Virtuosity on Patrol

Mastery of skills leads to confidence, & competence, on the street

By Greg Amundson  |   Nov 15, 2016
The author on the firing line.

When it comes to the long-range and complete integration of an officer’s mind, body, and spirit, it isn’t just about repetition. It’s about mastery. When I was a Special Agent trainee at the Drug Enforcement Administration Academy in Quantico, Va., this principle was drilled into me by the lead DEA firearms instructor. We performed thousands of draws from concealment, thousands of dry fire trigger presses, and thousands of weapon manipulation drills, all under his drill-sergeant-like demand for mastery.

Basics, Mastered

If there’s a secret to realizing your greatness as a warrior-athlete in the profession of protection and service, it’s investing in a long-term, deep practice of the basic skills your life depends upon. Become obsessed with perfecting how you do a squat, a push-up, or a toes-to-bar movement. Become equally obsessed with perfecting your draw stroke, both from concealment and duty-belt. Become an expert in all aspects of gun-fighting: reloading, malfunction clearing, and close- and long-range combat accuracy. Become equally adept in defensive tactics, both standing, in a clinch, and on the ground. Develop the character traits of compassion, patience, and willingness to practice tough-love.

Imagine a great violinist who spends time each day practicing the fundamentals of playing her instrument. When she first learns the bow strokes, she doesn’t check it off the list and move on to other things. She continues her practice. Golf is another solid example. Great golfers don’t let a day go by without practicing their fundamental swings. When a top player’s game begins to slide off the rails, he may start over at the very beginning, rebuilding his swing from the ground up.

The late Shotokan karate master Gichin Funakoshi was a great teacher of this lesson. Once he brought together 100 of his finest students, black belts all, for a special training session. The martial artists crowded around, waiting to hear the secret insight they were expecting from Funakoshi.

There was some confusion while they waited, because Master Funakoshi had dropped into what’s called the horse stance, and with his right hand began silently executing an outward forearm block with his eyes looking straight ahead. Over and over—20 repetitions—the karate master continued performing the movement. Then his eyes moved and, as he continued performing outward forearm blocks, his eyes watched the workings of his arm, the rotation and the angles, transfixed.

He continued in this manner for another 20 repetitions or more. Meanwhile, his students—all hoping for advanced instruction in karate—awaited the secret techniques that he would soon impart. They were shocked when at last he spoke, saying: “I think I’m finally just starting to understand this technique.”

In this short, cogent presentation, Funakoshi had delivered a remarkable lesson about what mastery truly is: a state of mind, riveted to a profound purpose, with an obsession to learn and free of the pull of ego.

My understanding of the path to mastery is grounded both in my martial arts training and in being coached by Coach Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit. Coach frequently emphasized the concept of “virtuosity” in our approach to workouts. He used the word often, pressing us to execute movements with virtuosity.

I knew this had something to do with performing the movements skillfully, but one day after a workout I asked Glassman why this word had so much importance for him. He related a story of a day years earlier when he had gone to watch a high school gymnastics competition in Los Angeles, in a large, packed gym. A number of gymnasts were performing routines throughout the competition venue, on parallel bars, a horse, on the rings, the balance beam, and the floor. It was noisy, but at one point a hush fell over the gym. He said it took him a moment to figure out what had caused the deep silence, and that he was expecting something incredible.

The crowd had become mesmerized by a gymnast who was on the rings and holding a simple L-sit. He was gripping both rings with his hands, and holding himself up with his legs extended horizontally. This fixation struck Coach as odd. After all, the L-sit is such a basic movement in gymnastics that you don’t even get any points for doing it. The points come from executing more complicated movements. But Glassman figured out what the drama was all about: This gymnast was performing the L-sit incredibly well. The definition that Coach had for virtuosity was related to this experience in his life.

It was a simple position, one that gymnasts are introduced to on their first day of practice, but this athlete had an entire audience spellbound for reasons they may have had a hard time articulating.

When a master performs a common act with uncommon skill, we seem to perceive it almost on a subconscious level. I recently attended the world renowned and prestigious Los Angeles Police Department Handgun Instructor Training School (HITS). My primary instructor, Jeremy, exemplified this essence of mastery described above, and demanded the same skill of my HITS class.


This commitment to mastery of the basics and pursuit of virtuosity is what separates a good cop from a great cop. Mastery and virtuosity are qualities of the modern day warrior. As we move into the New Year, I challenge and encourage you to bring a sense of mastery and virtuosity into your physical fitness training, defensive tactics, and firearms training. The more competent in these skills you become, the more focused, present, and effective you will be on the job.

And remember: Train like your life depends on it—because it does.

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Greg Amundson is the owner of CrossFit Amundson and Krav Maga Santa Cruz, and the Law Enforcement Liaison for CrossFit Inc. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School, South Bay Regional Public Safety Academy and the U.S.DEA Federal Academy, Amundson started his CrossFit training in Dec. 2001 at the original CrossFit Headquarters gym in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he was coached and mentored by CrossFit founders Greg and Lauren Glassman. A former U.S. Army Captain, SWAT operator with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office and Special Agent with the DEA, Amundson continues to serve as a Reserve Peace Officer in Santa Cruz, Calif.

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