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Officers, don’t throw away your wrestling shoes

Many recruits across the country are required to have wrestling shoes – but why do so many throw their shoes away when they graduate from the police academy?


Wrestling shoes are an item most police recruits may discard or leave behind on graduation day.

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So, you’ve graduated from the police academy.

You’ve studied the law and how to apply it, completed all the physical requirements, received your equipment and are eager to get your career underway. You’ve packed your uniform and are about to leave the hallowed halls of learning for a life of service to the citizens of your community.

Just one question: Did you remember your shoes?

A neglected area after graduation

One of the most important aspects of law enforcement training is often the most neglected after graduation from the police academy.

There is a genuine need for law enforcement officers to continue to practice some form of tactical self-defense skill, but there is little opportunity for a member who is on duty to practice even the most basic arrest and control techniques learned as a recruit. Experience is only gained when the situation arises on the street, and officers often rely on the old belief that “I’ll know what to do when the time comes.”

“Wait a minute, what does that have to do with shoes?” you may be asking. The shoes in question are your wrestling shoes. They are an item that many recruits in basic training are required to have and use while engaged in physical education. The purpose of requiring wrestling shoes is to reduce the possibility of injury by providing ankle support and traction during sessions on the mat. They are also an item that most recruits may discard or leave behind on graduation day.

Let me tell you a story…

When I was a police defensive tactics trainer, I visited a police academy gym to get in a training session while I was in the area on assignment.

Walking around the gym, I noticed a large cardboard box staged outside the door to the Phys. Ed. instructors’ offices. The box was filled to near overflow with pairs of wrestling shoes in nearly new condition.

As I stopped in the office to say hello to the instructors, I made it a point to ask about the shoes. I was told they had been left behind by the previous graduating class. The instructors had grown tired of emptying the trash cans in the recruit locker room of all items deemed by the departing recruits to be garbage, including their shoes. Not wanting them to go to waste, the instructors devised a plan to give the outgoing class a place to discard their shoes and then donate the collection to area high school wrestling teams.

I was invited to help myself to a couple of pairs if I was so inclined. As my current pair were getting a little worn out, I accepted the offer.

On the return trip home, gently used shoes in my bag, I began to think about the encounter. At first, I felt a moment of guilt for taking two pairs for myself. Then it occurred to me that I should never have been in that situation in the first place. I observed that the shoes were a metaphor for a mindset that says: “In six months I’ve learned all I need to know about self-defense, and I won’t need these again.” Does a police academy recruit reach the pinnacle of their self-defense training in only six months?

Considerations when training in empty-hand defense

The harsh reality for a newly minted officer is that your future involves 20 or more years of dangerous individuals who never seem to age, only you.

Hands-on defensive tactics, like other police skills, are perishable. If you do not regularly practice those skills, they may be ineffective when needed most. Most officers will not argue the need to practice with their firearms, and a good number of them will do so, regardless of duty status. The same mindset should be present when it comes to personal self-defense.

This lack of desire to train in empty-hand defense is a problem that affects not only the rookie officer, but the 20-year veteran as well. In this new age of technology, it is easier for an officer to simply shut down a resisting subject with the convenience of a less-lethal tool, such as OC spray or CEW, but what happens when those options fail or are unavailable? You may find yourself down to your final option, hands and feet.

Commit to a goal

Would the answer for continuing your defense training then be to glove up and become a cage fighter? Probably not. The solution depends upon the individual. A person must decide on a goal and then make a commitment to get there.

If the intent is to simply learn a few techniques, then perhaps you enroll in in-service defensive tactics courses offered by your agency, or another regional leader in law enforcement training. Many of these courses are designed for the average police officer and don’t require previous fighting or martial arts experience.

If you want to take it up a notch, the next option is a fighting gym or martial arts school. This can be a tough decision for many reasons, including cost, class availability and intensity of the particular style. It’s important to learn what the focus of the gym or school is, and then determine if it’s the right fit for you. Any gym that trains fighters for competition could be a risky venture for someone who already has a full-time job and is just starting out. The negative side to selecting a fighting gym open to the public is that it may attract individuals with an agenda different than your own. Injuries will quickly derail any training program and could inhibit your ability to work.

The next obstacle to training is time. There’s no question that it’s difficult for working adults with families and inconvenient schedules to find the time to hit the gym, but you may find the effort worthwhile, perhaps even fun. Again, after considering the intensity, it might even be an activity you can enjoy with members of your family, and self-defense education certainly won’t hurt the ones you care about.

Cost could be a factor too. Some schools can charge high monthly fees, but the payoff can be found in the flexibility of multiple classes per week to fit your busy schedule and an increased number of training opportunities. With a little research, it may be possible to find a cheaper program offered at a community center or local YMCA branch. The quality of instruction is comparable to private schools, but these programs often attract more youth than adults, leading to inadequate training partners.

Regardless of the type of program you select, it is probably a good idea to meet with the instructor and ask to observe a typical class in session prior to agreeing to any long-term commitment.

If structured training schools or official LE training courses are not for you, then the last option may be self-training.

Books, magazines and internet video clips can give you step-by-step tutorials on nearly any self-defense technique you might be interested in, but no article or video can provide feedback as to if you are doing the technique correctly when you attempt it. This means finding someone to train with.

Take the time to practice each technique slowly and from a static position before increasing in speed and intensity. Speed will come when you are proficient with the application of the technique. It is also important to select an appropriate training partner who will allow you to learn the technique without actively resisting and stalling your efforts prior to completely learning the basic skill.

Finally, if you are training at home, a couple of soft mats in your basement or garage might be a great investment in your future.

And if you’re using mats, don’t forget your shoes. If you don’t own a pair, check the local police academy gym. There just may be a whole box of metaphors looking for a home, possibly even a pair in your size.

Author’s note: After this article was published, I was reminded by an LEO friend and former wrestler that empty wrestling shoes left on a mat are a symbol of “retirement.” That makes the message even more meaningful to officers just starting out. Don’t “retire” from training before your career begins. And just a reminder, to avoid injury, it is imperative that the prospective student evaluate their personal level of physical fitness prior to beginning any type of structured combat sport or martial arts training program.

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Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury. Sgt. Bemis is currently the Director of Training at Wrap Reality, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.