Building Scenario Training: Part Two – Creating the Aggressor


In sparring a good training partner can be a revelation: someone who has the skill to push you to do better but also illustrate your weaknesses without destroying your confidence. The role of an aggressor in scenario training is very similar, but the attributes they require are often more mental than physical and they can even be technically far less skilled in fighting while providing extremely high quality training. Without good role-players scenario training can easily become no different from competitive sparring. Role-playing aggressors should have a number of different attributes and be carefully selected to ensure the safety and realism of the training.


An understanding of HAOV

Habitual Acts of Violence (HAOV) is an umbrella term that covers not only the most common physical methods used in the many different types of violent attacks, but also the body language, posturing, verbal assaults and other forms of aggression that may precede a violent event or characterise its de-escalation or aftermath. A good role-playing aggressor must be able to replicate the body language, talk and physical attacks found in the type of scenario being created in order to give the other trainees a good simulation.


Body language and posturing

The body language of an aggressor throughout a scenario determines both its realism and its outcome. If a role player cannot convey anger, aggression, frustration, arrogance or violent intent accurately through their body language then not only is the recipient trainee not going to get an accurate simulation that may put them under a degree of decision making pressure, but they are also not going to be able to learn when to make de-escalation or pre-emptive judgement calls in a safe training environment. In self protection training it is important to acknowledge that a large proportion of violent events occur unnecessarily because of poor interpretation of an aggressor’s body language and inadequate de-escalation skills. As such in a significant proportion of the alcohol related scenarios that I run the aggressor is briefed to back down if they are met with appropriate body language and verbal responses that enable them to save face (as not all aggressors really want to fight). If a role-playing aggressor cannot act out their own mental de-escalation when presented with an exit by the trainee, but maintain fixed in overly hostile body language or even continue to escalate in aggression, then a trainee may not even attempt to employ de-escalation skills or inappropriately strike pre-emptively to escape.




The verbal element of recreating an aggressive or violent event for the purpose of training is extremely important. As I’ve discussed here in the past, there is a great difference between witnessing verbal abuse on television or in films, seeing someone else being verbally abused in person, using swearwords in a friendly exchange, and being on receiving end of a sustained aggressive verbal onslaught from someone in close proximity. This can place constraints on where and when scenario training can be run, especially if you don’t have your own venue. It is important for those giving the abuse to be able to pick appropriate language and have the capacity to deliver it.


Physical attacks

This is an area of scenario training that is particularly prone to failure when trainees are taking on the role of aggressor for the first time. There are three crucial aspects that must be addressed: the temperament of the person taking on the role, the techniques that are used, and the tactics that are employed.

  • Temperament – Even amongst the trainees who choose to engage in scenario training involving contact, there are many who do not have the temperament to take on the role of the aggressor, especially if it is their first time engaging in a contact form of training. Through no fault of their own many people do not naturally have the ability to shove or hit first. Furthermore in making an attack in a scenario an aggressor is also well aware that they can expect a physical response from the defending party or parties, and that in playing their role they cannot use their full range of skills to defend themselves. Some people will naturally have the right attitude to take on this difficult and vulnerable role, and in others it can be developed through experience in training, but selecting the right people is crucial for successful training.
  • Techniques – Getting the ‘attack’ right means that the role-playing aggressor must not only understand HAOV but also be able to employ them in an appropriate way in a scenario. There is a slight irony that while the role playing aggressor (who is more likely to be under less pressure having generally orchestrated and instigated the attack) has to limit themselves predominantly to HAOV, the non role playing defenders in a scenario often resort to HAOV under pressure (especially if they are not used to accessing their skill set in the training environment presented – see my post here) and swing windmilling punches, collapse failed punches into headlocks, grab and push without intent, or simply barge forward against an attacker. Furthermore the role player not only has to know how to realistically use the repertoire, but also in many cases how to hit fast without power, particularly when initiating an attack with a punch to the head from the defender’s blind side.


  • Tactics – Even before scenarios with more than one attacker or defender or bystander are introduced as training elements, there is a significant difference in the fight dynamic between in the first instance an aggressor attacking an unsuspecting defender or a defender engaged in conversation while trying to prevent a fight (in both cases with a clear intent to harm or knock out the other person and not expecting resistance), and in the second instance an aggressor attacking a fully prepared and ready to fight defender, knowing that is the case, and being cautious and probing to guard against skilled defence or counter-attack. The former only resembles the latter if the attack fails and the defence to it also fails, and then only if the original attacker has both the intent to continue the fight and the sobriety or emotional wherewithal to proceed with caution. This is why although using many of the same techniques, a self defence scenario (or real violence for that matter) looks different to a competitive fight. It is also why some things that we do not currently see in competitive fighting (but are traditional martial arts techniques) can work well in scenario training, while some of the competitive fighter’s repertoire (particularly the long range elements) may be inappropriate or ineffective. What can often happen is that the role player has not adopted the correct mind-set and as a result probes the defences of the other trainee (rather than simply going for them) resulting in a pattern of behaviour that more closely resembles sparring.



