AAR: AMOK! Combatives (Tom Sotis) “Core Skills Seminar,” Chantilly, VA, 01/17/16

Readers of the blog may recall from my article here that increasing the amount of training I do in knife skills was one of my goals for the new year.  My main rationale for wanting to improve in knife skills is that I am often in places where I cannot legally carry a concealed handgun.  Some of those places where I cannot legally carry a pistol ARE places where I can legally carry a knife, and for those places where I cannot legally carry a knife or a pistol, I am confident that I could find some object that could be pressed into service as a defensive tool (using many of the skills from knife classes).

Readers of the blog may also recall that I took a baby step down this path about 9 months ago when I took a two-day defensive knife class with Tom Sotis, founder of AMOK! Combatives (AAR here).  That particular seminar was listed as “Functional Disarming,” and had at its focus how to disarm someone who is armed with a knife when you either have your own knife, some other object, or empty hands.  I had been planning to train with Tom again this spring when I saw something on my Facebook feed.  Tom would be at the same venue where I had trained last year for a special one-day seminar covering some of the AMOK! Core Skills.  Due to the fact that there was very little time between the announcement of the course and the event itself, the cost of the course was only $50.  This opportunity was just too good to pass up!

Here is a description of the seminar:

Tom Sotis presents the latest developments in the forward evolution of AMOK!

This seminar will cover Attacking Tactics, Countering Tactics, and Footwork AND those tactics will be explored with Dueling, Sparring, Isolations, Development, and Adaptation drills supplemented with Training drills, too.  You won’t find a more complete framework of fighting in 4 hours anywhere else on the planet. Even if you’ve trained in AMOK! before, this seminar will be different.

Though I would take pretty much any course content with Tom, I felt like I really needed a “basic” type class.  This seemed like just the ticket.  I should note that my only affiliation with Tom Sotis or any of the other people/organizations mentioned in this AAR is as a full-price-paying customer.

I’ve generally enjoyed the classes I’ve taken with people I know vis a vis those I’ve attended solo, so I invited an acquaintance of mine (and my first firearms instructor), Dan, to attend with me.  I had not seen him in a while and thought he would make a good training partner, and the ride to and from would provide a good opportunity to catch up.  While the ride provided the chance to catch up a bit, we did not train together very much, as Tom directed everyone to switch partners constantly throughout the class (this was a change from the class I took the year before).  As it happened, the constant switching of partners was a major positive, as it gave me the chance to go against people who varied in size, speed, level of skill, age, sex, favored hand, etc.

The class was held at the Silverback Academy in Chantilly, Virginia.  In the 9 months since I had last visited, the facilities had been improved upon and things now looked more “finished,” for lack of a better word.  Sean Stoopman, who runs the academy, would again serve as Tom’s assistant, and he proved a major help to me on a number of occasions when I and/or my partner got a little crossed up.  Sean comes to class with a great attitude and meets everyone at their level.


Compared with firearms classes, the gear necessary for a class like this is pretty limited.  I brought along all of my training knives, but ended up using one of the ones provided by Sean.  I wore ASICS wrestling shoes, and just wore cargo pants and a long-sleeve T-shirt from Target.  Although I brought a mouthguard, I did not use it.  The only personal protective equipment I brought and used was a pair of neoprene elbow wraps/sleeves that I wore around my forearms, under my shirt.  These were of immeasurable value in giving me just a bare minimum of protection my arms would need over the course of the training day.  Tom mentioned more than once that if there was anything demonstrated that we did not feel comfortable trying due to prior injuries, issues with flexibility, etc., to step out for that drill.  Although not a direct quote, he said that pain teaches us lessons, but injury only weakens us.  It does us no good to learn all kinds of “cool things” but leave class in a cast, which then, of course, limits our ability to defend ourselves outside of class.

The Class

The class had about 25 students, and during introductions it was obvious that we came from a wide mix of backgrounds.  There were at least 6 students for whom this was their first knife class.  At the other end of the spectrum were several people who had been training with Sean for several years.  Most of the students were men, but there were at least three women in the class as well, none of whom was a novice.

Unlike last year, I remembered my notebook, but the pace of the class was pretty quick, so the notes I took were limited at best.  Some of what follows may be slightly out of order.

After introductions, Tom started us at the white board, outlining what AMOK! is all about and what we would be doing.  He drew concentric circles on the board with “Core Values” at the center, discussing how our own core values must influence everything we do.  Outside the core value ring was the “Strategy/Objective” circle, for it is only in knowing what our objective is that a strategy can be built.  Naturally, the next ring was “Tactics/Next Immediate Intention,” as our strategy must dictate, to a large degree, the tactics that we will use to meet that objective.  The final ring was “Techniques/Action(s),” as the tactics that we choose to employ can only be utilized if we select the appropriate technique/action.  One of the goals of AMOK! is to merge tactics with techniques, something with which many systems struggle.  Finally, Tom asked us if a person can be invincible.  I found myself shaking my head, and on looking around most seemed in agreement.  But then Tom said, “Invincibility IS possible if we put a time constraint on it.”  Our general goal should be to make us invincible in whatever “do or die” moment we find ourselves in.

