So how does one go about training elite, loyal fighters in a non-abusive environment?
By… not abusing them?
I know that the whole “training for martial combat is inherently abusive” is a popular concept, but it doesn’t work that way. Normal training is a slow process, and elites are the culmination of a process every single martial artist goes through. They are the ones who worked the hardest, who went the furthest, and continued long after everyone else stopped. An elite is the one who devotes their life to their art. From a martial combat perspective, you want the trainees who want to be training. You get your trainees to engage and commit to their training without forcing them because they already want to be there, and it not only works… it work better. I know. It’s an amazing concept, you get better results without abuse.
There are no elite warriors who were not once willing participants, wholeheartedly devoted and dedicated. Who ate, and breathed, and slept, and dreamed their training, who made it a foundational aspect of their whole life. A core aspect of their identity.
They became an elite because they wanted to be and because they worked hard for it. They passed all their tests, ground their way out through the muck and the dirt. Through the sweat, the tears, and the frustrations. Who celebrated their successes and mourned their failures.
Every training program will have a different metric for what makes someone capable of entering the ranks deemed elite. However, there are very specific general metrics for requirement which most follow. They will be people considered at or near the top by their instructors, who are experienced, and who have already completed the basic requirements. They will be martial artists who are in the highest belt rankings before this training or soldiers who made it through Basic with distinction and, perhaps, have field experience where they have shown a solid track record. They will be volunteers. They will be the ones previously identified as the best of the best by other trainers and commanding officers. They will either be chosen from the field or asked to apply. Offered, not ordered. Then, they will be “trained” as in they will undergo a stress test of their physical and mental limits that serves as their training.
When I say phrases like “considered near the top”, “shown exemplary skill”, and “served with distinction”, I don’t mean raw talent in someone untested. Raw talent is nothing but potential, and potential is worthless in someone who will not or is uninterested in making the most of it. These are the people who have already proven themselves, often above and beyond the call. They are chosen now because they have the potential and the drive to reach an echelon (often highly specialized) beyond that of the average trainee.
If you learn nothing else, learn this: any elite candidate is a classic overachiever.
One of the major purposes of normal training is to push a trainee beyond what they believe is physically and mentally possible for them to achieve. The extreme version of this is, well, it’s extreme. The point isn’t toughness, though. That’s far too simplistic and silly in concept. The point is to create a situation for the trainee to realize their true potential, that breaks all the boundaries of what they believed to possible. This is why high end of martial arts often feel like magic. Whether it’s staying awake, active, and functional for a full seven days, breaking nine bricks in a single strike, or bending a steel rod with nothing but their throat, you’re seeing someone who has a far better grasp of the true human limits than the average person.
Outside the real world, most authors are attracted to “abusive training” due to the angst factor. They often make the mistake of assuming that regular training is abuse (and taken to the wrong extremes, it can be), and mistake the purpose behind the extremes. They also think one can skip the boring, technical aspect and jump straight to those extremes. Again, mostly for the angst factor and to create a sub category of the trope Cursed with Awesome, which i like to call: Victimized Into Herohood.
In the real world, the theory behind abusive training isn’t that abuse makes you stronger (though many abusers and some abuse survivors have this outlook), it’s that the threat of death and desire to survive will make the subject work harder. That the desire to live is universal, and that it’s as good as the desire to learn. You’ll find this method used in cults, because its purpose is to ensure a specific kind of loyalty.
In the real world, that doesn’t get you past the bare minimum. So, all that abuse is just to get past the first mental hurdle for basic training. Do not mistake basic training for elite training. Never do this. You’ll find far more abuse (if it happens at all) happening at the beginning of training rather than at the end. You’ve got to learn to flap before you fly and expecting someone to achieve FTL by chucking them off a cliff is pretty damn silly. No one would expect a prospective student to be a black belt on day one.
The confusion, I think, most people have is with the intensity of the physical training. You will ask them to push beyond their physical limits, but that’s not abusive. They also consented to it first. Your working with someone who wants to be training, who has committed. You don’t put a gun to their head to say, “do this or die.” The point of pushing in this environment is not to break them, but rather to show them that they can do more than they realize.
