Gunfighting vs Wrestling: An Instructive Comparison

We received some fantastic commentary from a law enforcement officer who happens to also be a wrestler and wrestling coach. The comments brought up some great discussion points about how we look at, design, and deliver training. It is critically important stuff so we wanted to address it in some depth. Rather than respond directly, we decided to write this full-length article instead.

The reader was responding to our recent article entitled Debunking Training Myths: “Find What Works for You.” Without repeating the entire post, the root of the commentary is that, as a wrestling coach, he has found that not worrying too much about technique and limiting his feedback to allow the students to develop what works effectively for them over time has been the most effective approach.  

This is some great experience out in the real world of “teaching for real results” on skills that must be performed in a high stress environment – by somebody who “owns” the outcomes he produces. A lot of other people in the industry have probably had similar experiences teaching stuff over the years as well. And, while wrestling isn’t exactly armed life and death conflict, any former wrestler can tell you that you cannot hide on the mat…

So, let’s look at this valuable teaching experience and compare it to firearms training methods for armed professionals (or serious civilians) from a couple of different angles. In our training design method, we always start with the operational application, so let’s begin there.

Wrestling (collegiate type we are assuming) has several specific and unique features associated with its ultimate “operational” application, features that are somewhat different from those encountered on the street. These differences in some cases are things that can significantly affect how the brain receives input, processes it, and then accesses stored data or skills for performance. Let’s look at a few.

First, at least for all intents and purposes, the exact time of the required skill performance is always a known variable in competitive wrestling. There aren’t any surprises about when a match is going to take place. This facilitates mental and physical preparation for the specific event. In contrast, performance of combative skills on the street rarely occurs on a timeline. Furthermore, fighting for real is almost always reactionary outside of perhaps some unique special-missions requirements. This means that there isn’t any “preparation” time, either mentally or physically. The stimulus occurs…and you’re off to the races, so to speak. Ready or not, aware or not, awake or asleep, it doesn’t matter. The time is now.

Second, the desired end state objective, location, context, and set of stimuli accompanying a wrestling match are also known variables. The competitive area is always the same size, there is a consistent set of rules (and the opponent must also follow them or be penalized), there is a referee, there are time limits, and you’re facing pretty much a known entity that predictably looks and acts the same every time. Techniques applied and skills may vary somewhat, but there’s always a single opponent, dressed the same and trying to achieve a known objective within a specific set of rules.

Contrast this to the street. Location, layout, number of opponents, appearance of the opponent, stimulus that will identify the opponent(s), even the totality of the end state objective (aside from remaining free of a pine box)—all unknowns. This means that contextual association, stimulus recognition, some level of cognitive processing, and decision-making are all critical components of street performance. These things are much less important on the mat. All that a wrestler needs to understand is when to start and stop wrestling the opponent. In fact, it’s usually better if the rest of the context and environment isn’t important or recognized (aside perhaps from advice shouted by the coach). 

This leads right into a third difference which is the presence of tactical decision-making requirements, including a real option not to engage at all. To oversimplify it, throwing the other person wearing a singlet to the ground and putting their shoulders flat for three seconds is always the right outcome on the mat. On the street, shooting the other person(s) in the room…often very much the wrong way to go. Sometimes it could turn out to be the “wrong” way to go, even if the application of deadly force is both legal and justified. Sometimes, if you don’t do it, you end up dead. And…you never really know if it’s the “right” call or not until after the fact.

We could go on, but this illustrates the point. There are some significant differences between what a wrestling coach is training a wrestler to do and what a firearms instructor is training a law enforcement officer or armed civilian to do.

Before we shift gears, ask yourself a question. In which of the two pursuits is performance more critical and why? We’ll come back to that.

Moving on…  

If we’re comparing wrestling coaches to firearms instructors—from an instructional method and success point of view—the wrestling coach clearly has the deck stacked in his favor. In fact, it’s not even a close call here.

To begin with, the wrestling coach has different standards of success, operationally. In many cases it may be true that organizational firearms instructors only have an actual success measurement based on rates of students passing the minimal (and mostly meaningless) qualification standards. Civilian instructors have an even lower standard. For us it’s merely a matter of providing a perception of added value to the customer. However, these are not valid operational standards of success and everyone knows it, even those who might like to pretend that they don’t.

The wrestling coach can gauge his metrics based off competitive results in matches. Those numbers don’t lie. However, that’s only part of the story. When it comes to this measurement, the coach isn’t graded on his worst wrestlers. He’s graded on his best—the ones he puts on the mat as starters. The firearms instructors (and police supervisors, and police administrators) don’t usually get that option. These folks tend to be graded by their worst performers, especially when it comes to firearms and use-of-force related skill application on the street.

Staying centered on training, this means that the firearms instructor seeking optimal operational results, especially for organizational training, doesn’t have the luxury of using training methods that might work really, really well for just a few highly dedicated individuals. Leaving everybody else straggling behind is a bad option. In fact, those stragglers are probably the students upon which not only the instructor and the training program, but perhaps the entire organization will someday be judged.  

If a department or unit has a world class, champion shooter or two, great. However, let’s face it, nobody cares. If a department or unit has an incompetent, bumbling fool who shoots an unarmed civilian—then everybody cares.

Unless we’re talking about special-missions activities, the firearms instructor can’t cut people. He (or she) can’t bench them. Assuming they meet the minimum standards, he can’t wait until they get better to put them in. Students are also unlikely to quit voluntarily and remove themselves from the equation simply because they don’t happen to like the specific subject matter of firearms training. Instead, the instructor has to train ALL students for positive operational outcomes. Within organizations, he often has to train them even when they don’t actually want to learn.

