I cannot imagine a truer statement. I’d long desired to dive into the world of hand-to-hand combatives and learn how to incorporate my shooting skills into real world scenarios. In a perfect world I would always turn to my pistol, but the world is far from perfect. I wanted to test my limits when all else fails, in the most realistic sense possible. I can train to shoot cardboard all day, but like Bruce Lee famously said, “boards don’t hit back”.
The ALIVE! system was founded in 2012 by Steve Miles. ALIVE!'s unique approach to training comes from Steve's experiences both in the military and as a force-on-force facilitator for the Central Texas Combatives Training Group (CTCTG). Force-on-force training provides an opportunity for students to learn and apply techniques while under pressure from fully resistant training partners. In this way, students begin to inoculate themselves to the stress of a true combative situation. As I drove up to Salado for the class, I was admittedly a bit nervous. I relaxed a bit after meeting Steve and a few of the ALIVE! regulars. Meeting Rina, one of the female regulars, put me at ease a bit more. In a room full of men it is always refreshing to see another like-minded female, and I could see right away that Rina was one to look up to.
The class began with a force-on-force competition-style warmup. My weapon: A dummy gun. My opponent: A random partner, playing the role of a “bad guy” with a dummy knife. My goal: To win at all costs. The warmup is a way to prepare students for the reality of a full-on struggle. It is organic, fast, and frighteningly real. The scenario is this: You are at the ATM, bus stop, gas station, etc. when a person approaches you. Maybe they want change, or directions, or to talk about their church, but whatever the case, your radar is telling you something isn’t right. At some point, this person pulls out a knife and attacks you at full speed. “Of course, I will go directly for my concealed handgun”, I thought to myself, leading to a fail of epic proportions. Each time I moved directly for my pistol, I got stabbed – sometimes multiple times – prior to accessing my weapon. I started to become frustrated, wondering if all those pistol competitions and concealed weapon training drills had been in vain. After all, every time I did those drills, staring at cardboard, never once was I afraid. Now, with a 200 lb man barreling down on me with a knife, I felt a sensation I’d never felt during static training. I felt the urge to cower, to cover my head, to helplessly fall to the ground in fetal position and yell, “Please stop stabbing me!”. For the first time in my training, I felt fear.
At the end of the day, I went home with bruised arms, bruised knees, and a massively bruised ego. I usually consider training events to be confidence builders for me, but this was the exception. I actually felt disempowered. Though admittedly, when I went to work the next day all beat up, I also felt proud. I had earned every scratch and bruise. Each one was both a battle scar and a learning experience. The lessons I learned extended far beyond the basic skills we had been taught, straight to the core of my self-confidence. As it turned out, I was not nearly as bad-ass as I would have guessed. And as for that seething feeling of disempowerment, I needed that! It was clear I had a lot to learn, and I knew I would be back for another class.
Fast forward to my second time. Vehicle gunfighting. Lowlight. Airsoft. How could I say no? There I stood, in a remote field among mostly strangers in the pitch blackness. Cow patties littered the ground like landmines. The occasional booms from nearby Ft. Hood echoed in the distance. The environment was surreal and exciting. A truck sat in the middle of the field, peppered with a couple of distinct bullet holes. We began the class with another force-on-force competition-style warmup. The lowlight made for a drastically different experience. After the warmup, we moved on to scenarios. I sat in the driver’s seat of Steve’s truck with my gun concealed, appendix style. He stood in front of the truck and without warning began to fire airsoft pellets at me. My goal was to successfully exit the vehicle and put myself in a position to engage. After we learned some strategies in the truck, we were instructed to try exiting our own vehicles. I should point out that when I travel, it may appear I live in my car. My passenger side was cluttered with a backpack, a bag of trash, and various other belongings. The goal of exiting through the passenger side door became quite a feat! After this drill we moved on to low-light flashlight work with airsoft. I honestly wasn’t expecting the airsoft pellets to sting as badly as they did. They stung just enough to ensure I tried my damnedest not to get shot! My strategy instantly changed from statically trying to engage a target with perfect grip and sight picture to desperately running while shooting at a moving target, one-handed, while getting out of dodge. Game. Changer. Another major opportunity for improvement! I drove home, my hands shaking from adrenaline. My hip was throbbing from barreling over a very unforgiving parking brake while trying to exit my car under stress. My mind was spinning a mile a minute, reflecting on the lessons I learned. I was drunk on the rush; I was officially hooked.
