In the almost 30 years I’ve been training police officers, a few lessons stand out as “Why didn’t I think of that!” moments. One of the most dramatic came from my friend, the late Tom Gillespie, an especially gifted trainer who unfortunately checked out too early in life. The lesson Tom gave me, which I now pass on to other trainers, is something he called coaching forward.
How often have you been involved in training officers in some high-risk tactic when they simply didn’t seem able to grasp what you’re teaching? The easiest example I can relate is teaching new recruits the art of making traffic stops. I remember illustrating the importance of them staying behind the door post, thus forcing the subject to turn sharply to talk with the officers. As we know, this method puts the offender at a disadvantage if preparing to attack the officer. Recruits normally listen attentively to the instructions and you’re both reasonably sure they understand and will perform accordingly. Then, we send the new kid up on a car stop in scenario-based training, where making a mistake can result in both embarrassment in front of their peers, and the stinging bite of an attack with Simunition loads. The nervous student invariably walks up too far on the window, gets shot with paint bullets and then faces the instructor’s wrath for doing exactly what we told them not to do!
Tom Gillespie explained to me how I had failed that student, rather than how the student had failed me. Tom asked me about my particular instructions. Keep in mind, these instructions were often repeatedly driven home just before the student made his approach. “Well,” I said, “I told the student, ‘Whatever you do, don’t walk up too far on the window.’” Tom’s reply: “Your instructions programmed the student to fail.” As can be imagined, I was all ears. His explanation made so much sense, it totally changed the way I train for high-stress skills, and I think it will make sense to you as well.
Tom’s Gillespie’s Secret
Under stress, the human brain reverts to mid-brain functions, what some experts refer to as the puppy dog brain. Much like the degradation of fine motor skills we see during a gunfight, officers will suffer a loss in high-order thinking processes. They will revert to a mode where their brain essentially runs the tape of what they heard in training with one big exception – their brain will filter out any negative concepts received in training. Simply put, the student who got wacked on the simulated traffic stop was listening to my last instruction, minus the “don’t” statement. So, with the filter running through his stressed brain, my last instruction, (“Don’t walk up too far on the window.”) looks and sounds like this – “Walk up too far on the window.” The student had done exactly what his puppy dog (stressed) brain heard me say: “Walk up too far on the window.” Chief Gillespie told me to never program an officer with negative instructions. My last-minute coaching should have been, “stay behind the door post.”
If you’ve ever trained dogs, you’ll understand the puppy dog brain. Puppies can’t understand anything negative. Some of the first commands we teach a new puppy are: come, sit and stay. Since their attention span is short, they have trouble staying for very long, especially since they’d much prefer to run to you and have their ears scratched. When a puppy breaks his stay and runs to you, yelling no has absolutely no affect. They simply cannot understand the negative concept this early in life. Instead, good dog trainers know you must turn their improper behavior into a positive success. Instead of trying to make the young pup understand your desire for him to stay, you simply give the command come when he comes running to you – thereby making his action correct by matching the command to his deed. That is the epiphany of coaching forward.
I’ve had the chance to discuss this concept with noted stress training expert Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and he confirmed exactly what Tom Gillespie told me. When officers are stressed and functioning with their mid-brain, only the most simple, positive training lessons will be retrieved from their hard drive. And, as always, they will fight the way they’ve trained – the way you’ve programmed them.
Make sure you always program a student with a positive instruction they can replay under stress. [The non-coaching forward version of that sentence would read: Make sure you never program a student with a negative instruction they can replay under stress.] Use “always” instead of “never.” Tell them what to do instead of what not to do.
As we condition officers to stress, they are more likely to use their front brain, which allows high-ordered thinking. However, as trainers, we can’t assume they will remain well-conditioned to stress. Train them for the worst possible scenario and give them programming that can effectively be run by the puppy dog brain. In both training situations and real-world missions, we often conduct a debriefing to determine our effectiveness during the event, and reinforce lessons learned. These sessions should always be presented in a positive fashion. It is appropriate to discuss what we would do differently next time (instead of what we screwed up this time). Some officers will always blame themselves for problems with the training session or mission, but as a facilitator, you should make the situation as positive as possible, consistent with honesty and accuracy. Don’t gloss over serious failures, but help the officers and the team keep things in perspective. No difficult training or real-world mission will ever go perfectly, so our goal must not be perfection but continuous improvement.
Rethink everything you do in training. See if you can make your lesson plan, instructions and coaching more positive. As an example: years ago, when my agency still used the traditional PPC qualification format of firing strings and reloads at known distances (3, 7, 15 and 25 yards), I broke tradition by running the sequence backward. Most officers who had trouble qualifying experienced their problems at the 25-yard line. Even when these officers squeaked by, the last image in their mind was the desperate hope they had scored enough points at the difficult 25-yard line to make the grade. So, I had them start at 25 yards, when their eyes and attitudes were fresh. Although this helped boost their scores, I considered that a secondary benefit. The primary reason I reversed the firing order was to build their confidence for the street, instead of the qualification range. Most police gun fights occur at distances from 3 to 7 yards. Virtually every officer scored perfectly at these close ranges. I wanted that great 3-yard group on the target to be the last image programmed onto their hard drive before they left the range. Instead of kicking themselves for their lousy performance at 25 yards, (where officer involved shootings almost never occur) they would remember kicking butt at the realistic range of 3 yards. Whether that little bit of coaching forward saved lives, I’ll never know. But...it did no harm. Sometimes even the smallest training details can turn into an advantage when an officer’s life is on the line.
About the Author
Richard Fairburn is a Critical Incident Training Coordinator, an instructor for the Illinois State Police Academy.