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Wide Open Spaces…A Help or Hindrance to DT Training?

by George on March 10, 2012 12:56

The Defensive Tactics skills training within police combatives is traditionally conducted on the clean, flat surfaces of mats.  Each pair of students gets plenty of room on a padded surface, free of obstacles and especially of other people, to work on their “techniques” and learn the sequence of moves required to be successful—no, this is not another discussion of why technique-based training is not functional or practical or effective, so feel free to read on…

Here’s a question:  “Why the need for so much space in physical skills training?”  When asked, the question seems to dumbfound those involved in the conduct of the training—especially long time instructors—as if the very question on this topic qualifies one for permanent relegation to the category of “hopelessly stupid and incompetent.”  Incredulous and sometimes sarcastic answers will always be about the safety of the participants and the need for a hazard free training area.  “We don’t want students slamming into each other,” will be heard, “They need room to move freely so they can concentrate on the technique.”

Hmmm.  Is this true?

  • Does it reflect the reality of the officers’ environment in which they operate and will be forced to apply the skills learned on the training floor?
  • Does “more room” equate to “safer training” in reality?

When asked, “Why use mats at all?” it is as if the question was asked in Serbo-Croation and there is no translator in the room.  Again, it should be OK to ask the question:

  • Are the mats, in fact, highly beneficial to training and do theyactually serve a demonstrable “safety function?”

Where Officers Apply Their Skills

Officers are forced to respond with force in every physical environment there is.  Sometimes they are able to fight a suspect on an open, smooth grass field or lawn.  Sometimes they fight in the middle of a deserted street or driveway.  Often they respond with force in areas where there are trip hazards (objects within a home, e.g., coffee tables, children’s toys, clutter, etc.), footing problems (curbs, shrubbery, uneven surfaces, etc.), and limited or confined spaces (bathrooms, kitchens, hallways, cubicles, vehicles, etc.).

A fundamental tenet of training is to provide training that is applicable to the real-world needs of the student.  While officers sometimes have the luxury of fighting on an open, flat surface, this is not typical of their needs, and even parking lots and streets have automobiles—both in motion and parked—that are threats and obstacles.  They often are forced to fight in cramped areas where there is little room for expansive movements and techniques, and are required to problem-solve their way through this new and demanding environment while being assaulted by a suspect with unknown capabilities and intentions.

Officers who are trained in open, spacious mats with a wide separation between pairs of students get their first glimpse at solving a confined space problem while on-the-job.  They are novices with “zero-experience” and no training in this fight.  OJT (On the Job Training) is fine when it comes to non-critical tasks; however, OJT when a scuffle becomes a fight has a poor track record.  While formal training permits numerous opportunities to “fail,” and therefore learn what works and what does not—this “live” situation where there is no frame of reference, or worse, an incorrect orientation that does not apply in this context—becomes a place for novel solutions, with no leeway for failure, where “failure” results in injury and, sometimes, being murdered.

Mats Encourage Impractical Street Solutions

The prevention of needless injuries should be one of the top goals of every instructor.  The padded surface that a mat brings to the training area creates an artificial surface that risk managers, administrators, and instructors hope will serve as a safety system to prevent injuries during training.  They permit bodies to fall with less injury, and when they do hit the ground hard, lessen the effects of the impact.  Through the use of mats, there are many fewer bruised elbows and knees in training than there might otherwise be, and, more importantly, fewer more serious fall injuries, right?

No real study of the value of the various training surfaces has been published.  I have trained personnel in combatives skills on mats, carpeting over wooden floors, carpeting over concrete floors, on wooden floors, and on bare concrete.  There is a great difference between the injury rate of participants between these surfaces, especially from falls and throws.  I have seen many more injuries on mats than on any other surface.

Mats provide a false sense of safety to participants.  With this idea that the mats represent “safety,” instructors commonly see a number of problems with:

  • Many officers falsely believing they are “fighting” and can work “at speed” during takedowns and other exercises or drills because they are safe on the mats.  These actions create “fall” injuries.  When working on mats, “enthusiastic,” highly trained students will often gradually—and sometimes abruptly—speed up their practice, despite warnings to slow down, until one of them is injured from being slammed into the mat, often with both partner’s body weight going through the individual on the bottom.  It seems that working on a mat promotes the idea that anything we do is “safe” regardless of the biomechanical frailties of the human body and despite safety warnings by instructional staff.  Drive another human body down to the ground (mat, carpet, or concrete) with the partner’s weight forced through it, and cause the body to land on its shoulder sometimes results in a shoulder separation or fractured clavicle (collarbone).  I have seen this injury occur on a mat several times over the decades, but never on a concrete or a wood floor.
  • Officers are trained in “wrestling moves” that depend upon a soft surface to protect elbows and especially knees.  Mats make the dropping of the body weight through the knees and elbows into the ground part of officers’ “technique” and an essential component of their takedown practice.  Using the mat as a surface on to which one throws himself on his knees detrains an officer from the concrete and asphalt reality of their working environment.  When asked if they would intentionally do that on concrete, no one has ever answered in the affirmative.  If this is so, why is it practiced and trained in this manner?
  • The rate of concussions increase with the use of mats.  While I would always seek to have my head hit a mat rather than a wooden floor or concrete at the same speed, it seems the likelihood of a student being slammed down in a manner that his or her head whips back and strikes the ground is greater on mats than on other, less forgiving surfaces.  On hard, less “safe” surfaces, the participants seem to be less concerned with the realities of slamming each other into ground.

