It's very easy to find experts in the age of social media. The availability of information means that most anyone with a browser has access to the collective learning of humankind - and that's a powerful, dangerous thing. More than anything, it means that Caveat Emptor needs to be a lifestyle if you want to dodge the snake oil and tactical carpetbaggers looking to make a buck off naivety.
This paints a pretty bleak picture of the training industry, which is accurate to a degree. The other side of the coin, however, is that there are some incredible instructors out there that can very quickly expand your skillset, mindset, and tactical knowledge... and in a way that's relevant to you.
So, what separates tactical tourism from legitimate learning?
Well, here's our take.
Beyond anything else, when you start looking for training, you need to plant your feet firmly in finding relevant material, and dig your heels in. This doesn't always mean shooting schools.
Almost everyone in the profession of arms, as well as armed citizens, needs some understanding of the legalities and consequences of using force. We should all be well trained in "applied situational awareness", which means actively navigating the world around to avoid being caught unaware.
We should all have some knowledge of how to verbally challenge another person - what Craig Douglas refers to as MUC, or 'managing unknown contacts' - and give consideration to the fact that they won't always behave in the way we expect.
Step 1 in the process of deciding what training you need is to understand the potential problems you face, and what skills you'll need to manage them.
For example, ask yourself the following questions...if you're looking to, say, survive a robbery, it's easy to skip straight to the concealed carry class... but, can you:
- Identify pre-assault indicators?
- Intelligently discuss criminal de-selection?
- Demonstrate your ability to fight hand-to-hand and your level physical fitness?
- ...properly identify when you can draw, or the risks of drawing too early?
- ...deal with a gunshot or stab wound to yourself or a bystander?
- Do you know how to deal with police in the aftermath of a violent encounter?
- Do you have experience dealing with the legal system?
These questions are only relating to a criminal robbery. Given that there are hundreds of situations to prepare for, we simply have to have a solid risk matrix that helps us identify our likely threats.
Spheres of Violence
Often as not, we tend to elevate our warriors to 'hero' status. What most of them know and won't say is that it's not always a guarantee of the experience you want. Simply wearing a title doesn't mean you have relevant experience...
For example, it's political season, so think on that for a second. How many of our elected officials are acting in the best interest of anyone other than themselves? How many of them are truly "leaders", and how many of them simply parade the credentials?
Objectively, not many. It sucks, but that's one of the downsides to meritocracy. Once we get the merits, there's not much required to keep them.
The same is true of any industry trying to profit off of you. It doesn't matter if they're selling you a car, pandering for your vote, or trying to fill seats in a class. Their primary motivation is to make money. That's fine - they should be compensated for their expertise... but, if they're trying to make money teaching you skills you should absolutely, beyond a doubt, verify that what you're getting is:
- Contextual - It has some use in daily life.
- Relevant - It applies specifically to your life.
- Verifiable There is some way of measuring efficacy and progress.
We'll return to point 3 shortly, but we have a second major learning point that needs to be considered before we do:
Step 2: honestly assess yourself and your level of skill.
Most of the people out training for a weekend look like kids learning to swim. They're just jumping in the pool and struggling for a good outcome, and most of them aren't doing much other than treading water.
If you want the most out of your training, you need to know where you're at, where you want to go, and what you hope to be able to do when you get there.
Assessment, Part 1
As we discussed in "Advanced courses for Beginners", one of the greatest head-on collisions in the training world is when a student who isn't ready for the material slams headlong into an instructor who isn't willing to tell them they need to sit this one out.
You, as a student, need to be honest with yourself when it comes to your level of skill. In the ISG Skill Audit, we identify skills based on a 1-5 scale, that looks something like this:
1 - No experience with the subject
2 - Some passing familiarity but unable to consistently and repeatedly demonstrate results that indicate proficiency.
3 - Familiar with the tasks and the ability to identify common, basic problems and find ways to address them.
4 - Substantial experience and the ability to repeatedly perform a task on demand under pressure against opposition.
5 - Mastery level experience and the ability to clearly and intelligently diagnose and remedy problems in others, substantial, specialized experience on the topic that can be demonstrated on demand against opposition, with great effect.
Most people will never reach level 5 in more than a couple things in their lives. Typically, it requires about 10,000 hours to 'master' a discipline.
A great many people find themselves at "2", and stopping before they have a chance to get in over their heads and be forced into treading water.
