Principles-Based Teaching, Part V – Rory Miller

Recap: the first four articles in this series covered the concepts behind principles-based teaching. Understanding the goals of training in general and your training in particular. Understanding what principles are. Auxiliary skills that every good teacher needs. Basic methods of instruction.

Teaching and learning are not just technical, physical processes but mental and emotional as well.  On a psychological and emotional level, you have to prep people for learning. One of the most toxic things we have done in martial arts and in some of the reality-based systems is to make conflict special. People come to us convinced violence is alien to them, it is complicated, it is hard to learn. With new students, part of the teaching (cognitive) process is to explain that violence is natural. The physics are the same as any other physical activity and the mentality is part of our evolutionary heritage. It’s been hammered and brainwashed out of your students, but they are all natural fighters, all survivors.

For the physical aspects of self-defense, the teaching pattern is simply:


Skill build

Return to game

Accelerated game(s)

Scenario training

I like having an over-all game that skills tie back to. The game has to be well designed:

  • Known safety flaws, minimal bad habits
  • Contact
  • A competitive element but not a competitive focus
  • No winners or losers

Every live training must have safety flaws. In the end, martial arts is about damaging a human being, yet we must not damage our training partners. So there is always an element of artificiality introduced for safety. You and the students must be conscious of the safety flaw.

Life is a contact sport, and fighting and self-defense are even more so. You cannot develop skill without contact any more than you can learn to swim without water. You must design games that work at different levels of contact, but each level of contact will have different safety concessions.

I like the game to have a competitive element to it, but no winner or loser– you are going to strive to be more efficient than me, but if you excel at that, you haven’t beaten me, just given me a more challenging problem to solve. The problem with full active resistance or any form of direct sparring is that only the winner learns that “it works against a resisting opponent.” The loser, who probably needs the skill more, learns that it fails against resisting opponents. Failure is not a lesson you want to teach at the beginning stage. Dealing with failure is an important lesson, but the student must be ready for it and you must have the judgment to teach that lesson.

I use three levels of play. Each level involves more speed but less contact. I start with the one-step. That’s the slow motion, taking turns, efficiency exercise described in Drills: Training for Sudden Violence, (That’s Smashwords. Link to Amazon Kindle.) Next level up is to blend that into a faster flow drill. The third level of play is infighting randori–fast, all techniques allowed, but very controlled contact.

The one-step helps the students see opportunity and experiment with multiple types of force simultaneously. It is safe, requires very little training and has many variations. It is particularly useful at pointing out the bad habits that come from fast training.

The primary flaw in the one-step is the slowness. You must face speed to be prepared for speed. A flurry attack is often mentally and emotionally overwhelming. The slowness can also be exploited to cheat, if the students can’t get over the winners/losers concept.

Drills are what they are and no more. I never call the one-step a fight simulation. It is a geometry problem made out of meat, and your job is to solve the moving meat problem as efficiently as possible.

The one-step allows thinking time. The flow level speeds up the action and decreases cognitive time, which is a good thing. But any increase in speed has drawbacks:

  • As the students go faster, they see less and thus they learn less
  • As the speed increases, the safety flaws become more necessary
  • As the speed increases the safety flaws have to become more automatic. Speed ingrains habits harder, including the bad ones.

Students need supreme control and confidence to play infighting randori well and safely, and frequently, this one has a winner. It integrates skills better than anything I know, because it is too close and too fast to process cognitively. The range allows all categories of attacks simultaneously: strikes, kicks, strangles, locks, takedowns, biting, gouging, etc. and because of the complexity and speed, it rewards and reinforces adaptability under stress like no other drill I know

Scenario training is an attempt to simulate real encounters. It requires the right equipment and a superbly skilled team to run scenarios well. Done well, scenarios force students to use judgment in tandem with their skills and integrates self-defense skills beyond the simply physical stuff.

Those are the games I use. A student will play the one-step first, before any instruction whatsoever (other than a safety briefing and a demo of how to play the game). This is important, because if they give themselves permission to play, it doesn’t require special training to be effective. This reinforces the earlier message that none of this is special, surviving is what you evolved to do.

The process, from here is simple. Play the game, do a breakout session for skill building. Put the students back in the drill.

Skill building sessions require you, as the instructor, to know your building blocks and principles inside out. You must come up with ways to demonstrate them and, more importantly, ways for the students to experiment, discover and experience the concepts.

One example: Joint locks breakout session.

First talk (Teaching): There are a few principles that are critical for making locks work, so leverage, two-way action, exploiting gravity, basing, and “gifts” (you don’t make locks, you find them) are explained. All principles are demonstrated and the students get to ask questions.

Second talk (Teaching) There are only three kinds of joints you can lock in the human body: Hinge, ball-and-socket, and gliding. Hinge joints are locked by applying force just above the joint and as far down the lever arm as possible.

First game: Challenge the students to come up with eight different elbow locks each. (Elbow locks are safer than knees or fingers at this stage).

First discovery— the students will see that there are both an infinite number of locks and only one.

Second talk and first game are repeated for each type of lock.

Special session on fingers because they are a doubled hinge joint in the same grip space as a ball-and-socket joint and close enough they can be spiral fractured against each other. Fingers are an especially target-rich environment.

Second game: After all the joints are covered, the next game is a lock-flow drill where students practice seeing the gifts.

Then the students return to the 0ne-step. Not to do only locks, but because locks are fresh in their brains, they will see a lot of them.

Repeat the cycle. Break them out of the game to work on something else, like targeting. Then put them back in the game. 

Theoretically, you could, after each skill, increase the speed through the flow and randori levels. 

I don’t do it that way. They can work on the principles in one-step forever. I move them to flow and randori based on their abilities and confidence level. Animals learn through play and the first exposure to randori should be fun and slightly overwhelming but shouldn’t make them feel terrified and helpless.

The last, critical piece to self-defense is to occasionally run good scenario training. That allows them to use their skills in tandem with their judgment. And use more force, because of the armor. That said, scenario training is very hard to do well and safely and easy to do poorly. And poor scenario training can mess up students, physically, tactically and emotionally. It is better to stay away from them completely than to do them poorly. You need not only proper instruction, but practice.

In the end, the goal of real force training is to be ruthlessly efficient. To achieve one’s goal with the absolute minimum of wasted effort and time. PBT is my attempt to apply that sensibility to teaching as well. To use everything we know about how people learn and how they react under stress to create a superior survivor in the minimum time. Principles-based training is a step in the direction of ruthlessly efficient instruction.

There are some caveats, though:

1) Done properly, it allows and encourages creativity. Which means your students will innovate some sneaky shit and beat you far sooner than if they train in techniques. PBT is not a good method for egotistical instructors.

2) It can be hard to measure and test. Using this platform for jointlocks, we’ve gotten untrained officers improvising locks under pressure in an hour. And some of those locks would seem to be advanced. But they wouldn’t have been able to name a lock or to demo a specific lock. Which makes organizations and concrete thinkers uncomfortable.

3) It’s incompatible with most martial arts business models. The student/teacher relationship will shift to colleague/colleague very quickly. I like that, personally.

To quote Melody Lauer, a handgun instructor in the US, critiquing a (completely unrelated to me or PBT) class she had recently attended: “The way the class is structured and the instruction method demands an excellent instructor to pull it off.”

Principles based training elicits excellence from the students, but it demands excellence from the instructor.


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