Building scenario training for reality based self defence

Reality Based Self Defence is an umbrella term for a training methodology that seems to divide the martial arts community.  On the one hand no sensible person seems to dispute that bringing realism to training can improve its value for self protection, on the other the means by which that realism is created divides people both inside and outside the RBSD umbrella, an umbrella that includes people from a broad variety of training backgrounds.

 For me scenario training is where the thin line between worthwhile training and irrelevant fantasy is trod.  I am very much in favour of putting (suitably trained) students into role plays simulating real assaults (and depending upon the students, situations where they may need to control or arrest resisting people) – but how this is achieved separates to my mind those who are doing something worthwhile from those who are living in a fantasy world.  Describing some people who are either self labeled or externally branded as RSBD as living in a fantasy world may seem harsh, but if the material taught isn’t pressure tested as a means of quality management – then it’s my honest opinion that this is what they are.  In Budo Sportif quality control is very much in evidence: it’s seen in sparring and in any number of contact and non contact competitions.  Martial artists in those arenas have no doubt as to the efficacy of their techniques in their competitions because they are continuously pressure tested for that medium.

 Unfortunately there is a booming market for techniques that are ‘to deadly to train’.  Some of these are valid, many are not.  Stabbing someone with a blade to end a fight, or shooting them, are valid (though not always legal) methods of ending fights (providing your aim is good under pressure and you have trained to access your skill sets under pressure).  Unless you have the financial wherewithal to have access to appropriate protective equipment, environments and ammunition types the latter training method cannot be taken off the firing range – it is too deadly to train.  There are certain debilitating techniques that can often be effective: eye strikes, groin strikes, neck strikes, baseball bat strikes – but while some of these are too risky to train full contact, none of them can be guaranteed to negate a threat and so claiming that you cannot practice your techniques because ‘they are too deadly’ is living in a fantasy world of your own creation.  As none of these techniques are 100% fail-proof, and anyone who has trained these techniques in full contact scenarios or used them for real will vouch that they are not, at the very least you need a repertoire of companion and redundancy techniques that aren’t too deadly to train (and we know that because of their use in the sporting arenas, from real life experience/observation, or in scenario training) that you are pressure testing.

 Having taken the decision to pressure test studied techniques in scenarios, there are various steps that any professional instructor needs to bear in mind before allowing training to take place.  RBSD Scenario training does not just happen, or rather it shouldn’t just happen, it is a process.

1. Constraints

A. The training environment.  Your environment might be suitable for regular training – but is it okay for a scenario?  When the proverbial hits the fan it is amazing how quickly people can end up on the floor, up against the wall or in a corner.  It’s very important that the training environment risk assessment that you’ve done for normal classes has been reevaluated.  How solid is that wall if people crash into it?  How close are people to the windows – are there going to need to be safety supervisors blocking the way?  What about notice boards and fire extinguishers?  Is the floor soft or does it need padding – or do the people need sternum and knee padding? Do those pillars need padding?

A carefully prepared training environment:


I may sound like an over-protective mother here.  If you bump your knee or backside on the ground it’s part of the learning process right?  You’d do that in a real fight wouldn’t you?  Right?

Wrong.  If an injury could have been prevented – you are liable for it.  And yes getting a bump may be a learning experience, but getting a serious long term knee or coccyx injury that might be ‘acceptable’ while saving a life in a real fight isn’t acceptable for a student who has a life to lead and a job to go to.  Your job is to make the student safer – and part of that is making sure he is fit and well enough to go to work tomorrow as well as taking part in your next lesson.

Light and sound are also factors in your training environment.  You may want to have bright light so that you can see, but you may also want the facility to dim the lights to create a visual effect – if it is safe to do so.  You may want bright sunlight streaming into the room so you can teach maneuvering and positioning to get the sun behind you and not the other person.  You might want quiet so that you can hear any conversations that are taking place in the scenario, and any safety words (see below), but you might also want noise as an aural distraction tool which makes focusing much harder.  All these factors need to be accounted for.

B. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).  If you are making full contact I’d regard this as a must, and you need the right tools for the job.  There is a balance to be struck here between the psychological conditioning of receiving contact (for the defender if there is one) in the scenario, the psychological conditioning of making contact against a real person, and the duty of care to protect all concerned.  Certainly head gear that fully protects the face is a must – people who have jobs cannot afford to go to work missing teeth, or with facial bruises – it’s that simple.   Ultimately wearing armour is not a cop out – you still feel pain, still get winded, but you reduce or negate the chances of bones being broken and you allow people to train at greater intensity for longer without serious injury. PPE is really a subject that deserves an entire article of its own.  There are the various bits and pieces made by innumerable companies designed for specific sparring arenas, and then there are the RBSD specific products such as the Bullet Man, Redman (and Redman WDS), FIST, High Gear and Spartan Training Gear.  Personally I increasingly use Spartan Training Gear because of its unique slim fit and versatility along with the attention to design and utility detail with each new product.  Alongside this I use a lighter non plate flexible slimmer armour for more experienced trainees that I have developed myself and is not available for sale.

 Participants in Spartan Training Gear:


 It is important to be aware that head gear does not prevent knockouts or brain injuries, it reduces impact but does not remove it.  If full contact strikes were always made to the head with the combination of MMA gloves and sparring head gear then each scenario would be like asking participants to enter a full contact UFC bout.  All training is a compromise and armour use expands how far training can be taken, but it does not remove all the risks: attention to detail and clear rules are important if you are to make the most of PPE.

A good job this preemptive defence was pulled:


C. Rules.  There’s no such thing as no rules – even when simulating the rule free environment of real assaults.  Have a safety brief, and a medical brief – these should be formal, not informal.  Everyone needs to know what the training framework is – what things should (and will) cause a cessation of training.  Have a safety word and make sure everyone knows it.  In DART we use “Zero” since “stop” and “halt” are words that are likely to be used in the dialogue of any scenario.  Are you utilizing weapons?  If so – what sort, who is controlling them, who is checking them, what safety measures have you in place to ensure training and real items are never mixed?  This may sound silly to UK readers, but it’s not so silly to Police Departments abroad where people have lost their lives due to real ammunition causing fatalities in training scenarios.

D. The number of safety supervisors.  You can’t be everywhere.  You can’t see every angle, and your brain isn’t fast enough to track everything.  That’s why having more than one set of eyes is always best.  In an ideal world I’d have a safety supervisor for every person taking part – all positioned at different angles – all with the power to stop training.  Most environments don’t make that possible unless you have observation walkways above the training area.  Every participant (especially the role players) should also be looking out for positions where someone could fall badly, put a joint too far through a range of motion etc, and all be briefed to call a halt to training if necessary.

E. The skill level of the participants.  One size does not fit all.  You cannot place a student (or a simulated attacker) in a scenario for which they have not been equipped with the appropriate mental, verbal or physical toolsets.  When briefing an attacker you need to ensure that the ‘technique repertoire’ that they are going to use is appropriate for the student for whom that scenario is being created.  The educational value of attacking a student in a manner that requires something they have not been taught is minimal, and to do so runs a greater risk of injury for both attacker and student that is unacceptable.  Ultimately – the skill levels of the participants restrict the ferocity, contact and techniques of the situation – and at the same time determine it’s aim.

F. Techniques.  I talked above about techniques that some consider ‘too deadly’ to train.  You need to risk assess your repertoire.  If it’s not safe to do full speed in a real time real force scenario – then it shouldn’t be there, and everyone should know.  If it is not effective in a real time real force scenario, it shouldn’t be there either since you are risking injury by attempting it.

2. Aims

A. Physical Development/Assessment.  Though not necessarily the most important of training aims for scenario training, this is the most obvious.  A well executed scenario simulation enables both the instructor and the student to see the quality of their physical technique under pressure.  In terms of feedback, for RBSD students this is the equivalent of a fighter going into the ring in MMA – with a well constructed scenario this is as good as it’s going to get.

