Martial Arts and Law Enforcement Part One: The Basics
As a trainer, I frequently get asked what martial art is best for police officers. It’s a great question, and a topic that’s particularly close to my heart, but there’s really no one answer. There are countless variables—different styles, different students with different abilities and needs, and much more. I know which martial arts have worked for me over my many years in practice, but that doesn’t mean they will be best for you. So rather than pushing officers to one art or another, I find it more helpful to pass on a few tips about what will make them successful in whatever discipline(s) they choose.
1. Find a school you like
I have friends who train in all sorts of martial arts, and they are invariably far more confident and competent on the street than others who don’t train. One thing my friends who train have in common is that they pick—and stick with—gyms, teachers, and styles that they like. You might be drawn to boxing, but if you don't like the coach, you probably won't stick around long. If you’re interested in grappling, but the gym is filthy, you’ll probably stop showing up. Look for a school with good people, facilities and culture. Just because a school is renowned for its alumni/competitors, doesn't mean that it will be a good fit for you.
2. Train Consistently
I have found that training at least twice a week at a competent, quality school can build solid skills. As with any learning process, consistency is key. I know how hard it is to work midnights, go to court each day and juggle family life… all the while trying to get some sleep. Committing even just two hours a week to physical skill development can do a world of good in all areas of your life. It also nurtures a positive and prepared state of mind.
3. Don’t make training inconvenient
Is there a gym within a 10-15 minute drive of you? I used to drive an hour to spar with different people, but again, what I do isn’t necessarily for everyone. In fact, most people are probably not going to travel 50 miles or more to train. Don’t give yourself an excuse to skip sessions. Find a facility that’s convenient enough that you can honor your commitment to yourself and show up. But again, you must like the gym and the instructor(s)—If you need to pass a few gyms to get to the one you like, the extra drive time is worth it.
4. Be well rounded:
Dealing with a cooperative subject is easy; controlling a resistive or combative individual, not so much. A police officer needs to be highly capable in the many scenarios and facets of subject control. Virtually all martial arts and fighting skills help in this area. They also help to build a well-rounded set of physical skills, because they all build on foundations of footwork, movement, body mechanics, distance control and power generation. Learning how to control a resistive person on the ground will come in handy in a lot of situations, and can really determine outcomes. Since all confrontations start standing, arts that excel at clinch control and takedowns can be extremely beneficial. Again, the point is to be well-rounded.
A side note: “well-rounded’ extends beyond the empty-hand skills that we’re discussing here: the old police proverb that “a stick in the hand is worth two in the car” reminds us of the importance of training with the baton and other tools of our trade. The increasing number of mass incidents in recent years have driven home this point.
5. Be safe
Earlier, I mentioned good school culture—and safety goes hand-in-hand with that. If the school is like “Thunderdome” every minute of class, and puts an emphasis on humbling its students, you can almost bet that safety is not one of its priorities. Training hard is one thing, training unsafely is another. Remember that your profession demands you to be physically ready for every shift.
I hope these principles will help prepare you for a long and successful journey into the martial arts. It is one of the best investments you can make in yourself and your career—time and money well spent. The ultimate prize you will win will not come in the form of a competition trophy; it will be when you overcome an attack in the street, and get home safe to your family.
Chicago Police Department (Ret.)
ASP Trainer since 2011