We can break force-on-force self-defense scenario training down into a few useful categories, based on what the student can get from them. One type of scenario plays out to a conclusion and is over. In a second, the instructor "rewinds" the scenario to guide the "good guy" to a successful outcome. In the third, no real success is possible.

The first group in which the scenario, regardless of difficulty, is not replayed by the "good guy" (Craig Douglas' experimental learning laboratories at recent Rangemaster Tactical Conferences come to mind) should be approached by students who, through other training and also self-awareness, know they can fail badly at the encounter and still retain confidence in their ability to make good use-of-force decisions. I can honestly say that, in Craig's scenarios, one questionable use-of-force decision and one terrible use-of-force decision (in the same scenario that the video above shows my colleague Dave Reichek's elegant solution) still haunt me a little. However, prior exposure to many other scenarios meant that the lack of opportunity for a do-over remained educational, and didn't reduce my confidence in other situations.

In the second group, the student gets "do overs" and coaching so they eventually arrive at success. For beginning students, this is critical to building a decision-making "play-book" without inadvertently teaching them that they aren't going to be successful. This is where most of your scenario training time should be spent: on scenarios based on common, "ripped from the headlines" incidents, and ensuring that every "good guy" leaves with a win (even if it takes a few tries) and improved decision making skills.

The third group is comprised of "gotcha" scenarios, such as Star Trek II's opening scene, concerning the Kobayashi Maru. This training is not only a waste of time, it's likely to undermine and degrade students' confidence in their own abilities, even when that confidence is well-founded. Whether the scenario confounds students accidentally or in service to the scenario author's ego doesn't matter; the effect on the students is the same. Sometimes, as in Star Trek II, such scenarios are justified, as Kirk does, by saying, "a no win situation is a possibility every commander may face." While it's important to cultivate a "never quit" mindset in students, that can be accomplished in "normal" scenarios with relatively simple modifications such as the instruction, "Even if a bad guy shoots you, keep fighting."

I describe these groups because they highlight the fact that in well-conducted scenario training, there are only two egos in play: the "good guy" student and the scenario director. Every other player in the scenario has instructions and heuristics dictated by the director, so only those two have, in a sense, free will. The director can either attach value to winning or teaching, but not both simultaneously. The Kobayashi Maru is a validation of the director's power to concoct a scenario that draws the student into a bad situation and holds them. I've used a fictional scenario as an example to protect the guilty.

In any self-defense pressure testing (i.e., when the participants actively seek mutually exclusive goals) if the participants value only a "win", ego is going to be involved. In sparring, it may be defense/validation of a higher belt rank, or the ambition of submitting a more experienced student. The fastest way to get injured -- physically or mentally -- in any self-defense pressure testing is to get ego involved. Physical injury is self-explanatory, but by mental injury I mean discouragement, anxiety, or fear that follows you home from the training and disincentivizes future participation. Scenarios that incorrectly undermine students' decision-making confidence can lead to hesitation and second-guessing when time is of the essence.

If you start with no-do-over scenario training, before you've built a bank of memories that validate and give you confidence under lower pressure, it's more likely to be demoralizing and you're commensurately less likely to volunteer your precious time and money to subject yourself to more of the same. The Gracie Academy's curriculum changes to increase student retention more than a decade ago, including delaying sparring seems to be good evidence for the general strategy of, as they put it, protecting the new student even as they challenge and prepare them for greater resistance. This is an acute challenge for seminar-based self-defense curriculum that span only hours or days, rather than the weeks and months martial arts schools can plan for.

My BJJ school allowed me to start sparring my very first class; the Gracie Academy delays sparring for months. I can only offer my subjective assessment: without the principles I picked up in ECQC and Immediate Action Jiu-Jitsu, I would have perceived sparring as chaotic and demoralizing. Heck, I still often view it as somewhat chaotic. And the first couple minor injuries (a broken toe, a bruised trachea) sure didn't make me more eager to show up.

