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Choosing the Right Defensive Tactics Program in Executive Protection 

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Matt Mills
Matt Mills
Matt Mills is the founder of Performance Disciplines. Matt’s professional history has been devoted to service, with 15 years spent between protective services and the United States Marine Corps. During this time Matt was actively training in variety of martial arts and eventually found his passion with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he received his BJJ black belt from Eric Acha in 2023. Matt’s coaching philosophy emphasizes deep understanding of concepts, principals, strategies, and tactics.

There is a common misconception among the general public and clients/principals regarding the martial prowess of executive protection agents. This misconception likely stems from Hollywood portrayals, where bodyguards are depicted as hand-to-hand combat experts, engaging in extravagant acts of violence to protect their charge. While expertise in hand-to-hand combat doesn’t need to be a prerequisite for executive protection agents, competence in defensive tactics most certainly is essential. Executive protection agents must possess sufficient skills to mitigate interpersonal violence against their principals. 

In modern executive protection programs, the emphasis is primarily on prevention strategies, such as the execution of flawless logistics, emotional intelligence, and detecting pre-attack indicators. While these aspects are crucial and have done wonders to professionalize the industry, we neglect the pursuit of defense tactics skills at our own peril. I think it is safe to assume that we want to have our cake and eat it too, we want our agents to be skilled communicators and effective in dealing with interpersonal violence. 

Without skillful negotiations, we are essentially just brutes. However, without the ability to fight, we are just paper tigers and destined to fail if tested. 

If we can agree that it is important for agents to pursue the acquisition of skill in defensive tactics skills, the next question is what program is right for my team? In this article, we’ll explore some ideas to aid your decision and help you select the right program for your team. 

The Goal of Defense Tactics in Executive Protection 

Let’s start by defining what we are hoping to achieve when we apply the skills of defensive tactics in executive protection: 

  1. Create space and time for the principal to escape potential threats. 
  2. Ensure the safety of the agent. 
  3. Maintain a positive public image. 
  4. Operate within legal boundaries. 
  5. Protects the brand reputation. 
  6. Instills confidence in both the agent and the principal. 

The Fighting Base: Grappling vs. Striking 

When considering the selection of the fighting base for an executive protection program, two primary options emerge: grappling and striking. The main points of consideration are outcomes and effectiveness. We can define outcomes as the typical end result of the application of the fighting base, and we can define effectiveness by the ability to reliably apply the art and that this application has the intended effect. 

Striking Outcomes 

The outcomes of a striking art are rather obvious, students will become proficient in pugilistic attacks using the limbs of their body to strike an attacker.  Most striking arts have a limited amount of clinch work to them with the typical goal of positioning the practitioner to deliver an effective strike.  

Precise strikes on vulnerable parts of the body are a tested and reliable way to end a fight. Fight-ending shots with strikes usually are blows to the head or organs of the body though sometimes a strike to the leg can also work. Striking styles typically emphasize constant motion through footwork and head movement. They can be highly effective at managing distance, keeping opponents at the end range of their attacks and out of range from their opponents. Striking is truly an effective way to finish a fight. 

Striking Effectiveness  

The effectiveness of striking arts can vary greatly depending on their approach to training. When analyzing a given martial art, we have to look at how the art trains. Effective martial arts have to spar against live and resisting opponents.

That being said, striking arts have to heavily modulate the intensity of sparring in order to ensure students can continue to train without getting too beat up. The inescapable reality is that without some component of sparring in this manner, a practitioner can never reliably apply their skills against someone who does train against live-resisting opponents. The bottom line, they must spar to be effective. 

Grappling Outcomes 

All forms of grappling teach takedowns and pins, and depending on the art students may learn submissions. Submissions are applied as either a strangle or a joint lock, these can result in a decisive end to a fight. Grappling arts rarely work any form of striking, so students will likely be deficient in this area. Practitioners of grappling in combative settings on the street often end the engagement with the use of pins or concession hold. 

Grappling Effectiveness 

The same rules we spoke of about striking apply to grappling as well, students must train against live and resisting opponents in order for the art to reliably be applied. Most grappling arts include sparring against resisting opponents, as it is easier to spar at a higher intensity more often with grappling than striking arts. Sparring has a direct correlation with the effectiveness of a given martial art. 

Defensive Tactics

Training Intensity 

Intensity of training is likely the single greatest variable that can either aid in the acquisition of skill or hinder it. Intensity in training typically is not a constant or at least should not be a constant until students have developed a sufficient understanding of principals, concepts, and movement patterns.

For example, if you were to start a weight training program and on day 1 started with a deadlift using 500 lbs on the bar, it is highly unlikely that the trainee will be able to use the barbell effectively to elicit the desired response from training and allow adaptation to occur. The likely result will be the trainee cannot move the bar or possibly gets injured. Intensity of training is an excellent tool but it must be modulated carefully.  

A baseline of skill, consistency, and knowledge must be acquired before training intensity can be applied to increase adaptation. The level of intensity needed will vary greatly depending on the individual.

Good instructors will be able to increase intensity based on student performance, so the student can find the sweet spot between order and chaos. Not so much intensity that the wheels come off, but enough that the student is learning new concepts and challenging themself. As we talked about above, students need an element of sparring in order to be effective. 

Free sparring with unlimited options isn’t the best place to start new students in my opinion, this is equivalent to the novice weight trainer starting with a 500 lbs deadlift on their first training day. It is too much too soon and is unlikely to produce the results we want.