The use of mats as a training surface encourages methods and techniques that are not suitable for the real world application of a force response.  Martial arts “breakfalls,” where one slaps the surface of the mat, is an example of a non-street training response.  On the mat, the “slap” serves to increase the area of impact, lessening the effect of the fall.  While this seems to be a good idea, it fails the reality test.  Because officers work in an environment where there are uneven surfaces and obstacles, reaching out and slapping the ground hard may have serious consequences.  Slapping backward and hitting the forearm against the corner of a street curb has broken the bones of an officer’s forearm.  A breakfall slap resulted in an officer putting his hand through the glass of a sliding glass door with resulting life-threatening blood loss.  Less catastrophically, injured hands, arms, and elbows while breakfalling in the field is more common due to hitting objects unexpectedly.

Training On a Crowded Mat

There are benefits to training on a crowded mat, where others are being taken down around you, some are already on the ground, and still others are being helped up or being dominated on the ground.  Like the real world, the officer is required to develop awareness of his surroundings.  For instance, in the midst of taking a subject down by either the elbow or head, another person is suddenly put on the ground where you intended to take your partner.  Instead of freezing (or, worse, throwing your partner on top of the other person), you orient to the problem, change your angle of movement, and direct your partner to a new spot that is available.  Suddenly, from this crowded area, you have just been trained:

  • To have situational awareness.  You looked in the direction you were taking the subject.  You became aware of changes around you in your environment while other parts of your conscious awareness dealt with taking the subject down.
  • To react smoothly to changes in plan.  For example:  you and the subject were standing and he was grabbing at you.  You found the vacuum (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Move to the Vacuum©) and slipped to his flank (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Move in Angles and Circles©), grabbing his head (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Control the Head©).  You stepped at an angle (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Move to in Angles and Circles©), pulling his head closer to you (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Body Parts to Body Mass©) and, because your situational awareness was high, you took another step quickly, and then another (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Move to the Vacuum©), causing a directional change, and pulling him in a tight circle (Universal Principle of Combatives:  Move in Angles and Circles©), putting him face down on the ground (Universal Rule of Combatives:  Put All Resisting Suspects to the Ground©).
  • To work in confined areas through problem-solving.  With bodies all around working on their own problem-solving, you are constantly working on how to solve the problem you are faced with in an ever-changing environment.  At times in an actual combatives event, you will have to make several changes due to the environment, and this type of training prepares the officer for that inevitability.

Training Without a Mat

What if officers were trained without wrestling mats?  Beyond the fact of every risk manager in the country dying of stroke or apoplexy, and traditionalists voicing disbelief at the thought—especially the judo, jujitsu, martial artists, and wrestlers who form the bulk of the DT instructors—training without mats has been successfully accomplished for decades without undue injuries.  Envision a training area without mats, and what might be seen?

  • Officers would learn to fall properly and without fear of hard surfaces.  Let’s face it:  cops fall a lot.  Cops work in the dark and cover uneven surfaces and fall and trip more than most because of the situations they are placed in.  If all they have been trained to do is fall on soft, “safe” surfaces, they have not been trained to fall in their real world.  Being repeatedly taken down on concrete or carpeting over concrete creates a competency in working in their environment.
  • Officers will learn their takedowns better and more quickly.  If an officer can take a person to the ground without injury, it is a simple feat to take them down hard when it is justified.  A hard surface would create an incentive for the officer to protect his partner, causing them to land softly rather than dumping them on a mat because they can—mats create sloppy attitudes because there is little disincentive to do a proper takedown.
  • It creates fewer injuries because exuberant behavior and the resulting out-of-control takedowns and slamming around have easily foreseen consequences, where mats seem safe and purpose-built to slam other people.

Conclusion

Mats are a martial arts invention that originally permitted judo-players and Aikidoists to repeatedly take each other down hard.  Injuries result from improper landings, and it is a rare judoka or Aikido practitioner who does not have several stories of being injured from their own or other’s mistakes.  Because judo, jujitsu, and wrestling are sports played against a single opponent, and Aikido is a martial art with little martial application, there was a need to have a clear area for the partners to work in, just like the judo tournament or the Aikido dojo.

Law enforcement, however, is not a sport.  While a grand effort has been attempted for almost six decades to adapt Aikido to police training, it is an utter failure in its effective application on the street.  Jujitsu is the latest sport that is being introduced into law enforcement with predictable results—it just doesn’t work for cops.  It, like Aikido, is too complicated, requires too much training, is successful when the suspect patiently cooperates or is too fatigued or injured to resist any longer, and is not practical for the needs of the street.  All but a few dedicated individuals do not benefit from four to eight hours of jujitsu training they might receive per year.

The concept of a clear mat, in each of these sports or martial arts, from judo, jujitsu, wrestling, or Aikido, is not applicable to the working needs of a police officer.  Officers must be trained to deal with their environments.  By having a crowded mat, the officer must adapt to the changing needs of the floor as bodies appear or move.  Their situational awareness grows, serving them both on the training floor and on  the street where focusing solely on the takedown or the suspect may create a trip hazard, cause a suspect to be unintentionally thrown into an object and injured, or permit an associate of the suspect’s to blindside the officer who has not been trained to pay attention during defensive tactics training.

And, to the dismay of risk management and the sports-guys-slash-police-instructors out there, not having mats might be the best training surface of all for DT.