At "3", we know that we have a long way to go, and the good news is that with good instruction, we'll have all the tools necessary to improve on our own for quite some time. We still need guidance, but at level 3, we can acknowledge our mistakes, and do something more than just say "the sights are off", and lie to ourselves that we're actually pretty good at the task.
Finding instructors that can bring us to level 3 as fast as possible is pretty easy, in truth. There are a great number of qualified instructors and programs that can get us there in exchange for paper money, which is a pretty radical thing. Once you get to that point, however, the ranks of qualified, experienced instructors who can teach you something relevant to your life start to thin.
Thinning Ranks and Relevancy
While Spheres of Violence discusses this at length, it's important to say it again here:
What's relevant for Special Operations probably isn't relevant to you.
Moreover, and this is throwing rocks at a beehive, but not everyone in SOF is at the top of their skill game. The absolutely massive technological disparity between them and the adversaries they've faced for most of the last 20 years has contributed massively to their success, and for a lot of people in the profession of arms, training is just a part of the job. It's not a passion or a lifelong pursuit. With that said, for those who do view it as a lifelong pursuit, those professions tend to call louder than selling insurance.
On even footing, things like MOUT/CQB, Convoy operations, or assaulting an objective are massive casualty producers, we as citizens, we simply can't afford to assume those tactics will work for us.
With that said, a lot of them are still relevant (being able to clear rooms with your rifle in your home isn't a waste of time), but they really lack context (you'll probably never *have* to clear rooms with a rifle, because in most situations there are better options).
The way Special Operators, Police, and Citizens learn how to do certain tasks, however, *can* have commonality. For example, movement and using angles, cover and concealment, and the fundamentals of marksmanship are all the same. That's the 3-level stuff.
Once you start discussing what retention means to a bunch of Rangers, and compare it to what it means to a Narcotics officer, things start getting much fuzzier, and you need to start deciding which of these guys is dealing with problems that might look like yours.
When we hit this point, we need to full stop and start doing two things... but before we move on:
Step 3: Find courses that offer situations similar to those you are likely to face, and allow you to test under pressure.
1: What to look for in an Instructor
So, if we can't just check the box and say "this instructor was SWAT/SOF/etc", how do we assess instructors?
In our view, we're looking for an overlap of a few crucial things:
- A pedigree of learning. This isn't a resume, it's a characteristic. The best instructors are those who have a passion for learning and experience. They aren't afraid to branch out, to approach new topics, and to see how their skills serve them when they're outside their wheelhouse. Find an instructor with a combination of experience and training, and make sure those things align with what they're teaching.
- Interdisciplinary instructors for the beginning phases (1-3), specialists for the advanced phases (4-5).
- How they respond to Questions. The way an instructor responds to a question is a MAJOR indicator of their level of competency and ability to teach. Almost anyone can lecture to an audience that isn't going to question them. The true mark of someone who's mastered their craft is the ability to, on demand, provide a reasonable answer to difficult questions. One of the most impressive answers you can get is "I'm not sure, let's figure it out."
Instructors who encourage questions - both before and during attendance - are generally the types who care about their students. Conversely, if you're the kind of student who goes through an entire class without forming a question, you're not getting your money's worth. More on this later.
- Longevity - sometimes. There are some pretty terrible personalities who've been teaching people for a long time, so let's preface this one that it's especially important at the higher skill levels. If a specialist has remained in their field for a significant time, they're probably there for a reason. Just because someone is successful doesn't make them good. < Read that again.
- Coaching. Beyond a doubt, one of the most valuable things a student can get from the instructor is 1-on-1 feedback on their performance. Look for an instructor who can provide you with actionable feedback, and who will help you diagnose your problems. The goal is to improve, not get a participation trophy. Look for class sizes that have caps. This shows the instructor intends to enroll only the number of students they're able to manage, and isn't just selling seats.
- Stress inoculation. If the course doesn't cause physical and emotional stress before asking you to perform, it isn't doing a good job challenging you. Think about taking a class in school; if it's boring and you know the material, you're not really doing much other than firming up the stuff you already know. That can be good, on occasion, but for the most part, your training should cause enough stress that your performance exposes some weaknesses. This is a major diagnostic tool. If an emergency occurs, you will likely be stressed.
You'll want your training to reflect this.
