Reality-Based Self Defense: Scenario Training – 1


Blitz Magazine, September 2014 Vol. 28. No.9

Nearly all of the world’s top self-defence instructors advocate some sort of stress-inoculation training. The logic is that in order to know your technique will work under pressure, you must test yourself beforehand. That said, how does scenario training affect trainees mentally, and is it really necessary? After all, many have successfully defended themselves without having done a minute’s scenario training, and some report traumatic responses afterwards. JARROD BOYLE investigates.

All martial arts are fundamentally systems of self-defense. Each has its own repertoire of techniques designed to negotiate hostile engagements with other people. While most arts have passed through the filter of hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years, the modern context has thrown their limitations into sharp relief.

In fact, a number of practitioners have designed entire arts and schools of their own to focus on negotiating that final gap between what is anticipated and the actual knuckle-on-bone necessity of combat.

Ultimately, the only way to learn to fight is to do it, but even the notion of fighting itself is fraught with all kinds of complexities that don’t emerge until the interface reaches a life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed threshold.


Melissa Harries, former army psychologist, straddles the divide between theory and practice where conditioning people for high-stress environments, such as combat, is concerned. Since concluding her tenure in the army, she has founded the company Mindset Abilities and is currently developing ‘resilience packages’ for Victoria Police.

As far as the possibility of trauma is concerned, Melissa considers it the logical consequence of a traumatic event and has to be managed by those administering the scenario.

“At the end of the day, if you traumatize people, they’re going to be traumatized – it’s as simple as that. They are more likely to suffer depression or anxiety however, than post-traumatic stress disorder.”

That said, Melissa is an advocate of scenario-based training for stress inoculation. While hesitant to talk in terms of proof, Melissa says that,

“You have to suffer in order to be stronger; you get better at coping with stress by being under stress.”

Structuring the experience in a controlled environment is essential to making the scenario work optimally.

“You need supervision by instructors and to provide attention to those who are distressed. There needs to be a provision of mental health resources and recruits sign consent forms. This means they understand the resources available, and that they can withdraw at any time.”

Well-executed scenario training, then, is about entry into an activity after effective preparation, as well as effective debriefing afterwards.

“If they understand it’s scenario-based, [the risk of trauma] is minimal. Some who would be traumatized can be screened out.”

As far as other stress contributing to stress inoculation is concerned, Melissa believes that the stimulus has to be specific in order to train specific skills, as well as their attendant coping mechanisms. Given her clientele are generally soldiers and police officers, specific skills must be cultivated.

“To develop professional skills, you need the greatest approximation to the reality as possible.”

Effective scenario training isn’t simply a matter of providing a role-play. It is a carefully structured experience which includes a network of factors with preparatory structures and coping mechanisms woven into its structure. In this way, the risk of trauma is mimimized.

“If they understand it’s scenario-based, [the risk of trauma] is minimal. Some who would be traumatized can be screened out.”

“You aim to develop [a participant’s] confidence going into an event [by giving them] realistic expectations. You also model coping strategies as well as not coping and help-seeking. If you can’t inoculate against traumatic events, you can develop strategies for coping with stress.”

It seems that both stress inoculation and coping are functions of a culture which frames and contextualizes that experience.

“On its own, [scenario training is] not enough. You need base-level resilience and social support. People also need an attitude to learn and develop.”

Melissa’s experience and knowledge can be boiled down to a simple maxim.

“To be resilient you need to face adversity, and you need to cope. Resilience is the rule; not coping is the exception.”

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