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Further aspects of the survival mindset

By Michael J. Asken, Ph.D.

Police trainer Wes Doss wrote in 2003 that:

“. . .without a doubt, one of the most overlooked areas of training, that probably comes with the greatest amount of limitations, is that of the development of the winning mindset.”

Fortunately, since that time things have changed considerably. The winning or survival mindset is now the subject of many articles, seminars and training. (Whether called the winning or survival mindset is up to personal preference; here the term “proper mindset” will simply be used to suggest both emphases.) Chuck Remsberg, in a 2006 article on PoliceOne.com, outlined the three battles for survival in police encounters; the battle of the street, the battle of the courtroom and the battle of the mind.

The need for this proper mindset is clear. It is essential for personal safety in a profession characterized by dangerous, dynamic, unpredictable and ambiguous encounters. It is essential for fellow officer safety, as “having one’s back” is a foundational tenet of police work. and this needs to be done in an alert and optimal manner. It is essential for public safety in providing protection and preventing unintentional harm.  

This proper mindset is ever more essential because the bad guys are different these days. Ken Murray in his book Training at the Speed of Life clearly articulated the characteristics of the modern “bad guy” which add to the potential lethality. Today’s guys wearing the black hats are more likely to have been exposed to or raised in a more intense culture and philosophy of violence and to have had prior frequent exposure to criminal acts. More so than in the past, this background often has provided practice, planning and training in criminal survival skills. Having engaged in prior violent or even killing behavior may not be unusual. Increased violent action and resistance may be fueled by drug use, deprivation with either a “nothing to lose attitude” or an enhancement of (macho) status. Too often this coupled with a lack of adequate consequences. Desensitization and skill enhancement by video games and the media are other factors.

All of this has been succinctly summarized in comments by Buchanan in an article on infiltrating skin-head organizations. He observed that

“…after the meeting, H announced that WW, the Alliance’s sergeant-at-arms, a cage fighter who was also a convicted sex offender, would be teaching a class on close-quarters combat for anyone interested. Nearly all the skinheads stayed.”

Finally the proper mindset is a critical buffer against one of the most dangerous conditions for a police officer –complacency. Whether on the job or off the job, you can not have the proper mind set and be complacent. They are mutually exclusive. Cultivating the proper mindset, prevents complacency.

We are coming to better understand the mindset of “survivors” in all kinds of situations from airplane crashes to being lost in extreme climates. It appears that survivors share some common characteristics in their battles to survive, overcome and win.

Survivors maintain a strong situational awareness. They are sensitive to cues of danger and their “personal radar” scans for any relevant information they can use. Survivors stay in the “here and now;” they accept and work with given conditions rather than whining or wishing that things would be different. They set small manageable goals leading to overall survival and winning. They seem to live by President Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum for success:  Do what you can with what you have where you are.

In longer-term survival challenges, those who do well, get “outside themselves” and often help and do things for others. They also take time to play and take a break from the rigors of the survival challenge as the situation allows.

Survivors recognize the reality, gravity and often urgency of their situation and therefore are willing to be creative, innovative and “think outside the box”; they are willing to consider a variety of possible actions. They are able to resist the stress-related tendency to jump to conclusions or seize upon the first plan that seems as though it might work. Alternatives are always open.

The bedrock of the survival and winning mindset is the expectation that something can be done and that there is something worth the struggle to survive, fight and win. Survivors never give up. A major way these characteristics are expressed is in the thinking or self-talk that is part of this mindset and used in the survival situation.. Thoughts are focused on motivating survival, on the goal of getting home and back to what (those) they care about and on ways to make that happen.

Wilkison (2005) provide an excellent example of this type of thinking and self-talk from a police officer in a survival situation:

I remember saying out loud, ‘I ain’t f------ dying here.' Then I heard another shot. I knew at that point that if I died, they would get awayand that was not an option. I remember talking to myself, out loud, telling myself to ‘calm down.’ I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to stay alive. I told myself that over and over.”

It may be good to end with some excellent thinking and self-talk from Sir Winston Churchill that addresses winning and survival.
Victory at all costs.
Victory in spite of terror.
Victory however long or hard the road may be.
For without victory, there is not survival.


Buchanan, S. (2006). Breaking the Skins, Intelligence Report, (Spring), 23-29.

Doss, W. (2003). Train to Win. 1st Books Library

Gonzales, L. (2003).  Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies and why. NY: W.W. Norton

Murray, K. (2004). Training at the Speed of Life. Gotha, Fl: Armiger Publications.

Siebert, A. (1993). The Survivor Personality. Portland Oregon: Practical Psychology Press.

Wilkison, S. (2005). Newsline, Calibre Press.



Michael J. Asken, Ph.D. is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police, He is the author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations at www.mindsighting.com.

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