The next set of posts are going to about evaluating schools specific to your goal sets. The advice from previous posts applies, this is just to get into more depth on specific issues that may arise when looking at different goals.
I'm going to start 911 Training, a goal that provokes more controversy and argument than any other subject in the martial arts.
Quick recap: I use the term "911 Training" to cover three distinct, but related, types of training: self-defense, defensive tactics, and combatives. While there are some important distinctions between the three, it was Coach Blauer who pointed out to me that in all three, the bad guy is still, well, the bad guy. In other words, the lunatic who tries to assault you at the subway is the same lunatic that the cop has to arrest. (Soldiers may face threats different that those faced by LEOs or the general citizenry, but there's still some overlap as well). All three types of training generally address a violent assault where the bad guy intends to seriously injure or kill you.
Self-Defense, Defensive Tactics, Combatives: What's the Difference?
These three terms get used semi-interchangeably. The following definitions are my own, based on my knowledge and experience. Others may use different ones, and there aren't a lot of hard and fast rules. For example, there are teachers who teach combatives to non-military personnel. Don't get too hung up on the words.
Self-defense is training for the average citizen. Someone who is neither law enforcement or military. Basically, if you're not a cop or a soldier, this is what you're getting.
Defensive tactics is what law enforcement officers (cops, correctional officers, etc) learn. Because LEOs are often required to restrain bad guys, instead of just making them stop or running away, these systems sometimes place a greater emphasis on control and restraint tactics.
Combatives is military hand-to-hand training (sometimes referred to as Close Quarters Combatives, or CQC). It is frequently much more focused on lethal force options and solutions, because the job of soldiers is generally to kill people before other people kill them.
These are very generic definitions. There is sometimes some overlap between the training methods, depending on what training methods you're talking about.
Bias and Controversy
I could probably do several posts on why I think there's so much controversy on this subject, but here's a few major reasons.
Everyone Thinks They Do Self-Defense
I have met very, very, few martial artists who are comfortable and secure enough with what they do to say "No, what we're teaching has no relevance to self-defense whatsoever." Almost every martial artist on the planet thinks that what they are doing is applicable for self-defense, and can provide you with a lengthy rationalization for WHY what they are doing is self-defense. There are exceptions, but they are few.
That means that the hard core "reality based self-defense" guy, the mma fighter, and the staunchly traditional Aikidoka will all claim that they are doing self-defense, despite the fact that their methods look nothing alike.
There's No Clear Standard
One of the great strengths of combat sport is that it provides a very clear testing field to see if things work within that particular environment. If you think your training will let you win a boxing match, you go and enter a boxing tournament. If you win, great. If you lose, also great. You have a clear data point. And you can continuously and repeatedly test your training methods for as long as you like, not just with yourself, but with your students.
In self-defense, there isn't such a clear testing ground. There are many people who train for self-defense their entire lives and never have to use what they've learned. There's not a lot of clearly recorded data. The advent of cell phone cameras, CCTV, and the Internet is giving us a better ability to see real fights and what they look like, but the fact remains that there is not a single, clear, agreed upon standard for testing and evaluating training methods.
Self-Defense Is Complicated
In the PDR program, we talk about violence as a three-dimensional problem. Rory outlines seven stages or phases of a violent assault. Erik Kondo has a six-dimensional model. There's a lot of other models out there, but the point remains...this stuff is very complicated, and getting people to agree on complicated problems is difficult. People will debate about what works, and even what constitutes "working".
As a result of this (plus the usual collection of politics, personalities, and other agendas), the question of what constitutes good self-defense training is a source of endless debate. I'm going to lay out some of my own biases up front, and then dive into some analysis and discussion.
Tony Blauer and Rory Miller are the two biggest influences on my thinking and training in regards to self-defense. I met Coach Blauer thirteen years ago at the first Personal Defense Readiness Instructor Development Certification, and I have been involved with that program ever since. The PDR forms the core of all of my self-defense training, and provides the main filter through which I analyze just about everything on that subject.
I "met" Rory Miller on the Uechi-Ryu forums many years ago, and in person three years ago. Rory is the other guy I go to when I need to think about something related to self-defense, as he often provides a slightly different, but very helpful perspective on this kind of training.
I've looked at material from other systems and people, but these two are my go to sources. If one of them says something is worth checking out, I probably will. If BOTH of them say it's worth checking out, I definitely will look at it. The reverse is also true (if they both say something is crap, I'll probably just ignore it and move on).
Seeking Self Defense Training
I'm going to start out by talking about self-defense, because I suspect that most people reading this are more likely to look for self-defense than for combatives or defensive tactics training. I'll offer some thoughts on defensive tactics and combatives towards the end. As always, there may be some overlap.
