Picking a Combatives School

6 tips for getting the best out of your investment

By H.K. Slade  |   Feb 13, 2018

“I want to get better in a fight. Where do you think I should train?”

At least one fellow officer asks me some variation of that question every week. I am flattered that they ask and happy that they are looking to train. Usually it’s from a recruit or newer officer, and when that happens, my first thought is always, “That is exactly where your mind needs to be right now.” Sometimes a veteran officer approaches me, and I realize that they probably had a close call recently. I have a world of respect for them, because it means they are an officer who is not mistaking being lucky in a fight with being good in a fight.

It happens so often that I thought it might be helpful to write down some general suggestions on how to pick out a good school or gym to train combatives. These or my suggestions based upon 20-plus years of training in dozens of styles and systems at dozens of schools in cities from NYC to Huntington Beach. I’ve been there as a new student, a senior student, an instructor, and a program director. I’ve made mistakes and been lucky enough to run across some good programs, and if I can save you, my fellow officer, the disappointment and wasted time I’ve had to experience to get to the good programs, then the time we took to write or read this article will be well spend.

The 6 Keys

1. Know your goals. Ask yourself: “What do I realistically want to get out of this training?”

It’s important to have a clear goal before you head out there and start looking for a school. Everybody will have their sales pitch centered around why what they have to offer is exactly what you need, and if you haven’t figured out what that is before you walk into a school, some charming sales person will have you signing a 5-year contract before you know it.

Do you want to take martial arts so you and your son or daughter can share a hobby? There is nothing in the world wrong with that, and anyone who tells you different needs to seriously reexamine his or her priorities. A school that allows you to train with your 12-year-old child, however, isn’t going to prepare you for a knockdown-drag-out fight with a suspect. When I ask most officers this question, the most common answer is that they want to be able to handle a subject who doesn’t want to go to jail.

“I’d just shoot him!” I hear someone out there saying. If that is you, please stop reading this article. I’m not talking to you.

The officers who really want to get better at handling themselves in an arrest situation have a lot of options to choose from. Generally, everyone has a natural inclination to strike or grapple, but if you’re looking to improve your job skills, you really need a place that trains in all aspects of the fight. Police work is not a sporting event. We don’t get to choose the time, place, and style we fight with. Even if you don’t like striking, even if you’re really bad a grappling, you must have exposure to both because you don’t know what situation will come up at work.

You also need to consider what you have to give in terms of time, money and commitment. It is not the school’s fault if you don’t attend the lessons. You can only learn by being on the training floor, putting in hours on the mat and having realistic expectations.

Once you’ve figured out what you want, keep it to yourself for a little while. If you walk into a gym or school and say, “I want a well-rounded program,” the first thing a gym owner is going to say to you is, “We have a well-rounded program.” Let them do the talking first and see if their goals match up with yours.

2. Don’t fall for the hype.

Unless your answer to point number one was “I want to win tournaments,” or “I want to compete in the UFC,” don’t get dazzled by an instructor’s trophies or belts. There are plenty of great fighters out there who have no idea how to teach. Some of the best instructors I’ve ever met simply never made it as professional fighters for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with their knowledge base or their ability to develop their students. Paradoxically, some of the most decorated competitors I’ve met make horrible instructors because they’ve become so specialized in how THEY fight that they don’t know how to make techniques work for students that aren’t as physically gifted as they are.

This is not to say a great fighter can’t be a great teacher. But the two terms are not interchangeable. If you want to see if someone is a good teacher, watch them teach.

3. Prepare yourself for sticker shock.

Cops are cheap. Let me clarify: we are cheap about some things. I know officers that will drop $500 on a new gun without blinking an eye, but if you ask them to go to a defensive tactics seminar they have to pay for out of pocket, they just about stroke out.

Good instruction costs money. It is not like going to the McGym down the street and spending $20 a month for unlimited access to the treadmill. When you go to a school, you are paying for the training. You wouldn’t compare the cost of a golf lesson to a round of putt-putt, so don’t do that with a your fight training. The cost varies from city to city, but most gyms have a month-to-month membership that ranges $80 – $200. It’s common for schools to offer law enforcement discounts. By all means, shop, haggle, angle for the low price, but remember that a deal is never a deal if you sacrifice quality. Sure, you could carry an $80 handgun, but do you really want to?

4. Do your research.

A school’s webpage is a great place to start, but they are generally only going to tell you what they want you to know. Go right to the bio page for the instructors. A typical instructor bio will list certifications and memberships to organizations, and those are all well and good, but an inside secret to the business is that most martial arts organizations are about collecting dues and organizing tournaments and have nothing to do with the quality of their membership.

Once again, we go back to point number one: Why are you training? If you want to compete, you’ll need someone with those credentials. If not, those memberships and ranks only mean as much as a college degree from a college you’ve never heard of.

