Fear, Holes In Training And The Last Length of Bridge – Marc MacYoung


I finally had made it to the big leagues.

I was sitting in on the after-work, 4Bs  session (beer, ball busting & bull). In my estimation, making it into the ‘big leagues’ isn’t when you get the job. You’re not ‘in’ until you have the job AND are socializing with the heavy hitters you work with. Here’s the catch, you won’t be invited in until you’ve proven you’re worth your salt and that you know how to behave.

So there I was sitting with the big kids. They were the ones who rolled when it hit the fan. When everyone else was back peddling, these were the guys heading toward the danger. These were the guys whom I respected, and I wanted to be numbered among. These were the guys who were ‘fearless.’

Coming up through the ranks, fearlessness always had been a big issue with me. Despite all the shit I’d flown through already, I HATED the fact I was still afraid. I would go into a situation and nearly wet myself from fear. Yet, I kept on telling myself, if I went in over and over again, one day that fear would disappear.

It turns out, the problem was my own internal perspective. I had this screwed up image in my head about being fearless, and, if I was afraid, I wasn’t a man. The problem was, the fear just wasn’t going away.

The condition could be best described by an older movie with Denzel Washington called the “Forsaken.” In it, Washington is a cop chasing a demonic force that possesses people, turns them into serial killers, then jumps ship. All it takes is for the possessed person to touch someone else, and the demon jumps to the touched  person. The cop must first identify the actual problem (a nonphysical entity) and then catch it … except, it keeps transferring to different people.

My fear was like that demon. I’d look at someone and think, “If I can take him, that will prove I’m a MAN, and I my fear will go away. As soon as I went head-to-head with that guy, though, my fear would ‘jump’ to someone else; someone bigger and badder. When I faced the new guy and ‘won,’ the fear would jump to another bigger and badder dude.

And so on…

So on the surface, it was my willingness to engage and skill, but the underlying truth was it was fear. A fear that not only drove me, but that I was afraid to talk about. That is why the first 4Bs session was such a life-changing event. The topic of fear came up. And they started laughing.

Here were these serious heavy hitters telling stories about being terrified in the middle of massive shit storms … and they were laughing. But they weren’t laughing AT each other, they were laughing WITH each other. One would finish. And another would come up with a story about a time he was so scared he pissed himself, and everyone would roar in sympathetic ‘been there, too’ laughter.

I was stunned.

Here were what I considered truly hard-core dudes talking about being afraid, and it didn’t diminish them in the eyes of people who counted. Counted,when it came to this topic. People, who would go in with that guy, even though they were that scared, too. People who could be trusted. Trusted with your life. And they were saying it was OK to be afraid.

That’s important because, when I got into the profession of stepping up to unpleasant people, I discovered cowardice isn’t only a trait among individuals, it also can appear in professions. There’s nothing worse than having yellow-tinted back up. Or when the guys you’re supposed to be going in with are tying their shoes, fiddling with their radios or claiming they didn’t hear the ‘go’ command. When that happens, you end up flying into it alone.

Worse was when things got real hairy, and your back up backed up.

The reason I say the session of  the 4Bs was proof you made it was because guys who pulled that weren’t invited.

The sad thing was it was usually the yellow-tinted back up who were the loudest about how ruff ‘n tuff they were. I mean these guys would go on and on about how, if you cut them off at the knees, you could call them a tripod —  because they did this job. The sad thing was how badly they did it.

Against real problems, they weren’t any good (that’s if they were there at all). And against stuff that could have been resolved and people who weren’t that much of a threat, these guys would go off.  The sad thing is these swinging dicks honestly believed they were all that. Discuss skills, and they’d brag about how they’d never lost a fight. (If I’d limited myself to beating up drunks and fourth graders, I’d probably be able to say the same thing.) Ask them about fear, and they would laugh AT you, tell you you weren’t a REAL man, and thenproceed to tell you about the time they beat a troll to death with their dicks.

Except — more than their ability to slow down and let you take point — was their nearly magical ability to NOT be around when the fecal matter achieved great depth. It had to be magic because they were that good at it. They somehow ALWAYS had a ‘good’ reason for not being there. They were doing something of vital importance — somewhere else — when it went down. An amazing coincidence, I tell you, amazing.

Suffice to say the men in the 4B club knew about these guys, and they didn’t trust them, much less would ever relax with them. That’s why it was such a big deal being invited to the 4B session.

So when I heard the heavy hitters talking about being scared, I knew I’d heard something real important. Important enough to learn. And when I did learn it, to earn the respect and trust of those guys.

A lot of people look at fear as a bad thing. Something to be ashamed of. It’s not. The understanding I got from that 4B session has served me well in my life. A life filled with incidents that were far worse. How much worse? I now look back in nostalgia at the kind of violence we faced back then.

But I never forgot the lesson that fear was all right.

It would be many years before I figured out another important lesson. That is the difference between fear and panic. An expansion on this is: Fear is your friend, it is your ally. Panic is your enemy.

