Selecting the right defensive instructor for you

10 January 2015

So it seems my social media feed is being dominated by a video of a ‘self-defense instructor’ who is using some very contentious and indeed, from my point of view, enormously hazardous practices.

So it seems my social media feed is being dominated by a video of a ‘self-defense instructor’ who is using some very contentious and indeed, from my point of view, enormously hazardous practices. The video shows an instructor and his assistant showing on video how to conduct weapon disarm techniques with a loaded firearm. Yes you read that correctly, a loaded firearm pointed at himself and his assistant. During the filming shots were fired so the viewer is left in absolutely no doubt that the firearm is indeed loaded. The issues surrounding this video were then exacerbated by this individual and a small number of of his highly vocal cohorts taking to the social media environment and defending their practices with what can only be described as extreme bellicosity. The social media bun fight ran the full gambit that those internet chairborne ranger debates typically do. I certainly don’t want to rehash those concepts, typically people who are stringently beholden to their own dogma have little insight into reality and I have outgrown trying to change their minds. It did however lead me to reflect on how people are selecting their own pathways of learning in the critical field of protecting oneself and ones loved ones.

My reflections lead me to believe that most people are so blown away by legend of their chosen trainer that they forget to overlay their own needs on their development program. In essence they don’t receive training but often find themselves contributing to the trainers projected image. In so doing they subjugate their own identity to that of the so called instructor and their own development falls completely by the wayside. They rather view their training as a rite of passage into the instructors personality cult.

In any event, I held it appropriate to examine how one should go about selecting the right type of instructor and training program for yourself.

At this point I need to add some context, I am not talking about the legislated firearms competency training, which should be viewed only as an introduction or a first step. It of course aims to test that one is competent in handling a firearm and should never be mistaken for high quality defensive or sport related training. So with that context I guess I can now segue into the next step.

So what do you want to achieve?

Simple question yes it is and simultaneously a really complicated one. I know a whole lot of people are now already raising a mental finger in the air and saying “well wait just a minute, are you going to unpack the whole sport versus reality debate” and before you drift off into your knee jerk response let me say, yes I am going to revisit that, so go ahead and get your noses out of joint and then understand that it’s not as bad as you think.

Once we put aside our indignation we need to be honest and establish what we want from our shooting experience. If it is to become the best sports shooter you can be, and that is an awesome goal by the way, then we need to build our training plan based around that, if however we decide that we want to focus on the combative elements of shooting, and then we can apply our training plan to that goal. It really is about focusing on shooting and focusing on fighting. The sports route needs to focus far more on the specifics of shooting, shooting with precision, understanding and applying the technical elements of the shooting sports and preparing oneself for that arena.

For those that choose to pursue the combatives focused approach they will need to understand that shooting is a part of it, one which they will not explore to the same level of precision but that they will approach the fight and inflicting damage upon their opponent as the primary aim and that the tools, knife, gun, fist or foot, are merely the tools to which they turn at that moment.

Once you have decided on where you want your destination to be, find a good partner for your journey. Yes there are crossovers between the two routes, they start from the same point of course, and typically those crossovers are the fundamentals. So you need to find an instructor to partner with who includes a solid sharing of those fundamental skills that you need to build off. Also you want your instructor to have a solid background in the arena that you wish to grow in and who also has the ability to be an excellent teacher, with a teaching style that suits your method of learning and a coaching style that helps you grow in your own journey. Think of it as someone who can convey the knowledge you need to learn and then contextualize that knowledge so that you can grow that knowledge into your own skill set.

That ability to teach is as important as having that solid background in an arena. I know of a phenomenally good sports shooter, one who regularly dominates at all levels of the sports shooting environment yet by own admittance has the people skills of a typical house brick. You can of course learn from the house brick but that learning will be limited and when you goal is growth why would you want to limit yourself.