- Measurement and Verification. This is the last point, but it is, hands down, the most important. ANY class you attend should provide you with a measurable, consistent improvement. It should test your ability, and your ability should improve. When we discuss verification, we need to test the skills we've built in a way that closely resembles the situation we're training for. Especially as we progress from 2-3 and 3-4.
For example, if you're training for bleeding control, you need to be using pressure dressings and practice tourniquets on a person who's scared, in pain, and approaching shock - even if that's just a role player within a simulation.
If you're training to shoot another person, you need to actually shoot at another person. We live in an age where simunitions and training guns can be used to safely place the student into a physical situation to verify they've learned the skills. If your instructor doesn't do this in their class, you're not verifying that what you're learning works.
Step 4: Ask students like yourself who they've learned the most from. The internet will say all sorts of crazy stuff. Focus on the people you respect, and gather their thoughts on instructors who are good quality. Then do your due diligence - pay close attention to the critical as well as the positive.
2: How to be a Good Student
Now, on the other side of this is the notion that you need to meet the instructor half way. While we want instructors that are capable and willing of answering questions, we need to understand how to question the experts in a reasonable way that doesn't disrupt their instruction.
A few "do's and don'ts" for the student:
- Ask questions regarding the current topic, when appropriate.
- Seek clarification when you don't fully understand.
- Look for classes that are appropriate to your level of skill.
- Look in to the instructor and course before the class begins to ensure you're ready with any required equipment, reading, or skills that you'll be asked to perform during the class.
- TAKE THE CLASS SERIOUSLY, even if it isn't your primary interest. Nothing is more indicative of a quality student than when they treat the material as if it were "fresh" each time they see it. Bored, complacent students give the impression of being unteachable.
- Be willing to travel. The best instructors aren't always willing to travel. Many of them do. As a part of your training plan, budget travel in, and meet the instructor half way. If you rely only on "who is local", you might have good results, but you might end up making more problems for yourself...
- Stop the class to share anecdotes, ask questions that are off topic, or focus on gear (unless appropriate). Focus your efforts on the tasks.
- Come to class with untested equipment... especially if it's flashy stuff you've never used.
- Insult or call out your instructor in front of the class. If you've got a suggestion, bring it to them privately. Everyone has an ego - for better or worse. Critical feedback is important, but remember: Timing, tact, and dosage.
- Go the entire class without thinking about how the material applies to you. Students who think about the material show engagement, which is always a good sign.
- Try and 1-up or top the instructor. You might really want to get noticed and vet yourself as someone worth talking to. You'll notice everyone else does, too. As soon as the class breaks, people will surround the instructor eager to regale them with stories of stuff they know. You'll stand out more if you quietly demonstrate competence. There will be a time to communicate with the instructor about who you are and what you know... but wait until the class is over.
- Be afraid to fail. You're training, now is exactly the time you SHOULD find your failure points. Use the training environment to fail, and fail fast. Don't dwell on it. Work hard and fix it.
- Don't be above criticism. Make sure that the instructors know you've checked your ego and are open to suggestion.
- USE THE CLASS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO POST TO SOCIAL MEDIA! This is disruptive, disrespectful, and demonstrates a lack of character. If an opportunity comes up to take video so you can review it for your own benefit, ok, cool. But going in with the intention of getting footage so you can post it is a distraction the entire class (you included) can do without.
- Jump on trends. There's nothing new under the sun, and the training world rises and sets on the same predictable stuff. Some of it is useful, some of it is nonsense. Don't get caught up thinking you need something because it's trendy. Let your work guide your equipment, not the other way around.
Step 5: don't be an unteachable dunce. Be purposeful, professional, and seek improvement.
When you're looking for an instructor, it's important to find someone who's relevant to your life, who teaches skills that fit into your high risk, high impact threat category, and who can demonstrate broad mastery over their discipline. If you're just learning to break zip ties and stab dead animals, without a thorough discussion of all the other elements that go into escape and evasion, you're just having a good time entertaining yourself.
Thats fine. If that's your goal, go have fun.
If your goal is to be more competent, more dangerous, and more advantageous to be around, stick to training that gives you actionable feedback and an opportunity to perform tasks under pressure.
Good training and good instructors will leave you with actionable information that you can use to move past that intermediate level of skill. After that, it's on you to continually put in the effort and reassess periodically to make sure your direction of travel is good.