The key differences are:

1)  you know what to do

2) you trust what you know … with your life

When you have those two elements, fear is a great enhancer. It is in fact, a turbo charger, a boost to — as Larry the Cable Guy says — GIT R DONE! Fear doesn’t keep you from acting, it makes you act harder, faster and with more commitment to make sure you achieve your goal. But the key element is you must have faith in what you know to get it done.

Panic, on the other hand, is what you get when you have fear and no plan. Whether you just plain don’t know what to do (so you stand there mumbling, “Homina! Homina! Homina!”) or if you have a plan — but don’t trust it to work.

You may have told yourself all kinds of stories about what a total bad ass you are because you know some kind of deadly warrior system or commando combative system. A system that you paid big bucks to be trained in. But when you’re looking someone, who means you harm, in the eye THAT’S when you’re going to find out what you weren’t taught. That’s when you’re going to discover the difference between training and doing. That’s when you’re going to learn the difference between fear and panic. And that’s why you’ll discover how much you trust your training.

Some people think the worst thing that can happen to them is they will freeze. Well, some news flashes here.

First,  we all —  even the serious operators — freeze.The question is: Do you have the faith and commitment to overcome it?

Second, if you’ve been sold a bill of goods about what a super bad ass you are for studying some ultimate fighting system, that freeze has a damned good chance of saving your ass.

That freeze often is accompanied with the inability to speak. Not only can keeping your mouth shut and not making any offensive moves keep you from getting a beat down, but it can keep you from ending up in the hospital or dead.

That’s because, while you think it’s making you look like a terrified wimp, the truth is it’s also keeping you from provoking the other guy into attacking. So while you’re telling yourself you’re a wuss for not throwing down on the guy, odds are that’s what is keeping you out of jail or from having to shit teeth over the next few days.

Third, in all that ‘we’ll-teach-you-everything-you-need-to-protect-yourself’ did ANYONE mention what they weren’t telling you?

I not only mean about things like use of force law and the legal definition of self-defense, but what YOU have to bring to the table to make this training work in the field. Work when you’re looking in the eyes of someone who wants to hurt you and there’s nothing but air between you.

These holes in training are closely tied in with both freezing and a lack of faith (read panic) in what you know. Unfortunately, they don’t show up in the safety of the training hall or gym. They especially aren’t going to show up on the Internet. But since this is about fear and training, let’s stay focused on that.

It doesn’t matter all the ‘warrior’ talk you hear in those places or how ‘this’ training solves the fear problem. It doesn’t. At least not when you really need it. When you realize it, it might be too late. That’s the real booger about it. The problem only reveals itself at the worst time.

So why is this a problem of training?

First off, there’s a difference between education and training. Education is not only general knowledge, but is more oriented toward teaching people how to ‘think’ (i.e., reason, logic, etc.). Training, on the other hand, is focused on a specific job. Training  is very particular in what it teaches as that information is relevant to that specific job, task or goal.


Now … that point alone should make the gears in your brain start whirling about what you are being taught. You seriously need to ask, “Does what I’m learning actually prepare me for the specific task I want to learn to do?” Are you being taught everything you need to know to get it done?

Or is what you are getting more along the lines of a general education? Worse, are you being trained for something else and that focus is being sold as some kind of wundertool that does everything? These are serious considerations as to why you will freeze in a situation.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to discuss something the instructors won’t tell you about what you’re learning. I want to talk about what it takes to make whatever you’re learning ‘work.’ Work outside the comfort and safety of the training hall.

I gave you that bit of personal history to show you one of the ways fears (not fear, fears) can manifest. The fact is, I had some damned good training, and yet I was still scared.

It’s of my nature, however, to attack my fears. In doing so, I would learn the important lesson I am about to impart to you.

To begin with, I wasn’t afraid of violence. I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t deal with the guy threatening me. That’s a significant distinction for two reasons. One, it was both an immediate and specific threat. HE was the threat. Violence was the tool he was going to use. Although my hatred of being scared was strong, even stronger was my willingness to act AGAINST this specific person.

That’s important because violence isn’t some kind of giant, vague cloud that floats over humanity. It is usually a one-on-one human interaction. Rory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence, gives one of the best break downs of the conditions of violence that I have ever read.  Conditions that YOU need to consider if you think you will have to use your training either in self-defense or as part of your job or responsibilities. (Guess who gets elected to deal with drunken Uncle Albert at the family reunion?)

The second reason it’s important is the fear was inside my head. My fear of not being thought a man because I was afraid, my fear of how other people would look at me and my fear of humiliation and shame.  Those fears are what drove me into situations where there was an actual danger of getting injured. Then – surprise, surprise – I was afraid of getting hurt. Then I fixated on THAT fear.  I never realized that it had been fear driving me all along — including getting me into training and how hard I trained. Then I was furious that despite all the training, I was still afraid.

I give you that context to help you understand this point. Training  …. ANY training … is a half completed bridge.

It is a bridge over a canyon … but a bridge that DOESN’T reach the other side. This, no matter what the instructor, marketing or true believer says. There is NO  training out there that completes the bridge for you.

