Breakaway Skills Training

All kinds of “practical skills” training in how to release / extricate from common types of grips, grabs and strangle holds along with techniques for use in the event of an attack have come to be known generally as “Breakaway”. This is a problem – because it gives the impression that all Breakaway Training is the same – when it isn’t by a long shot!


Training requirers (and trainees) should be aware that Breakaway Training content varies (considerably) and the “differences” merit careful examination.

Take care!

Breakaway techniques are essentially for Self Defence – so the nature of the training may not provide for a sympathetic, considerate (i.e. client centered) response. This may make a vital difference if the “attackers” are going to be elderly, confused, mentally ill people – not violent robbers!

Many “Breakaway” Programmes:

  • Require “defenders” to attack (strike) their “assailant” (to distract or disable them)
  • Encourage the raising of aggression against an attacker
  • Are incompatible with the moral and ethical values held by employees working in “caring” professions (Hence, the lack of ‘take-up’ of training offered in many NHS Trusts!)

Most “Breakaway” techniques can be used (deliberately or accidentally) in a hurtful way against an attacker.

Techniques that seem identical can have dramatically different effects!

Most if not all Breakaway techniques are derived from Martial Art. This means they’ve been based on extremely powerful (destructive) movements that have, over centuries, repeatedly proved successful in mortal combat.

The danger of causing serious injury may not be self evident during classroom training practice. This may be because the danger lies outside the scope of the Instructor’s knowledge and not apparent if applied in the way instructed.

Applying a technique in a way that differs even very slightly from the way taught on the course may have consequences that are very different to expectations! (Of course, employees could be being taught the “deadly” way in the first place!)

What realistically can you learn in one day … and expect to remember in a crisis!

Breakaway Programmes usually aim to “increase the capability of trainees” or “provide a suitable introduction to the skills that can be used” in Self Defence situations. This is because they are just simply too short to have any chance of achieving the real objective – i.e. proficiency in Self Defence against common types of attack!

It takes the most dedicated martial artist a minimum of three years hard training to reach a standard that others would recognise as proficiency, yet the duration of many Breakaway courses is only half a day.

Compounding the problem, most trainees never bother to rehearse or practice the techniques they’ve been taught on the course and the complexity of a lot of the “moves” means they are easily and quickly forgotten. On top of that, many ‘Breakaway’ courses don’t actually teach how to protect and defend against the types of workplace assaults that are most likely to occur and instead tend to focus on what the trainer wants to teach.

Breakaway Training – Risk Control Measure or Risk itself?

The National Federation of Personal Safety (NFPS) have conducted their own research and reported:

“….. what we (and indeed other organisations) have also found is that the type of defensive skills being generically taught have no bearing on the actual type of physical assault risk posed to staff and as such have never been fully risk assessed as a control option. In short the delivery of this training is potentially dangerous and as opposed to reducing risk may actually be increasing risk and it’s associated liability for the organisation.”

No evidence basis exists for the skills taught on Breakaway courses

On 28th April 2009, Professor Paul Rogers of Glamorgan University presented the case for investigating the ‘validity’ of Breakaway Training at an IOSH ‘Violence in healthcare’ networking event .

To view Professor Paul Rogers’ presentation (.pdf) Click Here

Subsequently, a video appeared on You Tube web site featuring, Bill Fox, the Chairman of Conflict Management specialists, MAYBO, being interviewed at the IOSH event.

During the piece, Bill says:

“There’s a question as to the validity of some of the training of breakaway skills, for example, which is a very old-fashioned term that explains training to get away from harm. The research is saying, and it’s my view as well, a lot of time and money is wasted because we’re teaching skills to do with situations that rarely or never occur, we’re not addressing the real risks very often. We’re teaching what we think people need; and staff forget those skills.”

To view the video: Click Here

So, what’s the value of “Breakaway” training?

Despite widespread implementation, exactly how useful Breakaway skills training is (in itself) has not been proved and perhaps never will be. This is simply because of the wide range of ‘uncontrollable’ factors that are involved. For example, in many cases, staff training in Breakaway Skills follows on from earlier training in the early recognition of warning signs of violence, managing conflict, violence and aggression, relevant aspects of the law (in particular the right to use reasonable force); and, of course each trainee’s abilities, experience, maturity, physical fitness, attitudes and values will affect the outcomes of post training events.

However, some research that has been done shows that when Breakaway skills training is intergrated with training in verbal de-escalation skills (as is usual), the risk of violent incidents is reduced – and so is the severity of assaults that aren’t prevented.

Breakaway Training does seem to work to reduce the risks!

Following an intergrated breakaway and de-escalation skills training programme which took place at St Thomas’ Psychiatric Hospital in Ontario, Canada in 1976, the number of violent incidents and of patient and staff injuries in the year fell by 9%, 12%, and 10% respectively compared to the previous year. The number of staff man-hours lost due to assault-related injuries also dropped by 31%. (N.B. How much other changes made to the hospital’s admission practices and other procedures in the same period might have affected these figures isn’t clear.)

A similar training programme in Denver, Colorado in 1980 (Gertz) contributed to a 32% decrease in violent incidents in the following year (although the possible effect of other factors is not discussed).

Infantino & Musingo (1985) also reported dramatic results in their comparison of assault and injury rates in staff who had and who had not received training in aggression control techniques. Out of 31 staff who received training in verbal interventions, ‘self-defence’ and ‘takedowns’, only one was assaulted in the 9-24 month follow-up period, compared to 24 staff assaulted among the 65 who had not received training. Of these assaulted staff, 19 received injuries (the severity of which is unspecified). These results cannot be explained by differences in locations where trained and non-trained staff worked, because trainees and non-trainees worked together on the same shifts in the same units. (Although however, the reduction in assault frequency in the trainees may in part be attributed to increased confidence following the training.)

More about research into the effectiveness of physical skills is contained in the “The Recognition, Prevention and Therapeutic Management of Violence In Acute In-Patient Psychiatry” a literature review and evidence-based recommendations for good practice prepared (2002) for the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting.

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Many organisations now provide Breakaway skills training to employees

The fact that so many organisations are now providing Breakaway Skills training to employees (plus the research that backs it) makes it difficult for other employers to justify not providing the same to their staff – especially if they are facing the same kinds / level of risk.