Cutting Edge Training

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Why Do We Teach? Martial Arts Rolls

by George on January 3, 2013 08:38

This is one in a series of "Why Do We Teach?" articles focusing on training subjects in police academies, in-service training. Not just police related, these concepts and methods are often commonly taught. The series details why we either teach that concept, modify it, or reject in favor of a more practical solution. If you teach it, it must be defensible, pragmatic, applicable to real-life combat and survival, and lawfully justifiable.

Cops fall, especially when working in the dark.  Everyone’s been injured to some degree at some point in their career from falling.  Stepping off a curb you didn’t know was there, finding a hole in the ground while walking across grass, being pushed over a coffee table, walking on ice or slippery surfaces, or falling up or down stairs, doing anything in the dark, being taken down during training—all can result in your going down hard to ground.  So it makes sense to train cops in martial arts rolls and breakfalls, right? 

Well, no, not really.  It is actually a waste of very valuable training time.

The training of recruits as well as in-service officers in defensive tactics involves a great deal of material that must be mastered in very little time.  Unless a recruit or officer already possesses an athletic background involving rolling or tumbling, or is an experienced martial artist, training time devoted to rolling and breakfalls cannot achieve the desired goal of inoculating these individuals from injuries from falls.  The limited time available to create minimal competence in defensive tactics and arrest and control is simply insufficient to gain mastery—or even competency—in the ability to prevent fall injuries later in their career.  Absent their own independent training and practice, the typical officer will never again practice rolls and breakfalls to the point where it becomes unconsciously automatic during an unexpected fall.  Spending ten hours in the academy learning how to roll and breakfall without continuing practice is ten hours that might be spent learning a skill or tactic that might later benefit the officer’s survival. 

Martial Arts Training as the Basis of Police Training is Problematic

In the martial arts, “how to safely fall” is routinely taught to decrease the injuries from training as well as to provide a safety mechanism when the student is sparring.  Training often begins with basic shoulder rolls, and then to break falls until the student is capable of safely falling from a hard throw on to a mat or even on to an unprotected surface.  As the training progresses to increasingly more difficult and dangerous throws, different and more effective breakfalls are needed, practiced, and mastered.  Martial arts training involves years of consistent and regular training to achieve competency in fundamental tasks that also involve rolling and falling.  Dedicated personal training effort creates an unconscious mastery.  This permits an individual to automatically roll or break their fall when they unexpectedly lose balance.  Absent this type of intensive and extended training, no one can be considered to be skilled in safely falling from the number of hours and repetitions received solely from academy or in-service training.

Martial arts training involves years of consistent and regular training to achieve competency in fundamental tasks that also involve rolling and falling.  Dedicated personal training effort creates an unconscious mastery.  This permits an individual to automatically roll or break their fall when they unexpectedly lose balance.  Absent this type of intensive and extended training, no one can be considered to be skilled in safely falling from the number of hours and repetitions received solely from academy or in-service training.

Defending the Curriculum

Because Defensive Tactics training seems to be a natural result of martial arts training, almost all academy curriculum contains varying amounts of time dedicated to teaching recruits how to fall.  For example, a new DT curriculum for police recruit academy training was being developed by a Defensive Tactics Subject Matter Expert who asked for my review.  The first subject was “Rolls and Breakfalls.”  When asked why the recruits would be spending eight per cent of the course on developing this skill, this highly experienced police officer and very accomplished martial artist answered that every cop needs to know how to protect themselves from falls on the job.  For him, the need for this training content was automatic, something intrinsic to his deep experience in martial arts.  This brought on a line of questioning that became increasingly more difficult to justify.  When finally asked if he thought, absent previous training, the recruits would gain automatic, unconscious competency from this time spent in this activity, he thought, and then admitted that it was very unlikely.  His assumption, that every officer must be able to protect from fall injuries whenever and however they might occur may be valid.  When faced with the reality of the limitations inherent to recruit and police training, that standard is not achievable. 

Officers leave the academy and are instantly in the big leagues--officers have been murdered on their first day of patrol.  The non-martial artists, representing most recruits and officers, have little time to prepare to face every manner and threat of suspect.  Cops are many times more likely to become involved in a physical fight than a shooting, and much more likely to be sued for the simple application of control holds than they are for shootings.  Defensive tactics training, regardless of how much time is allotted to it, is by definition less than desirable for any officer.  There just isn’t sufficient training time in any agency’s budget or schedule to commit the personnel to gaining anything more than minimal competency. 

Every topic in any defensive tactics program must be scrutinized for its realistic value to the officer on the street.  This is measured by the average officer’s ability to successfully apply the skill or tactic on-time, in-time against an unwilling suspect.  This requires the training to provide sufficient time and repetitions to minimally acquire a level of at least conscious competency (although this is not “mastery,” officers can perform the skill or tactic but must think about how to do it).  Will an officer who is three years out of the academy, being assaulted in the dark and shoved off-balance, be able to remember and perform that skill?  Frankly, the typical officer will not be able to execute a safe fall or roll during an unexpected fall.  If that is the case, why teach this topic in training?

Teaching martial arts rolls and breakfalls are a poor use of time when they are viewed from the officer’s very real need for functional knowledge at some distant time.  There simply is not enough time or the availability of frequent, recurrent training to gain even a minimum level of competency when reacting to suddenly falling or being thrown in a fight.  Even if that time and training budget were provided, there are other skills that would be more beneficial to an officer’s survival than rolls and breakfalls.

What Should be Taught?

Simple breakfalls should be covered to assist in maintaining the safety of the recruit or officer being taken down in training.  Explanations and practice of a simple PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) where the goal is to sequentially collapse the body without striking bony projections (knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, and especially the head) against the hard surface of the ground, will be better incorporated into training.  Through this, training is simplified and made safer. 

A level of competency might then be gained during the repetition afforded by takedowns in practice.  The recruit should receive several hundred repetitions of the same or similar fall during the course of the training.  The simple fact of hundreds of repetitions of more safely falling increases an individual’s expertise, and may lead to a behavior change in the future. 

However, more advanced breakfalls from throws, as well as martial arts rolls require an intensity and duration of practice that will never be provided by police training.  They are too varied and specialized, and this limits the number of reps that recruit or officer receives.  That time can be better spent elsewhere during this precious training time to develop their expertise on something that might actually later be useful.