sadistic bully or a date rapist? Include intimidation
gestures, posturing, verbal testing, physical probes and ploys that
typically precede assaults and that reflect the M.O. of your character.
(Remember though, personifying the dark side requires the utmost
integrity; hidden agendas such as personal venting or showing off
is a violation of trust and a breach of honor.) Vary your tone and
demeanor: act slimy, cruel, nervous, crazy, big and loud, adjusting
to fit the character. The key is keeping the atmosphere charged
with a visceral sense of threat.
Building intensity is gradual. Our "muggers" start out
slow, presenting clear targets and simple set ups enabling students
to first develop power, targeting and focus while becoming accustomed
to "being attacked". As skills and confidence increase,
attacks become more dynamic adding higher levels of threat and perceived
danger. By the training's end students are attacked unpredictably
in full speed simulations.
Because how you train is how you fight, you want your students
to counterattack without reservation, striking and throwing full
speed, full power. (Of course this calls for armor that can withstand
a sustained pounding, without which serious injuries may result
or students may be forced to hold back.) To get maximum juice out
of your students, the "mugger" should always be in a dynamic
flow - either attacking or reacting to blows. "Posing" eliminates
the sense of urgency, resulting in the student's loss of attacking
spirit and a false sense of confidence.
Your reaction to the counterattack is the reward… or consequence.
Missed openings, flailing, weak and inaccurate blows are ignored
or brushed off and the attack continues. Conversely, well timed,
sufficiently powerful and on-target hits get dramatic reactions,
tactile and visual rewards letting the student know "it's working." Gauging
the power, respond as an unprotected body would (include grunting,
swearing, clutching of body parts and injured expressions - You
broke my f…ing nose! I'll…) but with some adjustment
to emphasize the lesson or draw out additional technique. For example,
after a good head shot the "mugger's" body stretches back
into an exaggerated arch, creating time and space for the student
to charge in and continue his attack. Similarly, while most men
are likely to collapse in a column after a solidly connecting groin
strike, the "mugger" might drop back two paces to his
knees, feeding the hungry fighter another juicy target, drawing
out a finishing knee to the head. As students' skills increase,
set-ups and openings become less distinct; jamming, dodging and
challenges intensify as fights become increasingly realistic and
After a blow or succession of blows that you judge would have rendered
you unconscious or unable to continue, give a clear signal that
the fight is over. We call this "bugging out" - lying
on your back with hands fisted over the eyes. Occasionally a single
strike or throw warrants "bugging out" but more typically
you must incrementally wear down.
It Takes A Team
Not a one man job, the ideal breakdown of a team should include
the following players: one or more padded attackers who enact the
simulations, offer constructive feedback and when not "mugging" help
instruct the class (it is unhealthy and ill advised to only enact
the embodiment of evil); and a head instructor who teaches and corrects
techniques, then coaches students in the drills and scenarios. Short
crisp phrases - Strike!…Move in!…Get Ready!…Elbow!… Kick!
- work best. The instructor / coach also calls the end of the fight,
best accomplished with a clear signal such as a whistle, and must
be prepared to physically intervene should a scenario get out of
control or become dangerous to student or attacker - i.e. an after
the whistle "cheap shot".
Coaching remains controversial, the criticism being "but in
a real attack, you're on your own." True. But remember, the
whole purpose of adrenaline-state training is to pattern effective
skills into one's muscle memory. Without a skilled coach - especially
at the beginning and during increasingly stepped-up junctures -
fighters often flail, waste opportunities and lose focus and control.
After an unsuccessful fight, a teamwork model enables you to isolate
and remedy a problem then replay a scenario allowing the more effective
version to cook-in.
Having a clear division of labor serves many purposes. Keeping
the bad guy role separate from that of supportive coach helps the "mugger" maintain
a distance and sustain the edge of scariness in scenarios. This
is particularly important if you intend to personalize characters
based on your students' fears or histories. In women's programs,
given the intimate nature of simulated sexual assaults, the distinction
between "mugger" and coach also provides psychological
safety. It reduces the chances that students will become confused
by the lack of clear good guy/ bad guy boundaries, or transfer romantic
feelings onto the padded attacker. "Being the attacker can
be very emotionally difficult, especially when I see terror in a
students eyes," notes Tony Turner, an enthusiastic veteran
of scenario-based methods. "Knowing that the coach is helping
the student pull up her fighting spirit allows me to stay in predator
mode and not tone it down." By simultaneously working both
angles - one challenges; one supports - the student can more quickly
rise to the occasion.
