Spotlight on training: The misunderstood concept of "No pain, no gain"

There is no question that pain, or often just the possibility of pain, can play an important part in training for high-risk situations. The pain of a marking projectile, for instance, colliding with a training participant can be extremely useful for teaching and remembering tactical lessons. Feeling the impact of a strike during a dynamic physical skills exercise helps trainees to learn important lessons about their ability to fight through adversity or, alternatively, their limitations. Exposure to chemical agents and neuro-muscular interruption systems such as the Taser teach valuable lessons about the capabilities and limitations of those force options. But at what point does the use of pain exceed its training value? This is a difficult question, and is usually only pondered in the wake of a serious injury or death after an ill-fated training accident.


The bulk of this article will deal with one area of training that has recently been the subject of controversy in wake of the death of a police recruit during a training session that involved boxing. According to newspaper reports, the recruit died of “injuries suffered after a lieutenant overruled two supervisors’ warnings that the trainee was too overmatched by a superior fighter to box in an agency-sanctioned drill.”


Deaths in training from various causes are occurring at the unacceptable rate of at least one per year.


The stark reality is that law enforcement is a dangerous business. In order to train to adequately function in this business, there is an inherent amount of risk in the training process. A difficult issue with which we must contend is: How much risk is acceptable?


The equation for managing that risk lies in a backwards approach that must first ask, “What do we want this officer to be able to accomplish/demonstrate as a result of this training?” We next ask, “What training setting can best approximate the environment in which they would have to demonstrate these skills?” Third, we must decide how we can balance safety with reality. If the exercise is stripped of all danger, it won’t be realistic. If it approaches ultimate reality, it is often unacceptably unsafe.


The solution exists in a highly trained, dedicated staff of professionals who have developed task oriented training objectives and goal directed drills. All too often, training staff simply wing it, or worse … they harken back to a time when THEY were abused in training and subsequently visit the sins of the father on their new sons.


Believe it or not, hazing-style training drills are still highly prevalent in this country although they are often couched in terms of realistic or dynamic simulation. Further, the stagnant nature of training drills where a drill is passed on through the ages - “that’s the way it’s always been ‘round here …” - has the chilling effect of the continuity of a dangerous drill despite the recognition of the unacceptable levels of danger or a determination that the drill is irrelevant or counterproductive to the originally intended outcome. Such training practices are rarely ever questioned, and when they are it is usually after someone gets seriously hurt or killed. Even in the wake of such a tragedy, there are some agencies that just keep on going with the program with minimal or no modification.


There is some interesting scientific basis behind the phenomenon of training methodologies that get handed down over time without questioning the necessity, validity or viability. Some years ago, researchers undertook the following experiment:


Take 5 apes and put them in a large cage. In the center of the cage put a staircase.

Hanging from the top of the cage, put a banana hanging from a string. Arrange it such that whenever an ape steps on the top step to get to the banana a hose showers all the other apes with water. Eventually the apes will learn not to try to get the banana because they all get wet. They just will let it be.

Now, remove one ape and put a new one in. He will see the banana and try to get it, but as soon as he heads for the stairs the other 4 apes will beat the crap out of him, because they don't want to get wet. Eventually the new ape will learn not to climb the stairs. You can disconnect the hose at this point.

Change one of the remaining 4 original apes for a new one, leaving 3 original and 2 new. When the newest ape tries for the banana, the other apes will beat the crap out of him. The last one you changed out will participate in the beating because he wants to fit in and can't believe this idiot newcomer doesn't know the rules.

Continue to change out all the original apes, one by one, until you have 5 new apes. They will never go for the banana, and beat up any newcomers who try, and the only reason is because “That’s the way it’s always been around here.”

Just because “that’s the way it’s always been …” is insufficient reason to preserve the status quo of a law enforcement training program. If there are danger signs (such as there were prior to the death of the recruit – the article in the newspaper reported a history of a good number of injuries including sprains, dislocations, fractures and at least one other serious head injury) this should be cause for a clear-headed, thoughtful review. There are methods for achieving the goals sought by that agency’s training program without the inherent danger. I don’t mean through sterilizing out all the possibility for pain or even the possibility of injury. But the risks of any high-risk program MUST be balanced and controllable – and they are through proper use of highly trained staff members, a building block approach for the development of the necessary skills and matching combatants at an acceptable level.

In the case of boxing programs, guidance can be found in the rules and regulations established by the professional boxing commissions. “But we’re not running professional boxing matches!!!” I can hear the cry going out even as I type the words. Even more reason that tight standards must be applied.

Professional boxers are used to the physical punishment. They are skilled fighters who train tirelessly for the event. They know how to hit and how to avoid being hit, and they have professionals in their midst that ensure the fighter is prepared for the bout down to the smallest detail of hand taping. The referees and officiating monitors know when to continue a fight and when to throw in the towel. In the incident in question, the wellness of the students was monitored (according to agency records) by two recruits who were paramedic certified.