Right so we have a goal, we also need someone who has experience in that goal and builds skills based upon solid fundamentals. This instructor needs to balance their own experience within an area with the skills of teaching. So let’s unpack why experience in an area should be important. It is sometimes said that those who can, do and those who cannot, teach. I have various degrees of disagreement with this context and I feel that is one of the areas that large scale training institutions such as the military tend to get it more right then wrong. You see instructors in those environments; especially the tactically orientated instructors are often compelled to have proven themselves operationally and indeed are often required to maintained operational exposure throughout their teaching assignments. The reason for this is of course the understanding and conveyance of context. Herein lies the proverbial rub. Context is the PRIMARY differentiating factor between shooting a gun and fighting a gun. Added to this context is that the shooting part is often a fairly small part of your overall tactical prowess as it relates to your job or in the case of a private citizen your life. Think about this, a police officer or a soldier are meant to be tactically proficient, however that is not their overall goal, and it is merely a part of what they do. Certainly their role might determine how large a part the tactical aspect is to their role but it is typically only a part of their overall skill set development. Certainly it’s only the very small group of professional shooters who get to focus primarily on shooting. So why is this a factor, well your instructor needs to understand the role the skillset that they are teaching plays in their students life and lifestyle and how that relates to the students development goal. Again let’s examine this. If one is focusing on improving ones skill in the sport shooting realm, then shooting becomes the PRIMARY focus of that entire development. Whereas within the defensive context, firearms skill is only a part of what should be the overall development of a defensive skill set. Indeed an overemphasis on pure shooting skills would be counterproductive in terms of dealing with actual critical incidents but also your instructor needs to be able to coach you to understand the key transitions between all the different elements and how this can be achieved efficiently. The goal being is that the capability of blending your defensive skillsets into your lifestyle without overwhelming it.

So blending right, yes you read that correctly, well look at this way. In defensive shooting skill development, the main lines of your development effort need to focus on the following. 1, You need to develop your mental stamina, this is key, in terms of completing the actual training, understanding the purpose and the motivation of the training but also in applying the skillsets in way which fits into your life. Awareness and threat recognition are two other crucial skillsets which absolutely need to be included within your skills development program. No 2, develop your physical stamina, yes follow a fitness program. Being able to move is a critical to life in general and of course that extends into your defensive skill build. Try and combine a fitness development with a combative motor skill, but do something. As much as we believe that we are all running and gunning, the truth is that most of us are sitting. Our sedentary lifestyle needs a shakeup. As much as I used to run and gun I now find myself punching keys more than the bag and with my ADHD I absolutely need to get active at least once a day.

Now step 3 is your combative skillset and the shooting, well that is only a part. Learn a combative physical skill, learn the value that a good knife can bring to the fight. Learn and understand all your less lethal options from pepper spray to a PK all of those skills need to be a part of your learning program. No 4 is always the law, you don’t need to be Barry Roux, but I put it to you that knowing the legal fundamentals for private defense and being able to apply it to situations are more important than learning that quick reload in terms of priority.

Right so your instructor needs to be able to organize all of these skillsets for you, not he or she might not be able to provide them all. I would be surprised indeed if one person was able to provide all of these elements to you but they should be able to direct you to the best placed people to provide you with this.

The other key element is an open mind, let me explain. The sports learning environment benefits a great deal from specialization. This transcends all athletic pursuits not just shooting. The Fly half does not make a good front row forward, the sprinter doesn’t do marathons and the ice skater doesn’t do hockey. The sports environment is based on the parameters of the game. There is nothing wrong with that but that does not translate well into the unpredictable and dynamic nature of a critical incident. Your defensive coach needs to recognize that and needs to be secure enough to advise you to seek experience in other areas. If he or she is honest they will tell you to experience a gun game, seek out other good instructors and explore, logically, the development of your skillset.

Lastly your instructor needs to define limits. Sounds strange, no I am not saying your instructor should limit you, but he or she should know when to direct you away from your pursuit of defensive skills. Just as important for long term learning is a clean break. Active recovery as the crossfit community calls it. Spend time doing something that is not shooting or focused on defensive growth. Mud runs, horse-riding, mountain biking, surfing, whatever it is find time to develop all aspects of your mind including the relaxation space.

So let’s summarize this process. It needs to be emphasized that you should be embarking upon a journey of personal learning and growth. You should not be joining a following or buying into a dogma. Your journey needs to happen within a context and your instructor needs to understand that context and the nuances thereof. Your instructor needs to be a coach, a teacher, a fellow student and above all a nurturer. They need to guide you through developing yourself and sensibly building you up. They should guide you to finding other teachers and advise you when it is time to switch off.

Once you have found a person like this you know you have found a great defensive instructor.

I have been blessed by knowing some awesome instructors who fit this mold during my career.

Sgt Kobus Burger from my time in the police was one such a person, as is Arno Barlow from Kembativ Concepts, Brett Clarke from Warrior Sports in Centurion, Kelly McCann from Kembativz and Karl Van Lill from Bodyweight Training in Somerset West. All of these individuals have shaped how I view instructors and I would strongly suggest each of you, my fellow readers, focus on building up such a life experience.


Bryan is a former police officer and following a stint conducting protective work in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Sudan he joined the corporate world as an incident management specialist. He is a keen IDPA shooter but most of all considers himself a keen student of defensive practices.

Originally published by Gun Africa.

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