Self-Defence Instructor with 'Military Background'

An interesting conversation took place online recently; revolving largely around my military experience and its relevance to me as a self-defence instructor. This gave me reason to consider this subject more deeply. And I realised there are considerations that I haven’t discussed in my articles or videos up until now.

So here it is! Consider this a clarification, an explanation and an insight into the truth about having a ‘military background’ as a self-defence instructor.


Fact: having an army background has no direct relevance to a person’s skill in unarmed combat

Many people are surprised to learn that the British Army has no syllabus for unarmed fighting. Even the Special Forces simply bring in civilian Subject Matter Experts for things such as unarmed combat or wilderness survival.

A person could have actually served with the Special Forces and still be the worst self-defence instructor. This is due to several reasons:

-       The most elite military forces in the world spend little to no time training in unarmed fighting. And international units that do spend prolonged periods of time training in martial arts are usually essentially training to give impressive demonstrations and as such are not particularly good at either real unarmed fighting OR the armed military tactics they claim to also be experts in.

-       Modern warfare has very little need to unarmed skills. Indeed, the more skilled the soldier and the more technologically advanced that country’s military is, the LESS need they have to get into fisticuffs with the enemy.

-       A major part of being a good self-defence instructor isn’t just having a good self-defence system, but in fact being a good instructor! Not all those that can do, can teach (and indeed the reverse is also true - in all honesty, at this point I feel I am probably better at preparing people for fighting as I am at fighting. And I’m OK with that. I’m a professional instructor, not a professional fighter)


What I took away from my training in the Army Reserves

I never deployed to Afghanistan or any other dusty place, and my unit was combat-service-support, not infantry. I served for about 4 years in a part-time role.

I was already teaching when I enlisted, and I went in with the mind of being like a sponge – consciously soaking up whatever transferable skills or lessons I could to help me in my teaching, which I knew there would be plenty of after an introductory talk we were given by the Platoon Commander in basic training.

“The British Army’s primary purpose is to deliver violence to our enemies”, he said.

Not to protect our borders even, but to ‘deliver violence’. And considering that the British Army is one of – if not the - most elite Army in the world, that places it as the most effective organisation at violence.

As someone who prepares people for violence, this got my attention. I felt that being part of this organisation, being exposed to its method for delivering violence, would benefit me in my work. And I believe it has.

At the centre of the basic training phase is ‘conditioning’. This takes place on several levels and in several ways, but all conditioning is in preparation for combat. Not only the exercises and lessons themselves, but the general training environment – which in basing training is the only environment you are in, really – is all designed to inoculate you to the adversities of combat.

Combat simulation, in the various forms this can take, gives the trainee a taste of the chaos of combat, albeit in a controlled environment where the ‘volume’ can be turned down JUST enough to give them the opportunity to operate effectively. Only to have it turned up a bit more the next time (as with all progressive training).

It’s also a place where one finds out what their various thresholds are. In basic training, I found out just how fit I was (or wasn’t!) and how much being shouted at I can take before it starts to ‘get’ to me. I discovered how attached to my children I was, and how thinking of them at times impaired my ability to operate effectively. I found out that a little ‘encouragement’ from a corporal helped me overcome my dislike of heights. I discovered that I was not so great at things I thought might have been easier and did better than I thought at other things. I learned where emotion can be helpful and where it can be a hindrance.

In a fight, it’s not uncommon to experience fear, doubt, anger, rage, coldness, ruthlessness, determination and even elation – even within the few seconds or minutes it takes. Basic training and similar training/selection phases within the military (and the much shorter training exercises that take place after that) are like prolonged versions of this.

When I carry out gradings or pressure tests, I will often carry them out in a way that reflects the feel of this training.

The use of firearms in particular has many transferable qualities to unarmed combat – from the stance and ‘footwork’, to the way malfunction drills are trained and understanding ‘rate of fire’ to name a few. I’ve found that instructor Mick Coup, with his extensive experience in both forms of fighting, is particularly good at relating fighting with firearms to unarmed combat.

I feel that my military experience is relevant to me as an instructor. Because I make it so. I’ve absorbed all I could in order to help me become more complete as a teacher of self-defence. But, no; military training does not have any inherent, direct effect on how good an instructor I am.

I’ve found this is a common misconception, much like how most people expect there to be an unarmed combat syllabus in the Army. And it’s this misconception that, to be honest, tends to make my military training actually more significant to my students that even to me. For them it seems to be an indicator of my credibility that while I do believe I am worthy of, is kind of misplaced in the assumption that this credibility is inherent from having been in a uniform.  

I’ve trained ex-members of the British Army who had incredibly extensive experience – that initially made me feel insecure as THEIR instructor – only to confirm that even military combat experience does not make one particularly gifted at unarmed self-defence. They were OK and got better with training just like the musicians, teachers, authors and engineers I have trained.

Finally, I am incredibly proud of Britain’s Armed Forces and I am proud to have been a part of that for the time that I was.

There is more I could say on my experience – why I joined and what other lessons I took away. But they do not relate necessarily to self-defence, so I will leave it here.