On the other hand, if your goal is to integrate this method into
ongoing martial arts classes with experienced fighters or to offer
a specialized training piece for SWAT teams, it may be appropriate
to relax these protocols. The answer lies in who you're training
and for what purpose.
Drills: The Building Blocks of Success
Turning the fearful into the ferocious is a daunting task. The
key to success lies in breaking down learning into manageable pieces,
then implementing drills to practice each piece.
Drills should be task specific; be clear about the goals you are
trying to achieve. For example, the goal of a "woofing" drill
is to help students prepare for the ensuing verbal attack and rush
of adrenaline. While attackers "woof" or bark at students,
pointing then moving closer displaying hostile intent, students
learn to settle and use neutral body language while strategically
positioning themselves for battle, getting ready on the inside.
In later "woofing" drills, students add verbal de-escalating
and boundary setting methods.
Because drills don't need story lines and can cut right to a piece
of action, they are excellent tools for honing techniques with the "mugger" but
without all the emotional charge of full blown scenarios. For example,
in drills focusing on timing and entering techniques, students may
start out with their eyes closed before a sound or contact signals
the attack. In rape specific modules, women practice reversal drills
focusing on "heave off" and kicking techniques emphasizing
range and power before adding speed. In another rape defense drill,
women have to hunt for or create opportunities to get back on their
Additional drills might focus on rear attacks, releases, pins,
throws and finishing techniques or "portal of safety" exercises
where the goal is simply to get past the "mugger" to a
pre-designated spot symbolizing safety.
All armor presents limitations: our brain-saving helmet makes choke-outs
impossible and knee kicking drills, even when safely set up, can
become dangerous. Rather than eliminate techniques, cheating students
out of essential survival tools, augment your training with other
practical methods. Even without armor, you can capitalize on adrenaline-state
magic by creatively employing pads and shields, allowing students
to go full blast while in a heightened state.
The Inner Landscape
"Realistic" training is ultimately about survival and
should compel students to face hard questions: "What are you
most afraid of losing?; What's worth fighting, killing or dying
for?" Venturing into the heart of this is potentially liberating,
but victory is never cheap. Adrenal-stress training can also stir
up powerful thoughts and feelings including unexpected fears - the
fear of losing face or of losing control and succumbing to one's
own violent potential - that may need to be reconciled if one is
to be effective in combat, free from a divided mind or heart.
Internal or spiritual conflict, emotional blocks
and demons from the past can negatively affect, even sabotage, one's
self defense skills and result in a range of counter productive
behaviors: hesitation, loss of focus or control, knee-jerk reactivity
and psychic numbing or "checking out." For all these reasons, an integral
task of this training is to help students learn to manage their
fear and reconcile obstacles that may jeopardize their ability to
act effectively. To facilitate this process, instructors need empathy,
keen perceptual and communication skills and support mechanisms.
The comradeship of the group is enormously helpful but you also
need to hear from each of your students.
One simple support structure is a sit-down circle employed at the
beginning and end of a class and ideally between scenarios. This
allows you to get a reading on your group, provide feedback and
perspective, direct emotional energies and present salient themes.
It is extremely helpful to shed light on obstacles as soon as you
see them emerging. Bear in mind that what is operative on the inside
(example: a student's tendency to watch oneself versus being "in
the fight") may not even be conscious to the student. But with
focused questions and interaction, students can steadily overcome
The goal is not to become overly invested in your students inner
life nor to expound or impose your views. Rather, sharing and discussion
should purposefully support your goal of teaching effective self
defense and helping each student unleash their fighting potential.
The amount and structure of your support systems can be adjusted
according to your group (military unit or fearful women?; intensive
training or fun-filled half-day workshop?), but not attending to
these powerful inner forces will likely fail to get the most out
of your students and may even cause physical or psychic injuries.
Because realistic portrayals can trigger memories of prior victimization,
having an instructor on board with a counseling background is always
helpful. A critical task is the know-how to navigate through emotional
material while staying on course - true to one's mission of teaching
SIDEBAR: Choose Trainers Wisely
To build a reputable program and maintain psychological safety,
proper training is essential. When seeking instructor training,
be discriminating: inquire about each trainer's credentials, experience
and history of success. Be clear - what exactly is the "product" you'll
be trained to teach? - and ask tough questions. Inquire about financial
gains and losses associated with the "products" you are
considering and discuss practical matters - how long will training
take, how available or mobile are the trainers?
This isn't one size fits all: look for trainers who have a history
of success with your target audiences - are they newcomers or seasoned
martial artists?; men or women?; civilian or military?
Finally, when it comes to assessing the wisdom and integrity of
perspective trainers, tune inward. There's no better informant than
your own gut instincts.
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