Tom then told us to grab a training knife and pair up with someone.  Because we would be going harder at each other in this class than we did in the disarming class, we used NOK training knives instead of the metal trainers.  I selected a knife and paired up with a young lady.  Tom said his usual, “Have at it,” and we got to work sparring.  Note that there had been no instruction to this point on anything related to tactics or techniques.  Instead, it was just go out there and try to get hits on your opponent while keeping your opponent from hitting you.

We sparred for a few minutes and then switched partners and sparred some more.  What amazed me from the get-go was my conditioning.  Thankfully, the breaks for some instruction and/or hydration were frequent.  Despite my maintaining a decent running schedule (I’d run 3.5 miles the afternoon before) and doing strength training several times per week, I got winded fairly quickly.  Several of my acquaintances who are of the “been there, done that” type have told me that crossfit is probably the best way to condition yourself for a “fight.”  I might have to look into it, or at least do more burpees and wind sprints!  While I wasn’t really hindered, my stamina was definitely not where I wanted it. The thought occurred to me that if I was in a fight for my life, better “fighting” stamina would definitely be a good thing.  More work to do!

At one point, Tom had us stop and had half of the class spar while the other half of the room watched the feet of the those sparring.  Then, the roles were reversed, and the other half of the class sparred while the others watched.

We then took a break and Tom went to the white board so we could go over what we had already learned.  For one thing, we learned the importance of deception in our attacks and the different methods of deception that we could utilize: looks, false reads, and verbalizations.  We also talked about movement and the various options open to us: linear, lateral, diagonal, circular, angular, and vertical.

I’m not going to do an entire play-by-play of the rest of the class, but it generally followed this format.  Some sparring, some instruction, then go back to pairs to practice instruction.  For example, we learned the different types of strikes: jabs, singles, combinations, traps, grabs, fakes, and empty hand strikes.  We would then practice some of these moves and then, once instructed, some of their counters.

Probably an hour or so into class we got to duel!  In this case, everyone was put into a line along a wall, and two people would just walk out on the mat and engage in a duel.  The rules/format were simple:  if you get hit with your opponent’s blade anywhere (finger, big toe, whatever), you’re out.  When it was my turn, I actually ended up against Dan, and we tagged each other virtually simultaneously.  The second time around, I went against a more experienced student.  I lasted a few seconds longer, but once he realized I had barely a clue, he came right down “main street” and scored on my chest.  Sooner or later, everyone in these duels “dies.”

Tom took the time to do a few question and answer sessions during the seminar, and I found these of immeasurable value.  During one of these, a student asked what knife grip he favors and if he prefers a standard or reverse grip.  Obviously, some of this would depend on the situation, but Tom had us all perform a drill where we partnered up and each “attacked” the other without trying to stop our partner’s attack, with the knife in our right hand, blade up, and our right foot forward.  Then one of us would switch to a reverse grip to see how that affected how many/which areas we could target on our partner.  We then switched back to a standard grip but put the left foot forward, and saw the result of that change.  Finally, we did it with our left foot forward and a reverse grip in our right hand.  What we saw, of course, was that we have maximum reach with the knife in a standard grip (blade up) and that same side foot forward.

Another fun moment came when we did an exercise to see how changing our vertical orientation could change things in the fight.  So, we partnered up, and we did some light sparring.  On command from Tom, one of us would drop to a squat and have to fight our standing partner.  Then, on the next command, we would drop to one knee and fight from that position.  Then we would fight from the other knee, then both knees, then from flat on our backs, and then from our bellies!  If that wasn’t hard enough, we then had to fight our way back to our feet!  This was one of the more challenging but also enlightening exercises we did.  Most of us found that fighting from a knee or both knees, while limiting some mobility, also gave us some advantages over our standing attacker.  For example, when positioned low, the areas we get to target are “soft” targets (i.e., not well-protected by large bones).  Also, when one person is standing and the other is on his or her back, it’s very difficult to target any vital zones, as they can be a flurry of legs and feet lashing out.  A very interesting exercise.

