Contextual Training

In this second part of the training series we discuss why it's critical to train with and without context to maximize your development when building skill.

December 30, 2019
ISG Team

In our writing we continually preach two fundamental approaches to how you train and address emergencies: Context and Relevance. Words in certain industries take on a life of their own, and that leads to confusion, so here’s what we want to do with this addition to our series:

1.    Describe in useful terms what context means,

2.    How to apply context to your training, and;

3.    Why that will help you maximize the time you invest in your efforts.

In the end, we'll tie it to a piece on how and why it's important to challenge the established norms, and why that's absolutely critical in any discussion where the end result is life and death.


Like all things, the concepts of Context and Relevance stem from how we Understand Emergencies. Even with a solid root in disaster management that takes into account the scale and duration of likely problems, we’re left asking “Okay, now what?”

Once we’ve accepted that bad things happen to good people for no reason at all, the next step is to harden ourselves against these threats.

Our Logo is a representation of Context, Relevance, and Discipline

At ISG, we believe that our priority of work should look something like this:

1.    Understand the intellectual aspects of the problem: What is likely to happen, how does it affect me, and what can I do about it?

2.    Assess your current level of ability objectively: Don’t accept where you are. Go look at the upper echelon of people in the discipline you’re pursuing. If you’re training to fight, look at top tier fighters or shooters. If you’re practicing medicine, look at the leading practitioners in the field. Set your sights high, be humble and;

3.    Develop a plan that takes into account your current level of skill, the required equipment, and a reasonable end objective. Define these things broadly at first; “take a force on force class”, and then more specifically “develop a stronger ground based defense against armed opponents”.

4.    Take action by buying the necessary equipment based on your needs.

By our estimation, most people skip straight to point 4 and never look back.

Context: What is it?

Context means defining how a skill is necessary and when it's useful. When you see a practice demonstrated, a logical first step is asking “When will this be helpful, and how?”

The core reason we want to understand this is simple: If we understand how context applies to emergencies, we can make smart decisions about what skills we build and structure training that takes into account their practical use and likelihood. In a word, we can determine if a skill is relevant to us. A final thought on that before we move on: at ISG, we've identified 5 Core Skill Groups that we believe everyone should have.

In reality, that's a huge committment, so if a person can devote themselves to becoming truly skilled in any three, they're doing pretty good.

Context comes in two categories. Bottom line up front, here's what these terms mean:

Non-Contextual training. Shooting fundamentals, accuracy, and time. No situation.

Non-Contextual: In a word: Training. Non-contextual skills are those that are worked on in isolation to improve that specific skill, without consideration for when it's useful.

For example, weight lifting, static shooting, CPR/1st Aid, vehicle knowledge, Knot tying, etc. These skills are rote; the more you do them, the better you get at them. When you practice them, you're not accomplishing any goal except learning. They're the "laboratory" of the skill world, and when done right will give you the skills necessary to build experience.

To this end, when gun people claim they don’t need martial arts because they have a firearm, they’re overlooking the contextual reality that most fights are what we refer to as social/interpersonal, and don’t justify lethal force. Making claims like this illustrates that a person has little experience with the problem they're discussing and instead are relying on non-contextual information. It's important to understand the difference so we don't make the mistake of thinking that because we're good at a rote skill, we can apply it under pressure. Therefore, we don't stop once we've built non-contextual skills...

‍Contextual: training against a live opponent in a weapons based environment at 100% pressure.

Contextual: Skills that are use within a situation; physical mobility, tactics, patient assessment and triage, off-road driving skills, rappelling, shelter building, etc. Contextual skills require experience; they are the outflow of experience and intuition, and are firmly built on the non-contextual skills. To use a simple example, it would be foolish to go rappelling without first understanding the knots. So having the non-contextual skill (knot tying) enables the contextual skill (rappelling).

When approached this way, we learn skills, apply skills, and gain experience. This creates a positive feedback loop that allows us to critique our practice and improve.

