Book Review: ‘Violence of Mind: Preparing for Extreme Violence’ by Varg Freeborn – Garry Smith

I downloaded this onto my Kindle some weeks ago along with 3 other books, 1 of them a novel. I had a weeks holiday coming up and I wanted to get some serious reading done, the fact that the week in question turned out to be something of a heatwave meant that whilst we did walk a lot, we sat soaking in the sun and reading a lot too, continuing into the cooler evenings after great food and whilst drinking good beer. Herefordshire is a beautiful place with beautiful scenery and wildlife, the combination of good things was spot on.

So VoM, well Varg is a friend and I really like his stuff anyway so I was really looking forward to reading it. I was not disappointed. He does not pull his punches, he holds no sacred cows and his experience flows throughout the book. I have long held the view and stated often in my training that I can teach the physical stuff pretty quickly, once the fundamentals are explained and inculcated in the student, teaching technique is not that difficult, learning it is. Its why we constantly revisit the fundamentals, however many times that takes, we do that. The difficult part, I tell all and sundry, is developing the mindset to put what is learned into practice, first in a safe environment, then increasing the resistance until the student gets a chance to validate if they can make it work.

Reading VoM affirmed much of what I know and do, that is always a pleasure, but, it also made me question a few things and reframe others. As I read VoM I had images in my mind of how we train and teach, reading VoM helped me imagine tweeks and changes we could make to get better so that our curriculum offer can evolve further.

VoM is unique due to Varg being unique. Very few in our business, whatever that is, have anything like his experiences or his extraordinary ability to articulate complex ideas and concepts without using technical jargon. In fact he shoots down, pardon the pun, those who hide behind jargon and pseudo sceince. The criminal mind is not our mind, we cannot truly think like fully socialised hardened criminals, but as instructors we have a duty of care at least to learn how they think and the harshness of the world their mindset is forged in. VoM exposes how those who teach art, who teach students that nice moves learned in a nice dojo with nice partners are about as much use in a fight against a violent criminal as a chocolate fireguard.

I know a little of this as I have hunted men, ambushed, hurt them, for fun. Lets stay with the book though.

Read this book and then reflect on how you train and if an instructor how you teach. Reflect very hard on what you teach. Do you, can you, explain to your students what they may come up against, what they will be dealing with, do you know yourself? If the answer is no or not sure, and the best tactic is err on the negative, get this book, read it once, leave it a while then read it again. The lessons are there if you want them.

For me my holiday is walking in the countryside with my wife and our little dog. Its about time together, good food and a few beers. It is also time to learn free from classes (thank you to my excellent cadre of instructors), time to read, reflect, learn and move forward. I was really looking forward to reading VoM, to say I was not disappointed is an understatement.

Footnote; The morning after I read VoM I read an back article from The New Scientist callec Circuit Training for the Brain by Teal Burrell.


In a fantastic article she uses a concept, proprioception (look it up you muscle memory cavefolk lol), that I had first read in VoM the day before, needless to say, Varg had it bang right.

Reviewed by Garry Smith.

Interview with Rory Miller Part 2 – Elie Edme

This interview was conducted  by Elie Edme for Corps Global, the English language version is reprinted in Conflict Manager and on the CRGI website with permission.

EE – What was a normal day as a detention officer?

Depends on your assignment and your work ethic. As a deputy, when I worked housing I’d attend briefing, get my keys and radio from the deputy I relieved and count all inmates and make sure they were healthy. Then check to make sure that everyone was who they were supposed to be and in the right cell or bunk. Also checked the dorm equipment to make sure nothing was taken or broken.

