By Michael J. Asken, Ph.D.
Psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police
Police training has, and continues, to evolve in many crucial ways. The paper bullseye has been replaced by mannequins and computerized targets; rubber knives by shock knives; plastic guns by simuntitions: and classroom lecture by reality-based scenario training.
However, one area that has not developed at the same pace is that of training officers in psychological performance skills.
When physical action is required, the focus centers (as it should) on physical police skills. Unfortunately, this is often to the exclusion of the important contribution that psychological performance skills training can have in maximizing the execution of physical skills. This might be considered a form of “training tunnel vision” that slows the development of psychological readiness, the survival and winning mindset, and mental toughness for many police officers.
Quite some time ago Remsberg (1986) noted the importance of mental training and preparation for police work. When considering factors that decided the outcome of a critical encounter, the factors that decided an officer’s “destiny,” he suggested the following:
The importance of mental preparation has been acknowledged from training in sport, withYogi Berra (a better player and coach than mathematician) being famous for saying:
to the training of U.S. Navy SEALS, as Maxwell has noted:
The key to the success of the SEALs is their training – the real emphasis of which is not learning about weapons or gaining technical skills; it’s about strengthening people…
While there is often much talk in police training about the importance of developing and having psychological performance skills, the actual training is much less. At, best if psychological performance skills training is existent, it is inconsistent. Police and military training expert, Ken Murray, observed that:
Unlike the committed martial artist or soldier, the average police officer doesn't spend much time practicing the physical skills learned in departmental training, much less the emotional and psychological conditioning exercises needed to mentally place one "in the zone" when necessary.
Why psychological skills in police training and performance should at once be so valued and yet ignored is a difficult question to answer. One thing is clear, however; this is different from other areas where human performance occurs under pressure.
Firefighters, EMT's/Paramedics, Athletes, Physicians, the Military can all experience significant demands on their performance. However, while these professionals were once only told to manage their stress (or consider that maybe they didn't have the "right stuff"), there has been movement to training personnel to develop the psychological skills to engage in maximum performance during high stress responses.
“Get Over It” or “Deal With It” has been replaced with training on how to get over it or deal with it.
It is sometimes suggested that simulation training and reality-based training (when it occurs) helps develop psychological skills. There is truth to this and the incredible importance of reality-based training for overall police skills effectiveness can not be emphasized enough. (See Ken Murray's Training at the Speed of Life for an excellent argument for the need and description on how to do reality-based training).
However, this does not eliminate the need for direct psychological skills training.
Thompson & McCreary (2006) in discussing the enhancement of mental readiness in military personnel, note that there are several problems with the “implicit” training of psychological skills, that is, expecting mental toughness to develop as result of physical training and drills. This approach can
1. make mental toughness skills harder to learn,
2. delay the learning of physical and technical skills themselves because of a lack of mental toughness to master difficult tasks,
3. undermine operational effectiveness because of sub-optimal mental toughness, and
4. result in a sub-group of individuals who never develop sufficient mental toughness.
The explicit and designed training of mental toughness is more likely to be successful.
Beginning with Remsberg (1986), Anderson, Swenson, and Clay (1995), and Blum (2000) have described in greater detail some of the effective psychological training techniques as applied to general stress management and performance for law enforcement officers. Likewise, aspects of psychological performance training have been addressed by Grossman (2004), Murray (2004), Klinger (2004), Artwohl & Christensen (1997), Siddle (1995), Doss (1993) and others.
Yet, what has not been fully addressed is developing and expanding this work in a comprehensive and structured manner so that psychological techniques for performance enhancement can be integrated in training for all police skills and operations (including high stress situations) to maximize performance and/or manage the performance skewing effects of stress.
The psychological factor is recognized in many areas of human performance (sports performance probably being the most recognized). It is, in fact, the understanding and use of psychological performance skills that promotes what is called mental toughness.
While aggressiveness and the survival/winning mindset are part of mental toughness, it is more than this.
Mental toughness is possessing, understanding, and being able to utilize a set of psychological skills that allow the effective, and even maximal execution or adaptation and persistence of decision-making and physical skills learned in training and by experience. Mental toughness expresses itself everyday, as well as in high stress, critical situations.
The overriding goal of psychological skills training, then, is to provide police officers and trainers with a foundation in the psychological performance skills that can promote an optimal response in high stress calls. There are several additional goals that can occur, as well.
The first is to help maximize the quality of individual skills and overall response of police officers in all situations, not just those of high stress. A second goal is to enhance the confidence of police officers in handling the many different types of calls they face: confidence going into the call, during the call, and after the call is over. Experience and success after training are perhaps the best factors in the development of confidence, but psychological training can accelerate the process and provide support, especially early in an officer's career.
A further important application of psychological performance skills is to keep police skills fresh. Trainers and trainees in many aspects of law enforcement are well aware of the "stale beer effect;" the degrading of skill quality with non-use over time. Psychological techniques can help keep skills fresh even if not used regularly.
There is also the possibility of reducing critical incident stress reactions, as well. Honig & Sullivan in a 2004 issue of The Police Chief have written:
Stress survival strategies, including controlled breathing, positive self-talk, and visualization or mental rehearsal, trained to a level of confidence and competence, may be critical to both improved performance under stress and increased resilience after a traumatic incident.
The police officer, feeling maximally prepared and that his or her response was optimal, can feel good and comfortable with the effort, no matter what the ultimate outcome.
Psychological skills training is not a substitute for practice, experience and other police skills training. The concepts and techniques of a psychological performance kills program are meant to be integrated with other training to provide a truly comprehensive approach to the preparation and performance of police officers.
It is also well-recognized that each police officer and each police call, despite common characteristics, is unique. Therefore, psychological performance skills training should be evaluated and adapted for use by each officer for each situation as may be appropriate and comfortable for him or her.
While a comprehensive psychogical performance skills training can be quite involved, typical components include training in Tactical Arousal Control Techniques (to manage the "adrenalin dump" or create and maintain effective levels of alertness); Tactical Performance Imagery Techniques (for situation preparartion and mental practice), Attention Training and Concentration Enhancement (to strengthen and maintain appropriate focus), Tactical Performance Thinking (Tactical Self-Talk), Fear Management and Negative Thought Stopping Techniques.
It is clear that those who choose a police career already possess special character, and it is tested on a daily basis.. Whether in routine duty or special situations, each response provides the opportunity to demonstrate that character and protect and serve our communities. Psychological performance techniques can help police officers execute their duty more effectively and with greater safety leading to the ultimate goal of Winning the encounter (Street Survival Seminars, 2006).
This article is adapted from Asken, M. (2005). MindSighting: Mental Toughness Training for Police Officers in High Stress Situations. Camp Hill, Pa. www.mindsighting.com.
THIS INFORMATION IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. THE CONTENT IS THAT OF THE AUTHOR AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE OPINIONS, POLICIES OR PRACTICES OF THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Asken is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police. He is the author of the book MindSighting: Mental Toughness Training for Police Officers in High Stress Situations. Contact www.mindsighting.com .
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