Extreme training works best when the other person wants to be there. You will never be able apply more pressure or drive to someone via outside sources than they can apply to themselves.
Dragging some random schmuck off the street and beating the shit out of them misses the point. When we’re talking abusive training, it’s purpose isn’t to make you tougher, it’s purpose is to convince the trainee to commit. If they aren’t inclined toward it anyway, then they’re a bad candidate. The end point of the abusive outlook is to get your trainee to the point where they’re a willing candidate. That doesn’t produce elites though. Elites come from trainees who want to excel, not the ones who just want to live.
You cannot make an elite from a trainee who isn’t willing.
You can’t do it. 90% of an instructors job is to provide structure and opportunity for students to excel. That’s it. They teach, yes, but the student has to choose to learn. Being the best or competing for the opportunity to be the best, requires a step even beyond the choice or desire to learn. It takes real, honest to god commitment, devotion, sacrifice, not to mention time and energy. After all, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think.
Like with anything else, an elite is born from the trainees who worked the hardest in basic training. The ones who pushed themselves, the ones who maybe struggled in the beginning but kept at it, the ones who were up late practicing their techniques after everyone else had gone to bed, and the ones who proved themselves in the field or to whatever criteria qualified them for this next step. You don’t get elites through abuse. You get elites through willing candidates, and then just train them the normal way. Elites aren’t training or talent, so much as they are personality. These are the people who want to be there, they’re willing to commit and do whatever they have to do to win. You put them in competition so they build each other up, then you cull. By culling, I mean removing the weak and sending them back to where they came from. Usually, these will be returning them to the positions they already occupied. You know, how it normally works?
The mistakes the inexperienced make when writing training is that they often believe:
1) That all martial combat training is what you get from training Special Forces.
2) That the Special Forces training is what makes them elite.
No, Special Forces training itself is the culling process. The point isn’t to instruct, so much as it is to test the limits of the trainee and how far they can (and are willing) to push themselves. These are people who have already proven they excel in regular combat environments, they exceed beyond the expected limits. They have been trained, they are now taking the next step.
Martial Training is a process involving multiple stages, it takes time, investment, and a great deal of energy. The creation of an elite or an elite unit doesn’t happen overnight, or over a few weeks, or even months. It starts with molding the raw materials through the basics. Then, if they prove themselves worth the time/show their mettle, they get to try passing the tests where you’re kept awake and active for a week straight.
The true point of extreme training is to push the student far beyond the point they believe to be their upper limits. Our minds instill false expectations and false limits based on our beliefs, our understanding, and our desire for self-preservation. The point is never to break and remold, but rather to introduce the trainee to their true capabilities.
However, the trainee needs to be willing to push themselves. They are the ones who do the heavy lifting, they are the ones who are taking control over themselves, and they are the ones who are breaking down those mental and physical limits within themselves in order to reach new heights. It cannot be done to them, they must do it themselves.
Everyone has the potential to be an elite warrior, they all receive the same training. The question is: will the individual choose to put in the effort and make the necessary sacrifices?
Understand these are active choices, made by people who want what’s being offered to them and are chasing it because this is what they want to be. This is not a choice made for them. They are not the victims of it. It is not a burden thrust upon them. They chose to take it up, then they turned around and pursued excellence with a vengeance so intense it makes the rest of us cry.
The highest echelons of any martial art or martial combat is almost entirely an internal battle. You are your own worst enemy, and you need to break past your own beliefs about yourself. It is a battle for self-actualization, fire forged in blood, sweat, tears, and competition. This is the aspect of high level training that is most often disregarded because it sounds hokey. It’s true though.
Elite training is there to teach us that the false limits we set for ourselves are our greatest barrier, and these beliefs keep us from reaching our true potential.
Regardless of anything else, the end goal of both abusive scenarios and non-abusive scenarios are the same. The only difference is their methods and the initial willingness of their participants. This is also why the holdouts are the ones who die in the abusive scenario. No amount of forcing will ever compete with the willing.