New students should be exposed to task-based sparring games with constraints, this way they can practice the application of specific skills without having to make too many decisions. Intensity is like a prescription medication; it is given to the right person within a specific amount at a specific time. 

Mitigating the Risk of Injury 

Injuries are an inevitable aspect of training, but they can be minimized through proper practice design and coaching. Most executive protection teams are small, and losing one agent to injury could be a 20% reduction in the team’s ability to cover shifts, reducing operational effectiveness. At the same time, a team of agents who do not train also reduces operational effectiveness.  

In the same way, good executive protection teams manage risk for their principal, good defensive tactics instructors will mitigate the risk of injury for their students. A well-designed defensive tactics program will take these factors into account, often adjusting the lesson plans on the fly as they get a feel for their students. Let’s examine the main causes of injuries in training. 

  1. Inexperienced students & training partners – When students first start training there is a lot they do not know. They may move in strange ways or put themselves into poor mechanical positions that can lead to injury. Live sparring against a resisting opponent will teach students how to apply the necessary amount of force to solve the problem. Adults who are trying sparring will have to relearn the rules of rough and tumble play, it is no different than children really. It is a game, and like all games involving rough and tumble play the rules must be learned. If students have never sparred this concept will be completely foreign to them, but unlike a small child, they are a fully grown adult with sufficient weight and strength to actually do lasting harm to someone unintentionally. 
  2. Intensity – As we talked about before, intensity is the secret sauce that elicits effective adaptations from training. However, too much intensity too soon increases the chances of injury significantly. When students first are learning how to spar they must remain in a relaxed state of mind so they can think and consider how they should move to solve the problem. They do not have instincts yet, so each movement will need to be thought out. Instructors must reign in the intensity of their students, at least initially, until certain levels of proficiency are achieved. 
  3. Lack of variability – Often in combat sports training, coaches pursue the perfection of a specific technique, emphasizing repetition to achieve mastery. While repetition is important for skill acquisition, focusing exclusively on a narrow set of techniques without considering variability can increase the risk of injury. In reality, there is no universally perfect technique! Our agents possess unique biological constraints, respond differently to environmental conditions, and will encounter drastic differences in task constraints in real-world situations. Without the freedom to explore a variety of movement solutions, students may develop movement patterns that are overly rigid or constrained, lacking adaptability to changing situations. This lack of variability can lead to biomechanical imbalances, overuse injuries, and diminished resilience in the face of unexpected challenges. 

Instructor-Student Ratio 

Having the right instructor-to-student ratio is an important consideration. While there is not a perfect ratio, a simple way of looking at it is if the student group is inexperienced overall then they will likely need more individual coaching than a group of experienced students. Generally, defensive tactics are an area where the majority of Executive Protection teams do not train as often as they probably should, thus a lower student-to-instructor ratio is important.

For a quality experience for these students, I would recommend a 6-10 student-to-instructor ratio for maximum quality to the newer students. If the team has a majority of experienced students you could increase this to about 10 to 16 students. Since most teams in executive protection are usually small this will likely not be a huge factor, as the team will probably not be able to send everyone as someone has to cover shifts. Still, this is an important factor to consider when selecting a program for your team. 

Is Field Experience Necessary? 

Is it necessary for the instructor to have direct experience in executive protection, law enforcement, or the military to be effective at teaching defensive tactics? In my opinion, no. If you have a requirement like this you will probably bypass many amazing instructors who could teach your team valuable skills.

Our teams should hypothetically already have tremendous experience working in executive protection, as skills are acquired they can translate this to their work themselves with some reflection after training. At a minimum, the instructor should be familiar with the goals of an executive protection team, if they have actually worked in the industry though this is definitely optimal. Don’t be too quick to bypass someone without direct field experience. 

Weapon Retention 

If your team carries firearms, it is critical to prioritize proficiency in defensive tactics broadly. A strong foundation in combative skills enhances the team’s ability to defend themselves and adapt to novel situations, ultimately aiding in weapons retention during high-stress encounters.

While specific weapons retention drills are a valuable addition to the training program, they should complement, not replace, comprehensive skill development. Tunnel vision and weapons fixation are common challenges in high-pressure situations, often leading to the opponent overextending themselves. Pressure testing all gear used by agents is critical, however, particularly as it relates to weapons retention. We want to reveal the vulnerabilities of our gear in training, not in the course of our jobs. 

Ongoing Training 

We can probably all agree that training any skill a few times a year is not going to produce expertise in any subject. With infrequent training such as this, a student is likely to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect, where a student may overestimate their abilities. Check out our previous article “Protecting the Brand as an EP Agent” where we go into detail about the Dunning Kruger effect. 

My take on the structure of training is that the organization, whether it is a security company or client organization should provide defensive tactics training as often as possible to their team.

This training should focus on improving hard skills that have the best carry-over into job performance, these are the skills agents should train more often to be good at their job. For ongoing training, this to me is the responsibility of the individual agent to maintain and manage. Our work in executive protection is the safeguarding of human life, in order to achieve this aim, we have to train. Consistent effort applied over time is the only way to acquire skill. 

Final Thoughts on Choosing the Right Defensive Tactics Program

In Executive Protection, precision and adaptability are paramount, the selection of a Defensive Tactics program that aligns with the goals of the organization is an important step in the maturation of the entire Executive Protection program.

From the strategic choice of selecting the fight base to careful calibration of training intensity, this article has delved into many of the core considerations for selecting a Defensive Tactics program. My hope is that this article can serve as a roadmap for security managers when choosing a program, highlighting important considerations and what they should expect from an effective Defensive Tactics program. 

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