But that is a popular training myth — especially for people who deal with their fears via training alone. Such a myth believes that the quality of the training is so awesome you can just casually stroll over the canyon on this complete and pre-packaged  bridge. Or, if you’ve really been sold a bill of goods, drive across in the comfort and ease of your car. That’s because the system is so good that, just by knowing it, you are a super-stud able to easily  defeat legions of bad guys.

That is what a lot of people believe, too. As long as you never step outside the safety of the Internet, the training hall or the sports ring, you CAN believe this.

In those places, you never have to make it all the way across the canyon. Therefore, the missing pieces are easily ignored or replaced by ersatz substitutes. Substitutes that are emotionally intense, but not necessarily specific to the task itself.

For example, I know of an MA school where, as part of the black belt test, serial sparring occurs. For one minute each round, the candidate spars with one of five black belts. The official reason given for this action is it helps develop one of the tenets of the system (indomitable spirit). In that regard, yes it is a means to challenge the tester to push him- or herself. It’s a pretty good one too — if you know when to stop.

Unofficially though, I encountered several black belts who — because they’d done this serial sparring  — were confident they could take on multiple opponents. Seriously, they really believed that. A belief that had no basis in reality because they had no idea of the tactics that work against multiple attackers. A belief that I pray will never be put to the test. But a belief they can maintain and hold in the comfort and safety of the dojo environment.

Now one can argue that it is this ‘belief ‘that people are seeking and not the actual skills. A belief  to soothe their fears. But fears are not the same thing as actual dangers. Again, as was pointed out by Rory, but I ran with the idea, there’s a big difference between fear management and danger management:


If that is the case, then let’s accept this serial sparring for what it is. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a nice confidence builder. Most people are not likely to go out and actually get into physical altercations with strangers because they don’t live that kind of lifestyle. If such training helps them with their fears (especially their fear of being afraid) and confidence, then good.

I have long been an advocate on the multiple benefits of training  … OTHER than busting people’s heads. Most people will never find themselves in a violent confrontation, so they can spend their time and focus on developing other attributes of training. I cannot stress enough my ‘Yay You’ attitude for this achievement.

It is NOT, however, something you want to bet your life on against multiple opponents. There’s too big of a gap between training and what you need to succeed.  If the best bridge gets 3/4s of the way across, a good one gets halfway across, then a bad one only goes a 1/4 of the way. By the instructor not teaching reliable tactics, these folks were woefully unprepared — but they, and the instructor, were convinced they could just stroll across the canyon on that shiny bridge of training.

When it comes to crossing that canyon, YOU must be the one to complete the bridge. You must be the one that spans the last length of the gap — your training won’t do it for you.

I say this speaking at someone who threw myself at others, despite of and prompted by my own fear. It is that gap, that last length of bridge you must jump yourself. There is no completed bridge until you finish it yourself. That is the lesson of live fire. Your system will not do it for you. You must be the one who — standing at the abyss — must leap over the gap to the the other side.

A leap where you might not make it across.

It happens. Even with the best of training (with that bridge taken as far as it can be near the other side) you can still fail. There are no guarantees in violence. But the farther built your bridge, the shorter the jump. But that jump will always be there. As I found out again and again when I would engage.

I have never lost my fear over the dangers of violence. Surprise! Violence IS dangerous! You can get injured or killed! There’s damned good reason to be afraid. If you’re not, then either you’re a psychopath or you’ve decided to pick on fourth graders.

But it is taking control of that fear and using it to boost your ability to jump that is important. It is focusing your fear on ‘getting it done’ that turns fear into your ally. Fear is NOT a hindrance unless you allow it to be. When you use it to achieve your goals, it is one hell of a powerful ally.

Better yet, you can use it to support common sense and work to keep you out of trouble.

For example, fear of being arrested and sued is a good motivation to talk things down. It’s also a bigger and more realistic danger than your fear of losing face and ‘everyone’ thinking your a pussy for walking away (which in fact, very seldom happens except in your own head). That’s because those things do really happen.

If talking it down or leaving doesn’t work, then fear can help you make that jump and do what you have to do.

But your fear isn’t driving the bus, you are!  It’s not driving, it’s your foot on the gas pedal. Yes fear is helping you make that jump. But it is you who is making it.

Conversely, if you believe that you have been sold a ‘complete bridge’ (and yes, that’s a double entendre),  then you are going to have problems. First your fear can send you rushing over that bridge. Second, at the last moment, your fear will slam on the brakes at the edge of construction. There you are left teetering over the canyon. That’s what happens when bridge you believed went all the way across is out. Going in fast and hard and then slamming on the brakes is no way to jump over a deep canyon.

Learn to take control of your fear. Not just before a fight, but  before it sends you speeding past the ‘Bridge Out ‘sign. The time to accelerate is when you have no choice but to go over that bridge and when you need to make the jump. That’s when you can use your fear as a nitroboost to make the jump.

But you won’t be able to do that until you trust your training. And you won’t trust your training until you know what it does, and what YOU have to do.


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