The important thing to take from the bio page are instructor’s names. Do a Google search. Ask around. Look them up on social media. In a weird way, you’re considering entering into a relationship with these people, so it helps to know a little more about them. If someone tells you they had a bad experience with an instructor, ask why. Sometimes it’s just a simple personality conflict. Other times, you’ll spot a pattern, as when several students tell you the instructor hit on them.

There is a really danger in the current martial arts climate of stepping into gym that’s run like a cult. There are places where if you don’t compete and bring glory to the gym, then you are considered training fodder for the “real fighters.” There are gyms where your political or religious beliefs are a factor in what type of training you receive. There are gyms where female students receive “special attention” from male instructors. A little bit of research will keep you clear of these places.

A red flag for me is when I see an instructor’s social media covered with pictures of that instructor partying with their students. I’m not talking about a Christmas party or someone’s wedding, I’m talking about night after night out hitting the bars together. I also tend to stay away from schools that use or imply that their art or system is a “lifestyle.” Those schools tend to have some sort of hazing process, and you won’t receive proper instruction until you have fully “committed” to the school. Finally, and this is just something personal with me, if I see a bunch of students or even instructors sporting tattoos of their art or school (especially on their face), it worries me. Call me crazy.

Additionally, be weary of schools offering guarantees in terms of fitness and self-defense. Though I haven’t seen this in a while, there are still schools out there who will promise you will make a certain rank in a certain amount of time. They may promise you will learn a secret technique that cannot be defended against, or guarantee that you will be ready to compete by a specific date. These promises are usually followed by the option to sign a lengthy and binding contract where you will agree to pay a significant amount of money for an extended period of time in exchange for these guaranteed outcomes.

5. Take as many trial classes as you can.

You’ve decided on what you want, you’ve found some potential schools, and you’ve done your background investigation. Now it’s time to get in there. Every gym I’ve ever heard of offers a trial class. Take advantage of this. If you’ve never trained before outside of the police academy, then go to several different schools so you can get a base of knowledge for comparison.

A trial class is a recon mission. Actively observe things. See how the instructor and other students treat the new guy. It’s a good practice for the lead instructor or the most senior student to work with the newest people. It’s a bad sign if the instructor starts off by taking the veterans to a corner of the gym and leaves the rookies to fumble around with minimal supervision.

Watch how the instructor treats his assistants. I’ve only walked out of one school in my life. I was in an introductory class and the instructor called one of his senior students forward and proceeded to physically beat the man in front of the class. The moves were very advanced and there was no instructional purpose to it. He was showing off how he could kick and throw and bend arms. Worse, it was clear to me that the student was expected to passively stand there and let the instructor hurt him. The display was entirely for the instructor’s ego. If you see that, I encourage you to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Also, look to see the ratio of static to dynamic practice. Static practice is when you were in the academy and the instructor said, “Recruits facing the back wall, you’re throwing a right roundhouse. Recruits facing the front wall, you are blocking. By the numbers now: Punch! Block! Counter!” Dynamic practice is when you and another recruit wrestled for control of your gun or put on headgear and gloves and both tried to hit each other.

Static practice is necessary to learn skills. A class, particularly a beginners’ class, that doesn’t have some static practice is incomplete. Dynamic training is what makes for real-world application. Again, if you are looking to bond with your child, static training is probably just fine by itself. If you’re looking to win a fight on the job, every class needs to have both static and dynamic training.

Finally, talk to the instructor. Be respectful, but ask questions. The first day in a new gym or school is intimidating for everyone, but a good instructor is not afraid to take a moment and answer your question about the school or the system or even a particular move. Just don’t “what-if” them to death on the first day!

6. Lastly, understand you will be responsible for translating what you learn into a job-related skill.

Many schools make it a selling point that one of their instructors was a Delta Force Operator, or a Navy SEAL. That’s great, and those guys should be very proud of their service. When it comes to physical fitness or shooting or room clearing, those are credentials I love to see. If, however, you are training to learn how to physically control a mental health patient who’s in a manic state or turn a suspect’s punch into a handcuffing position, their extremely impressive skill set is not geared towards that goal.

I personally prefer an instructor with direct law enforcement experience (i.e., patrol) or even better, corrections experience. Those guys go hands-on with my most likely attackers even more than I do. Those are just my preferences. There’s something you can learn from any instructor who understands how the body works.

Relate It to the Job

In all my wanderings, both teaching and training, I have only run across one school where they teach use-of-force decision-making. You can go to a thousand different gyms where they will teach you to how to perform a rear-naked choke, but none of them will teach you when it’s legal to use it. Almost no schools will let you train in duty gear and boots or in darkness or in a gravel parking lot. Most systems don’t even take those factors into account. But that’s okay because you will. Schools can give you the ingredients, but you’ll be the one that actually makes the soup.

The truth is, there’s no one martial art or combat system that’s perfect for law enforcement. Most martial arts are sport-based (one opponent, rules, weight classes, etc), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful to study. You are simply picking up a skill that you will fold into your own personal system.