The future of martial arts training should lie in scenario work. I think it’s unlikely, though. I think we will see a rise in scenario based training, but it’s likely that it will be done poorly enough that it will be dismissed as a fad once the fresh wears off.

It’s a really easy thing to misunderstand. It seems fairly simple.

“Red Team” work means being the bad guy. It used to refer to a specific kind of military training, where forces in the same army would split and take turns playing war games against each other. The Red Team was the bad guy. The idea (and I’ve never been in the military so my understanding of the history of this sort of thing is second-hand at best) was that one side could act in the role of an expected opposing force and use their tactics, so that a realistic understanding of the armies ability to resist and conquer those tactics could be formed. I believe it later turned into more of the Tiger Team thing I’m familiar with from IT security, where the opposing force doesn’t use conventional tactics, but rather attempts to defeat the good guys with unexpected tactics, and thigns that have been carefully researched to exploit holes in the good guy’s approach. The idea is that a strong Red Team training approach should prepare a force to defeat any eventuality.

For martial artists, the first time I recall seeing anything like scenario work was in the context of self-defense classes for women. In these classes you’d see a dude in a huge suit, padded enough that they looked barely human, lumbering towards a woman who would then deliver a bunch of kicks to the nuts while screaming something empowering.

Now it’s evolved very far beyond that. I’ve never seen any of the scenario work Rory Miller is well known for, but people I respect speak highly of it. I’ve seen snippets of the intense work Ed Calderon does and it’s inspiring and intimidating. Martial arts moves in fad cycles, and it’s not unlikely that people are going to see the same things I’ve seen and want to jump on…or even create…the bandwagon. And that’s going to suck.

In my job as a roleplayer (Red Team guy) for the VPD, I’ve seen how incredibly valuable this kind of training can be. And I know how simple and easy it looks from the outside, or even from shallow exposure. All you have to do is act like a bad guy, and attack your student, right? Wear enough protective gear that you can’t get hurt, and let the learning commence! Maybe shut the lights off or re-arrange the furniture to make it look like a nightclub for extra realism. Do crazy things to screw up the student…surprise knives or guns or something.

Seems like an easy idea. You could do this with your students, and everyone would walk away with a newfound respect for violence and the difficulty in applying your training under stress. That sounds good. Valuable for everyone, right?

The problem is…what’s your goal? If you want to provide a carnival experience for your students, that will work. Do you want them to learn to apply the techniques of your school under stress? Do you want them to reliably apply the correct technique for certain attacks, reliably, under incredible stress, every single time? Do you want them to know how to manage their stress and reactions, how to keep or retain…or even regain…situational awareness? Do you want them to understand the level of threat they are being given and respond correctly every single time? That’s going to take some serious thought and work to achieve.

Bad scenario work is just a novelty and adds no real value to training. It’s far too easy to make a game out of it, and get all self-congratulatory about how realistic and awesome your training is while guiding your students farther and farther from the truth.

There are good instructors out there you can learn to do this from, and hopefully if this becomes more common people will have the sense to get that training.