Before You Begin
If you are seriously interested in studying self-defense, do some pre-education first. I put together a list of materials worth starting with here. If you got through the self-defense 101 material, you will a)learn a bunch of good information and b)have a good reference point when you start looking at schools. You can also branch out from there to look at other methods and ideas. Try to find things that speak to you, and your specific concerns.
Questions to Ask/Things To Look For
Does The School Teach Self-Defense?
As I noted above, it's the rare school that will say no to this question, but it's worth asking anyway. If you happen to find a school that is up front about their lack of self-defense training, you can cross it off the list right away.
If the school says yes, probe deeper. Is the self-defense training part of every class? A separate program? Does it cycle throughout the month or year (I know of some schools that work through different phases of training to cover multiple subjects within the same time block).
Do they make a distinction between self-defense training and other forms of training? This answer will vary, but it's worth asking. Some systems, like the widespread Krav Maga, purport to focus on self-defense training in all of their training. Others will vary their focus depending on the day.
[An aside/moment of personal bias: there are a number of people who will float some variation of the argument that "if this worked well enough on the battlefields of ancient Japan, it will work well enough in the street". I have a lot of problems with this line of logic, which I outlined here.]
Does The Training Address How Assaults Actually Occur?
Violent criminals don't attack their victims in the same way that trained martial artists attack each other. YouTube is full of CCTV footage and other videos that illustrate this. Straight punches, high kicks, and precisely set up throws are not commonly seen during a violent assault. If you have an opportunity to watch the training, you should see people working defenses against wild punches, tackles, violent grabs, and other similar attacks.
Does The Training Include Dynamic Progressions?
Good self-defense training ought to include drills where the students are working with dynamic resistance, not going through carefully choreographed motions where the good guy always wins. For that matter, the training should include drills where the good needs to fight out of a position of disadvantage. Assaults rarely take place with both people on equal footing, and good self-defense training needs to address that.
Does The Training Address Awareness Strategies?
As I noted above, self-defense is a complicated issue. A good self-defense program should cover more than just physical skills. Awareness and avoidance strategies are an often acknowledged first line of defense, but for many instructors, that sentence is the extent of their training on that subject. Just saying "be aware" does not constitute awareness training, and a good self-defense program should teach you how to recognize and avoid violence before it occurs.
Does The Training Address Verbal Defusing Skills?
In a similar vein, a good self-defense program should teach it's students how to deal with the kinds of verbal assaults that violent criminals will use during a confrontation, as well as strategies for de-fusing a confrontation, if possible.
Does The Training Address Legal Issues?
While the instructor does not need to be a legal expert, she ought to be able to articulate the necessity of acting in legal and responsible fashion. Resorting to physical skills at the wrong time might transform you from the defender to assaulter...from good guy to bad guy.
Who Trains At The Gym?
This one came from Rory: if you want a school that creates people who can deal with violence effectively, see if the people train there have reason to. It's not a surefire method, but if you have school full of cops, odds are ok that they have pretty good bullshit filters when it comes to self-defense.
Macho or Casual Attitudes Towards Violence
Violence is not cool or funny. Seeking out fights is the sign of a predator, not a responsible citizen. If your prospective instructor is bragging about who he beat up last Friday at the bar, that is not a sign of someone you want to train with.
I read an article by Burton Richardson years ago where he drew the following analogy: getting assaulted is like getting into a car accident. You wouldn't learn how to drive from someone who has been in 400 accidents...why would you want to learn from someone who has been in 400 streetfights?
[Note: This may not apply for defensive tactics or combatives instructors. Cops, in particular, have many more opportunities to go hands-on with bad guys on a regular basis.]
Claims of Invincibility
"I would never let X happen" is the sort of thing that shouldn't come out of a responsible self-defense instructor's mouth. Self-defense training is fundamentally about how something you didn't want to happen is happening anyway. There is no formula for complete invincibility, in any context.
Examples of this include
"I would never let someone get this close to me."
"I would never let someone take me to the ground."
"I would never let someone grab me like that."
Extensive or Difficult Learning Progression.
Learning a martial art can be a lifelong experience, but the nuts and bolts of physical self-defense should not require extensive training. If it is going to take the better part of a decade before you can effectively use the skills you're learning, I would submit that what you're learning is not very effective self-defense.
Combatives and Defensive Tactics
This is not really my field of expertise. I've never been law enforcement or military, though I've trained with people who are both. Both groups are generally given some basic hand-to-hand training. Some members of those groups seek out more.
If you are one of those people, start by checking with your colleagues. Chances are, you're not the only member of your department/unit/whatever that is seeking additional hand-to-hand training. Find out where other people go for good training.
If you want to train with a martial arts instructor, find out if they've worked with members of your group or similar groups before. Find out if they're willing to work with you on issues specific to your needs. You may need to set up private training sessions, but a good instructor should recognize that the material they teach in their daily classes may not line up perfectly with your needs.
That's about all I've got on that front. If others with more experience want to chime in, I'd be happy to hear it.