If you follow my posts here, you already know that my views on parts of the self-defence community are somewhat critical. After a lifetime being involved in martial arts on one side, but also with real forms of violence on the professional side, I just happen to have an opinion on certain things. You would probably be surprised to find that despite my vast personal experience, I believe to be far more open-minded than many of my industry colleagues out there. In fact, you can say that the self-defence industry is full of people with very big egos who often think they know it all, regularly judge what others do and usually praise themselves as being the best. Now the old Greek Philosophers have a long time ago revealed that someone who is mainly driven by his own ego is not on a good path. It is probably easier just to let them go down their own path, but in some situations, it might be necessary to comment and give some advice so that those who are looking for help out there, won’t be fooled by false prophets. I will therefore try to answer the following question for you: “when looking for a good self-defence instructor, how important is his/her background?”
Ex-Special Forces, Police, Bouncers, Bodyguards…
When you start searching for self-defence training, you will certainly come across people who seem to have very impressive biographies and experience, but how do you know what of this is actually legit or even relevant? Does it matter if someone was an elite soldier, a police officer, a bodyguard? How many black belts and instructor certificates does one need to have, are visits to the country of origin of a martial art important to be a good instructor? From my perspective as an instructor, it can be tricky. It’s easy to fall into the same trap here if you start listing all the things you have done in your life, after all, I am in my late 40s now, so after 25-30 years of experience, you do have stories to tell. But to answer the question if any of that matters to you? The honest answer here is “it depends”, a very diplomatic answer, I know. But let me give you some context here. I have a biography that reads well and probably suggests that I am a good fit as a self-defence instructor. I started with martial arts when I was 12 years old after being regularly bullied as an immigrant child in Germany. I have trained actively for more than 25 years in various martial arts, earned a black belt and many other colourful belts (never really cared for belts and titles), I also hold several instructor licenses in various self-defence systems and some disciplines that are more relevant to professional security training.
While in the military, I served in special forces and earned my green beret, after that, I worked in private security for decades until today, although I am now a Security Program Manager in one of the worlds biggest corporations responsible for the protection of locations around Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I had been trained as a bodyguard, worked as a bouncer in nightclubs and on so-called security intervention teams. I had countless physical interventions at work over the years, be it in stadiums with violent hooligans, on concerts and festivals with drunk and drugged people and not to mention the regular drunk or overconfident hotshot on a Saturday night at the nightclub or even criminals being caught on the scene while committing break-ins or robberies. Altogether with my rough childhood and some wild teenage years, it can be said that I had my fair share of violence in life and that experience certainly does help me in my work as a self-defence instructor today. But, you will also find a lot of other instructors out there with a similar biography, or even far more impressive ones. I guess it is somehow the path of a warrior to end up sharing your experiences when you get older and teaching others how to survive violent encounters, at least that way you try to make the best out of it. Now, does a good instructor really need to have this kind of experience as some of these people claim? In my honest opinion, no he/she doesn’t.
What did all this experience teach me?
The only thing I have really adopted from my military training is the simulation and scenario training and motivation methods to create a strong mindset. No fighting techniques taught there has any application in everyday civilian life. Working as a bodyguard has taught me extraordinary situational awareness, to the point that my wife calls it a professional deformation that I always need to sit in the corner of a room so I have an overview of what is going on there. Working doors have mainly taught me de-escalation skills and understanding motivation in conflict situations, and the experience from working on a security interventions team in stadiums or on concerts have taught me how dangerous groups of aggressive people are and that escaping often is the only solution. But as you can see, none of it has actually taught me any amazing fighting skills, as one might first assume reading such a biography.
Ex-Special Forces experience
So, when you read or hear that someone was a special forces member what does that even mean? It should be clear that in the military you mainly train armed combat and you train to kill. Is any of this really applicable for civilian training, eventually teaching young teenage girls how to stay safe on Saturday night out? Nope. Well, the one thing that might be useful is that he certainly would have a strong mindset. It is willpower and determination that separates regular soldiers from those who become elite. Physical strength, endurance and other skills can be achieved by training and conditioning, but it is the willpower that keeps you going when others quit. If an instructor can teach this to his students efficiently, that definitely counts. Now I do see this ability also with others not coming from this background, personal trainers for example. We had a young female Zumba instructor in Germany, that had the room booked before my class. Watching her Strong by Zumba session was highly impressive. The way she was able to motivate the crowd while performing all these exercises herself as well and everything being perfectly coordinated to the beat of the music, really impressive. So, do you need to be ex-special forces to be a good instructor? Nope.
Working doors as a bouncer
How about that other thing, being a bouncer and having worked on doors? Yep, that is a good one, but again not for the reasons you think. Here in the UK, this is a highly regulated profession with strict licensing requirements, in other countries it varies, some have no regulations and others do to some extent. Regardless of the legal framework, you are being hired to keep the peace, to allow paying customers to have undisturbed fun and spend more of their money. Any kind of conflict and escalations can easily ruin the fun not only for the customers but also for the business owner who hired you. As you can see, the main role of the security personnel working at the doors or inside nightclubs is to keep everyone happy and the party going. Now in reality, yes you often have some kind of conflict, people do stupid things when they drink too much, but if you do your job right, you mainly resolve the problems by verbal de-escalation, this is what the job mainly is about. Is this a useful experience for an instructor? If he teaches de-escalation skills, absolutely, priceless. No one knows better than a bouncer how conflicts develop, what pre-fight rituals are involved, how to watch out for weapons and the moment when someone is about to attack you. If he however teaches only self-defence techniques, probably this valuable experience does not come into play.
