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Becoming a Professional Combatant
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 05/18/2009

Karate Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

I have been asked to do a third part in this special use of force segment training articles. There is one topic that I enjoy more than no other to talk about, and that is the use of force. In this article specifically, I was asked about techniques to utilize so officers can use that actually work during restraints. My answer is that no technique that I could ever write about in a training article or that can be learned from reading this and then applied correctly. I can however, give you some basic principals that you can take away and seek out a good martial arts program in order to gain further knowledge.

“The responsibility for preparing men and women for battle should never be taken lightly. What you say and do, of fail to say and do, may be the difference between winning and losing. More importantly, it may be the difference between living and dying.” I have made this statement hundreds of times and this is why I continually strive to get as much job specific continuing education and training so that the information that I provide is the best, most up to date knowledge that I can offer.

Most agencies think and have established a defensive program through a collection of flashy martial art techniques, and tend to associate a given martial arts system with the most distinctive techniques as the best for their employees. This response is a natural enough consequence, seeing that most martial arts styles put an emphasis on techniques as the basis for their art. But as you will gather, this is an unfortunate state of affairs as real fighting does not mirror the officer’s actual training. The truth is that technique by itself is of little value. Technique is only as useful as the degree to which it can be used by an officer under actual stressful combative conditions.

All the techniques in the world are useless if they cannot be applied well during actual stressful situations. The missing link in most fighting styles, which was quickly revealed in UFC competitions, is an adequate training regimen that allows an officer to master a technique under combative situations. By making it impossible for officers to train with their specific techniques in live situations, traditional departmental defensive tactics never exposed their officers to the pressure and feel of applying those instructed techniques in a live situations. It is one thing to know the theory of applying a technique on a cooperative partner; and it is a completely different reality to apply it on someone who is doing everything they can to resist your techniques and then escape or apply their own on you.

Corrections have long been on the same page as military service, and the comparison of the two entities. The two professions require similar skills or disciplines: highly honed combat readiness, the ability to follow orders and work as a unit, as well as tight mental discipline. But overweight, out-of-condition officers make up the ranks of our institutional rosters all over the country. Corrections should set the bar high when it comes to physical fitness because those who can’t pull their weight create a liability that reverberates throughout the entire organization. While not all correctional agencies field physically unfit officers, a surprising number have never established or enforced physical fitness standards. In some cases, it’s a matter of outside organizational pressure, in others department executives have been reluctant to chase into retirement older officers who might have trouble meeting the standards.

While firearms qualification is mandatory and most departments regularly practice defensive tactics, all the training in the world won’t help if the officer is a jelly belly and can’t run more than a few hundred yards without gasping like a fish on a riverbank. The way that you train is the way that you will fight. Martial arts that allow you to apply your techniques at close to full power in daily training and sport will allow you to constantly use those very techniques in almost exactly the same way during a real fight. This consistency creates a tremendous familiarity with the technique and its real world application. This is what I was seeking when I started my journey into the life of a professional combatant. This is what you must call yourself today in the law enforcement profession as we at times get paid to utilize combative techniques to bring about restraint and stability of aggressive individuals within our facilities.

Does the study of martial arts actually allow you to defend yourself from attack? You often hear stories about people who have studied a particular martial art in depth, only to be soundly trounced when they actually got into a real fight. Thus there is a legitimate concern among many those martial artists who walk around with a dangerously false sense of confidence that is not based on any real fighting skill. Asking martial artists whether their fighting style is really effective is never a reliable means of answering your questions. Most martial artists are convinced that their style is more effective than any others. Indeed, few human activities have more claims that are grandiose and that are made on such weak evidence than those of the world of martial arts.

I have studied many different martial art styles over the past 20 years from Karate, Tae-Kwon-Do to Wrestling and Aikido. I have taken several courses from Krav Maga as well as Judo and all have fallen short of what I needed to accomplish my mission in the law enforcement profession. I could not very well utilize the kicking or punching techniques of Karate, Tae-Kwon-Do and Krav Maga and the wrist locking or throwing techniques of Aikido, Judo as well as Wrestling were difficult to obtain in a real combative situations. I wanted a practical art that the techniques worked well, trained at real life speeds allowing me to go full force in training my body to adapt and transition into another position when the initial applied techniques either failed or did not work as applied. I was seeking an art that when I performed the fighting style when I was in uniform and being video taped appeared to be soft, subtle and less brutal but yet bringing about quick compliance and stability to the situation and keeping me injury free. What I found was that today’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was the best fighting style for me.

The grapplers were the only fighters who consistently demonstrated a real ability to act out a claim made by all martial arts – to enable a smaller, weaker fighter to overcome and defeat a larger, stronger fighter with a minimum amount of violence and bloodshed. I contacted a Tae-Kwon-Do instructor one time and asked him what if any grappling techniques that he taught and his actual reply was, “With our art, you will never have to go to the ground, so why teach it.” This flawed way of thinking has been proven wrong time and time again within the octagon and other professional settings where no holds barred fighting is allowed. Going to the ground is a reality as well as an asset allowing trained fighters to dominate larger and more aggressive opponent.

I often laugh when instructors say “when you do this you will kill your attacker, or break their arm or leg.” How do they know this to be true? How many lives have they taken or arms or legs have they broken? What you will find to be true is that many martial art instructors have never been in a real street fight utilizing their chosen martial arts in real world situations. These instructors posses a false sense of security around a knowledge base that has rarely, if ever, been truly tested. The fact is, I never want to kill an inmate I am physically restraining or break a leg or arm and most definitely I never want to introduce blood into the situation. What will the video tape reveal showing you punching an inmate or kicking an inmate in the head during a physical restraint? I want to appear as if I am the victim and the non-aggressor in every physical restraint that I take part in. And no matter how confident I am in my ability I never want to be alone either. I want as many officers present during the restraint as I can so that I can better my odds for success and maintain me on the active duty roster and not on disability.

Inmates will tempt you in fighting them one on one because they stand a better chance of defeating you. They will challenge your manhood and taunt you for days as scared or weak when you don’t restrain them one on one. You know what; I can take that criticism any day other than an ass kicking I may take by letting my ego and pride take over. You never know what set of fighting skills an inmate may have or that they may have fought professionally in a ring before they were incarcerated. Watch your inmates as they play fight, and test each other in shadow boxing events. You may not come out on top during a one on one real world combative situation. Violence and fighting is an ingrained set of values that all inmates or criminals possess and they truly believe in their effectiveness. The reality is that it may not be one on one when it starts, whenever you start a restraint their buddies may jump into the fight. Every correctional restraint needs to be addressed as a multiple combatant scenario, because it just may.

Look out among the predators of the institution. Watch them as they do countless push-ups and train themselves into physical combatants in which you might someday have to physically restrain. Are you ready? Do you have the stamina to withstand an onslaught of punches in an all out assault until your back-up arrives? It is one thing to look back ten years ago when you were in great shape and in a martial arts class three times a week. Look at yourself now. Are you as ready now, as you were then? One thing you have to consider when working in a prison setting. You are getting older everyday yet the average age of the inmates are staying steady at a young average. Inmates come in and get out and new young aggressive inmates fill their open beds. You however, get older, more and more out of shape everyday. This is why we must keep ourselves in shape and condition our bodies for combat. We walk among the predators of society without question. Our abilities must reflect our authority to tame these aggressive predators without question.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


  1. hamiltonlindley on 03/24/2020:

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