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Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: Scaling Force (Book)

Scaling Force: Dynamic Decision Making Under Threat of Violence 
Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane
YMAA Press
Oct 2012

It took me a while to get Scaling Force. I'm not entirely sure why, except that Rory has a lot of stuff out there, and I can only read so fast. But I recently got my hands on the Scaling Force DVD (review coming soon), and I figured I should read the book for a full comparison. I'm really glad I did...this is another gem from Rory.

In talking about self-defense with martial artists, I've noticed that there are often two big gaps in their training. One is the psychological aspects of self-defense (what we call Fight One in the PDR/SPEAR System). The other, and honestly, probably the most often ignored, is the legal aspects of self-defense (what we call Fight Three in the PDR/SPEAR system). Scaling Force presents a system and method for martial artists to address fight three in a pretty comprehensive fashion.

The Thing Itself

I read this book on Kindle, so I can't comment on what the hard copy version is like. The kindle format generally works well. My only complaint (and it is a minor one) is that the kindle version seems to think that every single section is a new chapter, which meant that the little ticker at the bottom constantly said "one minute left in chapter" or "chapter complete". Like I said, minor complaint.

What's Inside

Scaling Force begins with an overview of some fundamental self-defense principles. Rory's breakdown of social and asocial/predatory violence appears here, as does some information on situational awareness, the IMOP principle and other legal niceties, and an explanation of what the Scaling Force...scale (it's not a continuum, the authors tell us) is. The scale offers six stages of potential responses to a confrontation: Presence, Voice, Touch, Empty Hand Restraint/Physical Control, Less Lethal Force, and Lethal Force.

(I should expand on that, actually. The point the authors are making here is that the scale isn't something you move up through during a confrontation--you just enter at the level that's appropriate. You don't start with level one if level six is what you need.)

This is all very solid information, though long-time readers of Rory's work will find some of it (particularly the social/predatory violence information) familiar, and possibly repetitive. Personally, I find a good review of good information always helpful. For anyone who is reading Miller for the first time, this stuff is invaluable.

The remainder of the book is six chapters, each devoted to a stage on the force scale. Each chapter provides a breakdown of the force level: how it works, what the key concepts are, and some ideas for drills and training at each level. The information here is all very detailed, but it's presented in a way that's easily accessible for a general audience. None of it is particularly style or system specific, and most of it could be integrated into just about any training system without a great deal of strain.

What's Good

The whole thing.

The legal aspects of self-defense have got to be one of the most overlooked areas of self-defense training. Possibly even more so than the psychological aspects (which at least get some lip service). Scaling Force offers a solution for that. More importantly, because the information is presented in a non-style specific way, it's information that can be integrated into any training method that's concerned with self-defense. Just reading the book will probably illuminate some holes in your training. Actually putting this stuff into practice will fill those holes nicely, and expand all of your skills as a martial artist (or as a human being).

It is worth noting that while each chapter contains some drills and concepts for working on that particular level of force, getting into any level in greater detail requires going beyond the scope of the book. Chapter Four, for example, contains a nice discussion on the mechanics and tactics of joint locking, but getting really good at joint locks is going to require some time on the mat, and probably some hands on training with someone who is good at that sort of thing. That's not a complaint--going in depth on every section of this book would make the book so enormous as to be unwieldy.

Who Is This For?

Self-defense instructors, martial arts instructors who think they are teaching self-defense, or people who practice self-defense but don't teach it. Basically, if you are interested in self-defense in any way, this book is a must read.

If you are a martial artist who ISN'T interested in self-defense, this book might still be worth reading, just to understand where the gaps in your training are. You might not care about filling them, but it's better to know they're there ahead of time than to ignore them and find out later.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

There's Just Hard

Listening to a Ted Radio talk episode Secrets a couple of weeks ago, and one of the speakers said something that struck me.

She said, "There's no such thing as 'harder'. There's just hard."

Now, she was speaking about coming out, a task far, far more daunting than anything most people will face in the martial arts studio or weight room. But the concept applies.

Hard is hard.

How you define hard will depend on you. One person's max effort deadlift is another person's warm up set. But one person's max effort deadlift is just as hard as another person's max effort's a MAX effort.

The same thing goes in martial arts training. If you've been training for a long time, it can be easy to start to think of things that you did as a beginner as being easy, because for you, they now are. For the next beginner down the line, they aren't easy...they are hard. What you, as the advanced practitioner is doing, isn't's just hard.

The point of this isn't to have a semantic argument about relative levels of hardness (though I'm sure we could go there). It's to provide a reminder for all of us that, when someone says "this lift is really hard" or "this kick/punch/drill is really hard", not to respond with "well, this other lift/kick/punch/drill is even harder". We don't need to try to one up each others suffering or struggles.

If something is hard, it's hard. What you're doing may also be hard. That's fine. Hard is hard. Respect and praise the effort, and move on.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Got started on this line of thought after a conversation with Michael Scott out at Integrated Martial Arts. This post from Tony Dismukes prompted some further thoughts.

There seems to be a spectrum of codification in the martial arts. Some arts are extremely codified, to the point of complete rigidity in their training and teaching. Other arts are completely uncodified...there is no formal training structure, organization, or, well, anything. As with a lot of things, the middle ground is probably a good place to be.

At one extreme, you have arts like Muay Thai and Boxing. Yes, there are manuals and treatises on these arts, but those generally reflect one teacher's understanding of the art and training. If you go to a boxing club, there is no guarantee about the order in which you will be taught things, the way you will be taught them, or even what you will be taught. Hell, the names aren't even standardized. One of my coaches used something he called a drop step, which was different in application and purpose (and mechanics, to a degree) from the drop step in Dempsey's Championship Fighting. While there are some governing bodies out there, they mostly regulate the sport...they don't hand down curriculum, titles, or training methods. There is no boxing version of the Kodokan, for example.

My experience learning Muay Thai was similar. While individual classes might have structure, there was no larger organization to the training. It was all organic. No testing cycles, no scheduled rank tests. Just movement, drills, and learning. Whatever the coach felt we needed to work on, that was what we worked on.

Honestly, this organic approach works very well. It allows the coach to give the athlete what s/he needs, without worrying about conforming to a particular pattern that the coach is "supposed" to follow. Have a fighter who needs to work on their jab more? They work on their jab? Someone else needs to focus on leg kicks? Fine. Obviously, in a class structure, the potential for individual attention becomes limited, but it's still a very flexible approach. And it can produce some great fighters/martial artists.

There are downsides too. The lack of codification means that important ideas can get overlooked or lost. I once had a student get to a point where he was prepping for amateur Muay Thai fights before anyone realized that he lacked even a rudimentary clinch game. Because of the lack of a clear structure in his training, he managed to get pretty good at the boxing and kicking elements of Muay Thai, but no one realized that his clinch was lagging. It hurt his performance in training and fight day. My fault as a coach, but it could have been prevented with proper communication within a system.

There's a larger downside as well: the lack of codified, organized curriculum means that everything is inside the coaches head. Part of my conversation with Michael was about the fact that if Kru Mark was hit by a bus tomorrow, everything he knows would be gone. There's nothing preserved, nothing to revisit....we'd just have to try and figure things out, and probably re-learn some of the lessons he learned. That's a weakness in a teaching system.

At the other extreme are some TKD and Karate schools, where the curriculum is extremely codified. The student's entire progression, from white belt to high ranking black belt is laid out in crystal clear terms. Technique, fitness...everything. It's all there in clear, stark terms.

This can be a good thing. Dan John talks about the importance of knowing point A and point B when you're setting goals: these kinds of curricula give you those points. I can sit down with one of these curricula and, without even talking to a coach, know EXACTLY what I need to learn to get a black belt (actually learning it is another matter). That kind of road map can be very helpful for a lot of students, especially newer students who don't really know where they should be going.

Of course, this level of codification has it's limits too. A completely scripted training system doesn't allow for organic adaptation. It can be used as a way to restrict information in a way that is damaging, not empowering. It can artificially slow a students progress (or artificially accelerate it, which is the heart of a lot of "McDojo's" problems/business model)I have heard stories of students being chastised for practicing a technique that they weren't "allowed" to know. That is codification taken to far, in my opinion.

So what's the middle ground? Something with enough codification and structure to be organized, but not so rigid as to prevent organic adaptation in the hands of the coach. Principles clearly articulated. A curriculum that a coach can refer to or be guided by, but not hamstrung by. The PDR does this well at a fundamentals level, though the coach needs to do some work in order to adapt the curriculum to their school. Rodney King's CMD seems like it might fit this description as well, though I've not investigated it closely enough to know for sure. I get the sense that some of the older classical martial arts systems struck this balance as well, but I don't know nearly enough about them to say for sure.

Stuff to think about.