Then, generally, I’d let the inmates out of their cells or off their bunks. They could socialize, play games, read, study, do paperwork, exercise. I’d be wandering around among them listening, watching and keeping things calm. In closed custody, that would be 16 inmates, in our “nicest” classification it would be 190. 16-75 inmates, the deputy would work alone. 190 we had a partner. Count them, feed them, search them, get them ready for court, visits, and outside recreation. At the end of the shift, get them all back to their cells (34 inmates if in individual cells, double bunked would be 64; 55, 60, 75, and 190 would be no cells, just open dorms.) Count them and hand off a quiet dorm to the next shift.

Other work assignments might include controlling movement with electric locks and cameras; escorting inmates who had to move within the jail or between jails; and several jobs in Reception (Booking) that included searching and processing new inmates and moving them to available bunks in the jail.

When I became a sergeant, my primary job was a wandering trouble-shooter. I’d have multiple deputies watching multiple dorms and I would spend as much time as possible in there, listening to complaints, watching for trouble brewing and putting out fires.

EE – How was your relationships to the criminals you faced as a prison guard?

RM – Pretty good, generally. The rules of respect are pretty clear-cut in a jail. Treat people with respect (not deference) and you tend to get respect back. As your reputation grows— not your reputation as a fighter, but your reputation for being fair— and the older cons would caution the younger guys not to be stupid.

One example. It’s well known that criminals don’t like to talk to cops and have strict rules about informing. That was almost never a problem for me. I usually got full cooperation. One of the duties of a sergeant was to investigate incidents. So if two guys had a fight, my job would be to try to find out why. Some sergeants would try to cultivate snitches. They’d look for weak, vulnerable, or low-status inmates who might pass on information in hopes of some kind of reward. My tactic was to get the highest status cons I could and ask them together (so there was no suspicion that someone was snitching) “Gentleman, I’ve got these two young guys dead to rights on the fight, they’re going to the hole. But I don’t like bum-beefing anybody. So I’ve got two questions for you: Was it a fight? If one guy started it and the other didn’t have a choice, I want to put that in my report. I don’t want anybody getting anything in his jacket he didn’t deserve. And two: Is this thing over? Because if this is just the symptom of a bigger problem and I can move a few people now and no one else gets hurt or goes to the hole, that’s better for everybody.”

Basically, everyone in jail wants it clean quiet and safe. When I had the rep with the old heads that I wanted the same thing and was trying to prevent trouble instead of punish it, most were willing to help out.

Best evidence, though is that I’ve run into a number of former inmates on the street. They recognize me and we can have a talk.

EE – Do most criminals come from a violent background? Do you think we are born violent as human beings or that we are “made” violent?

RM – Violence is just a tool. And there’s never been a non-violent way to get food, so in that sense, anyone not born violent isn’t fit to survive except as someone else’s pet.

But how much violence we use, how comfortable we are with violence, when and how much violence we think is appropriate— that stuff is learned. In general, many criminals were raised to be comfortable with a level of violence that non-criminals would find repugnant. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, they are simply adapted for their environment.

Not all are violent. Many addicts and burglars for instance try to avoid confrontation. But any kind of criminal prohibition (like making drugs illegal) creates an economy where the only enforcement is vengeance. So learning to be competent at violence is a necessary skill.

If a criminal becomes a member of the criminal subcommunity, he or she will be surrounded by people who regularly solve problems with violence, so the survivors learn how to match that.

Book Review – The Ape in the Corner Office: How to Make Friends, Win Fights, and Work Smarter by Understanding Human Nature’ by Richard Conniff.

Another oldie I finally got around to reading and another goodie. The whole book is very interesting and entertaining and Conniff mixes some incredibly complex human motivations and funny anecdotes to make his points. He quotes Sapolsky and Ekman quite a bit, unavoidable as they are out front in their respective fields, and whilst he does not mention Navarro and Haidt there is clear overlap.

I really enjoyed the use of primatologists research findings and observations throughout and am now a source of entertaining monkey stories for my grandchildren. On a more serious note there is good science explained clearly, I particularly found the thought on ‘The Right Hand Man (or Woman). From a conflict management perspective the physiology of dominance contests was fascination, I knew quite a bit of this anyway but here it is really well presented.

