Officer safety for the 21st Century: Training ESP

Keys to developing an Elite Skills Performance Center for integrating mental, physical, and tactical training for law enforcers

Captain Rodney A. Manning (Ret)
Major John Laufer
Michael J. Asken, Ph.D.
Darby G. Hand, DO

Police training has evolved in many crucial ways. Paper targets have been replaced by mannequins and computerized targets. Rubber knives have been replaced by shock knives, plastic guns by simuntitions, and classroom lecture augmented by reality-based scenario training or RBT (Murray, 2004). One area that had not developed at the same pace, but is now quickly emerging as an important area of training, is that of training officers in the psychological performance skills for what is often termed “mental toughness.”

To the point, in a manner that clearly emphasizes the importance of psychological skills training, are the comments of Lt. Col. Dave Grossman:

Pictured are (left) Major John W. Laufer, Director, Bureau of Training & Education, Pennsylvania State Police; (center) Dr. Darby Hand, State Police Medical Officer; (right) Dr. Michael Asken, State Police Psychologist.
Pictured are (left) Major John W. Laufer, Director, Bureau of Training & Education, Pennsylvania State Police; (center) Dr. Darby Hand, State Police Medical Officer; (right) Dr. Michael Asken, State Police Psychologist.

In the end, it is not about the “hardware,” it is about the “software.” Amateurs talk about hardware or equipment, professionals talk about software or training and mental readiness.

Police training has traditionally addressed developing mental toughness in officers by rigorous physical expectations and demanding discipline and performance standards. More evolved approaches have used sophisticated reality based (scenario) training to expose officers to stresses that mimic the real world of police work. However, all these approaches rely on the “implicit” or indirect development of mental toughness and psychological performance skills. Mental toughness is assumed to develop as a “side effect” of completing such difficult training.

This assumption and the consistent efficacy of such training in developing mental toughness has been questioned. 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 and simply expecting mental toughness to develop as result of physical training and drills. They state that 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
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.

As a result and in response to such concerns, programs such as the Performance Enhancement Program at West Point were developed to directly train mental toughness and elite psychological performance (Zinsser, 2004) and have evolved into what is currently being called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (Casey, 2011). For several years now, the police literature, and especially PoliceOne ((Asken, 2007a; 2007b; 2007c; Miller, 2007; Asken, Vonk & Sterling, 2009) has provided articles reflecting the development of the increasing emphasis on directly training police officers in the components of mental toughness and psychological performance skills. The tracking of this evolution shows a reversal of the past status where, too often, despite recognizing the essential need, mental toughness was talked about, but rarely directly trained. Even the current development of conceptualizing and training law enforcement and military personnel as “tactical athletes” (Stephenson, 2007) has been seen as potentially benefitting from integrating mental toughness and psychological performance skills physical conditioning (Asken, Christiansen & Stephenson, 2011).

Three other recent and continuing developments highlight the importance for such an emphasis in police training. One is the growing body of knowledge about psychological and physical interactions and function in high stress police encounters. The dissemination of this information, and, for example, specialized training leading to certification of expertise in force science, attests to the maturation of this knowledge and skill base (FSRC, 2010).

Next, while part of the reason for a lack of direct training of mental toughness and psychological performance skills may have the absence of a comprehensive resource and approach, that situation is also changing. An extension of the work cited earlier of the expanding knowledge of performance under stress, is the description and coordination of approaches to minimize these potentially performance degrading effects of stress (Asken, 2005, Miller, 2008, Asken, Grossman, & Christensen, 2010).

The final recent and significant development is the empirical demonstration that mental toughness and psychological skill training does indeed impact the quality of tactical performance. Both specific techniques and comprehensive programs have shown positive results in both military and police venues.

Given the important potential of systematically integrating physical, psychological, and tactical training — and the emerging evidence that such integration does positively affect police performance — the Pennsylvania State Police and its Academy developed an Elite Skills & Performance Center (ESP Center or ESPC) and program. While integrated psychological and physical training has always been a process and goal at the Academy, the ESPC and program was seen as an advanced cooperative and multi-disciplinary mechanism for Academy and Department instructors, leaders and personnel to have a central resource to collate, develop, promote, disseminate, train and evaluate these integrated concepts and skills.

The primary goal and function of the ESPC and program is to serve as a hub to collect and promote integration of mental toughness and psychological performance enhancement techniques within all other training at the Academy and Department.

More specifically, the ESPC and program seeks to provide individual training for Troopers/Cadets as may be desired and/or indicated. It may also provide remediation for enhancement of Cadet/Trooper performance in general or under stressful conditions

A further goal is to disseminate such knowledge and techniques to instructors and to develop relevant instructional materials and training experiences for current Troopers. A hallmark of the ESPC and program is to provide consultation when asked and work with instructors to develop fully integrated training whatever the particular skill area or knowledge base. Related to this is the goal of providing evaluation/research on the effectiveness of integrating such psychological performance enhancement techniques.

While the current focus is within the Academy and Department, there is potential availability as a resource for training in psychological performance enhancement for other agencies. The ESPC is expected to allow and promote networking with other agencies, universities and resources on police performance enhancement.