Then how about bodyguards?
Well, I mentioned it already, in this job the most important part is preparation, proper risk assessment, planning, prevention. You learn great situational awareness skills, you scan people and try to read them, try to spot anomalies, something that looks out of place, something that might indicate that there is a threat, all that before anything happens. Most of the time nothing happens, but that is the goal. If you ever get into the situation to have to use force as a bodyguard, you probably have failed your mission, but that can of course also be depending on the assignment. The work is different in high-risk countries where you have permanent hostile activities and civilian work where the goal mission is to blend in, ideally complete the job without people even knowing that you were the security detail. So, useful as an instructor? Maybe if you teach situational awareness and prevention, which definitely should be part of any good self-defence training, unfortunately, this part is usually missing in most self-defence training offered.
Definitely depends, I have not worked in the Police so it’s not fair to judge, there might be some very experienced individuals out there, as the job obviously does fall into the category of having to deal with violence, often on a daily basis. However, the truth is also that the government (and by that, I mean every government) never invests enough into proper training, equipment or manpower of the Police. As a result, many Police officers also have to train privately, at their own expense if they want to improve their ability to defend themselves and others. If I would categorize them the same as other professionals who train with the goal to learn things that they can apply effectively at work and in real life. I had several members of various Police units in different countries train with me and would not say that they stand out from a perspective of being more skilled than other professionals because of their work experience. If at all, it would probably be more of a disadvantage, as the Police has more rights in general, they can use weapons like batons, tasers, pepper spray and even guns (very much depending on the country) and of course back up is usually just a call away.
Having 10 black belts…
How about having 10 black belts, does that matter? Yes, absolutely. For once it shows that this person has also discovered that one single martial art could not provide all the answers to his needs 😉 . I would actually dare to say that someone who has trained only in one fighting art, might have a limited perspective on real-life self-defence, but I might be wrong here as I have not trained in all of them. So, does it matter how many black belts or how highly ranked? It depends, having a black belt or a master ranking should reflect how proficient you a certain martial art. It isn’t the only measurement, but it proves dedication, discipline and a solid understanding of the principles applied. It usually takes years to earn a black belt in any martial arts, in numbers easily between 5-10 years. That depends on many factors, the art itself, how complex it is, how many levels there are, how many techniques to learn, who your sensei is, how strict and demanding the schools or organisations requirements are. Just as an example, I studied Ninjutsu for years, I was at first fascinated with the variety of skills being taught, for those who don’t know, the mythical Ninjas have been the commandos and special forces of their time. They have been acting behind enemy lines, usually as spies, sometimes as assassins or also as small units that could do significant damage to the enemy. The training includes also various weapons (katanas, spears, bow and arrow, shuriken, just to name a few), and skills camouflage and sneaking up on an enemy. Coming fresh out of the military that was interesting to me. What is the downside of it? Well, you can study this art for a lifetime and still not know it all. Hundreds of techniques and endless variations to it, many with mentioned weapons that were used in Japan in the times of Samurai. After a few years of training, I found that most of the things that I had learned had no real-life application so I moved on without sticking around just to earn a black belt, looking for other solutions.
I mention in other posts that I was always more oriented towards the practical use of martial arts, I needed solutions that I could apply in real life, at work, ideally the very next day after training. I also found that many martial arts don’t lack good techniques or principles, but that they fail in real-life application because they do not pressure test their techniques. At some point when they were still real warrior arts trained for real combat that might have been different, but being practised just for recreation, they have lost their edge. Having some kind of sparring with full force applied and without staged and pre-defined attacking patterns or adding a bit of chaos with multiple attackers etc. As a result o fthis, I have witnessed that excellent martial artists, with multiple black belts, were absolutely incapable to defend themselves in an attack on the street. I have a separate post here about how good self-defence training should look like, if you want to know more, I recommend that you look it up and read it. Long story short, having a lot of titles and black belts, do in my opinion not necessarily mean that you understand self-defence better than someone who has been exposed to real violence for example. I also mentioned elsewhere that you can find a lot of individuals, especially among criminals, who are quite skilled at violence and have actually never trained in any martial art or combat sport.
How to spot a “fake” master?
