How cops can maximize performance by integrating mental and physical training

Functional conditioning is training that not only maximizes physical performance, but does so with skills that mimic and can be applied in actual tactical situations

By Michael J. Asken, Ph.D., Tyler Christiansen, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*D, Stew Smith, CSCS, and Tristen R. Asken, PT, DPT, CSCS

Among the many innovations in police training in the last decade, two particularly important trends have emerged and continue to evolve. These trends represent forward thinking in how to prepare police officers for the multiple, diverse and complex challenges they now face on a daily basis.

The first — physical strength and conditioning — has a long history and a clear basis. The more recent evolution has been to understand and emphasize functional conditioning (DiNasio, 2006; Coombs, 2008; PoliceOne Staff, 2010). Functional conditioning or exercise-specific conditioning is training that not only maximizes physical performance, but does so with skills that mimic and can be applied in actual tactical situations. Under the concept of the tactical athlete (Scofield & Khardouni, 2015) and through support of scientifically sound and research-based programs from leading organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the Tactical Strength and Conditioning Program,  a wealth of new information and creative approaches to this type of training have emerged (TSAC, 2014).

The second trend is the emergence of a renewed emphasis on the importance of mindset, mental conditioning or mental toughness. While the importance of mindset also has a long history in police work (Remsberg, 1986), there is now a better understanding of what mental toughness entails and, even more critical, how direct training mental toughness can be accomplished (Manning, et al. 2011).

Mental toughness training has significantly permeated multiple venues of the public safety profession, including police, fire and EMS (Asken, 2005; Asken & Grossman, 2010; Whitelock & Asken, 2012; Nurnberg & Asken, 2014).

The Next Level
The newest stage in the evolution of these training areas is their merging in a manner that can enhance both, while increasing the effectiveness and economy of tactical training. The basic rationale of combining mental and physical training is that physical strength and conditioning is an excellent platform for training or refining mental skills and that physical training processes and outcomes are enhanced by mental skills (Smith, 2015).

Physical conditioning is an effective activity to train mental toughness for several reasons. First, workouts and training provide an opportunity to learn and practice mental skills. More importantly, they provide a repetitive opportunity for practice. Tying mental skills to physical training is likely to result in more frequent practice than promoting the practice of mental skills alone. The application of mental skills to the activities of strength and conditioning provides a concrete focus for a (psychological) skill set that might be new or even seem strange to many officers. Finally, applying mental skills in strength and conditioning sessions allows the demonstration of the impact of mindset on physical performance.

There are three mechanisms by which mental and physical skills become synergistic in training.

First, as noted above, training provides the kind of spaced repetition needed to develop and maintain a skill. Second, by increasing demands of progressive work-outs, a stressor is provided to the individual that can be engaged by both mental and physical effort. The third mechanism is more innovative. It has been proposed (Devine & Blank, 2015) that strength and conditioning can be used to train associated mental skills, that is, a skill that may not be directly related to completing the specific exercise. For example, by presenting extraneous information visually or auditorily (slides of tactical threats, or yelling out numbers or phrases) while doing “jumping jacks” or “burpees,” the ability of an individual to maintain and control broad concentration and awareness can be trained and/or tested.

It is crucial to understand that this integration is not the use of excessive physical challenge to “train” mental toughness. The negatives of “puke training” to create mental toughness have been described in the police literature (Asken & Christiansen, 2015a ) as have ways to productively integrate the two (Asken & Christiansen, 2015b). Extreme physical challenges can be used at an appropriate time to test mental and physical skills, but this assumes that they have actually already been trained.

Adding Creativity
Smith (2014, 2015) has suggested incorporating mental skills with physical training for tactical populations for some time. For example, creativity challenges can be added between transition from one exercise to another. Learning to keep the creative part of the brain engaged during a rather monotonous, mind-numbing pyramid workout can enhance these skills when tired and stressed for real. Random challenges can be developed and employed between exercise sets to engage memory of common facts, survival skills, and tactical skills. To complete a comprehensive training model, tactical skills can also be added between sets, as well. Using dry fire (or live fire in safe and controlled environments as at the range), can greatly improve the realism of training by shooting steady while physically tired, stressed, and moving.

While the emphasis here is on tactical performance enhancement, integrating mental and physical skills enhances performance in many areas. An often overlooked, but essential, area is that of the injured officer. Even though initial goals of physical therapy and medical rehabilitation programs are somewhat different (healing and return to duty) from tactical conditioning, they are basically about performance enhancement. Integrating mental and physical techniques can be facilitative for the injured officer during rehabilitation and then for the tactical arena, as well (Christiansen et al., 2014).

At this point in the evolution of merging mental and physical skills, the ultimate benefit and effectiveness of such integration still requires broad and clear demonstration. However, there does exist an empirical basis to support the continuation of such efforts (Asken, et al., 2015, in press). The research now tells us that psychological factors influence human physical responses; that psychological factors influence tactical response; that training mindset and psychological skills can enhance tactical performance and that rationale, approaches, and benefits of integrating mental and physical training exist and are being refined.

The importance and effectiveness of such an integration was foreshadowed some time ago when Whitmarsh (2001) observed, “Rather, the mind and body working together create a total immersion in the workout.”

Asken, M. & Grossman, D. (2010). Warrior Mindset: Mental Toughness Skills for a Nation’s Peacekeepers. Milstadt, Il: Human Factors Research Group.
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Asken, M. (2007b). Further aspects of the survival mindset. 07-31-07.
Asken, M. (2005). Mindsighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations.
Asken, M., & Christiansen, T. (2015a). Extreme physical training for mental toughness: Articulated training or adolescent bullying. The Tactical Edge, Winter, 52.
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Asken, M., Christiansen, T., & Sell, K. (in press, 2015). Integrating mental and physical strength and conditioning for the tactical athlete: What the research tells us. TSAC Report.
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Devine, M., & Blank, M. (2015). Us of applied strength and conditioning methods to facilitate mission relevant mental performance optimization. TSAC Annual Training Conference, San Diego.
DiNasio, J. (2006). The law of exercise specificity: Is your workout really going to help you in the field.
Manning, R., Laufer, J. Asken, M., & Hand, D. (2011). Officer safety for the 21st century: Training ESP., 07-13-2011.
Nurnberg, E. & Asken, M. (2014). FirePsyche: Mental Toughness and the Valor Mindset for the Fireground.
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Whitelock, K., & Asken, M. (2012). Code Calm on the Streets: Mental Toughness Skills for Pre-Hospital Emergency Personnel. Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press.
Whitmarsh, B. (2001). Mind and Muscle: Psych Up, Build Up. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics

Tyler Christiansen CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*D, is a veteran soldier currently working as the Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) Program Manager at the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Christiansen has worked with tactical athletes in the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community, including the 7th Special Forces Group, 10th Special Forces Group, a Special Missions Unit in the greater D.C. area, as the TSAC Coordinator at the NSCA, as an Exercise Physiologist at the Army Physical Fitness Research Institute, and as a contractor in Baghdad, Iraq. Additionally, Christiansen has worked with sport athletes at Iowa State University, Illinois State University, and the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball (MLB) organization. He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with Distinction (CSCS,*D), Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator with Distinction (TSAC-F*D), and a Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach with Distinction (RSCC*D).

Stew Smith, CSCS is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Navy SEAL Lieutenant, and author of several fitness and self defense books such as The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL FitnessMaximum Fitness, The Special Ops Workouts, and SWAT Fitness ( Certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and as military fitness trainer, Stew has trained thousands of students for Navy SEAL, Special Forces, SWAT, FBI, ERT and many other law enforcement professions. He is a presenter / editorial board member with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program. He leads the non-profit Heroes of Tomorrow program of volunteer veterans and experts who provide free group training and information that enables prospective candidates to excel in military, law enforcement, public safety, and firefighter training.

Tristen Asken, PT, DPT, CSCS, is a licensed physical therapist and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is currently a Resident in orthopedic physical therapy at the University of Miami. 

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