Martial arts sparring, in general, is still a situation in which there are two egos involved. The difference from the scenario training example is that usually one isn't established as the teacher, the other a student. What that means, in practice, is that the equivalent of no-do-over scenarios ("What just happened?") and Kobayashi Maru scenarios (colored belt vs. new guy) are way more likely. Luckily, there are some ways, as someone new to sparring, to enlist your partner's ego as your ally, rather than your mortal enemy.

First, if you haven't yet, go watch Rener and Eve Gracie's video, Surviving the First 6 Months of Sparring. It's long, but extremely useful. I got a lot from their conversation, despite having basically stumbled onto their suggestions on my own. Their conversation crystalized the techniques I'd been using intuitively, and improved them:

  1. convert enemies to allies
  2. focus on survival over submissions
  3. show your training partners sincere gratitude for their time and help

By "convert enemies to allies", they're speaking about the same problem I refer to above. Unless you communicate otherwise, your sparring opponent/partner assumes you are an adversary trying to win at his/her expense. If you manage to change that relationship, either before or during the sparring session, you have an opportunity to enlist your adversary as your advocate and mentor. Here are specific things I've done that worked pretty well:

  • Before rolling the first few classes, to every sparring partner, I said, "I'm really new at this; I probably won't recognize some submissions. If you know you've got me and I haven't tapped, please stop and tell me." I still say this to partners I've never rolled with (because I'm still getting submitted in exciting, new ways).
  • After tapping say, "I don't really understand what you did there. Could you show me?"
  • or "I think you found an opening for that submission because I fill in the blank. Is that what happened?"
  • Before sparring, ask, "I end up mounted a lot. Would you mind if we start there and I work on my escape(s) with resistance?"

I came in the door with a focus on survival, based solely on the fact that my modest prior experience, being self-defense-oriented, was focused on creating opportunities to escape or transition to more effective weapons, not employ empty-hand submission techniques. I feel like placing value on how hard I made my partner work to find a submission and how successful I was at delaying their submission has helped me go home after each class with at least a small sense of accomplishment and progress. In fact, I've submitted another very new student exactly once so far, when I accidentally ended up with a gift-wrapped Americana setup. If "submissions achieved" was my metric of success, that would need to tide me over for a long time.

Both after each sparring round, and at the end of class, I shake my partner's hand, look 'em in the eye, and thank them for their time and help. When they do something that's really slick, I complement them.

All these techniques give to your partner an opportunity to attach their ego to your education and progression, rather than their defense of their belt color or their fear-of-losing and pride-at-winning. You're recruiting them, alongside the school's instructor cadre to help with your education.

The purpose isn't to eliminate the competitive element. Rather, it's to help set a good balance for your current level of physical, technical, and mental ability. Don't avoid the purely competitive element, because it can be fun, educational, and is really the only opportunity to test your mindset.

In contests, there is a symmetry. We refer to these events with phrases like "battle of wills" and "contest of egos". Ego gratification is achieved primarily through victory, secondarily through intermediate goals (which you may have to define yourself). Consider the following symmetrical pressure testing environments that provide validation, but little education -- doubly so for new, inexperienced participants.

In asymmetrical pressure testing, on the other hand, there is a teacher and a student, even if informally and temporarily so. It gives the teacher permission to gratify their ego through the success of the student. This doesn't mean that the teacher provides no resistance, or even light resistance, but the character of the interaction has changed.

Going back to what probably seems an incongruous example above, can you imagine learning to play a first-person shooter video game for the first time solely through online, competitive matches against other live humans? I wouldn't sign up for that. Give me some cannon-fodder AI to get started!

As a student, especially in environments where the instructor does not finely differentiate or clearly dictate the level of resistance or your relationship with your training partner(s), being aware of these concepts, cognizant of your own physical and mental capabilities, and having a few techniques that you can use to influence the intensity and tenor of your interactions will help you get the most out of your scarce training time.