It should be emphasized that the ESP Center/ program is not a mental health support service. The focus here is on performance enhancement. Mental health support is critical (provided to PSP in comprehensive and effective form by the peer counseling/Members’ Assistance Program) and not to be minimized in any way; but it is not the direct function of this program.

The ESP Center and program is lead by co-directors... an Academy Command Officer and the Department Psychologist. Important consultation is provided by the State Police Medical Officers, especially where physiological/medical factors may have degrading impact on performance or in enhancing performance effects and in helping injured personnel rehabilitate more efficiently while preventing undue atrophy of skills already attained. Essential is the input and guidance from an advisory committee comprised of instructors and staff from various education and skill areas within the Academy and Field training programs.

Training and service is delivered by the Department Psychologist in the role as co-director and is augmented by the expertise of various instructors with particular interest in the program.

It should be noted that not all police instructors, nor even all psychologists working in police environments, will have experience or knowledge of performance enhancement techniques. It is essential that all personnel involved with the activities of such a program have experience and training in empirically based and accepted psychological performance skills.

Development and Cost
The development and cost of such a Center and program could be quite expensive depending on the need to acquire sophisticated equipment and expertise. In the case of this Center, the cost has been minimal. Due to the willingness of staff to dedicate a portion of their time to the effort, there have been no additional staff costs. Initial equipment has been provided by staff who already have items in their possession (such as laptop computer, heart rate monitor, biofeedback equipment or relevant software). Any direct costs are simply those of the dedication of space, extant equipment and typical stationery supplies already part of Academy function. It is expected that expansion of the program will rely on grant monies or budget requests contingent on demonstration of effectiveness.

Initial Activity and Response
The ESPC has been operational on a part-time basis. The initial goal was to make staff aware of the ESPC and establish a common baseline of knowledge regarding integrating physical, tactical and psychological skills. To this end, a 3-4 hour program was developed and is being delivered to instructional staff at the Academy in each training unit. As a result of this and other training, the ESPC has been contacted to help design other training evolutions such as stress-inducing scenarios. It has also promoted contact with University-based resources for the development of programs for cadet safety such as concussion prevention and recognition. Specific instructional modules have been requested for integration into specialized training such as marksmanship development or SCBA/chemical suit use.

Initial discussion with the concurrent class of cadets regarding the nature and availability of such a skills training program by their platoon leader resulted in multiple requests to participate or to seek individualized training for performance maximization. There have also been requests for “group” training on specific skills by and for cadets.

Training has been developed or delivered to three advanced training programs for current Troopers. Currently six or more training programs have been requested and are being delivered to associated or public police agencies.

The integration of psychological and mental toughness training with physical and tactical skill development has tremendous potential to maximize the effectiveness and safety of police officers. Those concepts and approaches now exist. Expanding research demonstrates effectiveness of an integrated approach. It is possible to develop a program to promote and deliver this integrated training for police officers with minimal cost and minimal administrative complexities.

Special acknowledgement and appreciation is expressed to Lt. William Summers, Sgt. Charles Mory, and Cpl. Deron Julian for their exceptional support of this project


Asken, M., Christensen. T., & Stephenson, M. (2011). The importance and potential of integrating psychological and physical conditioning for elite performance. NSCA TSAC Report (17), 17.6- 17.8.


Asken, M., Vonk, K., & Sterland, T. (2009) Heart rate variability and police performance: The next evolution in training? 03-05-2009.

Asken, M. (2007). Training the complete warrior: The need to integrate psychological training with tactical training 03-02-07.

Asken, M. (2007). Further aspects of the survival mindset. 08-01-07.

Asken, M. (2007). The adrenaline dump and tactical arousal control: It’s more than just breathing. 08-13-07.

Asken, M. (2005). MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations.

Casey, G. (2011). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: A vision for psychological resilience in the U.S.Army. American Psychologist, 66, (1), 1-3.

FSRC (2010).

Grossman, D. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. Millstadt, Il: PPCT Publications.

Miller, L. (2008). Mettle: Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Publications.

Miller, L. (2007). Mental toughness for law enforcement. 10-31-07.

Murray, K. (2004). Training at the Speed of Life: The Definitive Textbook for Military and Law Enforcement Reality Based Training. Gotha, Fl: Armiger Publications.

Stephenson, M. (2007). The tactical athlete. NSCA-TSAC Report, 1, Sept, 1.1

Thompson, M., & McCreary, D. (2006). Enhancing mental readiness in military personnel. In T. Britt, C. Castro, & A. Adler (Eds.). Military Life: The Psychology of Serving in Peace and Combat. Volume I: Military Performance, 54-79.

Zinsser, N. (2004) Personal Communication.

About the Authors
Captain Manning is retired as the Director of Training at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy.

Major Laufer is the Director of the Bureau of Training and Education and the Pennsylvania State Police Academy.

Dr. Asken is the PSP Department Psychologist and author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations.

Dr. Darby Hand is a State Police Medical Officer

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