Making “Max”: A Peek Inside Suited Instructor Training at IMPACT

by Rob Cooney

Training as an IMPACT suited instructor: Rob's story
Rob and “Max”

“He’s trying to kill me.” These words are strange to contemplate, even stranger to say. I understand their meaning and in their proper context, I know they are no laughing matter.

Still, they don’t quite make sense in my head. The feeling is wrong, like pulling on socks that haven’t spent enough time in the dryer.

I’m lying on the wooden floor of a modest yet elegant home in Los Angeles, looking into the eyes of a Filipino gentleman. As he brings the full force of a cast-iron frying pan down on my head, “Christ in heaven, I think he might actually be trying to kill me” flashes through my mind. The pan makes contact with its intended target and for a split second, the world explodes in thunder. And I am perfectly fine.

Building an IMPACT suit: Johnny, “Max,” and assorted weapons

I lay encased in a shell of reinforced foam painted with the face of a demon named Max. Within Max there is me: id, ego, superego all rolled into one. I named him, I inhabit his flesh, and it is through him that I train to do the equally demanding and gratifying work as as an IMPACT suited instructor.

What a way to spend a weekend.

In addition to a frying pan, Johnny, my esteemed host and Max’s de facto father, takes a baseball bat to Max’s skull and sends several snap kicks and knees into Max’s groin. His eyes twinkle as he goes about his work, a twisted Mastro Geppetto exacting punishment on a nightmarish Pinocchio. He does this not out of any violent urge, but to make absolutely certain that I, the voice in Max’s head, am safe.

The suited instructor’s toolkit: acting and athletic skills

I joined IMPACT several months ago after a chance meeting. Someone within the organization introduced me to the concept of model mugging, where suited instructors guide students on a path to empowerment by teaching them to defend themselves against verbal and physical assault in realistic scenarios.

Upon hearing the organization was in search of more suited instructors, I realized I had the opportunity to use skills I had acquired over years of training in acting and martial arts to do good for others. After I watched a graduation ceremony for a Women’s Basics Course, I knew I was being called to this path of service.

Instructor safety depends upon engineering expertise

Flash-forward to the present day: my living room crucible has ended and I emerge from Max’s shell. I’ve just survived blunt-force trauma that would have killed or at least seriously injured me had I not been covered in Max’s armor. As it stands, I’m not even sporting a bruise.

Johnny examines his handiwork and makes minor adjustments. A true artist as well as a seasoned engineer, he has been building suits for IMPACT for three decades. While others  have tried to replicate the design of these suits in other programs, Johnny is one of only two engineers who can build a suit that meets the needs of our work. I feel profoundly grateful for his expertise and honored to be able to work with him face-to-face (or face-to-mask, if you will).

How “Suits” empower students

As any suited instructor at IMPACT can tell you, our suits do more than shield our beautiful faces. In addition to keeping us safe, they also protect our students from harm, both physical and emotional.

Many of our students are trauma survivors. Some endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse as children or adults. Others experienced heinous attacks at the hands of strangers or loved ones. Numerous IMPACT students have spent their lives walking through a world where they are subject to harassment, condescension, and terrorism.

Whether our students identify as female, male, both, or neither, we teach them to empower themselves and discover their warrior strength in a world that seems to be constantly at war with itself. In order to become comfortable with this power, students must be secure in the knowledge that they can use full-force self-defense techniques on suited instructors without injuring them. In this way, the suits that Johnny crafts work perfectly.

Building an IMPACT suited instructor: “Max” and the person behind him

I look at Max from the outside and realize that he is strange to contemplate. In collaborating with Johnny on his design, I modeled his face after a demon from a nightmare. His name was taken from an actual rapist that I had met in real life (at the very least, I determined, his name should do some good). But without me to animate him, he is just a shell.

Within that shell, I practice channeling the darker sides of humanity so that students are conditioned to protect themselves from verbal and physical boundary violations in the real world.

While I truly care for the students’ well-being, Max means to do them serious harm. He does and says things that I would never do or say. In doing so, he allows students to find their own strength. While he is a truly contemptible creature, Max allows me to do this work, and I am grateful to have him.

Occupying a “Suit”: Not a simple task

Up until this point, my work as Max has been limited to enacting verbal confrontations from behind dark sunglasses. Now that Max’s physical form is complete, I begin learning how to inhabit his whole body. It is not an easy task.

In the suit, my range of movement and vision are extremely limited. It is hot and very often uncomfortable. I am frequently disoriented while attempting to play simultaneous roles of attacker, instructor, and protector. It will take many hours of practice before Max becomes the fully-realized character he needs to be in order to help others. However, I am excited by the challenge and feel honored that IMPACT trusts me to do this work.

The IMPACT training paradox

As I go to turn off the light and turn in after a long day of training, a thought strikes me. It’s easier to think now that there are no cast-iron pans or baseball bats coming towards my head.

At the edge of sleep, it’s funny to hear the thoughts that have replaced “He’s going to kill me!” Instead, I consider the paradox of our work: even though attacks are never the fault of survivors, strategies can be used to help prevent them.

Although the instructors wear the armor, it is the students who are the warriors. And while we do a kind of battle with one another, we are really fighting against those who use fear to victimize others. While the suits often take the shape of demons, they serve to arm the better angels of our nature.

Rob Cooney is a professional dancer and IMPACT suit-in-training.