The value of a principle-based approach to defensive tactics training

A technique gives you the solution to one problem; a principle gives you the skills to solve any problem


In police defensive tactics training, it is common for the instructor to demonstrate a specific technique and discuss the mechanical application of the move. The instructor will show the move a couple of times at various speeds and then have the students practice the movement for a designated number of repetitions. This process is repeated for several techniques throughout the training block.

Immediately following the four- or eight-hour block of instruction, there is a high likelihood that many students could perform the techniques close to how they were taught. However, weeks to months later, the skills they acquired will likely have deteriorated, so they could not perform them the way they were taught.

I would not blame this on the student or the instructor. This is simply a reality of physical skills. Without a consistent and effortful focus on developing these skills, it is unrealistic to think officers can employ them, especially under tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations that the Supreme Court has acknowledged that officers face.

Even when specific techniques are trained consistently, they look different in actual encounters than when drilling the technique. Adaptations to the terrain, weather, gear and other human performance factors in the real world cannot always be accounted for in a training environment.

A principle-based approach

Because of this, I suggest a principle-based approach to defensive tactics training. This does not mean that we should eliminate training in specific techniques. Instead, the course should be based on principles, and techniques should be taught that embody those principles.

For example, instead of making the objectives of a class to learn three techniques, such as a block to a punch, the performance of a specific takedown and the application of a particular control hold, the course objectives should be to learn three principles – for example, distance management, angle management and mobility. Those specific techniques could be used as an option for officers. Still, the overarching objective is for the officers to learn the principles embodied within successfully applying the techniques.

The course should be based on principles, and techniques should be taught that embody those principles.
The course should be based on principles, and techniques should be taught that embody those principles. (Photo/Tyson Kilbey)

One tremendous advantage to this approach is that officers come in all shapes, sizes, ages and athletic abilities. Some officers will excel in specific techniques, while others will shut down due to an inability to effectively perform the move. However, when officers are taught to comprehend principles, they can apply the principle to their skillset to accomplish their objectives. They will be allowed to discover a way and not the way.

Let's take a closer look:

  • The principle of distance management: Suppose an officer understands the principle of distance management. In that case, this can translate to understanding how to keep themselves safe from strikes, when to use their tools effectively and how to adapt to various environments.
  • The principle of angle management: If an officer understands the principle of angle management, they can gain the position of advantage, improve their ability to retain their weapons and become better at team tactics.
  • The principle of mobility: Finally, if officers understand the principle of mobility, they can effectively manage the distance and their angles. This is part of what is beautiful about principle-based training. Not only does it apply to specific techniques, but principles also overlap and complement each other.

I am not suggesting that we should not be teaching officers specific techniques; rather, we should strive for officers to learn principles and then use techniques to embody these principles. For example, if you are teaching a palm-heel strike, it would be critical for an officer to understand what distance they should be at to deliver the strike effectively, and they should realize what dangers exist from the subject when they are at that distance. The palm-heel strike is the technique, but the principle to understand is distance.

You can tell by an officer’s position, distance and angle from a threat during a scenario and whether they move to gain these advantages if they understand the principles.
You can tell by an officer’s position, distance and angle from a threat during a scenario and whether they move to gain these advantages if they understand the principles. (Photo/Tyson Kilbey)

Meeting objectives

The final question is, how do we know if we have met our objectives by teaching in a principle-based manner? There is certainly more than one way, but scenario-based training is one of the best ways to see if an officer understands principles. You can tell by an officer’s position, distance and angle from a threat during a scenario and whether they move to gain these advantages if they understand the principles.

While this article is specific to defensive tactics training, this concept applies to anything we teach. From report writing to verbal communication, conducting investigations, understanding principles will help you solve any problem. In law enforcement, one of our most important responsibilities is solving problems. I credit my belief in the value of principle-based learning to Ryron and Rener Gracie. They have been using this approach in recent years to teach Jiu-Jitsu with incredible success.

A technique gives you the solution to one problem; a principle gives you the skills to solve any problem.

Train hard and be safe!

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