The importance of improvisation

Human critters like predictability. We like to know what something is and to have a good handle on how we should respond to it. I’ve used the example before, but when we go into the store to purchase an item and the cashier asks “How are you today?” we will probably respond with “Just fine, thanks.” The cashier is not really interested in our state of mind anymore than we’re really interested in probing the depths of our psyche with someone making 8 bucks an hour, but it’s social custom and we expect it and have an appropriate response queued up and ready to go. Everybody’s happy. When things don’t go according to that script it can throw us for a loop. A little while back I was having lunch with a friend when he noted a tattoo around the waitresses wrist. “There is no growth without pain.” Combining that tattoo with her physical appearance, posture, and demeanor I gathered that life hadn’t really been kind to this poor girl, and that the tat was a physical manifestation of her attempts to cope with the challenges she was facing. My friend, of course, wasn’t satisfied with my hunch and being the too-curious-for-his-own-good type decided to ask her about it. When she came by to refill our drinks and engaged in normal waitress/customer banter, he pointedly asked about the tattoo. This clearly wasn’t expected and brought about a long pause complete with racing eyes as she tried to figure out what to say next. She’d obviously never been asked that question in quite that fashion before and (to borrow a humorous turn of phrase from Craig Douglas) it OODA’d the daylights out of her.

Skilled improvisation accomplishes amazing things whether you're holding a handgun or a Stratocaster.
The ability to improvise is crucial regardless of whether you’re holding a shotgun or a Stratocaster.

So what does any of that have to do with guns or self defense? Simple: Self defense is rarely planned. You as a good guy/gal going about your life in a respectable manner have a plan for what you’re going to accomplish on a given day, and I’d bet that being in a gunfight ain’t on your calendar anywhere. If you’re carrying a gun it’s not an entirely unexpected possibility, but it’s still something that’s going to catch you by surprise. Quality training will help you see the warning signs sooner and will give you more time to react, but no matter how well trained and prepared you will have to figure a lot of the equation out as you go along. You will have to improvise. You will be called upon to observe a number of things in the environment, make judgments about what you observe, and come up with an appropriate response in what is likely a very unfamiliar situation…all within a very compressed time frame with high stakes.

It’s tempting to think of the ability to think quickly on one’s feet as an innate gifting of nature, and to some extent it is…but it’s also a skillset you can consciously develop by exposing yourself to situations where you have to think your way through a problem under some pressure. One of the great benefits of competing is exposure to the requirement to think with a gun in your hand. Sure, in some competitions you can airgun the stage before actually shooting it but you’re still going to be forced to react quickly to what’s happening in front of you. The swinger might not activate the way you want it to. The door you have to open for the stage might get opened a little too hard under the adrenaline of the moment and bounce closed on you. Your weapon might malfunction. Etc.

Quality training also puts students in situations where they have to think their way through problems. Students will have to run, work around barricades, do some math, and make quick judgments if the instructor is doing his job properly. During a class with Ken Hackathorn some years ago students were told to clear a structure laced with IDPA silhouette targets. Red bandanas on the targets were threats, blue were innocents. Being the wily sort, Ken threw in a number of white bandanas too without any instructions on how to handle those…just to make people react on their feet. Some people went into momentary vapor lock when they encountered the white bandanas. Some people gunned them down. Some people treated the white bandanas as non-threats and continued clearing the structure. The correct response, of course, was to reason in the moment that reds were threats and to leave the whites alone since we only put bullets into a known threat. Force on force training is the king in this arena because nothing beats having to deal with a real human being who reacts in ways you don’t expect.

I’ve participated in a number of training exercises as the trainee and in the “bad guy” role. On one occasion I was the “bad guy” for a class on computer forensics. As the “bad guy” I was supposed to be planning an assault against a local school, and the trainees were supposed to first secure me, then the scene, and then recover digital evidence of my dastardly plan on the scene. I didn’t know which trainees I’d be dealing with or how they were going to approach the scene…I’d have to improvise. When the “lead investigator” approached me and started working through the initial contact I wanted to derail his attention so I could get to a “weapon” I had stashed just outside of arm’s reach. When he asked me what I had been doing that evening, I responded with “Why? Do you want to date me? Is that what this is? Trying to pick me up?”

“No, sir, that’s not what I…”

“Because I wouldn’t mind, honestly. You’re kind of cute. Normally I’m not into pretty boys but the uniform is really working for me and I could definitely get into this.”

I followed that up with some other comments that were not G rated which I won’t repeat…but it had the intended effect. While the trainee was trying to figure out how to respond to me, I worked my way toward the stashed weapon without he or his partner noticing. Not being able to roll with the punches in a live interaction created a gap in their situational awareness that I as the “bad guy” was able to exploit. They had worked out a plan prior to making contact with me, but their plan went down the tubes at first contact and they weren’t able to come up with another strategy fast enough to stop the “bad guy” from getting access to a weapon.

Such is the problem with “plans”…as the old saying goes, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. This is not to say you should just make up your self defense plan as you go along with no forethought. That would be stupid. You need to train important skills and consider possible problems, solutions, and outcomes ahead of time to have any hope of being able to meet the expectations in the moment. In fact that kind of work done ahead of time gives you a better menu of possible options to pull from in the moment if you’ve prepared sanely. Still, there’s a certain percentage of the problem that you will have to solve as it’s happening.

A guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughan may learn a song like “Little Wing”, but people paid to go watch him play the song because he never performed the song the same way twice. You knew he was playing “Little Wing”, but it was always filled with improvisation, modification, and even the occasional subtle mistake which made each performance distinct.

Just as musicians can improve their ability to improvise on stage with practice, you can improve your ability to improvise social interaction or problem solving by putting yourself in unfamiliar situations and working your way through them. Chat up a stranger at the coffee shop, expending effort in reading their body language, facial expressions, and posture for signs of what they’re thinking. Maybe take an improv class at the local college or theater group. Train on something unfamiliar like trauma response or driving. Take ECQC. (Always unique due to the mix of students) Get together with some competent buddies and work through some scenarios using airsoft guns. Something…anything…that makes you read situations and solve problems at speed is going to help you pick up more information from the environment and make better decisions under pressure. Seek to develop your ability to improvise in the moment as consciously as you try to develop harder skills like draw speed, marksmanship, or clearing a malfunction. It will pay dividends on the chunks of self defense that don’t involve pulling the trigger.



  1. Even in SRV’s guitar improv, most everything he does is not truly made up on the spot. Rather, he (and every other musician) is drawing upon an inventory of rehearsed licks, riffs, and ideas and putting them together in a unique and meaningful way…much like what you should do to prepare for an armed encounter.

  2. I never leave the house without my “WITS”.–Both forwards and backwords. Wits is as wits does. If someone offered you a Penny for whats on your mind; would they get change back?. NO!.

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