5 steps to improving your performance as a use-of-force trainer

In LE, we spend much more time emphasizing instruction and not nearly enough on the actual coaching of our officers to improve their decision-making skills


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The Patriots don't practice getting Brady sacked, being off side and throwing interceptions. If that happens as a result of their normal practice, they identify why it happened, how to fix it and repeat the drill as necessary to get the desired outcome.

However, when a use-of-force scenario or training session ends with the police officer failing, losing or struggling, that officer rarely gets follow-up coaching or feedback on how to prevent the failure, and they never get another rep or 10 to create a positive muscle memory. 

Coaches are able to deliver feedback on their team’s performance to identify deficiencies, encourage improvement and foster belief that the players will be able to perform during the game. This model also works for police officer use of force or defensive tactics training, creating confidence and trust between students and instructors.

The first step in transitioning from being a coach to an instructor is recognizing the difference. (Photo/PoliceOne)
The first step in transitioning from being a coach to an instructor is recognizing the difference. (Photo/PoliceOne)

The value of a coach

All of us have been influenced by that one person who always seemed to have the right answer, said the right thing at the right time and genuinely cared about our success in whichever sport or activity we were involved in.

This person would hold us accountable, help us see where we could improve, pick us up when we were down and make us realize how good we could be. They were invested in our performance because they were also evaluated, judged and respected based on our success.

They did not just go through the motions in our preparation. They did not cut corners to save time and get us to our performance, game or event sooner than we were ready. Doing any of those things would increase the risk of a poor performance or a loss. Both of these outcomes would be detrimental to the overall performance of the group or team. Whether you realized it or not, you were being “coached.”

In law enforcement we spend much more time emphasizing instruction and not nearly enough on the actual coaching of our officers to improve their decision-making. If we view officers going on shift as the event in which the outcome of their decisions equals wins or losses for our agencies, communities and us as coaches, would we prepare them differently? Would we spend more time ensuring they had success with their skills in training before sending them out to the streets?

How to become a coach instead of an instructor

The first step in transitioning from being a coach to an instructor is recognizing the difference:

  • An instructor can be highly skilled at teaching the “what” or the “thing” of the class. They may also be able to cover some of the “why” of the techniques. They have a very “nuts and bolts” approach to the training delivery and applications.
  • A coach can do the above, but what separates them from an instructor is an ability to reach the heart and spirit of their students or players. They have the ability to leave students with a deeper meaning and purpose for the what, why, how and when and, most important, a firm belief they can be successful using the skill when it matters most.

Here are five steps to improve your performance as a use-of-force trainer, the relationship you have with your students and their performance when it counts.

1. Lose the ego

One of the quickest ways to lose your class is to make the class about you, your skills and how great you are! There is a good quote among coaches, “Players don’t care how much you know until they know how much your care!” This is especially true of police officers, who are cynical by nature. The students already recognize you as someone who is skilled or you would not be in the front of the classroom. So start the class by remembering it is about them, their skills and returning them home safely to their families after every shift.

2. Be prepared

Set up and prepare for your class before the first student arrives. Your preparation sets the example for the effort you can expect from your students. Paying attention to small details in the classroom creates an expectation that small details are important in all things. These types of behaviors are non-verbal indicators to the students about your passion, knowledge and dedication to your role.

3. Know the why

Take a moment in each class to incorporate a video or group discussion to get students mentally and emotionally involved. Here are two good exercises to do:

  • Have students write down their personal why. This needs to be something that is deeply personal and not a superficial answer.
  • Have students share their initial reasons for getting into police work and then ask which of those reasons no longer exists. Usually the things that drew them to the job are still present; it’s just our attitude toward the job that changes over time.

Ask students who is counting on them to learn from this training session; usually they’ll come up with wife, husband, mom, dad and kids.

These exercises help personalize the training session for the students and create an atmosphere where they want to perform.

4. Provide honest feedback

A good coach can tell you where you need to improve and how to improve, saying it in a manner that makes you want to try again and again until you get it right. Our officers deserve this same treatment. They need to know in a safe training environment what they are doing well, where they need to improve and, most important, how to improve. Then they need to be given opportunities to do it successfully before the training session ends.

5. Practice handling failure

Any tool or skill we use in police work has a failure rate. Some are higher than others, and the rates may vary from report to report, but one thing is certain, nothing is 100% effective. So we need to train officers on what to do next in the event a technique is ineffective, or a tool fails to solve the problem. We need to have discussions, expectations and drills that reinforce what we want to see them do next. We want to see them do this in training so we know they are prepared for when this failure happens in the field.

I know these steps work from first-hand experience. As a longtime coach to many law enforcement officers, I was recently paid the highest compliment. A young officer I had trained was involved in a shooting after a man with a knife tried to attack a fellow officer. After going through the lengthy investigative process, I received a text from the officer that said it was my voice she heard in her head, coaching her through the appropriate response to the situation. Never underestimate the impact you can have on the officers you “coach” to success.

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