Upon completion I found it confirmed my business and social practices, I am pro-socially dominant and bi-strategic.

Bi-strategics use prosocial techniques by reciprocating favours, offering help without being asked and they build alliances. However, I am not averse to coercive behaviours to get my way, yep, no more Mr Nice Guy if being a Nice Guy fails.

This is a book where reading a chapter at a time is a great strategy although I did get carried away a few times. It is a topic that I am thoroughly fascinated with so it is not surprising I am recommending it. If you are only going to read 1 book on why we behave as we do, then for now, this is a good source. The thing is I suspect if you read it you will want more.

Reviewed by Garry Smith.

The Quiet In the Dark – Heidi J. MacDonald

The state of our world now, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo has been tense and politically charged, to say the least. Over the past several months, we have seen scores of women step forward and for the first time, publicly discuss in great detail their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, traumatizing sexual assaults, and overall discriminatory behavior by their male counterparts.

The backlash since then, has been both positive and negative. Habitual predators such as Weinstein and Spacey, among many names, are now under investigation for criminal sexual assaults. Inappropriate behaviour is no longer being excused as “boys being boys”, and even those in esteemed positions, such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, have been terminated from their posts.

Corporate America and Silicon Valley has been recently forced to review their inadequate sexual harassment policies and predominantly biased male culture after a female employee posted a rather extensive blog post, detailing a rather uncomfortable year at Uber. The result of this, and other bad behaviour made public, forced the CEO of Uber to step down.1

The results of all of this, as well as the sobering statistics on sexual assault 2, has encouraged social media dialogues, on the path that perhaps these recent scandals could used as a catalyst to further encourage women’s self defense courses, on a broader scale.

Do I believe that there should be more women in self-defense and martial arts school? Certainly. But my take on #MeToo is from a different angle.

You see, I have been involved in self defense and martial arts since I was 22 years old. But, I will be as transparent as possible, and inform you that it did not completely insulate me from violence. I was raped by an ex-boyfriend who is also involved in the SD and MA community, only a few years ago.

I am also profoundly deaf, and rely on a cochlear implant to process sound.

So as much as I am encouraged by the #MeToo Movement, I am also acutely aware of the fact that it is not just one particular gender who are vulnerable and seeking solutions to end gender violence, but also this: that those who are disabled must be part of the conversation to find solutions.

Governor Baxter School for the Deaf underwent an investigation in the 1980s, that revealed decades of physical and sexual abuse inflicted upon the deaf children who resided in the residential facilities on Mackworth Island, outside of Portland, Maine.3

Sadly, this was not the only school for the deaf, where young deaf children were physically and sexually exploited.

  • There was the Washington School for the Deaf. 4
  • The Manitoba School for the Deaf. 5
  • Even Gallaudet University, an institution that has prided itself on serving higher education to the deaf community, has struggled with creating best practices to assist students who have been sexually assaulted.6

There are so many articles and research pieces that I came across while researching sexual violence against disabled populations. Too many, to be honest. It shocked even me. Why isn’t this discussed more in the SD and MA communities? Why aren’t we assisting this population more?

There’s no denying the fact that deaf women and children are at a higher risk of sexual assault and abuse. If the study at Rochester Institute of Technology in 2011 is to be believed, it is more than 25 percent higher than their hearing counterparts.7

Think about this carefully: the deaf community is very small, and often times the schools for the deaf, are THE center of the community’s culture. Rochester Institute of Technology and Gallaudet are certainly proof of that. Ask yourself, how do you go about reporting your own abuse or rape, if everyone in your community knows your assailant?  Also take into consideration that in such a close knit community, your identity as the victim, will NOT be a confidential matter.

Everyone will know who you are. As the victim, you have just given yourself an unfairly heavy mantle of causing a rift, unwanted trouble within a community bonded by its own culture and language.