I poured over the ALIVE! website and Facebook page, eager to find out about future classes, and learned that they also held separate classes devoted to knife defense. Having been in an accident that resulted in a severe laceration to my inner forearm, I have always been terrified of knives. Once, I told Steve that I would rather be attacked with a gun than a knife. Steve looked me directly in the eye and said, “That’s a training deficiency”. Those words are stuck in my head to this day. After attending a few knife defense classes, I can affirm he was 100% right. I just needed some training, some fuel to get over my paralyzing fear of knives in order to learn to defend myself against one, and to learn how to use one to save my life should the situation arise. My learning curve for knives was much slower than for gunfighting, but I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone and was overcoming my biggest fear in the process. Knife defense continues to be a challenge for me and an area in which I hope to continue to improve.
I have been to many other training events with CTCTG since that first day. Among my favorites was the C.L.A.W.S Women’s Self Defense Clinic. C.L.A.W.S. stands for “Cut Like A Woman Should” and consists of situational awareness drills along with an introduction to knife defense as it relates to women. ALIVE! Gunfighting also holds Friday night sessions each week to go over basic drills before moving up to the Shoothouse. The Shoothouse is an attic above the studio with moveable walls which provides a great place to train for home defense and close quarters situations. You go up equipped with an airsoft gun and must clear the structure, where bad guys are lurking around every corner. It plays out like a very realistic, very painful game of laser-tag. My first experience in the Shoothouse was that of being shot over and over again. With zero experience, I reverted to using methods I had seen in movies and video games like Die Hard and Call of Duty. With practice however, I learned how to move around corners while exposing as little of my body as possible, and I learned not to pop out in the same spot twice (Steve calls that “Whack-a-Mole”). Simple and effective tools such as these are fun to learn and help build confidence in my ability to adapt to a variety of dicey situations.
I had already pitched the idea to Niki of promoting force-on-force training to other Sure Shots, and with a little planning ahead, we finally made it happen at the ALIVE! Gunfighting: Accessing While Under Attack clinic. I was thrilled to be able to share all of these eye-opening experiences with my Sure Shots ladies, even if it meant attacking them with airsoft pellets! There were plenty of laughs and cursing, and some pretty epic welts (or Glock pox, as they are affectionately called) the next day, but also plenty of distinctly memorable teaching moments. Specifically, this training class reinforced to everyone the idea of stress inoculation, where we learn to apply the skills we already have while under attack. I will certainly continue to promote future classes in the hopes of introducing more ladies to force-on-force training.
They say life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Certainly, if we fail to adapt, we fail to thrive. Force-on-force training is an eye-opening, thrilling, and sometimes painful experience, but one I recommend to every woman who is interested in become more adept at self-defense. When I began migrating outside of my comfort zone, I went through several phases. The first phase was one of futility and distinct disempowerment; of realizing that although I knew a lot, I also knew nothing. In the second phase, I quit pouting over my shortcomings and came to understand that although I failed epically at my first class, I had pushed myself out of my comfort zone and had nowhere to go but up. The third phase is what Steve calls the “Aha!” moment, where I finally began to piece together what I needed to do to in order to succeed and began to build up specific skills. Now in the final phase, I begin to rebuild my shattered confidence. While I hope I never have to use any of the tactics I have learned in my training with CTCTG, having them in my toolbox certainly can’t hurt! In the end, I came to realize that all of my prior training shooting cardboard was not in vain at all, rather, it had given me the skills and techniques I needed to succeed at force-on-force. Thanks to all that I have learned from competition shooting and other defensive classes, I am now ready for the next level: learning to stay ALIVE!
Becca Spinks is a certified instructor and is the leader of Sure Shots San Antonio. She is also a regular competitive shooter and 9-year-old competitive shooter Vanessa Aguilar’s coach.