6 Takeaways from 20 Years in the Trenches Part 2 – Andy Fisher

Telling Tales

Anecdotes – nearly all of us use them but not necessarily strategically. A good story, told at the right time in a class can be an excellent teaching method. It can allow the abstract to become concrete and can help a student gain an embodied understanding of something which was, up to that point, just theory. I have met few coaches who do this better than Tony Blauer; he is a raconteur but his stories are never self-aggrandizing and nearly always deployed to lay down mental blueprints that his students will be able to draw upon when needed.

So, stories have their place in a coach’s arsenal, but this does not mean we have carte blanche to hold court with hyperbolic tales of our ugly altercations on the streets, simply because a memory is triggered in a session we are facilitating. Often these narratives are more about reinforcing our credentials than helping our students to learn whatever is the focus of that lesson.

Don’t Forget the Scaffolding

To acquire any complex motor skill, a coach will be obliged to use ‘scaffolding’ – that is he or she will begin with a simplified version of the technique or principle to be mastered. Those who learn to ride bikes have stabilizers, those new to the pool have floatation devices. In time, they are removed and the training protocols increasingly come to resemble the final performance criteria. This happens in nearly every coaching arena I know…except in the combative arts. Too often, we have grown men and women, claiming to be prospective lifeguards with an invisible polystyrene shark’s fin strapped to their back and day-glow arm bands (see what I did there with my well-timed analogy? Too much?).

If we are to be true to our professed goals (to make our students safer) then we need to incrementally remove the scaffolding until they at least have a decent chance if they are thrown in the deep end. This, again, requires well planned drills – there are ‘latch-key’ teachers out there who plan their lesson on the way from the staff room, minutes before the class is about to begin. They sometimes brag about their ability to improvise – most are decent enough people, but terrible teachers.

Meet Them Where They Are

Finally, I try to always keep in mind that the root of the word ‘education’ is ‘educare’; it means to ‘draw out of’, rather than to ‘stuff into’. So many coaches think of their students as empty vessels waiting to be filled. Remember the hackneyed zen-tale of the acolyte who must ‘empty his cup’ if he is to learn what the master has to offer? Apart from a waste of good tea (which, as an Englishman, I find deplorable), I’ve never liked this story because it suggests that a good student must abandon their own wisdom if they are to progress. Being humble and coachable is one thing, but we should not ask our students to abandon their scepticism and current understanding of the world.


We must meet them where they are and build on what is already there. I hear too many reality-based self-defence coaches pronounce that ‘we are predators’ and that we ‘already have all the knowledge that we need to defend ourselves’, only to then go on to do everything in their power to overwrite the instincts that lie waiting to be uncovered. As Rory Miller and others have pointed out, a poorly-trained student is less equipped to deal with a violent assault than someone who is operating just from instinct. If what we are teaching does not increase the survivability of those who train with us, we have an ethical responsibility to step aside before we do any more damage. This may sound harsh, but a good teacher doesn’t shy away from the truth, however unsettling it might be.

Any decent lesson has a ‘starter’ to wake up the grey matter, the ‘main body’ of the lesson, where most of the heavy lifting takes place, and then a ‘plenary’ which provides a condensed summary of the ground covered…so…

Here are 6 things we might want to avoid as self-protection instructors:

  • We shouldn’t dominate the training space and mistake teaching with learning.

  • We shouldn’t coach unprepared, or without a clear set of objectives in mind.

  • We shouldn’t replicate inefficient and outmoded ‘technique-driven’ coaching.

  • We shouldn’t tell self-glorifying stories with little or no coaching value.

  • We shouldn’t leave ‘drill scaffolding’ in place, when it is no longer helpful.

  • We shouldn’t overwrite good instincts and movement which our students already possess.

Instead, we might consider adopting the following 6 strategies in our coaching:

  • Be the ‘guide on the side’ and help students arrive at an embodied understanding through hands-on experience.

  • Work from well-planned, innovative lesson outlines that offer solutions to clearly articulated problems.

  • Investigate and apply a principle-based, constraint-led training method.

  • Use stories as a purposeful learning tool which empowers those we work with.

  • Systematically remove drill constraints and create opportunities for progressive pressure-testing that more closely aligns with real-world conflict and violence.


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