You could be very much dependent on your abuser/assailant for your basic care and communication with the world, at large. By going public, you are placing yourself at a great physical risk, and the possibility of being cut off from communicating with others.

If you think you can’t live without texting, just think of how valuable text messaging on a smartphone must be for a deaf person.

If you do make the brave decision to report sexual assault, there is still the matter of whether the police in the community have appropriate training, or the resources to fully communicate with you via an ASL interpreter.

I was particularly disturbed by reading of one female Gallaudet University student identified as deaf/blind, and her difficulties with gaining assistance from the University’s Title XI Coordinator, who took two months to respond to her emails, and identified her during the course of a meeting with her assailant. When she finally made a complaint with the University’s Department of Public Safety, the police response was woefully inadequate.8

Female victims have often faced the perils of being called unreliable or a liar in court, so consider the additional hurdle if you are deaf, the questions you must face by police and legal professionals:

  • How capable are you of identifying your assailant if you are unable to hear? Even worse, how credible are you at identifying your assailant if you are a legally blind individual?
  • What’s your mental facility? Keep in mind that it wasn’t that long ago that deaf individuals were routinely considered “deaf and dumb.”

I strongly and passionately believe that self defense and martial arts instructors need to take into consideration not just women’s vulnerabilities as being smaller than their male counterparts, but also the very real vulnerabilities of those with physical and mental limitations. This is a segment of the population that is very much at a higher risk.

But, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we claim that our self defense and MA schools are true fortresses of safety. It’s not true. We need to be realistic and acknowledge that sexual predators exist everywhere: our homes, our workplaces, churches, and yes – even our schools.

Considering that most self defense and MA schools do not face any sort of regulations or oversight committees (never mind background checks when hiring prospective teachers), we do need to be cautious and look twice at who we hire in our self defense schools. Here’s a few examples:

  • A jiu-jitsu instructor in Winnipeg last fall was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. 9
  • A photo of Rickson Gracie with a man identified as David Arnebeck, made the rounds on social media. The photo of the smiling men sparked an outrage as it was determined that Arnebeck had been convicted of molesting a minor in 2013, and yet still continued to teach, receive belt rank promotions. Since then, it’s been revealed that two more prominent members within the organization also had convictions.

Should there be more self-defense courses, and more women in the halls of our martial arts dojos? Yes.

But in the process of promoting our programs, I advocate that we have a  responsibility to ideally, create 2 things:

  1. Take more responsibility and do more background checks and research into the instructors we potentially hire. Because we are not just teaching self defense, but we also have a moral obligation to have instructors who will not further harm students in a sexually abusive or harassing manner;
  1. We must discuss and craft comprehensive self defense and safety programs that includes those who are at a higher risk than their more physically capable counterparts.

If we’re going to advocate changes in the wake of #MeToo, and actively help those individuals who have difficulty advocating for themselves, then we also cannot ignore the fact that we need some form of oversight with regards to our instructors.

We owe it to ourselves to ensure that the potentially vulnerable, do not face, yet another predator on the training mat.

1 Fowler, Susan J. (Feb. 19, 2017) Reflecting On One Very Strange Year at Uber. Retrieved from:


3 Shattuck, John. Bangor Daily News (April 14, 2013). Lessons Learned After Sexual Exploitation of Deaf Students in Maine. Retrieved from:

4 Teichroeb, Ruth. Seattle Post-Intelligencer (April 24, 2001) Decades of Sex Abuse Plague Deaf School. Retrieved from:

5 CBC News (October 6, 2009) Deaf Students put in Dog Cages, Suit Claims. Retrieved from:

6 Khan, Azmat. (February 2, 2015) The Hidden Victims of Campus Sexual Assault: Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from:

7 Dube, William. RIT News. (January 8, 2011) Study: Abuse Rates Higher Among Deaf Children and Hard of Hearing Children Compared to Hearing Youth. Retrieved from:

8 Khab, Azmat. (February 2, 2015) The Hidden Victims of Campus Sexual Assault: Students With Disabilities. Retrieved from:

9 Bissell, Tim. (September 25, 2017). Martial Arts Instructor Accused of Sexual Assault and Child Abuse at Winnipeg Jiu Jitsu Studio. Retrieved from:


Design Matters in Self-Defense Instruction Part 1 – Tammy Yard-McCracken

Every once in a while, a story hits the media about someone touting the differences between men and women as the source of abilities (or lack thereof) related to science, math or military service. Welcome to proof-texting, taking a quote or data point out of context adding validation to an otherwise erroneous argument. Proof-texting works for the women can’t do science type of arguments because there are subtle differences between male and female brains. Using these differences as arguments to bolster positions about intelligence or aptitude is categorically without merit. Understanding how the differences influence decision-making can go a long way to effectively manage communication at the broad stroke level. Conflict management and prevention, applications to negotiations, sales, and all forms of personal and commercial relationship can benefit.

Let’s look specifically at an area of communication and relationship with a dominantly male leadership community and a target demographic largely female. Self-defense.

If you want to frustrate a female student, assume she is wired just like a male student. There are a variety of ways we can investigate learning and processing differences among all our students – again – regardless of gender, for this conversation I want to look at where gender differences can matter.

Specifically, take into consideration two structural/design differences between the male and the female brain1:

  1. The male brain has about 6x more grey matter and the female brain has roughly 10x more white matter.
  2. The female brain’s corpus callossum (the cord connecting the two halves of your brain) is about 10% thicker on average.

White matter and the connectivity between the hemispheres are collectively responsible for the ability to make inferences, drive curiosity and discovery oriented decision-making, integrate large caches of information and remain open to changes in how one navigates problems and solutions. The reason for this is pretty simple. White matter is made up of myelinated axons. An axon’s job is to connect to other axons and collectively, they serve as the brain’s information highway connecting the points where data is stored (grey matter). With more white matter, a female brain has more myelinated axons v. the unmyelinated version of grey matter and as a result, more interconnectivity and interaction among the data storage centers2.

Think of white matter as the train lines in a subway or commuter rail and the grey matter as the individual stations. The more stations that are interconnected, the more there will be travel between all the points, the more often the travel will occur and the more station hopping there may be on a single trip. It’s one of the reasons women can have a multi-dimensional conversation without losing track of all the different topics being discussed simultaneously.

What this means in teaching women in a mission-oriented paradigm like self-defense? The subtle increase in gray matter causes men to be slightly more inclined to approach a task through a mission directed mindset. Get it done. “I need new boxing gloves” – goes to vendor or store, finds boxing gloves of correct weight –buys gloves. Done.

Women are more likely to consider how long the previous gloves lasted her and how they were used during that time frame. She may measure out the weight of the gloves against her training goals and her upper body strength along with the color and design as they influence how she feels about the gloves. She will investigate the vendor as well as the product and do more comparison shopping. If this is the first pair of gloves, the guy is going to ask the instructor: what should I buy? Tell him 18 oz gloves in X price range and he’s good to go. She is going to want to know more information, or may go out to buy them and come back with a fistful of questions instead of a pair of gloves.

On the mat, tell him he needs to move offline at a 45-degree angle and he has a mission to accomplish. Done. Tell this to her and out of respect and the power differential, she may jump in with the same mission-oriented approach. For a while. Eventually, she is going to wonder about why the 45 degrees is the preferred angle for this skill. She is going to think about other situations and circumstances and where the failure point is.

She may even play around with the failure point. Like she investigated the purchase of her gloves, she is going to investigate the technique. If no one else is doing this in class, she may wait until she’s off by herself, away from the critical eye of her fellow students and instructors. She may play with it in her thoughts and visualize it instead of a physical test of the thing, but she is going to play with it.

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.