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KMI Talks to Dana Kaplan

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Dana Ben Kaplan has dedicated a significant portion of his life to making the world a safer place. While he is perhaps best known for his exceptional leadership at Krav Maga San Diego and working with KMI, Dana has also been helping to keep his community safe as a Firefighter, and the country secure as a U.S. Department of Defense Certified Contractor. He is also an active Official with USA Boxing. Just typing that sentence made me exhausted. It’s really astounding how much protection one man can provide the world.

But Dana has been practicing and teaching Krav Maga for more than 23 years. As the lead instructor of KMSD, Dana teaches civilians, law enforcement officers, and military personnel Krav Maga techniques which not only could save their lives, but boost their confidence in all areas of life. He’s also served as a Volunteer, Wildland, and municipal Professional Firefighter for his entire career, a role that he says is wholly complementary with his Krav Maga instruction. And then there’s his experience training military units to use effective techniques which will help save soldiers’ lives on the battlefield. It would already be an honor to have just one of those three positions under your belt, but Dana has the trifecta of defense expertise.

KMI spoke with Dana about his lifelong mission of protecting others. From his own words, it’s clear that, for him, serving the public is not only his duty, but also a passion.

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Share a personal story where Krav really proved life-changing.

Teaching Krav Maga is life-changing for me every time a student relates a success story, whether it be military, law enforcement, or civilian, and no matter how small or how potentially life-threatening a situation it was. Recently in SpecOpsDiv training, an LE student related that he was struggling with a suspect who was in the prone position (face down, hands under his body) and the Officer used a technique we’d taught him to get the suspect to present his hands.

We asked our students to name their number-one main benefit of taking Krav Maga and expected them to say self-defense or weight loss, but the majority of them said self-confidence. Have you experienced this also? And how else does Krav Maga better prepare students for life in general?

Yes, “self-confidence” has been the most indicative response, which I’ve commonly heard from all types of students (military, law enforcement, or civilian). However, I’ve noticed that this is in contrast to what many students from other Krav Maga locations report: they usually remark primarily on the fitness aspect, or how fun the classes are, and then, only lastly, on “learning self-defense.”

KMSD is focused on integrating techniques with stress training and environmental / situational drills, and generally our students don’t come to us for fitness or fun. If they do, they quickly realize they’re in the wrong place and that maybe they need to try any of the other local schools. The self-confidence in being able to walk around with more awareness and less fear carries over in to all aspects of life.

What do you think are the three most important principles of Krav Maga?

  • Don’t get hurt. This works for training, fighting, combat, law enforcement, firefighting, etc., and even in business.
  • Be aware of your environment. Remember: the goal is to never actually have to use any hands-on Krav Maga self-defense or fighting techniques. If the potential attackers see you looking at them, they’re less likely to try to attack you. For law enforcement, the same rule applies, but for them, and many military units, going hands-on is unavoidable.
  • The better you are, the less damage you have to do. My Instructors have always made it look easy, and could defend my attacks and overcome my defenses with seemingly little effort. It’s an important principle, which I remember Imi speaking to me about. When I spent time with him he impressed me as a truly kind person, with a big heart, and I couldn’t imagine him hurting anyone. He said that in his fights, he would only cause as much damage to his opponents as necessary. This is one of the principles which we emphasize to our students.

How has Krav Maga changed your overall lifestyle?

I’ve been involved in Krav Maga for over 23 years, so see #2 and #3 above for how it’s changed my overall lifestyle as a student (which of course I still am). But as an Instructor, since the mid-1990s, teaching Krav Maga has become an occupation, so I feel responsible to continuously look for different things which I can drop into our training pipeline. We teach eight-week sessions, which ramp up in intensity, with three levels of training. I’m always aware of where the current class is in terms of that eight-week progression, and that awareness affects my life outside of class.

What are some obstacles you’ve come across that Krav Maga has helped you overcome?

I continue to learn from my students. Before Krav Maga San Diego became what it is today, I’d had students tell me that when they were in negotiations in a meeting, they kept in mind “don’t get hurt.” And “neutralize the leader of the opposition, and the others will fall back.” I later ended up using these principles when teaching to defend against multiple attackers, as well as when dealing with some of the shady antics of the feebler Krav Maga groups in our area.

As a Firefighter, the basic safety principles of Krav Maga have helped me in the field: the two jobs entail helping the public while on duty, and helping students become safer, which have always seemed to fit together well.

Describe in your words true, authentic Krav Maga.

Training for real-life situations and scenarios. In a true violent encounter, you’re not going to be in a boxing ring, with a referee, facing just one opponent, who has no weapons, and is following a set of rules (although this type of training is good, periodically).

Recently in our Level 3 class (highest-level students) we practiced slapping each other in the face — hard — and then following up with an attack. It’s not in any curriculum. Overall, primary training must include surprise attacks, distraction training, weapons defenses, multiple attackers, groundwork, and training to transition between all of the aforementioned, ending with a quick escape (or for military / law enforcement, another appropriate end-game scenario). That’s real Krav Maga.

Once during a stress training multiple attacker full contact exercise, I heard someone say, “This is real Krav Maga!” I turned around and there were some older Israeli men whom I knew observing our training at the JCC, who had themselves fought in some of Israel’s early wars and trained in Krav Maga in Israel back then. Sadly, most of what you see today, at least in the U.S., which is called “Krav Maga,” is far from what you’d call authentic Krav Maga.

How has Krav Maga helped and influenced your work as a Firefighter?

It has worked in both directions. When I train military units, it’s easy to integrate the command system of the Fire Service with the command and control system of the military, because the Fire Service’s Incident Command System (ICS) originated from the military. And in the Fire Service we train for Joint Command with law enforcement agencies. We recently used ICS to set up our KMSD Safety Team for the in-water segment of our Beach Training, while training in the surf at night.

While working as a Firefighter, Krav Maga training has elevated my awareness of dangerous situations and potentially combative patients, and how to safely control someone who may be fighting with us, whether it’s due to drugs, a medical problem, emotional issues, a head injury, etc. And the Environmental / Scenario Training taught me to step back on an emergency call and widen my peripheral awareness to get the big picture for Scene Safety; notice potential hazards to the firefighting crew; and be able to alert law enforcement to potential dangers (nearby weapons that they hadn’t seen, which has happened). The 3rd Party Protection training helped me stage for a scenario where I might have to protect fellow Firefighters (thankfully, I never had to go hand-on to use that one). The Fire Service training has helped me more in developing Krav Maga San Diego’s teaching structure, as opposed to Krav Maga helping me as a Firefighter.

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What is your training philosophy? I heard that you trained Navy SEALs in San Diego — what was that like?

Train hard but safely. Be a good role player (including be a good “bad guy”). Everyone is an instructor, so communicate with your training partner during each evolution. Training military units, whether here in San Diego or elsewhere around the country, has been very rewarding, often intense, and physically demanding. KMSD is routinely contacted by warfighters from top units for training probably because the Special Warfare community is small. Everyone knows almost everyone else (or someone who does), or has heard of their reputation, and KMSD has earned a good rep in that community over the past 23 years, even though we keep a low profile and we don’t advertise who we train. So, you shouldn’t have heard that we “trained Navy SEALs in San Diego.”

But of course we typically have Naval Special Warfare members in class (SEALs and SWCCs), along with other Sailors, and Marines, because San Diego is a military town, and those fighters do spread the word of what it’s like training with us (and where NOT to go, including some disreputable local Krav Maga instructors and locations). Either the service members themselves want to seek out the best training, beyond what they learned in their pipeline, or forward-thinking COs bring us in because they want their personnel to get the best training possible to meet the needs of their Mission. Sometimes we also get Army Soldiers and Air Force Airmen who are on TAD at a Southern California  or Arizona base, or are on travel, who take the initiative to train with KMSD, often driving long distance. We appreciate their support and always make it worth their while. Recently we had an Air Force officer from a western European country come train with us for a full eight-week session, and that’s not the first time that’s happened.

How has Krav Maga changed, culturally and technique-wise, over the course of your career?

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best Krav Maga innovators here in the U.S. and overseas (especially in Israel) since the early 1990s.

Culturally, the Krav Maga family started to change and break apart even before Imi died. Those based in Israel seem to work well in Europe but don’t understand the culture of American business, and apparently never will. It used to be Krav Maga was very well respected overall when we effectively had one high-quality U.S. central organization, and the few other Instructors in the U.S. were also very good. As soon as it became a “business” where they had to cover large expenses and “certify” instructors across the country who then operated without supervision, the quality started to go downhill, for both instructor training and for the students seeking knowledge from the system.

Now, most of the alphabet Krav Maga organizations copy each other’s contracts, worried that they’re not making as much money as the next guy. I see what I call a “Race to the Bottom,” where these business leaders (who are usually great at doing Krav Maga) are chiefly focused on “certifying” more “instructors” and setting up more “locations” to milk those instructors and their affiliated students for money with perpetual expensive monthly dues. They get money from a portion of each testing fee, low-level “guest appearance” seminars (taking 85% of the net), and weak “instructor training” social events, with an “everyone-who-pays-passes” policy. They’re not idiots and they don’t want to kill the golden goose, so the organizational leaders offer simple tests to their customers (instructors) to keep them happy and pump up their “image”. For example, “S/he is one of the highest-ranked Krav Maga instructors in the world”… after three years of Krav Maga training. Or, “You haven’t been training with an instructor, and yet you want to test, now? No problem — pay for a several-day ‘workshop’ and you’re ‘promoted’ every six months.” Then they push them to “test” their students as frequently as possible, so the casual observer sees lots of “highly ranked students” in their classes. That doesn’t work for them here in the U.S. because American consumers will investigate their options and judge a training facility on the observed quality of the Instructional staff / class, not belt (patch) colors, or which headquarters organization guru they’re paying their monthly dues to. At KMSD and KMI we prefer to hold on to our original values.

Technique-wise, some of the changes the Israelis made to the American style which I was doing in the early ‘90s, have definitely improved the Krav Maga which we now teach at KMSD. Today, I see organizational splits where the new leader changes techniques simply for the sake of being different than a predecessor, but not to improve the system, sometimes even going against the basic principles of Krav Maga. I witness the independent schools (like KMSD and KMI) quickly becoming the places in the U.S. where you’ll find the top Krav Maga Instructors, and of course, the best Krav Maga students. We are in touch with many schools and routinely host visitors from all organizations. Smaller = more nimble and able to move quickly to innovate, upgrade technical standards (where needed), control Instructor quality, while maintaining Krav Maga principles.

If you could share just one standout story about Imi, what would it be?

Many of the legends of Imi’s life are in the book Odyssey by John Bierman. My stories are mostly just funny. He had a great sense of humor. But all the physical training we did was while sitting down, such as defending against off angle punches. He was in his early-through-late-80s when I knew him. I was with him while visiting Israel shortly before he died and I can say he that even then he was in good physical shape, had quick reflexes and great peripheral vision and awareness, and was still pretty sharp.

One night in ’96, he and I were at a pub and I tried to pay the bill — I got up to go to the bathroom, but then I called the waiter over to the far side of the bar to pay the bill. When I came out, I saw Imi’s eyes through the smoke. He was standing next to the waiter at the cash register at the other end of the bar glaring at me in a way I never want to see anyone do again. I walked over kind of slow, and he put his finger into my chest with every word: “You … did … a … very … bad … thing.” He bruised my sternum, I’m not kidding. That’s not much of a standout story, which is what you asked for, but it was funny at the time. I share some of the other Imi stories with my students in class. I was lucky to have been able to spend quality time with him over those years on a number of training trips to Israel.

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