Cutting Edge Training

America’s Combatives and Liability Trainer Training With Real-World Impact

Pain and Preparing for the Fight

by George on July 23, 2010 05:38

"One should include a course of familiarization with pain...You have to practice hurting.  There is no question about it...You have to practice being hazed.  You have to learn to take a bunch of junk and accept it with a sense of humor."

--Admiral James Stockbridge
Medal of Honor recipient
POW in Viet Nam for 7.5 years

Pain.  Pain lets us know something is "wrong," so we'll stop and not be injured any further, allowing us to take care of the injury and heal.  Pain isn't real.  When you think that your foot "hurts," it is, in reality, simply your brain interpreting nervous impulses sent by reception centers in your foot as pain.  But pain "feels" real. So real, that most people will do anything--ANYTHING--to avoid pain.  Many, or perhaps even most of our population will go so far to avoid pain that they will never do anything more physical than walk to their car.  This, however, ensures that they will be in constant, low-level chronic pain for their entire life--have you ever known an out-of-shape, overweight person who was not in pain?

You are in the warrior profession.  Cop or military, yours is a world of violence within the law against those who employ violence beyond all rules.  The context of police and military fights may be different, but the reality is that, at its core, each is a profession that lawfully delivers violence against other humans.

Pain.  Where there is violence, there is pain.  Often, pain is experienced by all combatants, although the losers suffer far more—unless they are rendered unconscious or die quickly.

Every professional is prepared for his (or her) particular profession by passing through basic training.  For the police, it is the academy.  For the military, it is Boot Camp.  Once out of basic training, advanced training continues for the duration of his or her professional career.

Notice that I said, “Every professional is prepared.”  That top-down approach--Command requiring you to pass a program of instruction--means that you are simply within the lowest common denominator of your profession upon graduation:  somewhere around below average--if you are extraordinary, you are almost average.  From this point on, you must prepare yourself for your profession if you are going to be able to survive all but the lowest levels of violence directed at you.

If you are targeted by a predator or the enemy, the violence inflicted upon you will create pain.  Now most of us in this warrior class have heard of great warriors who fought through tremendous pain to accomplish their mission, to save their buddies, their partners, or their teammates, to save those who could not protect themselves—and some came back alive.  The Medal of Honor.  The Medal of Valor.  These are the highest awards possible to those who overcome all odds.  There are few in warrior profession who do not have a belief that he or she will be able to fight through the overwhelming pain and do what is required if called upon to do so, even at the cost of their lives.


  • Can you prepare for it?  I believe you can.
  • Is it possible to avoid pain in training and then master it while injured during combat to overcome the odds and save your life and the lives of others?  I think anything is possible of a human being, and that miracles happen.  I also think this is unlikely.  Avoiding pain is natural, and when this natural inclination becomes the habit, pain becomes a barrier that may become bigger than the pain itself.  As is said, a man does not rise to the occasion, but sinks to his lowest level of consistent training.  If you train with pain avoidance as a goal, then your training may not reflect your real world needs in that moment you need to fight through a wall of pain.   That training goal of pain avoidance may stop you from saving your life.
  • Or is pain about your attitude in life and in training, something you steel yourself against by testing how far you can go, and each time going a bit farther than you thought you could?  I believe an acceptance that your body is finite, that your life may be done at any moment, and you won't live forever is one of the keys to dealing with pain.  I believe you temper your mind to tolerate that which others cannot.  It permits you to remain effective even though your body’s nerves are screaming at you.  By convincing yourself that it is “only pain.”

I just finished teaching a “Tactical Duty Knife” class to a diverse group of deputies, police officers, and corrections officers.  This was a typical class of police officers where a few worked intensely, most worked hard, and a few worked enough to get by.

One aspect of this class is learning where and how to use the knife.  We do this by employing a Benchmade “Trainer” training knife (these are the only training knives we’ve ever found that were safer to use than any other brand).  Typically, I ask one student if it is OK if I use the knife on him to demonstrate.  With his permission, I put the tip of the blade on one of his high-value targets, then shove and dig it in at the intensity I would use if this were a real situation and I was employing my knife in a deadly force response to save my life.  And as always happens, the student immediately melts away because it hurts.  Sometimes they squeal.  Almost always they make some noise indicating distress.  There it is again.  Pain.

As I don’t believe that rank has its privileges, only greater responsibilities, I don’t believe that it is right for an instructor to inflict pain without that student reciprocating on the instructor.  So I invite and permit the student to use the training knife on me in the same way.  Often they are a bit tentative as they begin to push--they're decent people and good people don't intentionally hurt others without just cause.  They know it hurts because they just experienced pain.  When I stand there and tell them to push and to dig with the knife, they increase the pressure.  It hurts but I work hard at reflecting no emotion or pain on my face.  When I tell them that they need to really push and to dig with that knife, they generally shove it hard into me.  It hurts, and still I reflect no emotion or pain.  Sometimes I am forced to urge them to work the blade harder and more vigorously.  And only after I believe that I can’t stand it anymore, I give them another second to push and to dig with that dull steel blade before I move away from the knife to stop the pain—and work to never let them see how much it hurt.  I do this because I’m their trainer and they need to see someone role-model the proper training attitude.  Sometimes that need to be their role-model sucks, but every trainer is a volunteer, not a victim.  It is my responsibility as their trainer to give them every opportunity to survive and prevail, and the first lesson in surviving combat is having an attitude that permits me to prevail no matter the cost.