Students on one of my Sim Days in their different coloured T shirts; the variety helps with identification on video feedback:


B. Psychological Development.  There are many strands of the psychological development that can be gained, for both attacker and defender in taking part in scenario based training.

(i) Aggressive Mindset.  Before striking a mobile attacker full contact in a scenario a student should normally first have learned power development through hitting pads, shields and bags.  Next I would expect a student to have progressed on to hitting a static person along a force continuum, since not everyone is naturally programmed to be able to hit another person with ease.  Once this mental  threshold has been passed I would expect a person to have been trained to hit an appropriately armoured training partner in a more dynamic context – such as the strict routine of a drill – becoming accustomed to striking in context.  Both of these situations are different from finding the aggression and the willpower to strike a person in an ‘alive’ training context where their attack will not stop until ‘you’ stop it.  The aforementioned situations lay the foundations to overcome inhibitions, but it often takes the scenario to release and test those inhibitions fully.  Benefit is not solely limited to the defender.  In fact role playing an attacker can often help release aggressive inhibitions too, and make it easier for a timid person to become a successful defender.

(ii) Pain Management.  As I have described previously in Iain Abernethy’s  Jissen Magazine, the conditioning gained from hitting and being hit by another person is psychological, not physical.  Prior static training builds up the ability to accept pain and an appreciation of what certain blows feel like (in muted form).  Role playing as both defender and attacker in contact simulations develops the mindset to carry on regardless.

(iii) Verbal skills.  The ability to think – and talk – under pressure is something that distinguishes scenario training from lots of basic sparring.  The conditioning to ignore verbal abuse, to be less affected by physical posturing, shouting, facial contortion and swearing, and the development of the ability to speak with a greater degree of calm.  In many scenarios I purposely build in language phrases that the attackers will take as a cue to change tactics – whether to go directly to physical or to allow themselves to be talked down.  The rationale is simple – if every scenario you encounter in self defence training turns physical, are you really training avoidance and de-escalation?  No.  Students need to practice working their skills in an environment that simulates reality – and that means employing verbal tactics when things may or may not go physical, and to have success in employing those verbal tactics that will encourage them to use them for real without compromising their physical position.

(iv) Fear Management and Confidence.  This is linked to all the psychological items listed above.  One criticism that I have known some martial artists make of RBSD is that it panders to and creates paranoia.  I am not personally a fan of exaggerating crime statistics to gain students, nor do I believe that people ‘should expect to get attacked’ at every turn.  What I suspect to be the truth though is that the vast majority of people who take up a form of martial arts training do so with self protection being one (if not the only or the most paramount) of their reasons.  Do I think that RBSD creates paranoia?  No.  Paranoid tendencies create paranoia.  What RBSD does, or rather should do, is train people to defend themselves against the most common violent situations, inform them of steps to avoid these, educate them as to their likelihood, and pressure test them.  In doing that you create a fear management tool both for everyday life and for real situations.  The former because having done everything you can feasibly do for what is (for the majority of us) an unlikely situation, you don’t need to worry about it.  The latter because having experienced replications of such situations again and again you are more likely to retain a degree of psychological control and take the most appropriate course of action depending upon the situation.

An argument on one of my Simulation Days:


Every training scenario should have at least one core aim.  Even basic training is so complex that you cannot isolate one of the above from all the others, but training without a clear objective of skill reinforcement, skill development, skill assessment is unstructured, wasteful, and potentially dangerous.

I run several ‘open’ simulation training days a year at my local venue and travel to deliver the same training too.  It’s great fun and surprisingly tiring for the participants given the actual amount of time they are physically active.  One thing I enjoy about running such days is that even when people have struggled initially, they always enjoy themselves, they always improve, they appreciate the feedback, they can make their own decisions about what works and what doesn’t, and the camera (unlike our memories) doesn’t lie.


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  3. […] is injury, whether short term or long term. Accidents can happen in training and as I outlined here there are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce the risk, which can be higher than in normal […]

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  5. […] Where possible, scenario training is a great way to bring elements of training together. You can find out more about building scenario training here. […]

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