Mind over matter: How performance cues can help cops at 'go time'

Police officers can perform more effectively by learning to regulate the stress response and cue the brain and body at critical times of performance


By Stephen Robinson

Today’s police officer responds to everything from mass shootings to natural disasters to potentially dangerous domestic calls. Cops need to be ready to go from zero to 100 quickly, and do their jobs extremely well. The stress is unrelenting, and the pressure to perform high.

Police officers can perform more effectively by learning to regulate the stress response and cue the brain and body at critical times of performance. One way to regulate stress is to have tried and true rituals; performance cues make great repetitive habits that strengthen outcomes.

With practice, the performance cue will be anchored along with the skill, and you will perform better under pressure – making better decisions, fewer errors, and operating with greater precision. (Photo/Pixabay)
With practice, the performance cue will be anchored along with the skill, and you will perform better under pressure – making better decisions, fewer errors, and operating with greater precision. (Photo/Pixabay)

What are performance cues?

Performance cues are physical, mental or other forms of reminders that help unlock a performance state. Performance cues are used at the beginning of an act or event to prepare the body, brain and our emotions for what’s about to occur. 

Performance cues are often single words or short phrases, physical gestures or images that signal the brain and prepare the body for performance.

How can I use performance cues?

First you need to practice, and it’s likely you already do, whether you know it or not. 

For example, you may have a sequence in how you put on your uniform, how you kit up for duty, or how you get into your vehicle and prepare to drive. All of these motions are subtle cues to your brain and body to prepare you for the day.

Performance cues usually don’t happen by default and need to be a deliberate part of your day-to-day life. As you practice and train, it’s important to tie performance cues to an action and rehearse your mental and motor responses in relation to the action. This will anchor the cue physically, which is vital to making it more than just a “mental statement.”

What are some examples of performance cues?

Former Delta Force SGM and founder and president of Viking Tactics, Inc., Kyle Lamb, uses short phrases while training in relation to his shooting skills. He often links statements to key actions – such as transitioning his carbine – to help him be clear when the pressure is on.  He prefers to use the phrase “support side” as opposed to “weak side” because of the negative reinforcement and doubt that is generated by saying “weak side.” Doubt is an enemy to performance so his performance cue is, “Strong to support side” when transitioning his carbine.

Kyle also uses reference points for the process of making the transition, such as “Safety on,” which ties into the physical feeling of finger off the trigger.  While in action, he states, “Firing hand to mag well” as he’s going through the motions of the next step in the process. “Step forward and loosen sling,” comes after that.  

The words, combined with the motions, help Kyle anchor his skills, and considering he’s one of the world’s best shooters, he may be on to something. Your cues don’t have to be words, but can also be images, body feeling or whatever prompts you the best.

Tim Burke, former Delta operator and 7th SFG SFAUC (Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat) course developer, provides some other examples. He uses what he calls “profound relaxation,” a feeling state for shooting drills and for going into combat.  He would practice eliciting the state as a cue both for training and for missions.

When working with the Ecuadorian military on pistol shooting drills, Tim shared that one of his students would step up to the line and repeat, “Focus, focus, focus” multiple times as he dropped into his performance state. This individual was an outstanding student and shooter, and he credited his performance to using verbal cues to dial into his ideal state for pistol shooting. This is a great example of regulating attention to create skill-specific focus.

Often stepping into an intense environment naturally provokes the fight-flight response internally, and staying acutely present to a situation can be challenging. To counter dissociation, operators might use a statement such as, “It’s go time” when orders came down and they are spinning up for a mission. Or they might say, “Right here” or “Right now” or “weight in my feet” as a thought or body cue for staying in the moment. Finding the balance between being relaxed enough and not dominated by the fight or flight mechanism, while being engaged and focused, is what you’re after.

What are the benefits of using performance cues? 

When under stress and pressure, the left, verbal hemisphere tends to disengage, as does the larger neocortex or upper brain. By using a phrase or visual motor cue that is tied to how you train, blood stays flowing to the upper brain making it easier to access an optimal performance state under pressure.

Another benefit is that cues engage the verbal area in the left hemisphere of the brain and link it to motor performance. We’ve all heard first responders under pressure degenerate into speaking gibberish on the radio; this is largely a function of the vagus nerve turning off, which innervates in the voice box, along with the heart, lungs and gut. Having focused, performance-supporting statements can regulate the nervous system response so you can do what you need to do.

What’s the bottom line?

You can build tactical cues and create easy-to-remember signals in the form of a word, phrase or image that links to the movement and the action you need to take. Practice these cues in conjunction with the skill itself.

If you’re not out in the field training hard skills, do them in your mind and move your hands and body while you do it, as though you’re putting on gear, changing magazines, etc.

With practice, the performance cue will be anchored along with the skill, and you will perform better under pressure – making better decisions, fewer errors, and operating with greater precision.


About the author
Stephen Robinson, MA, is CEO and president of EVENPULSE, providing the renowned BASE-R Method™ Training on stress mitigation and optimal performance. The training has been delivered to corporations, military personnel, law enforcement, first responders, healthcare professionals and athletic teams, serving 25,000 people. Stephen specializes in taking complex information into an accessible form that audiences can leverage for building themselves and their teams. In his career, Stephen has served as a national security studies specialist, tennis professional, fitness trainer, college professor, performance coach, and business leader. He has worked with a variety of elite audiences, including many elements of the U.S. Special Operations Command.  

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