Gen. Douglas MacArthur said, “If bravery is a quality which knows not fear, then I have never seen a brave man. For the courageous man is the man who, in spite of his fear, forces himself to carry on.” These words hang on the walls of more than a few police academies. No one is forced to enter law enforcement as a profession. I’ve never met someone who was “drafted” into police work. The warrior’s lot is one that is served through a “calling.” The hand of a higher being has touched the shoulder of all who bear the title “warrior.”
Do warriors experience fear? You bet they do. The only difference is, a warrior is trained to overcome that fear and forge ahead. He fights through it, and gets the job done. The untrained fall victim to it.
Volumes have been written on the fight-flight response and what happens to the body during moments of high stress. Basic academy curriculum and in-service training programs are replete with chapters on the Human Adaptation Theory, the survival mechanism, and emergency reaction and response. So this article won’t attempt to plow old ground with the same material. However, what I would like to discuss is how today’s warrior can realistically deal with that fear, how he controls those emotions in the face of overwhelming danger and still performs at peak level during this high-stress moments.
We all know what adrenaline does to fine motor skills, and most seasoned warriors have experienced perceptual distortions. But how can today’s street warrior effectively control and manage that gut-wrenching, heart-pounding fear that all too often rears it’s ugly head in the face of overwhelming danger? Here are some practical suggestions that can be practiced often, implemented quickly, and passed on easily.
The first step in controlling fear is to admit that you’re afraid. Now, as ironic as that sounds, admitting that you’re afraid doesn’t mean that you can’t cope with the danger. Not at all. It’s just a simple acknowledgment of what you’re experiencing. You just admit to yourself that you’re afraid. Acknowledging that fear may actually allow you to think better, work through the danger methodically, and respond according to your training. A warrior acknowledges his or fear, accepts the danger he is facing and moves on.
Next, avoid dwelling on that danger or the chance of failure. If your mind is constantly preoccupied with feeling fear or facing danger, it cannot focus on success or winning. A warrior accepts that he is afraid, then begins to formulate his plan for combating the problem. A warrior understands that the mind and body are not separate entitles. They work better as a team. To begin to control your mind, you first have to take control of your body. Warriors understand the importance of autogenic breathing: deep, slow, rhythmic breaths, inhaling through your nose, holding your breathing for a full three to four seconds, and then exhaling completely and steadily through your mouth. This will have an immediate calming effect on your body and, in turn, help to clear your mind. Plus, it slows the heart rate, lowers your pulse rate and blood pressure, and may help you think better.
Next, you want to get your mind focused on getting through this dangerous call safely. After you’ve calmed your mind and body, your next task is to focus on what you need to do to complete this dangerous assignment, whether it’s a building search, a high-risk vehicle stop, a search warrant execution, or a “prowler now” call. Kevin Costner, in playing the lead role as an aging major league baseball pitcher in the movie For Love of the Game, called it “clearing the mechanism.” It is a total and complete mental focus on what you need to do in order to survive. In other words, it’s going over tactics in your mind, anticipating danger, establishing contingency plans for movement, identifying cover or concealment, calling for backup, and being aware of potential escape routes. These are the thoughts that must take priority in your mind.
A warrior expects the unexpected, and, when faced with a dangerous or fearful situation, he constantly reinforces the fact that he has the ability and the skills needed to deal with unknown or unexpected situations. A warrior does not let panic overtake “if/then” thinking. He has conditioned his mind and body to work as one. A pre-determined plan of action has been ingrained in his thinking: “If such and such happens, then I’ll do so and so.”
A warrior also knows how to turn fear into a motivator. In the opening paragraph of this article, I quoted that old warrior, General MacArthur. He said, “The courageous man is the man who, in spite of his fear, forces himself to carry on.” The warrior has trained and conditioned himself to turn that fear, that face of danger, into a motivator to forge on. I’m not talking about “tombstone courage” here or “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” What I’m suggesting is that you harness that fear, that anger at being placed into a dangerous or deadly situation, and use it as a motivator to succeed. Direct all your energy to getting through this call safely — and believe in your heart that no one can stop you.
Finally, a warrior accepts that in every given situation, there is a certain element of fate involved in every call. As we all know, sometimes bad things do happen to good people and, as the events of September 11, 2001, prove, life is not always fair. A warrior accepts these facts as he faces danger head on — but not recklessly — and he acknowledges them with a positive attitude, coupled with training and good, sound tactics, and an understanding that he has the necessary tools to Survive — will do just that!
Let me conclude with some tips that my mentor and friend Chuck Remsberg suggested in his acclaimed text, Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters. And please allow me to paraphrase his advice. While the words may be dated, the message is as true today as it was when Chuck penned them back in 1980. They are words I lived by when I was working the street and, indeed, still use in my classes, because even after two decades, they’re still relevant.
The first thing a warrior understands is that the public safety profession, be it law enforcement, corrections, parole, probation, or private security, is a dangerous job. It takes guts to be a cop today. It also demands your constant vigilance.
Next, the people you’ll deal with over the course of your career have different attitudes, different backgrounds, a different set of values, and different motivations for what they do, and their willingness to take you on may be driven and/or guided by a philosophy quite different from anything you’ve ever been exposed to.
Third, understand that there probably are numerous legal, moral and psychological implications of your warrior mindset that must be resolved now — before you ever become engaged in a confrontation.
Fourth, because you’ve chose to become a warrior, it may become necessary at any given time to use deadly force to save your life, the life or your warrior partner, or the life of a third person. Know it. Accept it. Prepare for it — now.
Fifth, practice to the point of mastery with all your tolls. Become proficient with all your weapons, and that includes your body and your brain. Train under stress in as realistic an environment as is possible to simulate those situations you may find yourself in. This will help you condition your warrior’s mindset.
And lastly, with proper mental preparedness, planning, and peak physical conditioning, you can avoid the mistakes of those less fortunate who have walked the warrior’s path before you, and you’ll be in a position to successfully conclude most dangerous encounters.