So put as simply as possible: Non-contetual skills are the "crawl" phase. Contextual training is the "Walk" phase, and real world application and experience are the "run" phase.


Recently, an enimigo at SAVAGE Combatives asked us why - given how far fetched it is - would we train to move in on a target at close range with a rifle?

Well, it forces the shooter to do a few things; in that case, focus on accuracy (there were simulated hostage targets) while adjusting for the change of point of aim/point of impact that occurs with optics equipped rifles while advancing from 10 – 3 yards. That’s a hard thing to tell people, so often instructors just show. While it's unlikely we'll ever need that particular skill, we're taking the knowledge (Point of Aim/Point of Impact change as you advance due to height over bore) and we're constructing a drill that gives us a working knoweldge of that... we can define that as a skill.

The shoot in question. If we can't explain it, we shouldn't be sharing it. Context and Relevance are pre-requisites.

Once we have that skill, we can say that with the prevalence of the home defense carbine, close range defensive shootings using carbines is a contextual reality, and therefore it's useful to have this skill. Had we not explained that, what would have happened?

Humans are “monkey see, monkey do”, and they can’t infer context or relevance from simply watching the drill, so people would take the example and run with it, having no idea why they were doing this thing.

This example is the outflow of years of using the context cycle; we've practiced skills and applied them, and found new ways to train to help us apply them more effectively.

This applies to other skills as well, but in our skill group, no other category is as misunderstood as Protection.

Core Skill Groups and Applying Context

A few examples of how non-contextual drills are applied in real situations

One of the reasons we try not to critique other instructors or schools of thought is that often, what’s being displayed is “non-contextual”. It’s a structured demonstration that highlights a skill being used, rather than demonstrating why it should be used.

An analogy for this: weight lifting, heavy bag work, and running are non-contextual. Unless you’re a competitor in those events, you’re not training for something specific, but the benefits you see from performing those activities help you more generally in life. They're great exercises to generally improve your fitness.

That is to say, it doesn't represent a specific situation that has been established as realistic. More often than not, that's perfectly fine. In a conversation with our friend John at Blackfox IRT, we discussed how the isolation of skills away from context allows us to hone those skills to the greatest degree possible. His point is this:

So similar to training for athletic events, if you want to reach competence, dedicated, directed effort is required.

This is true, and isolating those skills and working on them is critical in developing a high level of proficiency.

Many of our drills are like this; from shooting to locksport, they don’t directly relate to what we hope to be ready for, but they allow us an objective ground to isolate and develop skills. That’s a big part of ISG’s approach, and we really want people to understand this.

Contextual training, on the other hand puts us in situation in which we need a variety of skills and abilities to solve to the greatest effect.

The Challenge
Not long ago, I could barely change my oil. Good friends who can teach you go a long way.

Identify some of the core skill group areas you're weak in, and then structure a training plan. For this past year, my area of improvement was automotive knowledge.

The Non-Contextual skills were largely the use and identification of tools, some understanding of the anatomy of motor vehicles, and a basic understanding of what vehicles need routinely. As you can tell, most of this could be learned by book, self-study, and hanging out with friends who know cars... so that was my plan.

The Contextual aspect was "Do as much of my own work as possible". To do this, I leaned heavily on having good friends who helped and instructed me as we worked. We rebuilt a steering gearbox, Birfields, and replaced the shocks, brakes, rotors, calipers, and bled the brake system, among other things.

To make it relevant, we spent 4 days off-road in the Ozarks learning the vehicle's capability, practicing on and off-road driving, water crossings, and of course, the primitive skills that come with camping and the logistics that come with moving in a convoy.

There we have it: Context in Training.

This isn't an easy concept to fully understand, and we know that. Our hope is that as you develop, you'll return to this and re-evaluate what we've said here and apply it to your future plans. The more you work, the more relevant this will be come.


ISG Team

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