According to World Boxing Association regulations, sanctioned boxing matches are tightly controlled and utilize professional referees. There is not one, but two doctors present, specialized in the unique hazards of boxing. The list of pre-screening and post screening parameters is extensive. Special considerations are in place for boxers who have received concussive trauma including, but not limited to, knock outs. They are not permitted to spar for 30 to 45 days, nor box for a minimum of 75 days following such trauma.

Completely aside from the fact that boxing is a highly specialized, tightly regulated sport it is inappropriate training for police work. Hitting people with a closed fist is dangerous for both the officer and the suspect. A colleague of mine who is a highly experienced SWAT operator and defensive tactics instructor in California recently observed boxing training with a major metropolitan agency.

Their officers receive 16 hours of boxing instruction. My colleague questioned the wisdom of using closed fist strikes in law enforcement encounters. He was told that although the officers received 16 hours of boxing instruction, they were then “told” that they should use open hands on suspects … he questioned the sensibility of this, given that people will always fight as they have trained. He was invited to leave.

Let’s take it a bit further. 16 hours of boxing is not going to make you a boxer. It may give you enough false confidence to make you think boxing is an appropriate method of fighting … then you’re likely going to break your hand the first time you punch somebody in the head. Now you have a broken hand (hmmm … I wonder why it’s called a Boxer’s Break – even Mike Tyson broke his hand punching a guy without the proper gear on) and then you might not be able to hold or work your firearm if things go really bad. And, by the way, what are you doing squaring off against somebody in a fisticuffs match when you’ve got a Bat Belt full of cool stuff to use on Billy Badass to save you a trip to the hand doctor? In the words of Lt. James Como, tactical and training commander for Ocoee P.D. in Florida, “We don't train our officers to stand up and go toe to toe with someone. We issue batons, TASER®s, chemicals and assorted gizmos and gadgets to keep officers from going this route. We teach to end the confrontation as quickly as possible, not square off like boxers or karateka. You also provide improper fear management by training LEO's this way.”

And what about “trained” fighters when involved in brawls? Remember the Ultimate Fighting Challenges? What happened during every single one of these fights? Regardless of the traditional style from which the early fighters came, after the first couple of strikes the match transitioned very quickly (by way of a haymaker or a tackle just like my fellow columnist Tony Blauer says) to the ground. So if you’re testing endurance of your officers in a realistic setting and situation, ground fighting (with the goal being to get OFF the ground) is the way to go. And for all you ground fighting proponents out there, another Blauerism is to ensure that the ground fighting techniques you are proposing for your officers are “cement friendly” because the bad guy is not likely to accept your invitation to take the fight into the mat room. Bouncing your elbow, knee, wrist, head etc. off the pavement is another likely hospital visit for you!

Whether or not boxing is a useful drill for law enforcement officers is secondary to the fact that what is deemed by many agencies to be “boxing” is, without all of the controls set out by the boxing commission, simply brawling with fists while wearing some protective gear. It may be well-intentioned as means for providing some fighting experience to your officers, but the risks likely outweigh the benefits.

I want to reiterate that I do NOT take issue with the necessity to provide officers with effective physical skills and a realistic environment in which those skills can be tested, but let’s not pretend for a second that much of what is being passed off as “boxing” is anything more than an exercise in hazing. To those agencies that have a bona fide, and well-regulated boxing program, I apologize for this characterization although I still question the usefulness of such a program for law enforcement training.

To those who do not have a well-structured needs based physical skill program or who simply think some version of a Tough Guy competition is a useful training model, it is time to take a long, hard look at your program. Make the necessary changes to establish an effective physical skills program that is consistent with the needs of your officers in the street and that will prepare them to effectively prevail against the adversaries they have to physically fight. Much of that training should be geared toward gaining control, endurance in the encounter until that control is gained, or a recognition that gaining such control is fruitless at which time disengagement should be the primary consideration.

Giving your officers useful skills for winning physical encounters is absolutely essential, but I hope that I have made the point that a realistic training program for physical skills cannot be ad hoc. It must be carefully thought out and meticulously implemented. It must provide a graduated approach to success that teaches useful physical skills and then tests them at a realistic level against a properly matched adversary. Let’s face it … the ranks of law enforcement are not heavily populated with dedicated martial artists. It would be nice if it was, but it is not. Like all other skills, there must be a training progression and like all high-risk training endeavors it has to be professionally implemented and monitored.

Pain penalties have usefulness to a certain extent, but must be used in a specific manner to fulfill a specific purpose. Professional trainers understand what those limits are. It is not within the scope of this article to define those limits. As for the “no serious pain, no serious gain” proponents and those who believe that there is some great benefit to giving somebody a bona fide ass kicking in training, that’s not training, that’s just punishment. For trainers that believe the benefits outweigh the risks in a Gladiator School approach to physical and mental conditioning of officers, it is my contention that it’s time you either evolve or head for the tar pit.

Until next time, train hard and train safe.


Ken Murray


Kenneth R. Murray appears monthly in Police One on the topic of Reality Based Training. His book “Training at the Speed of Life – Volume One – The Definitive Textbook for Police and Military Reality Based Training is available here. Please send questions and comments to

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