Too, there’s always the question of what makes high-level performers as good as they are. Is it the coaching or teaching? That’s certainly an element. However, it’s also the effort that the person puts in individually, usually both in and out of the training environment. High performers, whether wrestlers, armed professionals, or armed civilians are generally high performers because they care. A lot. They put in the time, the effort, the money, and the personal sacrifice to make themselves good. A good trainer or coach can make this process a lot easier and provide leadership, motivation, technical and tactical expertise etc., but most of the responsibility for achieving this level of performance usually lands away from the instructor and falls onto the student.

Yet, despite this, in wrestling the coach usually focuses on the high performers. He curates the starters and the younger athletes who show both dedication and talent. The ones who will probably never be that good or who are lazy and don’t care? It’s not that he doesn’t care about them; most good coaches do. It’s just that they are not his focus. His focus is on winning matches and matches are won by good wrestlers who start and wrestle opponents from other institutions.  

For the firearms instructor, things look very different. Organizational firearms instructors rarely even talk to their high-level performers. If somebody consistently is cleaning the qualification course, the instructor probably won’t even walk down to their end of the line. In fact, if he’s smart, he’ll do one of two things. Either he’ll put all of the high performers on one side—essentially cutting his area of responsibility for managing a safe range in half. Or, he’ll pair a high performer with a known questionable low performer. This can significantly mitigate any potential safety incidents and frees the instructor up to either run the line or to work with the real problem child—who is probably leaning towards qualification failure while simultaneously posing a real actual risk to the lives of everybody else on the range that day.

Again, we could go on, but hopefully the point is clear. The instructional realities and actual standards of performance are very different between the two instructors.

In our little comparison, the wrestling coach, so far, has the clear advantage. His job is pretty awesome. Take highly motivated people and make the best of them winners in a predictable environment with rules? Sounds like a great task. The firearms instructor? Let’s just say the job is somewhat different…

So, what about training systems? Surely the firearm instructor, dealing in actual life and death subject matter and funded by either the taxpayer or a client who actually wants to be there—enough so to write a sizeable check for the privilege—has the advantage here right?

The firearms instructors reading this are only laughing on the outside.

Looking organizationally, most law enforcement officers receive between forty and eighty hours of firearms training during their initial, entry-level program. This training is usually delivered in a solid block, with full training days. The national average is closer to forty hours.  

This training is supplemented by periodic in-service training held a minimum of twice per year in most states by regulation. Some agencies do it four times per year, some do more than that. Most do twice and, most of the time, it consists of qualifying and then calling it a day.  

It’s important to take the time grasp what this means. During a standard qualification course, a weapon is only actually physically handled for maybe about three minutes tops.  

Think about that.  

In an organization where employees only shoot the qualification course once, twice per year, with a single weapon, the average employee would only receive about six minutes of real, actual firearms training per year. Six minutes! And, there’s a strong argument to be made that none of this is even actually relevant to the operational application of the weapon.

So, what about the wrestling coach?

The wrestling coach probably starts his season in October and ends it in February. To keep the math easy, we’ll assume four weeks in a month, four days a week of two hour practices (we will exclude matches), full months every month. Let’s also assume that in a two-hour practice, only one hour of it is actually spent practicing wrestling or wrestling skills so that we keep this a little bit fair.

That’s five months of four hours of training per week in a single season. That equals sixteen hours of actual wrestling training per month. That’s eighty hours of actual practice time during a season—with plenty of opportunities to go out and actually apply the skills in an operational environment (each of which represents six minutes of additional practice, assuming nobody gets pinned).

Let’s put this another way. First, let’s falsely assume that the forty hours of firearms training received during the entry level program was a full forty hours of productive training. Even with that very false assumption in place, halfway through a wrestler’s first ever season, they may have received more training in wrestling skills than many armed professionals will receive in firearms skills over the course of a full thirty-year career.

Re-read that.

Now let’s circle back to our question: In which of the two pursuits is performance more critical and why?

Hopefully you’re noticing a significant mismatch in priorities and resources; we assure you, the general public is.

Back to the excellent commentary we received from the law enforcement officer: Staying out of nuance and looking at this through broad brush strokes, is standing back and letting people figure things out on their own—while being available as a resource—a method that can work in training? Absolutely. If people want to learn, they will seek out the knowledge and figure it out. If they have plenty of opportunity to try and fail, try again and fail, and repeat the process until they start getting successes, this can be an effective way to learn. What’s the saying? “The master has failed more times than the apprentice has tried” or something to that effect.

But, when the opportunity to actually try, for real, may only occur once in every fifty or more lifetimes in the profession (we didn’t look up a number for this, just throwing it out there), we submit that this same developmental outlook might not be the optimal approach.

When we look at firearms related training in general, and organizational firearms training in particular, a comparison of training techniques and methods to those used in other high-performance skill areas is instructive. And sobering.

If we want to advance as an industry and start putting better performers on the street, we need to fundamentally re-evaluate our approach to training at the root level. Throwing more resources at the problem is fine, but it’s not enough—and never will be.  

If we want to achieve real, meaningful change that benefits the people on the street, the organizations themselves, and the general public, we can’t continue to rely on ineffective training methods and satiate justified criticism over operational performance deficiencies by begging for more money to throw at the problem. In fact, more resources may not even be required.

Instead, we need to start getting smarter about how we design and deliver firearms and other tactical training at a fundamental level.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition