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Mental preparation

By Dave Smith and Elizabeth Brantner Smith
Street Survival Seminar instructors

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

Whether your department has a multi-million dollar training budget or just a few pennies, the key to officer survival is what you believe about yourself. Regardless of how well you master skills, no matter how much you train physically, the essential element in a winning confrontation is mental preparation.

Locus of Control

Any discussion of mental preparation has to start with the concept of believing that we have some control over our lives, over our future: this is called "locus of control." The Greek philosopher Epictetcus wrote that the key to happiness was to control those things in life that you could control, and not worry about those things you couldn't. This theme has been echoed by philosophers throughout the centuries. Too often people today feel as though they just don't control their lives, and one of their biggest sources of stress and frustration is trying to control things they simply cannot. You cannot control what other people do or say, you can't even always control your own body. You might become ill, and you may or may not get well.

Epictetcus taught that the key to happiness is to take control of those aspects of life you could change, such as your attitude, your thoughts, your beliefs, and your faith. These principles for living have often been called The Soldier's Manual, which was issued to military officers for centuries. This philosophy has been key in helping people prepare for life threatening situations, but it also helps people prepare for life. There has been nothing since, in research or philosophy, to contradict those simple statements made so long ago.

One of the keys to mental preparation for survival is to understand that there are things in your life that you can control, perhaps even have an obligation to control, and when you take control of these mental aspects they allow the physical aspects to perform at their very best. They allow your health to be at its finest.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University, renowned for relaxation response and other research, said that it is critical that you have belief and faith, that you understand that it is the mind that heals. In his book, "Timeless Healing," he sates that we are "pre-wired" at birth to believe and what is often neglected in medical research is the understanding and acceptance that placebos heal people. Those who believe that the medicine will work become well.

The mind and body are one, a single unit acting together, and we have to train them together to be successful. The key to superior officer survival training is the understanding that no matter how scared or excited an officer becomes, he can still control his response.

The physiological response can be controlled by the mind. Training to put the locus of control back in you, back in your officers, is the key to understanding mental preparation for survival. You control your own life, and you alone control whether or not you prepare.


Another key to a winning confrontation is what you believe about yourself. To begin, you must believe that you can control your attitude. You control your mental preparation from this point on. Next, understand and accept that there is a dynamic link between everything your body does and what your mind things. The mind/body link is powerful, dynamic, and is an essential element to survival. With proper mental preparation, you can control your heart rate, your blood pressure, and even how excited or afraid you are in a given situation.

Every motor skill, every physical activity, every decision we make alters the present and creates some future for us. Whether you chose to practice a skill such as firearms, defensive tactics, or simply to exercise in some manner, you choose it because you are trying to create some result, some future that is different from the present you're now in. This is true of every decision we make, although most decisions are made on an unconscious level. We just act, or react. We do so because we believe in some sort of future. What you need to do is stop thinking about the future you want and start from this point on thinking about the future you expect, the future you believe you deserve.

Begin by asking yourself what you expect in life. What do you expect of yourself?

Whenever training for an activity, or any motor skill, whether it's physical training, firearms training, defensive tactics or simply visualizing a part of our future, do you believe you deserve incontestable results, a successful outcome, a positive future, or do you just hope for the best?

As a law enforcement officer, do you believe you deserve to win armed confrontations? Do you believe you have the right to defend your life or the life of an innocent, to win an armed confrontation? Ask yourself: "Do I deserve to be a winner?"

If you believe you deserve to be in better shape, if you expect to get fit, then you'll spend some of your off-duty hours running, lifting, or participating in some type of physical activity. But if you don't believe in the ability of these exercises or activities to improve or enhance your physical appearance or performance, then you won't do them.

The same holds true for your defensive tactics techniques or your firearms skills. If you don't truly believe they're going to work, if you don't believe they're going to create the future that you anticipate and deserve, then you're not going to choose that skill. This is very critical in understanding proper mental preparation.

Law enforcement managers talk a lot about an officer's attitude toward the job, toward the organization, toward an assignment, toward management. However, to train an officer to win, we should be most concerned with his attitude toward himself and his future.

Self Talk

One way to begin training your winning mind is to monitor your self talk. What do you say to yourself when things happen to you? If something bad happens, do you say, "That's what I expected?" If something good occurs, do you say, "Well, I was just lucky," or "Someone else failed"?

If your locus of control is inside of you, then you take credit for your successes. You also have to take some credit for your failures, because by accepting responsibility, you exercise control and change your future. The whole key behind locus of control is building optimistic belief.

Ask yourself: Do I control my future? If your answer is "yes, I do," that's an optimistic statement, and what we know from science is that optimists are the ones who survive. Optimists are the ones who win.

When you're involved in activities, why are you doing them? Do you expect a good performance? Do you expect to achieve? When you have a failure, how do you interpret it? Listen to yourself talk when things go wrong.

For example, if you work out and you suffer frequent injuries, one of the things a good physical therapist will tell you is that people who get hurt all the time expect to get hurt. In fact, they engage in physical activity worrying about injury, not expecting a good performance. Understand that worrying is visualizing negative action, negative events, and negative results.

By worrying, you're training to get hurt. So when we train, whether it's physically or mentally, we want to make sure we project positive futures all the time. You must believe you deserve positive futures.

People who work out believe they deserve to be healthy. They can't control illness; some illness will come into their lives. But they have an attitude that they're not going to give up, and they project that attitude both internally and externally. They're not going to give up to age, disease, or injury; they're going to struggle. They're going to continue.

Physical fitness is a distinct trait of people who refuse to be made helpless. Look at your own level of fitness. Look at your own level of fitness. That exterior is a projection of your own interior preparation for life, for your future. Are you going to adopt an attitude that says I'm going to maintain my level of fitness even though I have three kids, two jobs, a house and a myriad of other responsibilities, or are you going to neglect your fitness and thereby surrender to typical negative self talk such as I don't have time, It's not a priority, I have other things to do? Understand that your fitness level is a projection of what you expect for yourself.

The same is true in firearms training. One of the things we have to ask ourselves when we're on the range is, "Am I prepared to use deadly force?" Do you really stop and reflect on the awesome power that is being generated when you discharge that round?

Stopping power is essentially described s either stopping a neurological function or causing a massive blood pressure dump in a suspect, either of which is generally fatal. In other words, when you're practicing firearms, you're practicing a skill that will very likely be fatal for somebody else when you use it. Do you believe you have the right and the obligation to take a life when necessary to protect your life and the life of someone else? If you're an instructor, do you train your officers to believe that?

We hear so much about police officers suffering great emotional distress or emotional illness after they've righteously taken a life. We have all kinds of names for it; post-shooting trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the main keys to being emotionally healthy after a deadly force incident is to mentally prepare yourself to take a life. Practice intensely.

When you're on the range visualize utilizing your skills on a human being, not a paper target. Ask if you can live with the result or the future that will be created when you use deadly force. If you can't, then your unconscious mind will probably never select the necessary course of action in a high stress event. In that deadly confrontation, you may never reach for your gun if you don't truly believe that you have the right to take a life.

In the aftermath of a deadly force incident, we don't want you to become emotionally ill or distressed or disturbed because you successfully won an armed confrontation. It is essential to believe that you deserve to be healthy not by just winning the confrontation, but by continuing with a positive future long after the incident is over.

You must believe that you do not deserve to suffer from emotional stress. As we said, closely examine how you talk to yourself. Do you expect to win, or do you anticipate losing? When you do win, do you consider it to have been the failure of others, or do you recognize your own personal attempt and success? If you've put the locus of control inside of yourself, then you believe that your effort matters.

The next time you're successful at something and someone says, "Congratulations," say "Thank you," not, "It was nothing" or, "I was lucky." Practice positive self talk in every aspect of your life. If you're a trainer, teach your students to practice it as well.

If you continue to tell yourself that you deserve to survive, you deserve to win, then it's likely that you'll go home at the end of your shift each day both mentally and physically intact.


Dave Smith is the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar lead instructor. As a career police officer, Dave has held positions in patrol, training, narcotics, SWAT, and management. In 1980 he developed the popular "Buck Savage" survival series videos and was the lead instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar from 1983 to 1985. He is also now president of Dave Smith & Associates, a law enforcement & management consulting company based in Illinois. He has developed hundreds of programs across the spectrum of police & security training needs and serves on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Law Enforcement Trainers.

Sergeant Betsy Brantner is also a Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar instructor and is a 24-year veteran of the Naperville (IL) Police Department. Betsy has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile crime prevention and field training. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy trains both civilians and police officers on topics such as career survival, utilizing volunteers, officer survival, community relations, citizen police academies, team building, and crime prevention.

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