Then I work with a different student to demo the next target.  And he or she reciprocates with me.  After the students do this back to me, I begin to hear people on the floor saying things like, “Doesn’t he have any nerves?” and “I guess he doesn’t feel pain.”  I sometimes want to scream at them, “Of course it hurts!  A LOT!”  Instead, I say, “It’s only pain.  I need to learn to manage it so that it does not manage me.”  I say this because I need to hear it as much as they do.  This is a lesson that every warrior must learn—“I manage the pain and quit only when I choose to, not because pain forces me to.”

Pain.  I know I can only take as much as I decide to take, one-tenth of a second at a time.  It is a decision made every moment to continue.  Eventually it becomes longer worth it and I give up.  I know I am not a “tough guy” who can take pain indefinitely.  Maybe there are no “tough guys” in the real world.  Maybe they can be found only in comic books, novels, and movies.  I have read first-hand accounts of our POWs in North Korean and Vietnamese prison camps who “broke” under torture.  I realize that I am no different than any of those men, and fear that I may not have been able to handle what the best of them did.  Each and every man who wrote about his torture stated that he held out as long as he could until they were no longer capable of resisting the pain.  Could I have done as well under such terrible conditions and such terrific intensity?  I don't know, but I keep pushing myself to my limits...and then just a bit further.

Pain.  Something a warrior must understand, be familiar with, and know intimately.  At some time, whether in training, in a fight, or in combat, a warrior will inevitably be injured at some point—not a bump or a scrape, but a serious injury.  It will hurt to rehab that injury or wound.  But if he doesn’t carefully push through the pain, with reason and dedication, he’ll never be functional again.  I know that over the years, pain, while not a friend, has and remains a constant companion of mine in this life.  I never look forward to it, but I don’t fear it as I once did.  It just is. It's just pain.

By working through pain intelligently during training, where it is safe to experiment with your limits, you begin growing your capacity for pain, to function while in pain, to fight better and longer while hurt.  You will learn where you can accept more pain, and where it is smart to avoid it.  There are instructors out there who train full-contact on students all the time.  Their hype is that they create tougher fighters.  The reality is that effective, efficient combatives injures others severely (kind of by definition, right?), and only a few of the top dogs can survive in that environment for any length of time.  Sure they're "tough," but they also have a God-given physical attributes, skills, and talents that the rest of us mere mortals were not favored with.  Intelligent training protects the student from serious injury while presenting an opportunity to effectively learn the skills, tactics, and lessons needed in their profession at arms...and from pain.

In your chosen profession of violence, I believe that our students are taught so often that they are the ones in a force event or in combat that will hurt and kill the other guy that the reverse becomes unreal—that you might be the one who is injured but required to remain combat effective and in the fight, even though a body part might not work, or its it’s hard to breathe, or you are bleeding badly.  The reality of conflict is that few in a fight—and especially in combat—are immune from some type of injury during their battle.  Learning that pain is something that can be decided about, at least for a time, is an incredible training gift.  And something every warrior needs.

Pain.  It's a decision.  It's a capacity that can be increased by training.  Learning to go just a little longer than you think you can stand teaches you about the toughness necessary to prevail in a fight.  I watch how the students in the police and military knife classes, and all of our classes, accept or avoid pain or discomfort.  In this last class, like all classes, I saw a few consciously pushing their limits to pain.  A couple of them I would never have guessed initially that they would understand the need.  I was also surprised by how others I thought would be tougher avoided pain at all costs.

I see those who push themselves as different from the others.  Knowing that man or woman is a warrior, I can trust to watch my back.  Because I know that no matter the cost to them, they will keep fighting beyond the pain, through the blood, and will risk as much for me as I will for them.

Every SEAL team member I have ever met and/or trained has said to me that he is "stupid."  After hearing this dozens of times from dozens of operators, I finally asked why every SEAL I ever met said that.  A good friend of mine, a former Chief who'd spent 18 years in the teams, looked at me and said plainly, "Smart people wouldn't go through what we we did to get on the teams and stay there.  They quit.  Only someone who's stupid enough not to quit can be a SEAL." Stupid enough to take the pain and privation that training puts a man through to create the toughest possible warfighter.  The BUD/S Naval Special Warfare Instructors know that the pain they inflict on the SEAL team recruits will cause them to grow, to go beyond what they believe to be their limits, and to create a warrior who will never quit.  That training will cause them to make decisions every moment during the selection process.

By accepting pain and moving beyond its limitations, you are freed from the constraints of "normal" people.  Where a normal, rational person would quit because of pain and be killed, you keep fighting and win, saving your life or someone else's, and accomplish the mission.  It's just pain.  A warrior doesn't seek it...only accepts that it is, and does what he or she has to do in spite of it.