The last highlight I’ll mention here also came out of one of the Q & A sessions.  A student asked Tom what we can be doing at home without a partner to practice.  Tom’s answer would be particularly important to me since, as I have noted before, I’m lacking for training partners.  Tom took the time to show us the 7 basic strikes that we can use, which are based on the way in which our arms move physiologically.  In essence, the paths of these strikes resemble an asterisk in their pattern (1 is straight ahead, 2 is from down right to the upper left, etc.).  So we can practice the strikes at home, but then add in things.  So you can do 1 and then 2, or 1 take a step then 2, or 1 take a step 2 check and then 3.  So, by adding in steps or checks (blocks), you can pretty much do an endless assortment of combinations and permutations of moves.

The class was scheduled to run from 1000-1400.  However, at 1400 Tom told us that if any of us had to leave, that was fine, but there was still more he wanted to cover!  So the class continued until about 1430, when we received our certificates and took a class photo which is currently on the AMOK! Facebook page.

Random Thoughts

Some might say that 4 hours is a short class (especially compared with a firearms class that might run 8 or more hours), but let me assure the readers that I was DONE at the end of the 4+ hours!  Physically, I was pretty well whipped, and Tom covered a lot of material that sapped my brain power.  Just like the 2 day class last year, these classes are the only ones where I really feel like I am “drinking from a fire hose.”  Sorry, firearms instructors, but you’ve got nothing on Tom.

As a teacher by trade, I can say with firm conviction that it is obvious, from everything Tom does, that he cares about his students.  From the content of his lessons, his attitude, and the things he says, he really is a genuine guy.  He incorporates plenty of humor in class in order to keep things light, but is also dead serious in the content that is presented.  Just to illustrate the point, I have emailed Tom on a number of occasions about different things related to class, and I have always received a prompt, informative reply and well-wishes.  Every student, no matter his or her skill level, is important to Tom.

Sean Stoopman, the host of the class and an AMOK!-certified instructor in his own right, emulates these same values.  He stepped right in to correct errors in technique for me and the other students, called me by name each time we interacted (even though this was only my second class there….yes, such things are important), and partnered up with me a few times when we would swap partners and I ended up odd man out.  Those who live close enough to Silverback Academy to train there regularly don’t know how good they have it.

Also, a shout-out to my classmates.  Being a novice—at best—at this, I appreciated the informal tutoring I received from my more experienced training partners.  Their value to me was beyond measure.

Finally, John posed an interesting question to me.  He asked me the other day if what I said in my first AAR about “use it or lose it” in regard to hand-to-hand and knife skills held true.  In other words, did my 2 day class from nearly a year before help me at all with this class.  The answer is that I did indeed remember some of the blocking and disarming techniques that we learned in that class, and once I got “warmed up,” I was able to incorporate some of those techniques in what I did in this class.  My belief is that I would have been able to utilize those skills even more had I been practicing all this time.  So, while I was able to recall those skills and use them with varying degrees of success, I would still say that these type of skills work best when you use and practice them often.

I should also mention here that Tom told us that the AMOK! website is currently getting reworked.  Besides having information about classes, there will also be an option to “join,” for I believe $20 per year, giving the member full access to all of Tom’s videos.  This will be a crazy bargain and I will join once it is active, as I anticipate it being of great assistance to a beginner like me.  I will update this blog article with any new information about the AMOK! website update(s).

Final Words

I am so happy that I spotted the announcement of this class on Facebook.  Fifty dollars was an absolute bargain for 4.5 hours of instruction with Tom and Sean.  Currently, I am considering a return to Silverback Academy in April and possibly again in October, when Tom returns for a pair of two-day seminars.  Hopefully, I can continue to build on what I have already learned.

03/02/16 UPDATE:

The new AMOK! website is up and running (I changed the hotlink in the second paragraph above to take you directly to the new site, though the old web address has a link to the new site anyway), and I have begun viewing the new Core Skills videos.  These are excellent!  I am not going to say that they have excellent production values, but you can definitely see and hear everything clearly, and Tom is careful to show everything needed from multiple angles.  The subjects of the videos are exactly the things we practiced in class, and so this is an invaluable tool for an incredibly reasonable cost to either train on your own, train before an AMOK! class, or practice what has been taught in an AMOK! class you might have already attended.  I feel this is a very handy resource that Tom Sotis has put out there.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must include that I have not paid for this access because I still had an active account, created free by Tom Sotis over a year ago.  He had set me up with access to his disarming videos on the old website in order to give me an idea of what to expect in my first class, one that I had approached with much trepidation!  I think Tom just wanted to reduce my anxiety.  I offered just a few days ago to pay for a new membership, but Tom told me not to worry about it, as he just moved all the active accounts over to the new site.  For $20, however, I really believe that the access that one can get to these new core skills videos is fantastic.

5 thoughts on “AAR: AMOK! Combatives (Tom Sotis) “Core Skills Seminar,” Chantilly, VA, 01/17/16

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