Pillars of Practice

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The concept of “pillars” used to describe the various elements of a thing, say, “leadership” or “customer service” is pretty common across different aspects of human performance instruction. The idea transfers well to the discussion of discrete domains we engage in within the practice of protection skills.

This set of pillars I have adapted from one of my teachers in martial disciplines, which parallels very closely the needs of the well-rounded tactician  It is one way to look at achieving some convergency in the different things to practice, eventually making a complete structure.


Yes, wrestling, Judo, jiujitsu, submission fighting, what-have-you: grappling is pretty much the ideal baseline upon which to build an effective fighting platform. This means “live” grappling with an opponent with an opposing will.

Grappling has several advantages in that it builds attributes at the same time it builds fighting skill, it develops tenacity and resilience to impact and other physical trauma, and it develops anaerobic as well as aerobic conditioning.  Plus, real fighting – not competition, but serious actual hand-to-hand violence – is much more likely to begin at or collapse to grappling than it is to manifest in a pugilistic manner, though striking is also necessary to practice.

Competition will not get you killed in the street;  failing to understand the difference could. It’s true that some people do fail to make the distinction, but guided appropriately, live grappling will only make you more skillful, stronger, tougher, and safer.

Attributes (Body and Mind)

While there is crossover, Attribute Enhancement is not the same or fully included in the other pillars. Here are the disciplines for maintaining and sustaining both body and mind – and mindset. Without attributes, all the skill in the world in grappling or TTPs will crumble as a castle made of sand the greater the threat and fear encountered.

Attribute enhancement includes whatever your jam may be: weight training, Crossfit, yoga, neigong, “Fitness” and anything else that goes into making your body more capable in the other areas represented in the pillars. The number of folks I encounter who have no physical training regimen, and who rely on either martial arts or knife or shooting skills alone is staggering.

These people are untested, and simply choose to believe the things they do about the things they are doing.

Similarly, the older we get, the more we will need maintenance and sustainment of our bodies over the practice of our disciplines alone. Pre-hab, re-hab, strengthening and making more flexible our machines to do what we ask of them, even if its just to practice. A hard lesson I have learned, and keep learning the older I get, is that I can’t just rely on showing up to practice to keep functional. And I need to know when its time to take a break.

Psychological attributes are another aspect demanding focussed practice. Certainly continuing to take our training seriously, to keep going to the range or out on the mats is a way to practice psychological skills and mindset. But that’s just a start.

Developing and refining our composure, comportment, judgment, decision making, and tactical acumen is also Attribute Enhancement. How do we do this? Lessons learned in real world experience and/or scenario based training. Finding role models and mentors with proven track records in these areas. Learning from the wisdom-in-action of past and present so we can grow from the experience of others. Debriefing with trusted, skilled people who we know won’t steer us wrong and actually listening to them – which seems to be the hardest thing for some people to do.

Many people would rather teach a class than take one, or lecture rather than listen. Don’t be that person.

Work with Live Weapons 

This one may seem odd for some, but it made perfect sense to me when my teacher described it as a critical part of preparation.

In the martial arts world, most often people practice with “pretend” weapons. Foam or other material to allow impact, rebated blades (made less dangerous) such as “drone” knives or swords without edges, etc. Many achieve a level of skill, speed, and finesse with these that is impressive – and totally unrealistic.

A interesting experiment in the martial arts world is to take someone who is very comfortable with a training weapon and hand them a live one. Watch the tentativeness set in. Watch the awareness of surroundings (like other people) grow. Watch the ginger handling of some of these implements…..why is that?  Because they are not inculcated with the Spirit of the Live Blade, and perhaps even fear it.

This is a problem, because we are relying on the live weapon in the real world. Yet, we have so little practice with it that even in a training setting, introducing one causes a noticeable shift in mindset overly fixated on the tool. Now, under extreme stress, we are supposed to have the same facility with that tool when its both real and the consequences are so much higher?

People don’t rise to the level of expectations, they fall to the level of training. Of course, we need stand-in weapons for some kinds of training – we can’t stab each other with real knives in practice. But we need to practice with live blades in a significant enough portion of training in order to be skilled with them under stress, around other people, and in unusual situations.

In the firearms world the problem is slightly different. There of course is training with the live weapon, but under circumstances so strict and unrealistic in terms of safety protocols that it hampers developing appropriate 360 safety skills in the shooter, rather than the environment. People who can’t be trusted to handle firearms around other people, or in any direction other than the one specified and clearly marked, who can’t be trusted to have a loaded gun when they walk onto the range, or work from a holster under those conditions, then walk out the door of the range and into the public – carrying that same gun, now loaded. Now they have entered the same world as the martial artist – lots of practice under highly unrealistic circumstances, and none in the kinds of situations in which they will draw and use their gun under stress.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t practice with safety at the forefront of our minds. Trust me, I’ve been at a public range and observed the gun handling of some of the people around me.  I realize there is a significant number of people more interested in exercising their rights and not so much their responsibilities. But the people who wish to exercise both must be inculcated in the Spirit of the Live Blade as well – only this time, with the gun.

Working with Live Weapons will also have a positive effect on how we work with practice weapons, bringing the latter more into line with the former.

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs)  

TTPs developed as a military acronym but has made its way into everything from law enforcement to cyber-security to personal protection. TTPs represent all the things we practice to address threats, situations, circumstances, and changes occurring in the environment we are operating in. Obviously, we have to have something more than martial art, combat sport, or shooting abilities in order to be fully functional beyond the most basic levels. TTPs provide the patterns for doing things allowing us to impose order on disorder, the things we want to achieve during an event. Clearly this can be as far reaching as necessary as we move up the levels of response. A TTP could be something as simple as verbally managing an unknown, potentially threatening person approaching us to conducting a high risk arrest (in terms of both the techniques used to restrain the subject to how the subject is approached by an arrest team; from properly manipulating a weapon to clearing a structure to responding to an active shooter (either as a solo responder or working with a team), and even to coordinating the post-resolution activity once the shooter has been neutralized, and so on.

TTPs are really where the fundamentals of the other pillars are developed, shaped and applied under actual circumstances.


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