When you see someone claiming to have a dozen of black belts, especially being highly ranked 10th degree here and 8th degree there, be cautious, there are a lot of self-proclaimed masters out there that literally made up their own martial arts, and/or organisations and have given this titles themselves for pure self-promotion or fraud. In every industry or market, you always have people who try to capitalise on something by cheating, misleading and making false claims, and martial arts, self-defence or even security are no different. I know a few recent examples from my social media circle. One is an individual that promotes himself as a bodyguard and self-defence expert and he regularly uploads certificates from bogus organisations probably once a month. Just to give you some insight, professional security or likewise self-defence instructor training is very specialised and usually costs a lot of money. Going somewhere just for the weekend to do some tactical shooting drills costs easily around 700 EUR in Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, bodyguard training starts anywhere around 1.500 – 5.000 EUR and any kind of self-defence instructor training that earns you any type of certificate, can cost easily between 500 to 2.500 EUR depending on the course length and the organisation behind it.
So, if someone continuously claims to have been to such courses every month, you start wondering if he might know something you don’t know. Maybe he found cheaper training providers (although it’s a small world and we know most of them, if worth knowing) so I tried to look up a few of them out of curiosity and guess what? Looks all fake, just simple websites with poor English and the same ridiculous text on all of them, no real location or address, no responsible person named, or if so it’s always the same one, some guy in Serbia (probably his buddy), no company registration number or anything that would actually relate them to any person or organisation with name and standing in the industry. When I see people congratulating him every time on his newest achievements, I always wondered how nobody ever checked if these organisations even exist, if they are legit or why it always is the same individual signing these certificates and why he never posts any pictures from the training apparently taken? “Top secret” – would probably be the answer 😉 . So, be cautious when you see things that make you wonder, don’t be afraid to question things, ask where did they learn their skills, how long did it take them to achieve that, for every serious instructor this should be a good conversation opener to point out the experience he made during his training. If he avoids talking about that, or things don’t add up, something is probably fishy. There are of course also exceptions to this, some truly amazing martial artists who have dedicated their lives to studying martial arts, but when they are authentic you can easily follow that up as well. There will be articles in specialised magazines like Black Belt and other material from magazines, newspapers, TV, they often give a lot of well-visited seminars around the world and should have solid followership, etc. so it is actually very easy to verify how authentic such claims might be or not. So, in conclusion, does an instructor need to have 10 black belts? Nope! Is it a good thing if he has? If legit, absolutely, but this type of person rarely runs a small weekend self-defence course, but you could probably meet them at some bigger seminars.
Sometimes the question also comes up, what if the instructor is relatively new and inexperienced? Now we have ended up again in that rabbit hole, some critics might say, that an inexperienced instructor might teach you skills that give you a false sense of safety and might eventually get you killed. Well, I admit that I also tend to criticize techniques that are absolutely unrealistic because they cannot be performed by normal people (only by Ninjas) or they simply are too dangerous like lousily executed knife defence or gun disarms. Since the internet is a free place, you can find more of this nonsense on youtube nowadays, than anything that is legit. But as you already know this is exactly why I am doing this here. Now as for the inexperienced instructor, we all have been at some point fresh instructors, even if at that point we might have been already seasoned, martial artists or experienced professionals. Even when I look back on what I was teaching a few years back, I kind of feel embarrassed. I also taught courses following the Krav Maga curriculum, (which I have parted years ago), but that’s the nature of it, we learn, we progress, we adjust and we become better. There is no better way of progressing or learning, than by doing it, so there is absolutely nothing wrong with people who are new instructors, or of young age, or who simply do not have such a biography to show in order to promote themselves. I have picked up a line from Sensei Avi Nardia, the founder of modern Israeli Kapap which I often plagiarise “Always a student, sometimes a teacher”. I believe that summarizes it perfectly, this should be everyone’s motto in this industry. You can always learn more, and you can from everyone. Most of the time you are the student, you always search for better solutions, because maybe something didn’t work for someone on your last course, or you just met someone who taught you something new. Having an open mind is very important in all this, and sadly not everyone in this field has one.
As a matter of fact, with the desire to bring the kind of efficient self-defence training that I promote to as many people as possible, I have also trained others as instructors. And while some of them had already either martial arts, self-defence or professional security or military experience, others had actually evolved from joining my self-defence classes starting from zero, being insecure and vulnerable and they progressed into confident, strong individuals that are perfectly able to teach and present self-defence techniques to others. I believe that women have an advantage in teaching other women self-defence because obviously, they can relate better. I am therefore very proud to have had taught a couple of very motivated young ladies to a level that they are able to teach others now in self-defence. It does not always take an impressive biography to be a good instructor, what counts most is passion. I found that being able to inspire and motivate people is one of the most important skills to have as a self-defence instructor. That means literary that you can turn your own weakness whatever that might be into an advantage as people can relate to it, identify themselves with it and find in this the motivation to change their life too. Therefore never judge a book by its cover, rather give it a try and see how you like the class, the instructor, the methods and techniques being taught. You might not have the luxury to be able to train with the instructor or system of your choice, therefore, in my opinion, any kind of training is better than no training at all. Even if you start learning any martial art, it is also far from ideal self-defence training, and I have a separate post on how self-defence training should look, but you will still learn something. Worst case, if you find that some things do not work the way they should, you will end up on a quest for better solutions as many of us did before you 😉
I hope this was informative and useful, if you want to find out more about personal safety and self-defence training check out some of my other posts on the subject in the Personal Safety category.