An understanding of different motives

 Violent events occur for different reasons and while this is obvious it is a game-changing factor that can be overlooked in ‘creating’ an aggressor for scenario training. Some people behave aggressively because they are genuinely angry and have had any normal inhibition against violence reduced by the influence of recent events (for example relationship or work problems), perceived anonymity, and/or substances (such as alcohol). Those same factors can also affect behaviour where the recipient of any abuse is known to the aggressor, with memories of perceived or real slights or abuse displacing anonymity as an inhibition releasing factor. Often such people do not really want to fight but to save face, especially if people known to them are present. Some people may behave in aggressive manner or utilise weapons as a means to an end, with no real intent to commit bodily harm (though when weapons are employed even an unwilling person may, in the panic of meeting unexpected resistance, cause a life changing or fatal injury). Others in the same situation may be only too happy to commit bodily harm. There are people who behave aggressively and intend to hurt people because it gives them pleasure and perhaps ensures status within their peer group. There are others who may commit extremely violent acts due to mental health problems, or who use violence as a means of (or to) sexual gratification. The important point is to recognise that different scenarios require different behaviour patterns on the part of the role-playing aggressor. People tasked with an aggressor’s role need to know why their character is doing what they are doing as it should affect not only the course of the simulated violent event but also whether or not a violence is the outcome of the scenario.


The ability to assess and vary contact

There are many different educational outcomes that can come from scenario training in addition to great fun (though for many it’s the same fun as the rollercoaster that you dread throughout your entire time in the queue, are filled with blind panic throughout the ride, and afterwards say “That was great, let’s do it again.”). One thing that is not an aim of scenario training 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 training due to the number of people involved. A good aggressor has to be able to tailor their attack to the recipient: different ages and different amounts or types of training mean that the same level of contact is not always appropriate to create the same learning outcome, and the amount of force put into a protected part of the body (such as an armoured torso) is different to that which can be safely used on the head, particularly if the recipient can’t see it coming. Depending on the type and length of training run the ‘victim’ may have to run multiple scenarios and even role play an aggressor themselves, something that can’t be done if they get shaken or knocked out by an overly hard head shot.


Training and Picking Aggressors

There is a difference between being a good aggressor in scenario training and being a good martial artist. It takes a long time to be a good martial artist but often people require very little training to be excellent role players. Many very skilled martial artists, while having the control and ability to be able to judge how much force to use and to create safe realistic training, do not have the ability to act or to adopt the physical and verbal attributes of an aggressive person. That does not completely rule them out as ‘bad guys’ in a scenario: they don’t have to know they are bad guys, they can be told to simply be themselves and back up their ‘mate’ in a scenario, or to limit themselves to HAOV but back up their friend – the friend being the crucial role-playing aggressor.

Role players need to understand what the training is trying to achieve. They do not need to be psychiatrists. Demonstrations combined with video clips of real violence, plus an explanation of the types of attacker that might be used, is often sufficient for most people. Obviously the more experienced people are at this form of training (or handling real aggression) the better prepared they will be to create a good simulation.

One method of selecting aggressors is to have trainees alternate delivering verbal abuse to each other while continuously rotating pairs to see who has the acting talent. This is useful for identifying those who can deliver verbal abuse, those who can’t, and those who are intimidated or become aggressive – an important safety concern as to ‘who gets what with whom’ in training. Following this is the important element of contact acclimatisation, again with rotating partners, having trainees alternating hitting each other along a force continuum. This identifies who has the temperament to hit, but also educates each person in the training group as to the abilities and limitations of each participant, thus reducing the risk of excessive force being used. From these exercises a core group of potential attackers can be identified for the initial phases of training.





  1. Another top article John..bravo …

    1. Thanks Smurf. It’s always been a pleasure watching you visit us to be a bad guy and bring all your professional experience to creating the role. :)

  2. […] Physical attacks preceded by visual and/or verbal context to train the observational skills, positioning and body language of students so they are better placed to defend or pre-empt as necessary. Not everyone is a natural at adding this ‘extra’ dynamic to the physical attack but it is possible to train some people to take on this role. You can find out more about building the attacker here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 235 other followers

%d bloggers like this: