I have written a number posts and articles on this topic in the past. Some recent issues in academies and discussions with trainers about issues in academies have inspired me to once again address this topic. We have seen too many incidents over the years where recruits are injured, and in some cases have died, as a result of the way a training program was run. While these were never the intended outcomes by the trainers, they were the result of a misguided training philosophy.
I continue to hear some trainers talk about the importance of creating stress in training to help prepare officers for the field. This philosophy bothers me. What bothers me even more is when they are using stress to “weed out people who shouldn’t be there”.
Stress is not the key. Stress is easy to create. Stressing the crap out of people in training and thinking it will somehow prepare them to perform at the highest levels in the field is flawed thinking. Trainers need to stop talking about stress as an element of training and focus on what is a more important to effective training – Context.
Now, I know that some of you are immediately wanting to shut me down here and explain to me that you have to place your officers under stress in training so they can perform under stress in the field. No you don’t. You need to create a training environment where they get the opportunity to practice the skills, tactics and decision making they have been taught in the contextual setting they are likely to encounter in the field. This is done in an incremental manner where they are gradually exposed to more contextual factors, are allowed to solve problems at each level on their own, and have some measure of success at each level. This type of training will help produce the competent and confident officers you are striving for.
What do I mean by context? Context is the environmental factors, which may cause stress. These include, but are not limited to:
- Limited time to deal with a threat.
- Limited distance between an officer and a potential threat (resulting inn limited time).
- Low light conditions.
- Confined spaces.
- A subject who is verbally threatening an officer.
- A subject visibly displaying a weapon.
- A subject attacking an officer with either personal weapons or external weapons.
- Other people in the environment (bystanders, friends of the subject, other subjects).
- A third party videoing the event on their smart phone.
It is these contextual factors that may create stress in individuals.
A couple of issues with focusing on ‘stress’:
- Stress is subjective. What is high stress for one person may be low stress for someone else.
- Stress is not the goal. Competence and confidence are the goal. Training is very different when you ask, “What can I do to stress these officers out?” compared to when you ask, “What can I do to create officers who are competent and confident when faced with dynamic situations in the field?”
I agree that ‘stress inoculation’ is an important philosophy. Too many trainers and academies however, have become obsessed with the ‘stress’ part of stress inoculation and are completely overlooking the goal. As a result there is a lot of screaming, yelling, and physical exercise as punishment under the guise of properly preparing officers for the field. Stress Inoculation involves incrementally exposing people to environmental factors, which may create stress, allowing them to have some success at that level then adding additional environmental factors and allowing them to have success at that level and continually building. This is progressive approach using contextual factors to build the individuals competence and confidence so when they are in a real event they can perform at the highest possible level.
I have also heard the argument that officers need to learn how to lose before they can learn how to win. No they do not. They need to learn how to think critically and make decisions. They need to learn how to deal with challenges and obstacles. They need to be able to work through problems on their own. They need to learn to win. In order to win a violent encounter they have to be able to solve problems and work through adversity. They need to be prepared to keep fighting when they are injured. They do not need to know how to lose.
“Law enforcement personnel in pre-service and in-service training do not need to be pampered, but confidence and competence – the 2 elements required for great performance under stress- are not gained by stress drills that primarily result in failure. “
Dr. Bill Lewinski, Force Science Institute
I am not advocating training where people just breeze through. Set high standards for your officers. Challenge them to succeed. Expect them to succeed. Reward them when they succeed. Teach them to problem solve. Teach them to win. Build their competence and confidence. Train in context and the stress element will look after itself.
As trainers we need to think differently about how we design and deliver both academy and in-service training. Train your people for critical thinking, not just compliance. Teach them to work through problems and obstacles. Allow them to solve problems on their own. Instil competence and confidence in them. Model professional behaviour for them. Teach them the importance of the unconditional respect. Teach them the fundamental principles of leadership and incident command. Teach them to do what is right even when it is not popular, easy or expedient. Teach them how to apply Life’s Most Powerful Question – What’s Important Now?
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